Back in my 20s, I lived in a small town on the East Coast and was trying to find my way around town.Whenever I asked a local, “What’s a great thing to do here?” I always got the same answer: “You should go to Philadelphia or Baltimore or D.C. or New York.” Basically, get out of town.Fortunately for Dallas-Fort Worth families, there are a lot of fun, affordable options in the immediate vicinity — and you don’t have to leave the state.In fact, taking short day trips around North Texas will not only take the stress out of traveling with kids in tow but will also keep your budget intact.Our kids range in age from 3 to 12, so it’s important for us to find places the whole family can enjoy. In Grapevine, we splash in the 84-degree water park inside Great Wolf Lodge. In Dallas, we beat the heat by ice skating at the Galleria. In Fort Worth, we soak in culture in the world-class museum district. In Arlington, we take a stroll through River Legacy Parks.Here are few of my favorite destinations for a family staycation.Explore and learn in Fort Worth Where to go: Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, 1600 Gendy St. What parents will like: Feeling nostalgic? Check out the Smithsonian Institution’s “ Elvis at 21” exhibit, which has 56 photographs of Elvis Presley circa 1956. The exhibit, which runs through Sept. 2, showcases the work of photographer Alfred Wertheimer, who documented Presley’s life in the year he catapulted to superstardom. What kids will like: My 3-year-old can spend hours at the Fort Worth Children’s Museum, dedicated to children 8 and younger. There’s a grocery store, build-your-own train tracks, ambulance/hospital play, interactive computer games and more. Older kids can explore the DinoLabs and DinoDig or play the role of a forensic science investigator at the “CSI: The Experience” exhibit, which runs through Sept. 2. Based on the popular TV show, the exhibit — recommended for age 12 and older — allows visitors to run through crime-scene scenarios to build a case based on scientific evidence. Good to know: With exhibit admission to the Museum of Science and History, you get half-price admission to the National Cowgirl Museum next door. Cost: $14, $10 ages 2-12 and 65+ Info: 817-255-9300; http://fortworthmuseum.orgGo wild in Arlington Where to go: River Legacy Parks, 703 N.W. Green Oaks Blvd. What parents will like: With 8 miles of paved hiking and biking trails, River Legacy is the perfect place for active families to explore nature. Amenities include a 6-mile mountain bike trail, picnic tables and a playground. Bring your bikes, roller blades, and plenty of sunscreen and bug repellent. What kids will like: The 12,000-square-foot Living Science Center, at Cooper Street and Green Oaks Boulevard, has interactive exhibits, terrariums and aquariums. Check the calendar for free Saturday activities that include animal encounters and guided hikes. Good to know: Located just under the pedestrian bridge at the Collins Street entrance is a canoe launch. Paddlers can head upstream about a half-mile on the Trinity River, then return to the launch for an easy one-hour float. Check the River Legacy website for information on canoe rentals. Cost: Admission to the parks and Living Science Center is free (donations are accepted). There are fees for optional programming and classes. Info: 817-860-6752; www.riverlegacy.orgHave a howling good time in Grapevine Where to go: Great Wolf Lodge, 100 Great Wolf Drive What parents will like: The 80,000-square-foot water park is massive, but the sense of security inside is impressive. There’s only one way in or out, and there are several lifeguards throughout the complex. There’s also an area where the little ones can splash around. Plus, there’s complimentary use of life jackets and towels — one less thing to pack. The price may seem steep, but that’s because the water park passes are included with a hotel stay. What kids will like: Don’t miss the free story time in the lobby each night, especially if you have pre-K and younger kids. Several activities, including MagiQuest, a hotel scavenger hunt, involve fees. Check the front desk on package deals for these activities. If you already have a Magic Wand from a previous stay, bring it and just pay the game fee. Good to know: You can use the water park all day on your arrival and departure dates, so you can maximize your time by arriving early. Once you check out, leave your bags with the concierge, then head back into the park for a few more hours of fun. Also, historic downtown and Grapevine Mills mall, which houses LEGOLAND Discovery Center and an AMC movie theater, are just a short drive away for affordable dining and entertainment options. Cost: There’s a summer package rate of $279.99 per night for a family suite that sleeps four. Use promo code “SUMMER.” Info: www.greatwolf.comSplurge in Dallas Where to go: Galleria Dallas, 13350 Dallas Parkway (Interstate 635 at Dallas North Tollway) What parents will like: Obviously, window shopping is free, but if you’re going to spend an hour on the construction-heavy I-635, you might as well book a room at the posh Westin Galleria Dallas. The Westin offers a state-of-the-art fitness gym, rooftop pool with complimentary cabanas and “family beds.” On Friday evenings, you can make your own cupcakes to take to your room. Plus, family package deals make the stay affordable, including a VIP ice skating package that includes passes and skate rentals, and an American Girl package that includes a bed for your doll and turn-down service with cupcakes and milk. What kids will like: The rainforest-themed Play Place is one of the best soft-play areas in the Metroplex, with plenty of room for kids to roam and lots of seating for parents to watch. It’s next to the food court on Level 3. Check the mall’s event calendar for free Showtime Saturday events. Of course, the skating rink is a nice departure from the outdoor swelter. Good to know: Did you know that Nordstrom offers free personal styling? The stylist will work with your budget to come up with items that reflect your style. This would be a great treat for a job-hunting recent grad, a quinceanera, prom, etc. Cost: Package deals at the Westin start at $150 per night. Info: www.galleriadallas.com
Maricar Estrella is the editor of Mom2MomDFW.com. Follow her on Twitter, @maricare.