5 tips for planning a bat-centric Austin staycation

Recently I had a revelation. Despite growing up in Austin and spending most of my life here, I had never seen the famous Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge bats. With bat season now in full swing (it’s March-October), I decided the time had come to correct that.

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People line the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge in anticipation of the bats. Kristin Finan/American-Statesman

So my husband and I planned a bat-centric staycation for ourselves and our three children, ages 9, 6 and 5. It was a quick, one-night getaway, but it provided the perfect opportunity to relax, re-center and yes, finally spy some of Austin’s 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats.

RELATED: The story behind the new bat mural under Congress Avenue Bridge

Here are some tips for planning a bat-centric Austin staycation.

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The Hyatt Regency Austin affords beautiful views of the downtown skyline. Kristin Finan/American-Statesman
  1. Stay at a hotel along Lady Bird Lake. We booked a night at the Hyatt Regency Austin and started with dinner at the on-site Marker 10, which had a perfect balance of kid-friendly (think macaroni) and parent-friendly (think delicious sushi) options to please the whole family.
  2. Book a bat-watching cruise. The bats are spectacular no matter how you see them, but we loved our bat-watching tour through Capital Cruises, which departs next to the Hyatt Regency Austin. Our knowledgeable tour guide offered lots of fun facts as the bats peppered the sky above us.
  3. Snap a selfie by the Night Wing Bat Sculpture. It’s located at 300 S. Congress Ave., right in front of the new YETI flagship store. Afterwards, grab a drink at YETI’s on-site Barrr, which offers beer, wine and snacks. The Hyatt Regency Austin is even partnering with YETI to offer a YETI Experience Package that includes a visit to the YETI Flagship store and BARRR, as well as official YETI products.
  4. Sip a bat-themed beverage. If you prefer your beverage with a batty twist, head across the lake to the Four Seasons Austin, which serves up a Batini cocktail made with Ketel One vodka, house-made blackberry syrup, grapefruit, sparkling wine and mint. Extra points if you sip it while relaxing outside on the beautiful lawn.
  1. Time your Bat-cation with Bat Fest. Bat Fest 2018 will be held Aug. 18. Really, really love the bats? Plan your bat-themed staycation to coincide with it.

Berry picking, other spring fun worth a day trip from Austin

The breezes are cool, the sky is blue and fruit is fresh. If you’ve been looking for an excuse to appreciate Texas’ beloved springtime activities (berry picking, anyone?), now’s the time. Here are four places where you can get a true dose of spring fun just down the road from Austin.

Sweet Berry Farm, Marble Falls

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Adrianna Forister marks boxes of strawberries as paid at Sweet Berry Farm outside of Marble Falls in this file photo. Deborah Cannon/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

There’s no better way to welcome spring than by picking fresh berries, and there’s no better place to do that than at Sweet Berry Farm, where you can pluck your own fresh strawberries through the end of May for $2.89 per pound. The farm, which is open daily except Wednesdays and located near Marble Falls, also offers a variety of fun activities such as sand art, barrel train rides and a bounce pillow. You’ll also discover sweet treats including fresh strawberry lemonade and homemade strawberry smoothies. Blackberries may also be available starting in mid-May.

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You can pick a fresh flower bouquet at Barton Hill Farms’ new Backyard Bash. credit: Barton Hill Farms

Barton Hills Farm

Barton Hill Farms has already made a name for itself as a great place to go for fall family fun, but now they’re dabbling in spring, too, with the new Barton Hill Backyard Bash. Held Saturdays and Sundays May 5-27, expect 30 activities including face painting, backyard games, live music and fresh food and beverages including beer and wine. You can’t pick any fruit here, but you can pick a fresh flower bouquet. Barton Hill Farms is located on the banks of the Colorado River 30 minutes from downtown Austin.

 

 

Sweet Eats Fruit Farm

Located just east of Georgetown, Sweet Eats offers a variety of fruit ripe for the picking, including cherries, pears, nectarines and peaches (check website for picking dates). The farm also has lots of fun for the family, such as pony rides, a petting zoo, an obstacle course, a jump pad, live music and more.

Marburger Orchard

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The Marburger Orchard has been serving businesses, pickers, and product for decades. AMERICAN-STATESMAN file photo

A trip to Fredericksburg is always a good idea, especially when you can pick your own fresh fruit along the way. At Marburger Orchard, which is open daily, strawberries are currently on offer, with blackberries and famous Texas peaches on their way soon, too. For more information about pick-your-own season in Fredericksburg, visit visitfredericksburgtx.com/attractions-activities/pick-your-own-orchards-seasonal.

Start planning for summer! 5 water parks to consider across Texas

Are you ready for summer? Temperatures are already starting to creep up, which means it won’t be long before we’re hitting those triple digits. Never fear! There are plenty of water parks across the state that are well equipped to keep you cool and calm. Here are five you might want to put on your summer to-do list.

Epic Waters, Grand Prairie

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Epic Waters is one of the newest water parks in Texas. credit: Epic Waters

This Dallas-area water park opened in January, making it one of the newest, and most innovative, on the scene. There are no bad-weather days at this 80,000-square-foot facility thanks to a retractable roof that keeps the fun flowing all year round. Expect 11 slides on the water park’s slide tower, an outdoor wave pool, FlowRider boogie-boarding, the longest indoor lazy river in Texas and more. Want to make it a water park weekend? Stay at the nearby Great Wolf Lodge, which also houses an indoor water park as well as family friendly accommodations.

Big Rivers, New Caney

Located on the outskirts of Houston, this new water park is scheduled to open for its inaugural season on June 29. Expect a giant wave pool, a sprawling lazy river and the Gator Splash, which incorporates more than 300 water play elements. Also on property is Gator Bayou Adventure Park, where a nature center (with gators!), a petting zoo, pony rides, ropes courses and zip lines await.

Schlitterbahn, New Braunfels

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Grab a gator and float the Kristal River at Schlitterban in New Braunfels. credit: Schlitterbahn Waterpark Resort

For water park fun, it’s hard to beat Schlitterbahn New Braunfels, which is already open on weekends and will be open daily starting May 11. Known as “the hottest coolest time in Texas,” this local institution opened in 1979 and quickly became a must-see destination for people across the country.  Go for the day or, for added fun, book a night or two at one of the on-site lodging options — you’ll get access to the park before it opens to the public and after it closes for the night. Special events this summer include American Heroes Week (May 28-June 1), National Women Learn to Surf Week (June 11-15) and the World’s Largest Swimming Lesson (June 21). Heading to South Padre Island, Corpus Christi or Galveston this summer? You can find Schlitterbahn locations there, too.

 

Typhoon Texas, Pflugerville

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The “Gully Washer” at Typhoon Texas in Katy is one of several family-friendly attractions expected at the renovated Pflugerville water park. Courtesy photo

Seeking the thrills of a big water park but only have a few hours to spare? Head to Typhoon Texas, which is located just 40 minutes from Austin in Pflugerville and opens for the 2018 season Memorial Day weekend in the spot that was previously Hawaiian Falls. Don’t miss the Gully Washer children’s playland, which includes seven slides, 100 spray areas and an 800-gallon water bucket that douses the entire space. There is another Typhoon Texas located in Katy near Houston.

SeaWorld Aquatica, San Antonio

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Cool off at SeaWorld Aquatica.

You want to go to SeaWorld, but in the summer it gets HOT. Never fear! Aquatica is here. This water park located on SeaWorld San Antonio property is filled with refreshing family fun, including 450-foot-long body slides, a 48-foot-tall tube ride and Stingray Falls, which takes visitors on a four-seated raft into an underwater grotto where stingrays and tropical fish are waiting to greet you. Go early to avoid the crowds.

 

Meet the man behind TSA’s surprisingly hilarious Instagram account

Need a good laugh? Look no further than the Transportation Security Administration.

Yes, that TSA.

Almost since its inception in 2013, the @TSA Instagram handle has been winning the internet thanks to its bizarre, shocking and surprisingly funny posts on life at the airport.

“People don’t expect to come to a TSA Instagram account and see corny puns,” said Bob Burns, who runs the TSA’s Instagram account and blog. “I think the reason for the success is not only the humor but also the shock value of coming to a government-run blog and seeing the stuff we’re finding and the approach we’re taking to communicate about it. Yeah, you’re being funny, but it’s actually funnier because it’s coming from a government agency.”

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Bob Burns, TSA’s social media specialist, seen standing at Reagan National Airport. credit: Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary

Here are some recent examples of @TSA posts:

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For Burns, an Army veteran who spent seven years playing in a band before deciding it was time to settle down, it’s been a similarly weird, and hilarious, journey to unexpected stardom.

In 2002, Burns took a job as a TSA screener at Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport and soon worked his way into a communications position at the TSA’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. He started the agency’s now famous Instagram account in 2013 and has since amassed 864,000 followers with posts that average more than 10,000 likes.

The account has been spotlighted by everyone from late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, who joked that TSA uses “more hashtags than a 13-year-old girl,” to Rolling Stone Magazine, which named it No. 4 on its list of 100 Best Instagram Accounts, edging out even Beyonce.

Earlier this week, we asked the 47-year-old father of two (yes, for the record, he’s an expert at “dad jokes,” too) about his social media strategy, the weirdest items he’s seen and what else his future may hold.

What was your goal when you launched the TSA blog in 2008?

(My administrator) wanted us to appear as human as possible. He didn’t event want the agency seal to be on the blog. He set the tone in the beginning, be yourself and be human. We’ve used that formula since then. We’re not in the entertainment business, but we do entertain to get people to come back and read our material. If you’re just posting about aviation security it can be pretty dry. We’re making people laugh and learn and come back for more.

What posts seem to be the most popular?

People tend to comment the most about the crazy prohibited items, but as far as likes it’s usually the TSA canines. Dogs and cats rule the internet.

RELATED: TSA Instagram post: Cool it, Aragorn, you don’t need your blade on the plane

You recently posted a moving letter from the mother of an autistic boy detailing how a TSA agent helped him through a recent trip. The post also highlighted the TSA Cares program, which was created to help travelers with special needs. How did that post do?

On Instagram we try to entertain, post quirky items, make people laugh. We posted that with no humor at all and it’s up to almost 20,000 likes. (Note: As of press time it was up to 32,000 likes.) We’re building all those followers with humor, then you’ve got them there when you have a serious message.

Do you have a history of humorous writing?

At Christmas I’d write the annual Christmas letter for my family. It was filled with lies about the great things my family had done. Throughout the years people had told me how funny they were…

What do your wife and daughters (13 and 9) think of your celebrity status?

I’m not sure they really understand it. … This time last year CBS News came to my house to interview me and asked my 9-year-old, “Do you think your dad’s funny?” She said no.

What’s the weirdest item you’ve ever posted?

A gentleman came through with a movie prop, a dummy from “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” and presented it for screening. It was just the right size that it could be placed on the X-ray belt. To date, it’s the weirdest thing I’ve seen.

What’s the most dangerous thing you’ve seen?

I remember several live grenades. And once there was a gentleman who had two 1-pound cans of black powder and detonation cord. He had no malicious intent. He said, “Well, my father died and I was cleaning out his garage and use these to blow up tree stumps.” You’ve got some people worrying about if they can bring toothpaste and nail clippers and you’ve got this guy packing 2 pounds of black power and detonation cord.

You’re nominated for a Webby Award in the “weird” category. Is that a compliment?

People ask, “Are you glad you’re in that?” Yeah, because it is weird. People don’t expect that these kinds of things are being brought through TSA checkpoints. On average we find 70 to 80 firearms in carry-on bags a week. We’re changing the conversation from, “Did you see the line at TSA?” to, “Now I know why the line was so long.'”

Any #tsagoals you’d like to mention?

I think TSA needs a coffee table book.