Taking an educational vacation to Galveston this summer is a bit like having your cake and eating it too—you can enjoy all the sun and fun, but come home with more than just a tan.
Many, if not all, of Galveston Island’s top attractions have a learning component built into the activity and offer an opportunity to gain new insights and interests. The best news is that the kids will be having so much fun, they won’t even notice that you snuck some science and history into their summer.
Big Hits for History Lovers
Galveston is steeped in history, with attractions that run the gamut from the era of World War II to the nautical past that is deeply intertwined with the island. Give the kids a hands-on history lesson with attractions for every interest.
Named for the Seawolf Submarine lost in WWII, Seawolf Park (100 Seawolf Park Blvd, www.americanunderseawarfarecenter.com) now displays both the WWII submarine Cavalla and the USS Stewart Destroyer Escort, one of only three submarine destroyers left in existence. The park was built on an immigration and quarantine site, so visitors can also learn about why Galveston is known as the “Ellis Island of the West” during their visit. A playground, picnic facilities and free fishing off the pier make this a perfect family destination.
For a different view of maritime history, visit the Texas Seaport Museum (2200 Harborside Dr, www.galvestonhistory.org) located on Historic Pier 21.The museum tells of the legacy of the sea in both commerce and immigration while offering hands-on exhibits for exploring how the sea has shaped the Texas coast. The museum is also home to the famed Tall Ship Elissa, a three-masted, iron-hulled sailing ship that was built in 1877. The seaworthy vessel serves as the official Tall Ship of Texas, and sails annually to keep the heritage of masted ships alive.
Take a break from the heat, but keep the history exploration going with a stop at Pier 21 Theatre (2100 Harborside Dr, www.pier21galveston.com) More than 100 years later, the Great Storm that hit Galveston in 1900 is still a vital part of the history of the island. A film chronicling the firsthand accounts and pictures from the terrible disaster can be seen at this theater, along with other historical films featuring pirate Jean Lafitte, who called Galveston home, and another film highlighting the history of immigration in Galveston.
If learning about the Great Storm of 1900 inspires an interest in life in the Victorian era, you are in luck. Galveston is filled with detailed architecture examples from before 1900, including two famous mansions that survived the storm and offer tours daily. Moody Mansion (2618 Broadway St, www.moodymansion.org), built in 1895, and Bishop Palace (1402 Broadway St, www.galvestonhistory.org), built in 1892, are prime examples of the Golden Era of Galveston when the port was bustling with commerce and cotton. Tours of the homes allow kids to step back in time and see what life was like at the turn of the century. As a bonus, Bishop Palace provides play trunks in each room that contain toys and activities to help children explore the mansion in a kid-friendly way.
It would be impossible to leave a destination with so much high seas history without exploring the role of pirates. Pirates! Legends of the Gulf Coast (2313 Harborside Dr, www.piratesgulfcoast.com) is an interactive scavenger hunt that invites families to step aboard a pirate ship to learn about the history, myth and legend of piracy. As kids search for clues aboard the ship, they will encounter costumed actors representing historical figures such as Jean Lafitte, Jim Bowie and the Karankawa Indians.
Learn more about the true history of pirates at the Moody Gardens (1 Hope Blvd, www.moodygardens.com) exhibit Real Pirates. This one-of-a-kind exhibit features over 150 treasures from the Whydah, the first authenticated pirate shipwreck in US waters. The exhibit includes treasure that was last touched by pirates before it sank into the ocean in 1717.
Planes, Trains & Off-Shore Oil Rigs
Kids of all ages are fascinated by the way things work, including the wonders of transportation like planes and trains. Nestled among the miles of white sand, Galveston offers world class collections of antique forms of transportation, as well as a unique look at an off-shore oil rig.
Lone Star Flight Museum (2002 Terminal Dr, www.lsfm.org) is home to one of the finest restored aircraft collections in the nation with 40 historically significant aircraft and hundreds of artifacts related to the history of flight. The museum includes the unique opportunity to take to the air in one of several restored Warbirds.
Soar from the rugged history of military aircraft to the romance of rail travel with a visit to the Galveston Railroad Museum (2602 Santa Fe Pl, www.galvestonrrmuseum.com). The historic museum boasts one of the largest restored railcar collections in the Southwest, and one of the five largest collections in the country. Important pieces of the collection include Santa Fe Warbonnets rolling stock and an extensive assortment of model train layouts in a range of gauges.
For a unique look at an important part of the commerce of the Gulf Coast, visit the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig Museum and Education Center (2002 Wharf Rd, www.oceanstaroec.com). The museum consists of a retired jackup drilling rig that has been transformed into exhibits that explore the life aboard an offshore oil rig. The museum features three floors of models and interactive displays illustrating the story of offshore oil and gas from seismic technology to exploration and production. Scale models of production platforms, actual drill bits and remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) are also on display. The highlight of the museum is the chance to walk the skywalk to the drilling floor of the rig to get a close-up look at the massive mechanism.
Science & the Sea
It’s no surprise that the sea is at the center of the scientific exploration in Galveston, but there are surprisingly many aspects of ocean life to discover in the port of Galveston. Check out all the activities at the pyramids of Moody Gardens or explore the flora and fauna of the natural areas of the coast, all while learning about biology and oceanography.
Moody Gardens packs a mighty educational punch in the form of three unique pyramids that contain live animal exhibits, IMAX movies and other hands-on science experiences. The Aquarium Pyramid houses one of the largest aquariums in the world, divided into four distinct ocean environments. The chilly South Atlantic exhibit houses five different species of penguins that you can meet up close and personal in a behind-the-scenes tour. The highlight of the North Pacific exhibit is meeting Squirt, the blind sea lion who playfully scoots around entertaining guests. The South Pacific is filled with colorful coral and beautiful fish. Throughout the aquarium, there are plenty of hands-on activities for kids like touch-friendly sea creatures or games, including a shark search where kids can stamp their passport as they find each species of shark.
The Rainforest Pyramid allows visitors to tour all the levels of the rainforest from the canopy to the rainforest floor. The canopy gives visitors an eye level view of monkeys, sloths and other free roaming tree dwellers. As you journey downward, you will pass through the cloud layer where you will encounter colorful frogs and artifacts from the rainforest people.
The Discovery Pyramid houses traveling science exhibits and live interactive demonstrations. Through September 28, National Geographic’s Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Wydah is on display at the Discovery Pyramid. Along with the three pyramids, Moody Gardens also offers interactive and educational films in the 3D, IMAX and Ridefilm theatres.
For a slightly more artistic look at the ocean ecosystem, book a tour with Artist Boat (2415 Avenue K, www.artistboat.org). Public tours of the marshland combine an active kayak tour with a unique watercolor class. Paddle out into the coastal margins and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature, then stop for a relaxing break that encourages participants to channel their inner Picasso and create a watercolor souvenir of the beautiful surroundings.
Big Reef Nature Park (Bolivar Rd & Boddecker Drive, www.galveston.com) is a bird watchers’ paradise and great place to let the kids explore the ocean ecosystem. The large wetland area features egrets, herons, ducks, cormorants and gulls, often in large flocks. The park also includes the East Lagoon Nature Trail where the tidal marsh environment creates a perfect home for bird watching and other animal sightings.
At the end of any summer vacation in Galveston, you should have a little sand between your toes and salt in your hair, but if you plan it carefully, you’ll also slip in some unforgettable learning experiences. Think of it as hiding some healthy vegetables in the sweetness of the cake. To learn more about the options in Galveston, visit www.galveston.com to find links for lodging, special events and more attraction details.
[Editor’s Note: Enter to win a fun family vacation to Galveston, including hotel stay, tickets to attractions and a $300 VISA card to help with travel expenses, courtesy of our friends at the Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau and Oklahoma Empoyees Credit Union.]