Wild About Waco’s Family Fun

The interstate highway system – enacted by President Eisenhower in 1956 – makes travel straightforward and convenient. “More than any single action by the government since the end of the war, this one would change the face of America,” Eisenhower remarked.

Interstates also allow travelers to quickly bypass the charm of nearby small towns and to leave cultural attractions unexplored. I’ve made the trek on Interstate 35 between Dallas and Austin dozens of times without detouring to explore the charming destinations along the way.


I remedied this with a weekend getaway to Waco, a town on I-35 that I usually drive through. With my children along for the fun, we set out to explore Waco’s surprisingly extensive family-friendly attractions.

Our base for the getaway, the Hilton Waco, is located downtown on the banks of the Brazos River. Our ninth-floor room gave us a birds-eye view of the river, the stately buildings of Baylor University and construction of Baylor’s new football stadium.

The hotel’s lavish breakfast buffet, complete with a waffle and omelet station, fueled us for exploration.


The Texas Sports Hall of Fame displays a variety of antique sports equipment and uniforms. The museum also contains photographs and biographical information on Texas’ elite athletes, coaches and sports journalists. The kids enjoyed the interactive school song exhibit where they pushed buttons to hear the songs of Texas’ major universities.

Nearby, the Texas Ranger Museum showcases the history of these legendary lawmen. With a fantastic collection of Western art, scads of antique weaponry and a dramatic play area equipped with costumes, the museum captured the interest of my adventurous brood.

On the campus of Baylor University, we took in both the Bear Habitat that houses Baylor’s live mascots, Joy and Lady, and the extensive Mayborn Museum Complex.

The museum’s sixteen discovery rooms contain treasures such as the skull of a 3,000-pound humpback whale and a replica of an East Texas forest. My kids especially enjoyed the geography-themed traveling exhibit called Weebles Coast to Coast, which has an activity for each of the 50 states.

The children also loved exploring the outdoor historic village consisting of nine wooden-framed, late 19th century buildings, including a planter’s house and a school.

Most anticipated was the Dr Pepper Museum. The 1906 building houses three floors of exhibits chronicling the history of Texas’ most famous soda. The museum showcases everything from vintage soda bottles and coolers to an exhibit detailing the architectural styles of the Dr Pepper headquarters. We concluded the visit at the old fashioned soda fountain where we drank Dr Pepper freshly prepared by a soda jerk


Come nightfall, we walked from the hotel to the glamorous downtown coffee shop, Dichotomy.

Dichotomy serves up delicious hot chocolate in a glam vintage setting.

Dichotomy serves up delicious hot chocolate in a glam vintage setting.

While sipping creamy hot chocolate on the rooftop patio, we took in a majestic view of McLennan County’s Renaissance Revival courthouse (architect J. Reily Gordon supposedly based its design on St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome).

The next day, our visit coincided with gorgeous weather so were eager to spend time outdoors at Cameron Park Zoo. We were impressed by the natural-looking exhibits constructed of weathered wood and stones, waterfalls and foliage. We saw dozens of animals, including elephants, giraffes and a playful pregnant orangutan.

For more outdoor discovery, we headed to the Waco Mammoth Site where a building encloses an archaeological dig.

We were fascinated to get a glimpse of an actual archaeological dig at the Waco Mammoth Site.

We were fascinated to get a glimpse of an actual archaeological dig at the Waco Mammoth Site.

Paleontologists discovered remains of 22 Columbian mammoths here, including the only Pleistocene mammoth nursery herd discovery in the United States. Instead of removing all the mammoth remains to a museum, they left several exactly as they were found. Visitors can walk around the perimeter of the dig site with unobstructed views of the fossils.

On our way out of Waco, we stopped at Homestead Heritage, a traditional crafts village.

The kids enjoyed a horsedrawn wagon tour of Homestead Heritage, a traditional crafts village outside of Waco.

The kids enjoyed a horsedrawn wagon tour of Homestead Heritage, a traditional crafts village outside of Waco.

On a horse-drawn wagon ride (pulled by gorgeous chocolate Percherons June and Velvet) through the 500-acre community, we saw the antique buildings housing the shops of working craftsmen, including a blacksmith, fiber arts craftsman and a furniture maker.

The village’s eatery, Cafe Homestead, commands an hour-long wait on weekends, but the delectable fare is well worth it. We savored queso – made with the village’s own pepperjack cheese – and burgers made from only grass-fed beef. We topped off our meal with scoops of house-made organic ice cream.

At the village’s cheese shop, we sampled several varieties before picking horseradish pecan cheddar and raw Brie to bring home.

We left astounded that such a bounty of Waco family fun exists just beyond the interstate. We definitely plan to detour through Waco again soon.

 *Originally appeared in IN Magazine

Maple Apple Fruit Dip

This dip was a delightful surprise, and the kids really enjoyed it. Their appreciation of something I make is a rarity. Whether at home or on the road, the kids know that there isn’t a menu of choices in regards to food. What I (or Vagabond Dad) make is what they eat, and if they don’t like it- too bad. But that doesn’t stop them from complaining, asking for fast food, and coveting artificially colored grocery store baked goods.

Confession- the cheesy veggie dip I recently posted…they didn’t like it, would scarcely eat it. I stand by the recipe. I enjoyed it, and felt confident enough to gift a hearty helping of it to a friend. But I’m just showing you the weight behind the words, “the kids LIKED this.”

The dip has sort of a caramel apple flavor and works perfectly as a condiment for sliced apples. Though you should probably just go ahead and eat it with a spoon.

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Maple Apple Fruit Dip

  • 4 ounces cream cheese
  • 1/4 Cup maple syrup
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 a small apple, diced
  • pinch of salt

Toss all ingredients in food process and whir away. Don’t worry about the apple peel- you won’t even notice it. Add a splash of apple juice if you prefer a thinner dip. Serve with sliced apples and perhaps a dusting of cinnamon on top. Savor.


Cranberry Chocolate Chip Muffins

It’s not technically Fall, but it’s raining here and sort of dreary, the kind of weather that makes you want to cuddle up with a blanket and a warm treat. And cranberries just seem so festively Fall, don’t they? That beautiful color and the punch of tartness.

These muffins didn’t start out with chocolate chips. They were to be Cranberry Walnut. But the Vagabond Daughters assumed their positions as chefs-in-training, and when the Vagabond Daughters are around, chocolate chips find their way into almost everything. And since cranberry/walnut/chocolate does seem like a tasty combination, I didn’t object.

These muffins are made with coconut flour, which is making its way into many mainstream grocery stores. Since I’m gluten-free right now, you’ll notice that many of my baked goods use these interesting flours. I think you’ll be pleased with the result, and will scarcely miss the wheat. But coconut flour muffins don’t age that well, so gobble these up within the first day or two after you bake them.

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Cranberry Chocolate Chip Muffins

Yield: 6 muffins

  • 3 eggs
  • 1/4 Cup coconut flour
  • 1/8 Cup Coconut oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 Cup maple syrup
  • 1/4 Cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/4 Cup cranberries
  • 1/4 Cup chocolate chips
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Combine eggs and maple syrup in a medium sized bowl. In another bowl, mix dry ingredients- coconut flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. Combine wet and dry ingredients. Fold in cranberries, chocolate chips, and walnuts. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Cheesy Dip for Veggies

I’m excited to debut a new section on Vagabond Minivan- Snacking on the Go. Here, you’ll find (somewhat) nutritious snacks that are fairly easy to pack and eat on the run. Frankly, I look forward to the motivation this section provides. I’d like to integrate more homemade snacks on our road trips instead of relying on my fave, sugar coated nuts at Buc-ees.

So without further ramblings, let me get you the goods- the first road trip snack! We had this dip for lunch today with some carrots sticks, crackers, and tortilla chips, and it was yum! Vagabond Son even made a comparison to queso (though he gave queso the upper hand. But that’s not even real cheese so I’m not insulted.) To pack a dip like this for the road, I would use a small pyrex with lid or our PlanetBox small stainless steel containers, and keep it on ice of course.


Vagabond Daughter was food stylist for this dip, arranging the carrots and crackers to suit her whimsy.

Vagabond Daughter was food stylist for this dip, arranging the carrots and crackers to suit her whimsy.

Cheesy Dip for Veggies

  • 4 ounces cream cheese
  • 1 cup yogurt
  • 1 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1 TBS coconut flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • pinch of salt

Whiz everything together in a food processor. Do not use a wooden spoon to push cheese into food processor. Blade will chop spoon apart and shower dip with little flecks of wood. Who would’ve thought? Chill and serve with veggies (like carrots and celery), crackers, or chips.

A Vagabond Move

It seems strange that a move would throw a Vagabond out of sorts. But it has, resulting in my absence around here as of late. It’s one thing to travel; by now, we’re fairly adept at packing quickly. We don’t plan trips much ahead of time, and oftentimes our suitcases aren’t fully unpacked from one trip before we leave on another. But moving- packing up the entirety of one’s possessions and relocating them- well, that’s another story.

So, we’re working on this moving thing. We’ve been rather nomadic, but have surprisingly called one address home for the past 5 years. Hopefully, we’ll land ourselves in a new home soon, unpack those suitcases, and I’ll be posting regularly again. Look for a new feature this fall on road trip snacks- I’m excited to concoct recipes, and I’m sure the little Vagabonds will be eager taste testers.

Until then, read up on my tips for educational travel and highlights of educational adventures all across the U.S. in my ebook, Learning on the Road. Let me know what you think of it, and what additional content you’d like to see in a revised addition. Happy travels!

Screen-Free Backseat Entertainment Options: Part 4

We’re hoping to tackle a road trip next week, and the thought of backseat bickering irritates me like fingernails on a chalkboard. So, we need to stock the minivan with simple activities that will keep the kids occupied for miles. These three low-tech ideas are sure winners:

I spy with my little eye...something fun!

I spy with my little eye…something fun!

Eye Spy: I remember playing this simple game as a kid, and its timeless nature means that even today’s tech-obsessed kids can enjoy the challenge. I frequently overhear my children and their friends launching into spontaneous games of Eye Spy. It’s a perfect activity for road trips. For variety, search and find books can also be fun.

Book of Centuries: We use this concept (kind of like a timeline in book form) for our history studies, and it’s a simple idea to bring along on a road trip. Basically, you fill a binder with blank sheets of paper. For each historical event you learn about, your kids draw a picture and write a brief summary about it. You arrange these pages in chronological order in the binder, which becomes a personalized history summary. So, everything you learn while on the road could become entries in your Book of Centuries.

Finger puppets provide endless avenues for creative play.

Finger puppets provide endless avenues for creative play.

Finger Puppets: Unleash your children’s creativity by providing them with a simple set of finger puppets. Find an inexpensive set of finger puppets at IKEA or find more luxurious sets at specialty toy stores. Even better, provide your kids with a set of craft sticks or paper bags, and have them craft their own puppets. And get ready to applaud whatever adorable puppet show your kids create!

For more travel activities for kids, see the other posts in the Screen-Free series: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Screen-Free Backseat Entertainment Options: Part III

Still looking to restore peace to the backseat? Here are a few more ideas that should help keep your kids engaged in constructive entertainment- no screen required. For more ideas check out Part I and Part II of the Screen-Free Backseat Entertainment Options Series:

Etch-A-Sketch: I stumbled upon this relic of a toy the other day. I’m not sure my kids even know how to use the thing.

Unleash creativity with this classic toy.

Unleash creativity with this classic toy.

But with no batteries required, no mess, and the possibility for hours of creativity, the Etch-A-Sketch is definitely accompanying us on our next road trip. Have your kids read over these Etch-A-Sketch tips before your trip in order to boost their creative power.

AquaDoodle: A similar low-mess travel drawing tool is the AquaDoodle, which now comes in a convenient travel size. If you’d prefer to make your own version of this toy, you can put some paint in a ziploc bag and seal it with gobs of tape. Theoretically, this enables kids to draw designs in the paint without making a mess. However I wouldn’t trust my rambunctious brood with the DIY version- it would surely lead to a rainbow-hued minivan.

Mad Libs: My kids love these silly stories, and I have to admit, they can turn into hilarious tales. We have oodles of them and involve the whole family in calling out words to fill in the Mad Libs. On top of the entertainment factor, these stories teach kids about parts of speech and creative storytelling. Plus a whole van full of laughing family members is a sure sign of an enjoyable road trip.

Screen-Free Entertainment Options: Part II

In Part 1 of Screen-Free Backseat Entertainment Options, we talked about Search and Find Games, Magnetic Games, and Mileage Marker Activities. But if you’re embarking on a long road trip, you’ll need more tricks up your sleeve than these three.

Of course, handing your kids a screen- whether that’s in the form of a smartphone, tablet, or dvd player- will likely keep the peace. And I acknowledge that there’s a place for that. But the Vagabonds try to exhaust other options first. Here are a few more screen-free road trip activities for kids:

Paper/Magnetic Dolls- Remember old-school paper dolls that you had to punch out?

Old-fashioned paper dolls provide vintage entertainment to 21st century kids.

Old-fashioned paper dolls provide vintage entertainment to 21st century kids.

They had those tricky little foldable tabs that were supposed to hold the doll’s clothes on. Today’s kids have often never seen this vintage toy. You can even find history paper dolls (clad in historic costumes like Ancient Greecian Togas or Victorian gowns), like these stunning Italian Renaissance Costume Paper Dolls.

Tangrams- Introduce your little backseat traveler to the introductory concepts of geometry under the guise of these simple shapes. Tangrams allow children to experiment with patterns and arrange individual shapes to create simple objects and scenes. I like this set by Melissa and Doug because it has a handy wooden case in which to keep all those little pieces nicely organized. The company also makes a simpler set of pattern blocks for younger children. 

Silly Putty and Newspaper- If your kids are old enough to handle silly putty with creating a total disaster, this can be a relatively mess-free backseat entertainment option. Give them a few sheets of newspaper and one of those classic eggs of silly putty, and watch them have a blast with this super simple form of entertainment. Word on the street is that the silly putty/newspaper trick doesn’t work anymore due to newspapers changing their ink to one that isn’t compatible with silly putty. However, I *just* tried it, and it DOES work.

Remember Goliad!

Step back into the heart of the Texas Revolution in the South Texas town of Goliad. Visit Goliad State Park, where you’ll find the stunningly beautiful replica of Mission Espíritu Santo, which contains exhibits documenting the life of Spanish missionaries and the Native Americans they attempted to convert.

Taking in the beauty of Espiritu Santo


Just down the road, visit Presidio La Bahia, a

Outside of Presidio La Bahia, displaying our new (Gonzales) flag.

remarkably well-preserved chapel and fortress that looks just like it might have when Colonel Fannin was held captive there in 1836. In fact, the structure is one of the few surviving Spanish colonial mission/presidio complexes in North America. The Presidio’s museum displays artifacts from the Texas Revolution and shows a short film explaining the area’s historical significance.

We were amazed at the authentic feel of the Presidio- being secluded, so well preserved, and unencumbered by commercial encroachment, it lacks the tourist-trap feel of the Alamo. In fact, the word the little Vagabonds most frequently used to describe both the Presidio and Espiritu Santo was “spooky.”

Our Lady of Loreto Chapel, the oldest section of the Presidio, displays an intricate fresco created by the “Michelangelo of South Texas.” The chapel’s altar served as the signing place for the first Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico. The chapel is still in use, holding Mass every Sunday evening.

For an authentic historical experience, stay the night in The Quarters at the Presidio, a stone-walled, two-bedroom apartment with fireplace. The Quarters provides heat and air conditioning, a kitchenette, and full access to roam the grounds of the Presidio after hours. Beware! Some say these are ghostly stomping grounds!

After browsing the Texas history memorabilia for sale at the Presidio, we left with a commemorative flag. We chose the Gonzalez “Come and Take It” flag, just because I’ve wanted that one for so long. But I discovered a flag that I hadn’t heard of before- the “Bloody Arm.” Read about the Irish-influenced flag here- a fascinating story. And do go visit Goliad, even if you don’t work up the courage to stay the night.

*Portions of this story originally appeared in my February 2013 article in Change Magazine.

Tour Historic Texas Churches

In honor of Easter week, I thought I’d share some of the beautiful and historic Texas churches that are open for tours. I love the diversity of beautiful architecture- from intricately detailed stain glassed windows to simple wooden facades, and I think you’ll agree that these churches are breathtaking examples:

Each year, Houston hosts Museum District Day (usually in the fall) where the Museum District museums open for free. It is marvelous aside from the traffic. St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, a gorgeous tower of slate and limestone constructed in a Modified English Gothic style, also opens for tours.

St. Paul UMC in Houston offers guided group tours.

The church- which is located in the Museum District- also offers guided tours for groups of ten or more, year-round.

The Painted Churches (featuring murals and other artistry by 19th century Czech and German immigrants) include more than 20 churches, mostly located within the Texas Hill Country.One of these, St. Paul Lutheran in Serbin, features the tallest pulpit in Texas as well as two stories of seating.

St. Paul Lutheran in Serbin features a gorgeous painted interior.

Back in 1870, when the church was built, men sat in the balcony and women and children sat on the ground floor. When we visited, Vagabond Son loved running up to the towering pulpit and waving to us as we peered up at him from the ground floor.

Independence offers a lighted church tour, an evening tour of six architecturally-lit historic churches. The driving tour winds past these late 18th and early 19th century churches (scattered among small communities within the vicinity of Independence), with the oldest being Independence Baptist Church- built in 1872. The nighttime driving tour also includes other historic sites in Independence like the structures at Old Baylor Park and the Independence General Store.