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Donkeys at the Oil Ranch
Donkeys at the Oil Ranch
Photo by Jef Rouner

5 Tips for Houston Family Farm Trips

For reasons I’m not sure that I could explain, I spend a lot of time taking my kid to various Houston farm parks. What’s a farm park? They’re farms with rides and bouncy castles and stuff like that. We have a lot of them up on the north side. Old MacDonald’s Farm, the Oil Ranch, Old Time Christmas Tree Farm, etc. Basically any time you get four miles outside Beltway 8 you’re going to find one of these.

They’re generally fun places to spend an afternoon, especially if you want to let kids run around and burn off some energy. However, I’ve developed a lot of rules about them to make them as least annoying as possible. Before you head out to one, plan ahead with these tips.

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5. Do Not Assume Anything About Money

Most of these sorts of places have websites that will explain how you can pay for various activities, but it can still run the gamut of options despite planning ahead. Even within the same park options go from using Square to cash only. It’s a good idea to have bills – including coins for vending machines – and maybe even a check or two tucked in your wallet. Don’t count on an ATM on site either. Withdraw from your bank on the way. Speaking of money…

4. Do Not Assume This Will Be Cheap

This was a mistake I made time and time again before I learned. After all, it’s just one step up above a public park, right? Maybe, maybe not. If I’ve absorbed anything from nine years of kid outings all over Houston is that there is no standard pricing for ticket-based diversions. A roll of ten tickets can cost you $10 one place and $25 in another, and to be fair you have to multiply all of those equally among the children in your party. Admission can include activities or it might not. Even if it does, I’ve never been to any place with kids in tow where they didn’t insist on eating there no matter how big a meal you have right before you go. A lot of farms have gone the fair food route, and they charge fair food prices.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s cheaper than a trip to the Downtown Aquarium, but I’ve never gotten out of one of these for less than $50 for a family of three.

3. Prepare for Allergies

Part of the reason that these places have appeal is because a lot of us are indoorsy. Getting close to a cow sounds like an Experience when your animal interactions are limited to cats, dogs and the occasional fat squirrel who just can’t even bother to move off the sidewalk. Exposure to unusual (for you) flora and fauna is a good way to set allergies in motion. I don’t go to any of these places without popping a Zyrtec-D beforehand to avoid spending the afternoon sneezing into the crook of my arm. Don’t feel bad about to wearing a dust mask, either. It doesn’t spoil the hay ride.

2. These Places Can Get Super Crowded

On weekends with nice weather, especially in the fall, farms can be as packed as the zoo, but minus the huge amount of parking. Leisurely strolls through pastoral countrysides can turn into a jostling nightmare when the amount of humans begins to increase. Unfortunately like most family day trips, your best bet is to un-ass that bed as early as possible and be there when the gates open. This goes double if the place is running an Easter or Pumpkin Patch event.

Oh, pro-tip for non-Christians: ALWAYS try and be there during church hours on Sundays. You’d be surprised the sort of lulls in attendance you can take advantage of at 10 a.m. while the blessed are hearing their weekly book report.

1. Manage Your Expectations

This is a general tip for facilitating family outings, but it’s worth repeating. Have realistic expectations for what’s going to happen based on your lived-in knowledge of how your kids react to things. All kids have time limits on how well they can act before over-stimulation and tiredness turn them into little Tasmanian Devils. Plan accordingly, with plenty of wiggle room for quiet moments off the beaten path to rest and recharge.

Also, don’t get too hung up on capturing the perfect picture, which is something social media has gotten us all to do. If your child doesn’t want to sit on the hay bale that’s been turned into a spider with pipes for legs, then don’t make him or her. Your Instagram followers will forgive you. One of the things that can quickly turn an outing into a chore is trying to check of a list of “perfect: moments that get in the way of actually having fun.

Plan ahead, but be flexible. Work within the reality of your family unit’s patience and temperament and you’ll have a way better time.

Oh, and parents? Don’t be too proud to tell your kids, “well, I want to go into the petting zoo and say hi to the goat, and if you don’t want to then you can sit and watch me through the fence.” Sometimes kids are just jerks and the best way to power cycle their attitude is to (safely) move on without them so that they aren’t the center of everyone’s attention for five seconds. Oh, and you get to pet a goat, so win-win.

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