“It’s a fragrance garden,” my daughter, Teelie, squealed happily. “They grow smells here!”
She scampered ahead of us on one of the trails at the Amarillo Botanical Gardens, skidding to a stop in front of a lush nook of burgeoning growth, green and full and sagging with the weight of flowers and foliage.
Teelie, who is 8, stood directly under an intricately molded wrought-iron feature spanning the walkway. She threw back her head and inhaled deeply, her eyes closed.
“Oh, that smells so good!” she exclaimed.
Catching up with her, we were all enfolded in an aromatic symphony—minty bee balm, chocolate daisy decadent with hints of cocoa, delicate mimosa and fragrant mistflower alive with butterflies, which love its scent as much as we do.
We were fortunate in our visit to Amarillo, Texas, to stumble upon the Botanical Gardens. It makes a great starting point on a day of family fun in this medium-sized, lively West Texas city that divides the short-grass prairie and classic cowboy-movie badlands farther west.
In the cool of the morning, the four-acre Botanical Gardens offered a chance for energetic kids to run and stretch their legs. Teelie and her older siblings, Keenan and Irene, laughed and chased each other along the sinuous paths. My wife, Melissa, and I followed along admiring the carefully planted and tended banks of multi-colored flowers, shrubs and decorative trees.
Disappearing like jungle explorers, Stanley and Livingstone, into a tropical zone thick with palm leaves and overhanging vines, our three kids gave us a chance to sit next to a splash pool covered with lily pads. Swirls in the water suggested a colorful school of koi beneath the surface, but we couldn’t catch a glimpse of them.
The kids circled through the well-designed desert, jungle and other biomes and returned to find us still speculating lazily about the koi fish.
“We saw a ’normous frog playing a fiddle!” Teelie insisted.
Keenan shrugged. “She’s right. Come on.”
As our next stop was the Amarillo Zoo, it just seemed natural to leave by way of the frog, a 6-foot statue named Melodius Toadius.
“I toad you there was a big frog!” joked Teelie, giggling. “Get it? ‘Toad’ you!”
Irene groaned at the joke, but then she joined the rest of us in smiles.
The Amarillo Zoo is the perfect size for families, with a fun selection of animals in an intimate environment that lets sometimes-distractible kids get a good close up look. In the herpetarium, we were up close and personal with a giant day gecko—“So green and pebbly!” enthused Teelie—and a boa that was so deeply yellow, Irene immediately labeled it a “lemonade snake.”
The big critters were just as exciting. At the lion enclosure, the ginormous male walked up and peered at us through the wire, close enough to count his surprisingly luxuriant eyelashes. And for an even closer—but safe—experience, “Zoofari Carts” hold feathers, fur, animal bones and other hands-on items.
For ultimate hands-on fun, though, it’s tough to beat the Don Harrington Discovery Center, also a great place to shelter from the midafternoon heat during the summer. We started out with a tour of the solar system in the planetarium, reclining back in the air-conditioning as we soared past Mars, Saturn and the outer planets.
From there, it was on to an exhibit using huge soap bubbles to demonstrate surface tension. The kids admitted it was better than the best bubble pipe we ever had.
“That one’s as big as a refrigerator,” Keenan said.
“Very cool,” Irene proclaimed, laughing.
“Oh, funny. I see what you did there,” Keenan answered wryly.
Station after station had the kids laughing and learning, from the Brain Teaser exhibits to the tumbling area, wall-climbing and surprising play objects in KinderStudio, to the big-ear sound collector that could gather whispers from the far side of a room echoing with the shrieks and yells of excited kids.
Plunging down the 80-foot first drop on the Texas Tornado roller coaster at Wonderland Amusement Park, Irene’s long hair streamed out behind her, along with her excited shriek of enjoyment. Teelie and Melissa were sitting this one out, but Irene, Keenan and I are big coaster fans.
We also thrilled to the Mousetrap and several other white-knucklers. There was plenty for Teelie to do, including the Sky Rider monorail, consistent faves such as the Scrambler and Tilt-a-Whirl, and the swooping Pirate Ship, which surged back and forth as though adrift in a hurricane—without getting wet.
But what’s wrong with getting wet? We challenged the park’s water rides including Thunderjet Races, the Pipeline Plunge and a guaranteed soaking on the Big Splash Log Flume.
We sun-dried during a parents vs. kids game of miniature golf. The kids won—they think.
As the Texas sun, as red as the inside of a blood orange, settled lower and lower into the west, nobody was ready to call it a day, so the nearby Tascosa Drive-In Theater was a natural next stop. For our kids, movie watching is an indoor thing, so screening a film under a broad West Texas sky just starting to twinkle with stars was a revelation.
“When they first started showing outdoor movies right here,” I told them, “girls were still wearing poodle skirts and the guys had ducktail haircuts. Kids used to come in their pajamas.”
“My brother and I always fell asleep in the back of the station wagon before the main feature was over,” Melissa said, laughing.
After Irene took Teelie down front to the playground, we settled in with popcorn and sodas for our movie, laughing that the Paramount Studios’ mountain logo looked almost life-sized on a screen four stories tall and broader than an East Coast zip code.
At first, the kids enjoyed being distracted by the busy movie-viewing crowd. The family next to us pulled out lawn chairs; on the other side, a young couple didn’t know there was a movie on; and there was a steady stream of people giggling and chatting as they headed for the concession stand. It was a little like visiting a public park—with 30-foot-tall movie stars looming over everything.
But gradually, things settled down. Full darkness rolled in like the tide and one by one, the kids dropped off, smiling from a day full of Amarillo activities—the Botanical Garden, the zoo, a fabulous Discovery Center, spinning, diving and swooping rides at Wonderland Park and now, finally, movies under the stars.
It was a good family day in Amarillo—Teelie would call it a Famarillo day, if she weren’t fast asleep.