Dealey Plaza

It may not be as cheery as Disneyland, but Dealey Plaza remains a magnet for tourists from everywhere. Whether it's to take photos, honor a fallen president or learn about the latest conspiracy theories, the site of John F. Kennedy's assassination is the first stop for out-of-towners looking to experience Dallas. Within walking distance tourists can visit the Sixth Floor Museum, get fitted for boots in the West End and grab a bite to eat at the many restaurants providing shelter from the heat. Dealey Plaza has so much to offer, visitors don't mind dodging traffic to stand on the infamous X.

The key to the future is tucked away in an unassuming part of southwest Dallas, off a gravel road and behind a canopy of trees. There, the Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas have transformed a 1920s-era campground on more than 90 acres into a living laboratory and girl-power mecca. Scouts and their families can enjoy year-round programming that sees girls of all ages assembling robotics, coding apps, gazing at the stars, running geology experiments and engaging in confidence-building athletic activities like rock climbing, ropes courses and archery. The goal is to expose more girls to the opportunities that STEM careers offer and to close the workforce gap between men and women; right now, 74 percent of STEM workers are male. But it's also an important incubator for lifelong female friendships and support: Visitors to the camp will see girls swapping friendship bracelets over their circuitry and sharing their dreams at the top of the observation tower.

Best Place to See Cute Animals

The internet is inundated with videos of animals doing cute things, but screen time does little for our need to fully absorb this cuteness compared to seeing clumsy penguins, sleepy sloths and giant manatees in real life. Since 1992, The Dallas World Aquarium has offered adults and kids hours of fun and once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunities as a sanctuary for all types of creatures. Its conservation efforts span several parts of Mexico and South America, including the Jaguar Conservation Program in El Pantanal, the Costa Rican Sloth Conservation and the Amazon Manatee Conservation Project, among others. The best part about the DWA is its dedication to the wellness and protection of its animals. Enjoy a glass of wine or a snack as you walk through the many halls and pebbled paths to experience the wonder of some of the world's most exotic animals. Ticket prices vary, and guided tours are available for large groups.

If you're looking for a cozy spot to lay down the blanket, pop a bottle of champagne and enjoy a picnic under the stars, Denton's Courthouse-on-the-Square is the place to be. Thanks to Denton's open container law, you can get your buzz on while nibbling homemade finger sandwiches or take-out from any of the handful of restaurants surrounding the central lawn. What makes the courthouse lawn the ideal spot for a romantic dinner or fun night out with the kids isn't just the outdoor summer movie screenings or beautifully lit trees, but also the bustling nightlife on the square with live music within earshot almost every night of the week.

Alex Organ rarely takes a breath from his liberal rant in Second Thought Theatre's production of playwright Blake Hackler's Enemies/People. Texas playwright Hackler cleverly takes Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People and moves it to a small town in present-day Texas where two brothers are on opposite sides in a dispute about contaminated water and its effect on a potentially profitable business deal. Hackler then ramps up the speed and volume to such a degree that it is nearly impossible to imagine that Organ could maintain that intensity night after night. Kara-Lynn Vaeni provided smart direction to a superior ensemble cast that included Dallas favorites Christie Vela, Gregory Lush and Allison Pistorius as well as delightful newcomers Jovane Caamaño and Sasha Maya Ada. In the end Hackler treats the audience to an especially funny scene using the original Ibsen script. "Enemies/People" asks tough questions about everything from guns to fracking and considers how to effect change in the world from the comfort of an expensive chair.

Associate Artistic Director Jenni Stewart made her directing debut at Shakespeare Dallas in their production of The Taming of the Shrew, a battle-of-the-sexes comedy that centers on one man's efforts to control his woman. The well-cast production got plenty of laughs, but Stewart avoided the temptation to take the low road. She made the decision to update the setting to the suffragette era, when women were fighting for the right to vote. Stewart took the word obedience and imbued it with new meaning that related to the marriage contract itself rather than a wife's subservience to her husband. Stewart proved to be up to the challenge and took what is typically presented as a misogynistic story and made it palatable to a modern audience without changing a word. No easy task in this #MeToo moment.

Bread

Addison's WaterTower Theatre made bold changes in 2017 and 2018 when they set out to attract a younger and more diverse audience. When their long-time director left, WaterTower brought in Joanie Schultz as artistic director, and she immediately set to work. Shultz ditched a previously announced production of Sunday in the Park With George and replaced it with a new play by Chicago playwright Ike Holter, Hit the Wall, about the Stonewall Riots. In spring 2018 WaterTower staged the world premiere of Regina Taylor's Bread, which explored timely issues including police violence and gentrification. Schultz also established a community engagement program called Intersections to facilitate conversation and offer context for the theater's productions. WaterTower's efforts are paying off. The rest of the year looks even more daring and innovative with the irreverent Hand to God, featuring a foul-mouthed puppet, followed by Schultz's own adaptation of Ibsen's A Doll's House.

Aviation Cinemas, the folks behind the historic Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff and the Oak Cliff Film Festival, purchased Denton's long-vacant Fine Arts Theatre, located on the Downtown Square, earlier this year. The iconic single-auditorium theater, which, funny enough, was called Texas Theatre until the late 1950s, is more than 140 years old and originally operated as an opera house before becoming a movie theater. After a fire shut down formal operations in the '80s, the Fine Arts Theatre served as a performance venue on and off for various events over the past years. The team behind the new plan of restoring the downtown venue says they'll keep it an entertainment spot — which is sure to breathe life back into the historic theater with unique programming and draw in many music and movie fans from all over North Texas.

South Dallas Cultural Center

Soul Rep Theatre calls The Freedmans a "ritualistic choreo-poem." Written 20 years ago by company members to commemorate the opening of Dallas' Freedman's Cemetery Memorial, it is their poetic tribute to the former slaves who founded Dallas' Freedman's Town shortly after emancipation in the late 1800s. Music and dance play an essential part in telling this moving and poignant story, and that is the definition of a musical. Soul Rep, one of eight companies chosen to participate in this year' Elevator Project, considers The Freedmans to be their signature production. Accompanied by a harpist, the production was filled with beautiful music — four original songs, including "I'm Free" and "Cotton Don't Come," written by company member Keith Price; the song "Tree of Life," from the Gullah tradition; and a post-slavery lullaby called "Lil' Pickininny." Soul Rep's co-founder and co-artistic director Guinea Bennett-Price led a fantastic 12-person cast, and La-Hunter Smith choreographed what was the best musical of last season.

The Dallas Neo-Classical Ballet combines high-caliber dance performance with innovative and original content. Known for fostering creative collaborations, company artistic director Emilie Skinner took things to a whole new level this season. It is not surprising that a ballet company would perform excerpts from classical pieces like La Sylphide and Giselle as they did when they worked with the DMA on a celebration of the paintings of French Impressionist Edgar Degas. But few dance troupes would build a performance around Albert Einstein for a sci-fi show. DNCB has a calendar with a space girls theme and an annual horror-themed series. Skinner created a Black Swan vibe to provide the backdrop for Icelandic indie-rock group Kaleo when they performed at Array as part of DSO's Soluna festival. For their final performance of the season, Blind Tiger, Skinner created a comedic piece with music from the 1920s. Not your typical ballet troupe.

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