Fair Park
Some parents turn up their noses at the old, somewhat dark and dank Dallas Aquarium, but the kids enjoy it. It's entirely gimmick-free--no cutesy exhibits, no corporate sponsors, no gift shop and only the purest form of "interactive" display: a station where children can pick up and feel starfish, crabs, sea anemones and other such creatures. The staff is knowledgeable, patient and friendly. Best of all is the price: $3 for adults and children 12 and up, $1.50 for kids 3 to 11. It's open seven days a week, so carve out an hour to visit and know you won't end up with a $50 gift-shop bill.

This is a tough category for a city such as Dallas, where most restaurant patios and decks overlook parking lots or city streets. What the city lacks are more public spaces, the kinds of courtyards and plazas found in Europe. The West Village has accomplished this plaza feel (although the traffic is still an issue), particularly outside the Magnolia Theatre, where al fresco dining can be had beside Taco Diner, Paciugo, Paris Vendome and Nikita. All form a kind of faux courtyard, and diners, some with their leashed dogs in tow, can engage friends and loved ones as they make their way to the movies. Although cars can obstruct the view, the venue is an attractive meet-and-greet for the see-and-be-seen set, and it lends itself to that sense of community so sorely lacking in modern times. Or at the very least, a beer.
The party place can be the Ponies & Pals Hickory Creek barnyard or your own back yard, but the cool thing about this party for kids is that it comes with live animals and pony rides. A party can be arranged to include goats, sheep, rabbits and potbellied pigs for petting, and ponies for riding. Operators will also provide a birthday cake, ice cream and more for the junior party-goers and can take the show just about anywhere in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Attendants constantly monitor the children as they interact with the animals.
Texas Discovery Gardens
Sit on the natural stone ledge and peer into the pondering pool at the base of the two-story waterfall, and you'll forget you're in a building at Fair Park in Dallas. Best of all, you'll forget the three hot checks that beat your direct deposit to the bank last week, your boss' bullshit, your never-ending "to-do" list and the unsavory state of the world. In the glass-walled conservatory at Texas Discovery Gardens, you'll discover a tranquil, tropical paradise--a cross between Blue Lagoon and Gilligan's Island. Lush, exotic foliage frames the rushing waterfall, including real banana trees with ripening bunches of fruit. The waterfall is the centerpiece among a collection of tropical plants, native and adapted and clearly labeled, cultivated by TDG's crack staff of horticulturists, who are available to answer questions--if you can or want to hear them over the sound of clear, rushing water.

On any given summer weekend, a couple hundred boats show up at the cove with occupants who are there to party. There is usually plenty of booze, and bikinis become optional as the day wears on. One of the larger boats that usually shows up has a stripper's pole mounted on the back deck for any of the bikini-clad women at the cove to use at will and perhaps become un-bikini-clad. The lake water is warm and not all that refreshing, so it's a good idea to bring an ice chest filled with your favorite beverage.

Your 3-year-old could attend any Texas state university for one year for about the same tuition as that of a quality preschool in Dallas. We would win the argument that your money is better spent on your 3-year-old, who is a curious sponge just waiting for experiences to generate his or her love of learning and encourage successful socialization skills with other rug rats. Quite the opposite of the college freshman's experience, if memory serves. Dallas families eagerly pay the price for their 18-month- to 5-year-olds at The da Vinci School, an excellent preschool with a science-driven curriculum and an emphasis on nurturing individuality in every child. Founding director Mary Ann Greene says science is a jumping-off point for other areas of learning. "If we begin by looking at the solar system, for example," she says, "we can easily explore the stories of mythology and music from The Planets." Social studies is a secondary area of emphasis, and Greene says since the school opened in 1987, its students enjoy a fun, creative, stimulating, ability-appropriate, fulfilling and successful introduction to lifelong learning.

Best Bet to (Shockingly) Still be in Business by Next Year's Best of Dallas Issue

Blue

A ton of money went into this gi-normous downtown nightspot, and you can definitely tell. Huge dance floor, great sound system, a beautiful stage backed by the biggest LED screen not in use on a U2 world tour--and that's just for a start. No expense was spared, which is the main reason we wagered that Blue would be boarded up in six months, 12 tops. But hey, word is they're bringing in record crowds. Way to go, guys, even though we're most likely out 20 bucks.

Fossil Rim Wildlife Center
Instead of a party, our young son asked to visit Fossil Rim Wildlife Center on his birthday for the second year in a row. He never tires of tooling along the 10-mile safari course, poking his head out the car window and tossing handfuls of kibbles to zebras, wildebeests, gazelles, aoudads and the many other varieties of exotic animals in the savannah-like environs. You'll view some 50 species, from giraffes (keep that moon roof shut, unless you want a visit from a giant, slimy black giraffe tongue) to the gorgeous fallow deer, which look like creatures from a children's fantasy book. Halfway through is a large, well-stocked gift shop, a petting zoo and a restaurant on a cliff that serves outstanding hamburgers as well as gourmet salads and sandwiches. Your children will appreciate that the animals are healthy, happy and free to roam, yet numerous enough (1,000-plus critters) to see up close. At the end of the safari course, cheetahs and black rhinoceroses are on display in spacious pens. Guided tours are also available. For most Dallas-area residents, it's a trip of about 90 minutes to Fossil Rim, which is southwest on state Highway 67 near Glen Rose. Count on spending some three hours at the park if you stop for a snack.
A trip to the emergency room is never fun. But for a germophobe, it's an utter nightmare. A cursory glance of the waiting area can evoke sweaty palms, heart palpitations and the unyielding urge to flee. But, unfortunately, sometimes you gotta do it; and if the need arises, Baylor's medical facility is as good a place as any. So whether you're the patient or merely the moral support, here are a few suggestions for the germ-fearing among us: 1) Though it will be tempting, DO NOT choose a seat near the exit door, because, you see, it's also within earshot of the patient interview area. And the first time you hear the phrase, "So, you have open sores..." don't be surprised if you feel your throat begin to close and your breathing become labored. 2) Don't even think about the Bath & Body Works anti-bacterial hand gel you have in your purse. It ain't gonna cut it. Just ease your mind by imagining the Silkwood-style shower you'll take when you get home. 3) Finally, and this may be the most important, DO NOT engage in conversation with any fellow waiting-roomer. You'll just have to trust us on this one.

Nana (in the Hilton Anatole Hotel)
Sometimes the simple pleasures stand out. While other establishments spread multicolored chips or unidentifiable puffed snacks along the bar, the folks at Nana set bowls of cashews out for bar guests. That's it. Cashews--unadorned but for a dusting of salt and all you care to grab before the bartenders realize what you're up to. Other places serve all kinds of free goodies for happy hour, but none match the simplicity and the quality. These things are just damn good: very fresh and consistent. Anywhere else, a plastic bag of stale cashews will run you...well, we're not sure what they cost. We're hooked on the free stuff. A bowl of nuts, a drink and a view of traffic stalled along Stemmons Freeway make the Nana bar a perfect happy-hour stop.

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