The holidays are here, and countless school-age kids have just been released from formal learning for a couple of weeks. Make the most of all that togetherness -- and maybe even keep those growing minds engaged -- by taking advantage of the many activities our area has to offer.
Here are a dozen seasonal pursuits, from classic holiday performances and movies to fine-arts and cooking classes. Some might be things you do every year; others might be things you have always wanted to try. While several of these ideas are geared toward younger children, many are also appropriate for college kids, visiting relatives and anyone else who might descend on your house in December.
1. Catch 'The Nutcracker' at Bass Hall.
Texas Ballet Theater brings its production of The Nutcracker to Bass Hall, fresh from a run at Dallas' Winspear Opera House. Through Dec. 24, treat your children to the story of Clara and her Nutcracker Prince, and their adventures through a battle scene, a snowy forest and into a magical kingdom of sweets. Children will love this accessible ballet, with falling snowflakes and a Christmas tree that magically grows to 40 feet. Have adult children visiting? A more adult-oriented Nutty Nutcracker is Sunday evening.
Where: Bass Hall, Fourth and Calhoun streets, Fort Worth. 877-828-9200; www.texasballettheater.org.
When: Saturday-Sunday and Wednesday-Friday.
How much: $19-$99.
2. Ride the North Pole Express.
The Grapevine Vintage Railroad runs its North Pole Express, a 30-minute train ride for pajama-clad kids and their parents, through Tuesday. The ride includes caroling, storytelling and a visit from Santa Claus. The North Pole Fun Park extends the experience before or after the ride, with snacks and hot chocolate you can buy, ornament-making and photos with Santa. After Christmas, the Grapevine-to-Stockyards round-trip rides resume: Riders have two hours to explore the Stockyards area before returning to Grapevine, a great way to entertain lingering holiday visitors of all ages.
Where: 705 S. Main St., Grapevine (with free parking at Grapevine Library, 1201 Municipal Way). 817-410-3123; www.gvrr.com
When: North Pole Express, Saturday-Tuesday. After-Christmas train rides, Dec. 26-31 and Jan. 2-3.
How much: North Pole Express: $18 for children and adults, free for children under 2. After-Christmas train rides: $10 for ages 3-12, $20 adults, and $18 over 55.
3. Send them back to (cooking) school.
Central Market offers single-session cooking classes for kids, teens and adults, too -- and what better time than the holidays to learn a new culinary skill? At the Southlake location, parent-child gingerbread house decorating classes are Sunday. Also in Southlake this month, a teen cooking camp will have sessions devoted to sushi, Greek food and an Iron Chef-style competition. The Fort Worth location is offering a kids-only cupcakes and cookies class, where kids turn out desserts such as chocolate and vanilla cupcakes and chocolate crinkle cookies. The Fort Worth school is also planning a sleepover party-themed class for kids 8 and up, with pasta salad, popcorn balls and peanut butter and jelly cake.
Where: Central Market Southlake, 1425 E. Southlake Blvd, Southlake, 817-310-5665; and Central Market Fort Worth, 4651 West Freeway, Fort Worth, 817-377-9005, www.centralmarket.com.
When: Single-session classes scheduled for Sunday-Dec. 30.
How much: Gingerbread decorating classes, $40 per parent/child team; teen camps, $45 per teen; cupcakes and cookies classes, $45 per child; sleepover party class, $45 per child or $75 per team of two.
4. Chill out at the Gaylord Texan.
Some families make it a habit to swing by the Gaylord Texan in Grapevine every holiday season to take in the considerable holiday decorations, including 1.5 million lights, a life-size gingerbread house, a 52-foot Christmas tree and Santa Claus. But you'll want to call ahead for tickets to the resort's biggest holiday attraction, the annual ICE! show; this year's theme is "A Charlie Brown Christmas," rendered in 2 million pounds of hand-carved ice, with five ice slides. New this year is a second chilly attraction, SNOW!, an indoor snowy hill ready for as many tube-rides down as you can muster. There's also a bunny hill for younger children.
Where: Gaylord Texan, 1501 Gaylord Trail, Grapevine. 817-778-2000; www.gaylordhotels.com/gaylord-texan.
When: Daily through Jan. 3.
How much: ICE!, 12 and under, $10.95 weekdays or $13.95 weekends; adults, $20.95 weekdays or $24.95 weekends; the exhibit is free for children 3 and under. SNOW!, unlimited runs, $19.95 ($11.95 for the bunny hill).
5. Watch it on the really big screen.
Two kid-friendly holiday movies -- The Polar Express and Santa vs. the Snowman -- are showing daily at the Omni Theater, an IMAX dome theater at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. The Polar Express, starring Tom Hanks (in a unique hybrid of realism and animation, courtesy of some amazing performance-capture technology), is based on the award-winning children's book. The animated Santa vs. the Snowman tells the story of a feud between a jealous snowman and Santa.
Where: Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, 1600 Gendy St., Fort Worth. 817-255-9540; fortworthmuseum.org
When: Daily through Jan. 3.
How much: The Polar Express, ages 2-12 and 60 and up, $8; adults, $9. Santa vs. the Snowman, children and seniors, $6; adults, $7. Members receive $3 off each ticket.
6. Go see the lights.
Sure, a drive through any neighborhood will yield some entertainingly illuminated houses and yards this time of year, but few are consistently popular enough that police are needed to help with traffic control. Arlington's Interlochen Lights Display, an impressive neighborhood effort involving about 200 homeowners, is on now through Christmas Day. Traffic can be slow, so be prepared: Pack snacks in the car, and if possible, head over on a weeknight rather than on the weekend.
Where: Interlochen neighborhood in northwest Arlington, off Interstate 30; find a map of the driving route at www.arlingtontx.gov/news/2010/archive_1110_12.pdf
When: 6 p.m.-11 p.m. nightly, through Dec. 25
How much: Free
7. Bring a gift to a zoo animal.
As part of its Animal Enrichment Program, the Fort Worth Zoo is conducting a toy drive, collecting items that help provide zoo animals with a chance to express natural behaviors, such as foraging and playing. On the wish list are Kongs (dog toys, found at pet stores), grapevine wreaths and wicker balls, among many other items; visit the zoo website for a complete list. Have your kids help shop for the animals, take the "toys" to the guest relations office, and then enjoy an afternoon at the zoo together. The zoo is open daily, even Christmas and New Year's Day.
Where: Fort Worth Zoo, 1989 Colonial Parkway, Fort Worth. 817-759-7500; www.fortworthzoo.org.
When: Toy drive runs through mid-January.
How much: Zoo admission is $12 adults, $9 ages 3-12 and 65 and older, and free for 2 and younger.
8. Watch Rudolph fly over the stage.
This generation of parents grew up watching the classic stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on TV every year; now they can share it with their kids in theater form. Fort Worth's Casa Mañana is the first theater in the country to get rights to adapt the television classic for the stage, and it is presenting the musical through Thursday, with the same familiar characters, costumes and story. The show, featuring a flying Rudolph, has a running time of only 60 minutes (plus a 15-minute intermission), making this version friendly for kids 3 and up. Make reservations before the show to take pictures with Rudolph afterward.
Where: Casa Mañana Theatre, 3101 W. Lancaster Ave., Fort Worth. 817-332-2272; www.casamanana.org.
When: Saturday-Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday.
How much: Tickets are $20-$22; photographs with Rudolph are $20.
9. Get in the holiday spirit at Six Flags.
Holiday in the Park at Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington is already in full swing, with its giant Tree of Trees, a Christmas tree that is more than 50 feet tall and made up of 70 smaller Christmas trees. Besides all the lights, young visitors will enjoy taking a picture with Santa Claus in SantaLand, sledding on an outdoor snow hill and decorating gingerbread cookies at Gingi's Cookie Haus. Seasonal foods include cowboy burritos, kettle corn, baked sweet potatoes and hot chocolate. The park will host several holiday-themed shows, and most of the rides (except water rides and Gotham City rides) are open.
Where: Six Flags Over Texas, 2201 Road to Six Flags, Arlington. 817-530-6000; www.sixflags.com
When: Now through Thursday, and Dec. 26-Jan. 2
How much: 2011 season passes, starting at $54.99 each, will cover December 2010 as well as all of 2011. For single-day tickets, $34.99; visit the website. Children 2 and younger are free.
10. Go ice-skating in Arlington.
Tarrant County might not have any solidly frozen ponds at the ready for old-school ice-skating, but we do have The Parks at Arlington mall with its indoor rink, Ice at the Parks. The rink is used for ice-hockey practices and games, but it also has times for public skating daily -- even holidays. With Christmas music playing, and the mall's Santa Claus nearby, you'll feel plenty of holiday spirit. There are skate rentals, in sizes starting with a toddler size 6. Be sure to dress warmly and wear long socks.
Where: Ice at the Parks, 3815 S. Cooper St., Arlington. 817-419-0095; www.iceattheparks.net
When: Public skating times are scheduled daily throughout the holidays; the website has hours.
How much: $6 admission (free for 5 and under), $3 skate rental for all ages.
11. Hit the trails.
The Trinity Trails, along the Trinity River, offer more than 40 miles of pathways in and around Fort Worth, and some run right past some of the city's best-loved attractions, such as the Fort Worth Zoo. Combine our fairly mild winters with those heavy holiday meals -- and perhaps new gear like bikes, scooters or skates -- and it's clear that now is a great time to get out on the trails with your kids. If your outing will be longer, bring a backpack with provisions: Several parks along the way -- Trinity Park, for example -- offer great places to enjoy a picnic.
Where: For a trail map, visit www.trinitytrails.org.
When: Trails are open 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
How much: Free.
12. Sign them up for an art workshop.
If you've been curious about the classes at Van Grow Art Studio for Kids, the holiday break from school might be the perfect time to let your child try an art workshop. The studio is hosting New Year's week workshops for ages 4-12 (kids are grouped by age), with a different animal theme, such as snow owls, each day. (Want to try it even sooner? Call to see if there is room in one of the Christmas week workshops.) Each workshop will include drawing, painting, collage, clay, crafts and stories; kids bring their own sack lunch, and snacks are provided.
Where: Van Grow Art Studio, 3434 W. Seventh St., Fort Worth. 817-348-0505; www.vangrowstudio.com.
When: Christmas week workshops, Monday-Thursday. New Year's week workshops, Dec. 27-30.
How much: Prices range from $37-$75 per day (workshops have three-, five- and seven-hour options). Siblings get a 10-percent discount.