General Tips on Saving Money when Traveling

  1. Get off the beaten path. Things like food and lodging are always more expensive the closer they are to an attraction.  If you get away from the main touristy areas or the interstates you’ll normally find better prices on food and hotels.  Of course you give up some convenience of being close to what you came to the city to do, so I always try to balance it.  Plus getting away from the main tourist draws gives you a better feel of the city and you’re more likely to find some great local places.
  2. Drive. I know that it takes longer to get to locations but I really think driving is still an amazing option. It gives you more flexibility and control over your trip (If you want to pull over and see a big ball of yarn, you can change your plans without a thought).  It gives the option of packing more items versus having to buy stuff at your destination.  It’s cheaper.  The more people you have going the cheaper driving gets per person.  It costs me the same for a tank of gas to drive myself as it does to drive myself and my whole family.  Lastly there is so much to see in between each location.
  3. Ask the locales. Want to know who knows a great place to get good food that’s well priced: people that live in the city all the time.  We like to ask the front desk clerks at our hotel where they suggest for dinner.  Locals know what restaurants are good (and in our case which ones can really handle seating a large party).  Plus most people love to share their town with you.  They also know the shopping better than you.  So again if you are looking for something specific or just some general advice, talk to the people that know the area the best.
  4. Hotel Breakfast is your best friend. I heard you groan.  I know complimentary breakfasts have their flaws.  They aren’t always the best food and the seating situation can be a hassle.  However, hotel breakfast saves you big on time and money.  First off they are free.  Free is always good.  I know they aren’t high class dining but most of them aren’t horrid (I’m not much of a breakfast eater anyway, I eat cereal most mornings) and some of the hot ones are honestly quite good.  Learn what hotel chains serve a breakfast you like and try to stay there.  These also are going to save you time.  #1 the food is already ready and #2 the location is very convenient (have a slow eater? you can have one person pack the car while slow kid enjoys his waffle).   We always eat the complimentary breakfast and normally grab an apple or banana to take with us for a snack later.
  5. Public spaces rule. Want to know the best thing about parks? Most of their operating budget comes from taxes which means fees especially when compared to other destinations like theme parks are WAY cheaper. Both National and local parks give you great options for destinations for very little cost.  Plus what you get to see is amazing.  Even if you aren’t into hiking most parks still have activities you can enjoy.  Most parks have short and easy trails to sample the wild without being in great shape.  Most parks have some sort of ranger or volunteer lead programs (even state and local parks).   Some parks even have other amenities like pools or splash pads.  You can allow the kids to roam (within reason) and they can really burn off energy.  We love the outdoors and try to work in a park into every trip.
  6. Picnics are your second best friend. If you have the room for a cooler in your car picnics can save you lots of money and time.  You can buy the fixings for sandwiches much cheaper than going out to eat.  Plus you can enjoy your lunch without leaving whatever you are visiting.
  7. Cheap souvenirs for kids If your kids are like mine they want a souvenir from EVERY stop. I’m on vacation I don’t really want to argue with my kid at every stop.  And while yes I could set a budget for my kid let’s face it there is still going to be whining when they run out of cash and beyond that I don’t want a bunch of stuff to drag home and add to all their other stuff.  I learned the art of cheap souvenirs from my mother who was a master.  My mom convinced a 7-year-old me that collecting postcards was lots of fun.  So wherever we went I picked out one post card from that location.  She was a genius.  I mean today a post card only cost between $.25 to $1.00 so I can imagine in 1991 they were even cheaper.  Post cards also take up nearly no room.  I had a whole collection of them and they all fit in single shoe box on my closet shelf.

Smashed Pennies – This same genius discovered smashed pennies when my little sister got a bit older.  I stole this idea for my daughter.  Her whole collection fits into a small passport sized book that I found online for about $10.  Now smashed penny machines are a little harder to find (although I never seem to have a hard time finding one at most tourist locations) so I try to note if we located one at that location.  Smashed pennies are also very cheap.  For $.51 my kid gets a great souvenir and we don’t spend 30 minutes looking at everything in the store because most machines only have four choices anyway.  My daughter loves collecting pennies and quarters for months leading up to a trip.  While traveling we store her penny supplies (quarters and pennies) in a mini m&m’s tube, then after she’s made a few she can store her new smashed pennies in the same container.  Just a note old pennies work better.  Newer pennies are shiny and all but they have less copper than pennies from before the 1980’s.  Which means if you use newer pennies you’ll get silver streaks from the zinc filler.  You can actually shine up old pennies with a little bit of vinegar.

Jr Ranger Badges – We visit a lot of locations that are managed by the National Parks Department.  The vast majority of national park, monuments and historic sites have a great program for kids (and adults too, there isn’t an age limit on it) that is FREE.  When you arrive at a location pickup a Jr Ranger booklet from the bookstore/ranger desk (some of them are available to download and print online.  Check out  Help your child complete the correct number of activities for their age group.  Activities in the book very they are often items like reading a short essay and answering questions, word searches, crossword puzzles, hiking bingo or fill in the blank questions that can be answered by exploring the on site museum.  Once completed have your child take the book back the ranger desk.  The park ranger will check the answers (they really do check the work so no cheating), and then they will swear your child in as a Jr Ranger.  They’ll give your child a certificate and badge that is unique to that park.  We’ve discovered that a lot of parks have their own unique oath and each ranger has done a great job interacting with the kids.  congratulations you have just got a free souvenir AND your kid has probably learned something on vacation (that’s a parenting WIN!).

National Historic Trading Cards – We’ve also found that a lot of National Historic Sites have free trading cards.  Check online to see if where you are visiting does.  To get the free cards, your child just has to walk up to the ranger desk and ask.  The cards are the same size as a baseball card.  They have historic pictures on one side and historical facts on the other side.  What cards you get is random so if you visit a park on multiple trips stop and get new cards each time.

  1. Annual Passes – Lots of places offer annual passes (zoos, museums, theme parks, normal parks). If you plan on visiting several times, run the numbers and see if an annual pass would save you money.  Some passes such as Federal or State Park Passes will get you into multiple sites with just one pass.  Often these passes extended to all members of your family or even everyone in your vehicle.  Additionally annual pass holders are often offered other perks such as discounts on merchandise or food purchases.
  2. Use your existing memberships – Do you have an annual membership to your local zoo or children’s museum? What about AAA or AARP?  Look into your existing memberships and see if you can get a discount at any attractions that you are going to.  We are members at our local zoo.  There are hundreds of other zoos across the country that we can get into for reduced rates or even free.  Be sure to see if you have membership perks that you could use.  Same thing applies if you are a veteran, active military or even a student (US 4th graders can get free Federal Park Passes good for that school year and the summer following).  Never be afraid to ask if there are discounts available with a valid ID.

O’Bannon Woods State Park

Location: 7234 Old Forest Rd SW
Corydon, IN  47712
Price: $7/car Indiana residence; $9/car out-of-state residence

On our way back from Cincinnati, we decided on an impromptu stop at a local state park.  O’Bannon Woods is about 30 minutes off the interstate near Corydon, IN.  It’s probably an hour from Louisville, KY.  The park offers camping (primitive and electric), hiking, horse trails, fishing and picnicking year round.  They also have a pool, nature center and pioneer farmstead seasonally.  The park is very close Wyandotte Caves but is managed separately from that park.

Because it was off-season we decided to just do a small hike.  The weather which had sucked this whole trip finally cleared up and it was almost spring-like outside.  We parked at the Nature Center and walked part of the Tulip Valley Trail.  We had only meant to hike the lower part of the trail which is an easy mile loop by the visitor’s center.  This part of the trail is gravel and flat but I’m not sure you could take a stroller through it.  The trail actually walks you through the farmstead so that was fun to look at even if all the buildings were closed for the winter.  We saw a few deer while walking through the farmstead.

About midway through the hike, our oldest daughter decided she needed to use the restroom.  The only bathrooms open off-season are in the campgrounds.  We decided to take the trail the rest of the way up to the campgrounds.  The trail is only about a half mile from the gravel part to the campgrounds.  However this is a fairly steep climb up the ridge to the campground on a narrow dirt path (or in our case mud).

Restroom/shower house was clean.  We allowed the girls to play on the well maintained playground in the camping area.  Then we hiked back down the ridge to the nature center and our car.  The roughly two-mile hike took us about an hour and a half including a bathroom break and playground time.

Overall: We only hiked a small part of this park.  We plan on coming back during season to check out the farmstead and hike a few of the more rugged trails when we are better prepared.

Miss A hiking


Miss L and myself hiking

Cincinnati Zoo

Location: 3400 Vine St
Cincinnati, OH  45220
Price: Basic Ticket: $19/adult, $13/kid – tickets are offered at a discount if you buy ahead of time.  Also there are other add-ons you can get with the base ticket such as unlimited train and carousel rides.
Parking is $10
Smashed Penny Machine: Several throughout the park

Our main destination for this trip was the Cincinnati Zoo.  My daughter and I had watched all the videos of Fiona the baby hippo on YouTube and wanted to go see her ourselves (even though I explained to my 7-year-old multiples times 1-year-old hippos aren’t little anymore).

Thanks to a huge array of solar panels in the parking lot, the zoo actually has semi covered parking.  The covered parking was nice because it was still raining when we arrived at the zoo.  We paid for our admission and parking (when you use your other zoo reciprocity discount you cannot purchase online beforehand).   We opted for the Adventure Ticket which includes zoo admission, unlimited rides on the train and carousel and a 4D movie.  This ticket is normally $28/adult and $22/kid (we received 50% off with our local zoo membership).  A single ride on the train is going to run $4/person, a single ride on the carousel is $3/person, and the 4D movie is $5/person.  If you plan on doing all of these things then the Adventure Ticket saves you money.  They offer an in between option that gives just unlimited rides on the train/carousel.  Make sure you pick the ticket that’s going to maximize your money.

Because of the rain and the fact we arrived at open, the zoo was empty for most of the morning.  Normally we didn’t see more than 1 or 2 other families in any given area.  Because it was Spring Break for local schools as well there were several groups of Spring Break Campers in the zoo but the zoo was certainly not busy.  Our daughters rode the carousel by themselves.  Thanks to the cool weather lots of animals were very active.

If you opt to do the Adventure Ticket you have to pre-select your 4D movie.  We opted to watch Storks at 10:30.  We were a little off on timing as we reached the area of the theater 30 minutes before show time.  We wandered over to watch the manatees swim and kill a little time.  Not a big deal just meant some back tracking with walking.  I would suggest that if you are planning on coming when the weather is going to be hot, I would plan to do the movie during the early afternoon to give you a chance to just sit in some A/C.  The 4D movie was just a typical 4D experience as a condensed version of the full length film.  If you have never done a 4D experience, it is basically a 3D movie but they add extra effects such as fans blowing during a windy scene or a mist of water that lightly sprays you during a water scene.  I had not seen the film so it was entertaining.  My older daughter had seen the movie but still really enjoyed the experience.  The baby sat mostly still for the movie (it’s only 15 minutes) but wouldn’t wear the 3D glasses.  I’m not sure I’d necessarily recommend the 4D experience but it was kind of a neat splurge.

When we exited the movie the rain had stopped and crowds had started to increase.  We decided to work our way towards the only indoor seating food stop Base Camp Café.  Food options were mostly sandwiches, salads, fries and basic deli style servings.  The kid’s meal portions were large enough for two young children to share.  We also just bought the souvenir cup and just split the drink.  We would later spend $1 to get a refill (maximize your cash and ask for lite or no ice).  Food costs are on par with every other zoo I’ve been to.  Staff was friendly.  Food was ready quickly and there was ample indoor seating. In nicer weather there is a LARGE outdoor patio that overlooks the African exhibit.

After lunch we rode the train which makes a short loop around the pond in the center or the zoo.  It did some nice views of several exhibits including the flamingos and wolves.  The tracks went right next to the pond which delighted the baby as her favorite animal is ducks (or literally any bird).  Afterwards we finished touring the zoo with the African section and large cats.  They have giraffe feedings for $3 per person.  This got our oldest the chance to feed 3 pieces of lettuce to her favorite animal and makes for a neat photo opp.  Sadly because of the cool weather the hippos were not on exhibit (guess we’ll have to go back another day).

Also there were many members of staff out at the various buildings and gift shops with animal encounters.  Our girls got to pet several lizards and snakes.  I’m not sure if they normally have so many animal encounters or if the zoo anticipated large crowds with Spring Break.  Either way it was fun to learn a little about these creatures.

Around 1:30 we had seen most of the zoo and we stopped for souvenirs and a final restroom break by the front gate.  My daughter collects smashed pennies.  There were several machines scattered throughout the zoo and each has its own designs.

Overall:  I thought this was a very nice zoo.  The zoo was not perfectly flat so be prepared for some uphill walking at times but nothing too hard.  The zoo was clean.  The animals seemed well cared for.  Staff was friendly.  I would come back for a second visit.

Trammel Fossil Park

Location: 12026 Tramway Park Drive
Blue Ash, OH  45241

Price: Free

After lunch the rain had slowed to a drizzle so we decided to continue with our original plan to go dig up fossils at Trammel Fossil Park.  It is a park in the sense that it is public land and it’s outside.  However, there are no amenities available in the off-season (from what I understand there are portable toilets during the summer).  The park consists of a hillside of loose rock and a small picnic area that has some information boards about what type of fossils you are looking at and how they came to be there.  There is no shade so if you are there when it’s hot out bring sunscreen and lots of water.  If you are crazy and go there after nearly two weeks of solid rain like we did bring an extra pair of shoes (we did not have that, learn from my mistake).

Mud does not bother 7-year-olds so my oldest plunged right up the hill.  I had packed a small sand pail and a garden trowel so we could dig for fossils.  You don’t need any tools.  There are millions of fossils just still on the hill-side.  What you are mostly hunting for are Bryozoans (little creatures that had skeletons that resembled twigs) or Brachiopods (kinda like a clam so they look like seashells).  We found lots of the twig like fossils.  We weren’t lucky enough to find an actual shell but we found lots of rocks where the animal had imprinted into the rocks.  Having the bucket was nice so my daughter could carry her findings as she scrambled around the hillside.  I limited her to bringing home the best 5-7 fossils that she found.

By the time she and I were done (probably 45 minutes or an hour), we were a muddy mess and I did my best to clean shoes and pants legs with baby wipes.  Now Dad and Baby Girl had a much rougher time at this stop.  The hillside where you find fossils is fairly steep and the rocks are all pretty loose.  This is not a great stop for young kids or toddlers.  Lucky because of the rain we were the only people at the park so baby was able to just run around the picnic area and the two of them took a walk through the parking lot.

The park is also just in the middle of a bunch of industrial sites and warehouses.  I thought it would be difficult to locate the park but GPS had no problem and once you are in the industrial area there was a giant sign.

Overall: My grade school age had a blast.  I do think this is a place you should only go if the weather is nice.  I would not recommend this stop for anyone with very young kids.

Miss A digging up fossils

The Root Beer Stand

Location: 11566 Reading Rd
Sharonville, OH  45241
Price: Cheap Eats

Our next stop was for a late lunch.  I had read about a local favorite called The Root Beer Stand in the northern suburbs (Sharonville area).  By the time we drove there it was about 2:00 so I thought that would be a great time to go as it wouldn’t be busy.  I was wrong.  I don’t think this place is ever not busy.  This is a very small building.  Indoor seating includes maybe 20 bar stools.  I would suggest stopping here on a day that is warm and sunny.  There was ample outdoor seating behind the building including a covered shelter house.  They also had a playground.  We were there on a cool and raining March day so outside was not an option.  We did luck into finding 3 stools that another family was just vacating.  The food is very basic: hotdogs, burgers, BBQ sandwiches, chips, ice cream.  However they are known for their homemade root beer.

We ordered a BBQ pork sandwich, cheese burger, two hot dogs and a half-gallon of root beer to split.  The root beer came with frosted mugs (they had tiny shot glass sized mugs for kids but my daughter wanted a grown up mug).  Food came very quickly.  Staff was very friendly and even had the cook cut up the toddler’s hot dog for us.  Food was fine.  The sandwiches weren’t anything exciting but for the money it was a fair deal.  Root beer was good as well.

After sandwiches we ordered two ice creams to share.  At this point my older daughter also moved on to my lap because there was a couple trying to find seats together and not having much luck.  So at this point we are a family of four sitting on two stools.

Overall: It’s a fine place to eat with kids.  I think the locals probably love it more for nostalgia.  If it is a nice day I’d say go for the local vibe.  If it’s rainy or hot, I think this is a skip.

Miss A and myself enjoying our root beer

William Howard Taft National Historic Site

Location: 2038 Auburn Ave
Cincinnati, OH  45219
Price: Free

We got up a little later than normal and got on the road after breakfast.  We arrived in Cincinnati around 11:30 local time (thanks to a fun break down of time zones, the far western counties in Indiana are in CST).  Unfortunately for us, this has been a VERY wet March for the entire Midwest and that weather pattern continued for much of the trip.

Our first stop was the William Howard Taft National Historic Site.  I will admit that I knew almost nothing about President Taft but we put this on the list figuring it would be a quick stop to add to a growing Jr Ranger badge collection.  There is a little bit of parking directly in small lot in front of the Visitor’s Center.  If the site was having a very busy day, there is plenty of street parking on nearby side streets.

The entire complex includes a small visitor’s center which had a small museum dedicated to President Taft and the rest of the Taft family and a short video (about 15 minutes) that gives background to President Taft’s life.  With a one year old in tow, we did not watch the movie.  We stopped in to the ranger’s desk to collect the Jr Ranger booklet and the volunteer told us he would be leading the next tour over to the house in about 10 minutes.  So we used that time to look around the museum.

The short tour of the house including a volunteer or ranger giving a tour of three of the main rooms in the house including the parlor, office/library, and the nursery.  All three rooms are set up with period style furniture and some Taft family heirlooms.  This was President Taft’s childhood home so the tour is aimed at explaining how his upbringing helped mold him into the President.  After touring the rooms, visitors are free to explore the upper and lower stories of the house.  Upstairs would have originally been the children’s bedrooms but have been converted into displays about various aspects of President Taft’s career.  The basement would have housed the family’s kitchen and dining room but has been converted into conference rooms.  The tour was very informative and my budding history buff had a lot of questions for the tour guide.  Then we wandered through the exhibits to finish filling the Jr Ranger booklet.  Unfortunately due to the rain we couldn’t walk through the gardens outside but other than that this is a GREAT rainy day activity.

The Visitor’s Center also has a small gift shop where my daughter purchased an old fashion toy like the children would have played with when Taft was a child.  She also turned in her Jr Ranger booklet to receive her badge and certificate (this one was a very nice one printed on card stock, most of them are just the last page of the booklet).  Total time spent along with the tour was a little over an hour.  You could spend more time if you read each of the displays in detail but we were starting to get hungry so we rushed through a few.

Overall: We all enjoyed the Taft house.  If you aren’t big into history this is not a good fit for you, but I honestly learned a good deal about a lesser known President.  Oldest daughter learned some stuff and baby enjoyed being able to show off  her skills of climbing stairs and making mad dashes out of rooms with her father chasing her.

Miss A learning about President Taft
Miss L loving the multiple sets of stairs in the home.

Cincinnati – March 2018

This year our daughter’s Spring Break was the week before Easter so we already had a long weekend for Good Friday.  We decided on a mini trip of just Thursday and Friday.   It gave us the best of both worlds: something fun for my daughter to look forward to on Spring Break, we only used one day of vacation and we were back home in time for Easter festivities with family.

We live at the point of Indiana (you know where it meets Kentucky and Illinois) and we wanted to pick a destination that wouldn’t mean driving all night to get there.  We settled on Cincinnati, OH since it is only about a 3.5 hour drive from home meaning we would only need to spend one night in a hotel.  Plus I hadn’t been to Cincinnati since I was a child.

There is a fair amount of things to do in the general Cincinnati area include Kings Island theme park, the Newport Aquarium, the Cincinnati museums, and several professional sports teams.  It really wouldn’t be hard to make this a location for a longer stay.

Travel group: Myself (34), my husband (32), and our two daughters (7, 1)

Time of trip: Spring Break, Late March

Day 1 Travel from Evansville to Cincinnati
William Howard Taft National Historic Site
The Root Beer Stand
Trammel Fossil Park
Hotel in Sharonville area

Day 2 Cincinnati zoo
O’Bannon State Park
Travel back Home

Lambert’s Cafe

Location: 2305 E Malone; Sikeston, MO  63801
Price: $-$$
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes, in the gift shop

I’m not a big fan of restaurant reviews.  I really feel each people’s tastes are so different that reviews are pretty pointless.  Just because I loved the food means very little to just about anyone else in the world.  However I don’t consider Lambert’s to be a restaurant.  This place is an experience.

I’ve been to Lambert’s many times over the years.  It’s just far enough away from my hometown to make it a once in a long while treat but close enough you can just make a day trip out of it.  I know from experience that on weekends this place can get very crowded and waits can be long.   We arrived about 4:30 on a Monday evening.  We didn’t have a wait for a table but the restaurant was pretty full.

Throughout your meal, servers will be walking around with “pass arounds” which include things like fried okra, black-eyed peas and fried potatoes amongst others.  The real draw of Lambert’s is their fresh rolls which are also included with every meal.  The server will literally throw a roll at you from across the room so be prepared to catch.  The rolls are roughly the size of a soft ball so they are fairly easy to catch.  If catching your dinner isn’t really your style (you probably picked the wrong stop) you can ask and the server will just bring one to your table. My daughter loved catching rolls and asked for another one every time they brought out fresh rolls.

Overall impression: Overall I don’t think the food is overly impressive.  Its good food and you’ll get your money’s worth (large portion sizes, freebies, rolls) but it’s not going to be on the cover of “Fine Dining Monthly” or anything like that.  The real treat is the atmosphere.  We stop in anytime we can reasonably work it into a trip.

Hot Springs National Park

Location: 101 Reserve St; Hot Springs, AR  71901
Price: Free, parking may cost
Smashed Penny Machine: Not that we found

I threw this stop into the trip just so we could get the Jr Ranger Badge.  I didn’t expect too much out of this park and honestly thought it would bore my 6-year-old but she’s obsessed with getting her badges.  I was greatly mistaken.

This park is very unique for a national park because it’s nearly completely urban.  I mean the whole park is basically just in the middle of downtown Hot Springs.   The main allure of Hot Springs both in the past and today is the water.  The water is naturally hot when it arrives to the surface.  There are several natural springs around the general park area where you can see and touch the water.  Touch with care though because the water is very hot.  We could see steam rising from the surface and it was easily 75 degrees outside.

Start your tour of the national park at the Visitor’s Center and Museum inside the historic Fordyce Bathhouse.  If you are doing the Jr Ranger program you’ll be able to pick up your book at the front desk.  They also offer free guided ranger tours of the facility.  We opted to do the self-guided tour so we could backtrack as needed to complete the Jr Ranger book.  Each floor showcased how the bath houses were set up and talked about the various medical benefits that the springs were thought to have.  My daughter loved exploring the bath house with its many twists and turns.  For me it was neat to see what was considered high-class at the turn of the last century.

After completing everything we could in the Museum, we then went on an architectural scavenger hunt down Bathhouse Row.  It was very neat to see the various styles of the buildings.  We stopped in one of the other bath houses that has been converted into a bookstore for the national park so my daughter could shop.  There are tons of stores on the other side of the street where you could probably get cheaper souvenirs but I’m big into spending our money within the park system when possible.  After walking all of Bathhouse Row we returned back to the visitor’s center via the Grand Promenade which was much less busy.  My daughter found a water fountain where you drink the natural spring waters still hot from their source.  My daughter thought it was great.  I didn’t find drinking hot water on a warm day all that amazing (it doesn’t taste any different from drinking hot water from your faucet).

My daughter turned in her booklet and received her badge and historic trading cards.  At this point it was time for us to be on our way.  I had planned on spending about 45 minutes here and we ended up spending a very relaxing and informative two hours exploring the park.  There is more that we did not do.  Several of the bath houses are still operational spas.  So for a fee you could experience a real hot springs bath for yourself (that one is on my bucket list for a trip without kids).  The park also has some trails that go up the mountain.  Also there are many other locale attractions that Hot Springs has to offer.  You could make an easy long weekend out of a stay in the area.

We brought in the umbrella stroller because we thought “hey it’s a city we can totally use this.”  I would not suggest bringing your stroller into the Visitor’s Center.  The bathhouse is 4 stories tall.  There is an elevator in the building but it was an ancient thing and I never felt like waiting for it.  So I carried a folded up stroller and my husband carried a baby throughout the museum.  Although the museum is fully accessible, it’s going to be much easier without it.  However when we walked Bathhouse Row and the Grand Promenade the stroller was very helpful.  If we were to go again, I would probably leave the stroller in the car but park close enough to go back and get it.

Overall impression: I enjoyed this park much more than I thought I would.  I was astounded how much my daughter enjoyed learning about this time period.  I would suggest stopping if you are passing through the area.

Mr H, Miss A and Miss L enjoying the front patio
Miss A trying out a bath in the bookstore
Miss A getting her Jr Ranger badge

Texas Renaissance Festival

Location: 21778 FM 1774, Todd Mission, TX  77363
Price: $30/adult, $15/kid as of 2018 season
Smashed Penny Machine: Yes it’s in the gift shop by main entrance near guest services

Texas Renaissance Festival takes place every Fall for several weekends in September and October.  Each weekend has a unique theme.  I’d suggest checking out their website as the themes tend to rotate and change each year (

A couple things to note about Ren Fest before you go:

  1. Price – This is not going to be a budget stop. You have to buy entrance tickets and then nearly everything inside costs extra.  The various shows are free but the performers make their money off of tips and selling their DVD’s/CD’s, so expect someone to be collecting money as you exit the show.  All food, drinks, games, and rides cost extra.
  2. Mature Audiences – Some shows are for mature audiences only. If you are there with your kids and the performers announce that it is not a kid friendly show; they really mean that.  Most of the mature shows would be rated R or NC-17 for language and subject content if it was a movie.
  3. Costumes – LOTS and LOTS of people show up in costume. I only mention this because some costumes can be a little revealing.
  4. Download the App – Ren Fest grounds are very big (over 15 acres). Having a map handy is a must, unless you like walking in circle’s all day.  The App also will give you show times and a brief description of the show.
  5. You can bring in strollers or wagons (rentals available as well) but the paths are not paved. We were able to push our umbrella style stroller through the property without any problems but if there has been rain it could get difficult.
  6. Get there early – Crowds can be very large. I recommend coming early to beat the worst of the crowds.  Lines, especially for parking, can get very long.  Coming early will also help beat the heat.  If you aren’t from Texas, please understand that September and October are basically still Summer months.  Expect afternoon temperatures in the 80’s and 90’s.
  7. Avoid the people asking you to fill out the form as you enter to win a free “whatever.” Unless you like junk mail and SPAM then by all means fill it out.
  8. Arrive at shows early – Several of the stages are outside without much cover. If you want a shady spot (especially for jousting) arrive early.

There are a few ways to save a little cash

  1. Come on a Sunday. As of the 2018 season kids are free with an adult ticket on Sundays.  Sundays are also less crowded.
  2. Bring a water bottle. Each member of your group is allowed to bring in one unopened bottle of water.  Once you drink this water, refill your water bottles at one of the many water fountains (normally found near the restrooms).
  3. Price shop – Many of the stores sell similar styles of items. You might be able to find a better deal at another vendor.
  4. Window Shop – Just enjoy browsing the unique offerings.
  5. Share food – There are many different styles of food (Italian, German, Polish, Greek, etc). To save money and allow us to try different things, we shared whatever items we bought.

We drove up to Ren Fest from the far west Houston suburbs.  It was about an hour and a half drive across a lot of Texas cattle lands.  Once you get closer to Todd Mission follow the signs about Ren Fest parking.  Don’t listen to your GPS at this point.  Follow the signs and directions of the local law enforcement directing traffic.  We arrived to the grounds about 9:30 in the morning.  After parking we changed my older daughter into her fairy costume because it was Enchanted Forest weekend and she had randomly picked being a fairy for Halloween that year (always awesome when you can get multiple uses out of costume).

After we were in the park, we stopped by a face painting booth to complete her fairy look.  She choose a full face paint design which cost us $12 but it looked very nice and it lasted the whole day with minimal smudging even though it was HOT.  We browsed several shops and bought a few souvenirs including a hand carved wizard’s wand and some hand knitted finger puppets.

We caught several shows including a whip show (Adam Crack) which was very neat but a little loud for baby (she and I left our seats and stood in the very back to watch it).  We also caught the mid-day joust, which wasn’t a full joust it was games of skill.  It was still very impressive to see the knights and their horses.   Each section of the arena is assigned to cheer for a different knight.  We really got into learning our cheer and jeering the other fans.  My daughter bought a pendant from one of the vendors.  After the show the knights met at the stables just a few yards from the arena and they all signed her pendant for her.  The knights had a few sharpies but if you want to do this I would suggest bringing your own sharpie to help save time.  We also paid a dollar for a carrot to feed the horses and we got to pet the “unicorn.”  We also stumbled upon a Punch and Judy puppet skit in the Sherwood Forest.  I think this was my daughter’s favorite show.  The performer did a great job interacting with the kids through the puppets and lots of slapstick humor.  The biggest drawback for this show was there was no seating.

I did limit my daughter to only one ride or game.  Each ride/game were between $3-$10 dollars.  She chose the spinning dragon eggs which I rode with her.  It’s almost exactly like a spinning teacup ride only the ride operators actually manually spin your egg.  They did manage to spin it with plenty of force that the ride was enjoyable.  The ride lasted probably 5 minutes or so.  While we were riding the Grand Marche Parade started by, so after we were able to regain our equilibrium we waved at the performers and shop keepers as they came by.  My daughter was awestruck when the queen complimented her on her fairy costume and the royal court walked by.

Around two in the afternoon, we had enough of the heat and decided to call it quits a little early so we could make it to our hotel in Texarkana early enough to swim.

Overall impression: I enjoy Ren Fest.  I love looking at all the various costumes people dress up in and I love the overall hustle and bustle atmosphere.  It is a very popular but the only area that felt crowded was around the main entrance.  All the vendors, performers and staff were very friendly and excited to answer questions about their craft.  Although it is not a cheap stop I would splurge and take my family again.

Miss A with a unicorn
Miss A and the dragon egg ride
Miss A watching Punch and Judy