Winter Wonderlands

Embrace the Chill This Weekend at Moody Gardens

A yuletide festival of lights to cheer even the grouchiest grinch

By John Lomax December 2, 2013

Image: Moody Gardens

The weekend before Thanksgiving was an icy one by Gulf Coast standards, with temperatures plunging into the thirties by night and a howling wind that sliced through layers of clothes like a Ginsu knife through crisp celery. In spite of all that, there was no place better to be with my 9-year-old daughter Harriet that weekend than Moody Gardens, right there on the back side of windswept Galveston Island. (As a similar front is on the way this weekend, you can enjoy it exactly as we did.)

Every year Moody Gardens workers string up over a million Christmas lights on topiary-like structures shaped into Nutcracker characters, Santas, skating penguins and the like. (Not to mention plenty of tall Christmas trees. And there be dinosaurs too. Who says bronts don't celebrate Christmas?)

Harriet sported her new Christmas sweater and loved the lights, but she loved the tented-in ice skating rink most of all. (Skate rentals: $6)

All 100 scenes in the frosty fantasyland are set to piped-in carols and "Ho-ho-hos" and believe you me: on a frigid night, it will coax the season's spirit out of you whether you believe it proper to indulge before Thanksgiving or not. I don't believe it proper, at all, and I succumbed totally.

This time of year there's also an ice slide ($6 per ride or $20 unlimited) and a live Santa for photo ops and wish-lists.

That's all in addition to the resort's usual attractions: the theaters (3D and 4D), and a pyramid housing the region's best aquarium, complete with penguin display and a vast shark tank under which you can walk in a barrel-vaulted viewing area. (I highly recommend the delightful if pricey behind-the-scenes penguin encounters too. While kids don't get to touch the waddling birds, there's something amazing about sharing a room with one of these most amusing of creatures for even a few minutes.) 

Then there are the other two landmark pyramids, including one themed "Discovery" that is home to a multitude of interactive science and math exhibits (right now focusing on the science of music) and a Ridefilm Theater. 

The Rainforest Pyramid is like the Museum of Natural Science's Cockrell Butterfly Center on a much, much grander scale. Completely overhauled after extensive Ike damage, explorers take in the world's jungle flora and fauna on raised walkways while scarlet ibises and pint-sized Chinese alligators skulk in the waters in and black and aquamarine Asian fairly bluebirds and sloths prowl the canopy.

Leaving behind our guided tour group—which included a few over-rambunctious young boys—Harriet and I enjoyed a close encounter with a monkey. That would be a wild-haired cotton-top tamarin to be exact, one that hopped out of a tree and scampered up to us on a second-story walkway.

We giggled, sat down where we were, and pondered him. He took a seat too, only he turned his back on us and surveyed his domain through the wire fence. And of course my iPhone had died so you will just have to trust me on that one.

Moody Gardens was kind enough to put us up for a night in the adjacent hotel and the family rooms are highly recommended. A curtain divides two sleeping / living areas in the very long rooms, and there are lots of nice touches, such as a half-dozen board games stocked in a console and fresh-baked cookies and cool milk delivered to the room. (One flaw: WiFi was spotty throughout our stay and by "spotty," I mean almost non-existent.)

Make sure you take the elevator up to the ninth floor, where mom and dad can enjoy a cocktail in the bar and take in the view and the kids can take in the latter from a common area near the elevators. This view is not from quite that high, but it gives you the drift.

Early in the evening, Gardens staff hosted a sort of S'Mores buffet around that firepit, and if you have kids you can imagine the enthusiasm with which that little grace note was received, subfreezing wind-chills or not. (You can book a room here.)

The Moody Gardens Festival of Lights runs from 6 to 10 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays through December 7 and then nightly until from December 12 to January 4. Admission to the grounds is $6.95; you can buy tickets here. (If you buy a ticket to the Festival, you can also enjoy deep discounts on the pyramids and other attractions.) 

And while the Moody Gardens Hotel provides decks of cards and shower caps, the Skittles were sold seperately.


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