Trains Over Texas: Takeaways from a mom of 2 on a visit to the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s annual holiday season event

Insiders: Here’s your “Honest Mom’s Guide to Houston”

Trains Over Texas was a hit in November 2022. (Amanda Cochran, Copyright 2022 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

HOUSTON – I’m not going to lie to you because I know how that feels.

I know what it’s like to trek a crazy distance with two toddlers in tow to an event or gathering or fall spectacular that was so not worth my money, time or effort. I’m not naming names about those -- yet.

In this first edition (and hopefully not my last depending on how this goes) of “An Honest Mom’s Guide to Houston,” I want to tell you about something really good I discovered this year in Houston. The Houston Museum of Natural Science is a serious deal for families. Especially families -- like mine -- who can take advantage of its two locations in Houston and Sugar Land. After some waffling this past spring, I went for the Family Plus membership for my family. As my excellent colleague Briana Zamora noted in this story about memberships that are worth it, the Houston Museum of Natural Science is a particularly good bet:

“Membership benefits and discounts vary by membership level. Perks all members enjoy include 12 months of unlimited admission to permanent exhibit halls at HMNS Hermann Park and HMNS Sugar Land, including the Morian Hall of Paleontology, the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals and the Wiess Energy Hall, discounted admission to all special ticketed exhibitions, like the Cockrell Butterfly Center, the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre and the Burke Baker Planetarium, reduced rates for George Observatory stargazing, and discounts at the museum shops.”

If I could tell every grandparent, aunt or uncle or family friend, I would: Get the kids on your list a membership this holiday season -- not the toy that they’ll lose or break within a week after the holidays. The membership -- or another membership to one of these attractions -- is an enduring gift that lasts all year and sparks the imagination every time you visit.

Anyway, my husband and I and our two children, ages 2 and 4, went to the museum on Sunday. No line in the morning. No parking fee either with limited public parking near the museum. Yesss! $0 with our membership card.

Since getting our membership, both the Houston and Sugar Land museums are like a second home to my kids. They know there are dinosaur bones there. They know there is an enormous mural showing the squid and the whale and ask to see it now (at the BIG museum, as the Houston one is known in my family). I know the museums will probably have a shelf life (or maybe not?) but it’s been great and a great value. We’ve gone to both museums a combined seven or eight times. Rainy days and weird Mondays off don’t get us down, we go to the museum!

(Just a little aside here, but after moving to Houston from New York, I worried my kids someday wouldn’t get the culture they would have been exposed to in the Big Apple. I was SO WRONG to even think that. Houston is an amazing city and the museum has certainly changed my view -- well, that and a million other things and experiences living for nearly a decade in this wonderful city. Go ‘Stros!)

But onto the trains. The Trains Over Texas exhibits for the holiday season are included with our membership. So no extra fee. Moms like me like this. Like a lot.

The exhibit is set up in two rooms where the Alfred C. Glassell, Jr. Hall normally showcases big fish hanging from the ceiling. They’re still there hanging suspended overhead, but in the center of the rooms is the special event space where some of the trains -- the Houston-area-centric ones -- are set up. More trains showcasing trains across Texas are set up in an adjacent room.

The exhibit in this space reminds me of the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh where I’m from. I absolutely love trains. I love that my kids love trains. I don’t mind hearing Thomas the Tank Engine peeping forlornly every now and again from the kids’ toybox when they forgot to turn him off. It’s a beautiful thing. Trains are great and train set-ups are just magical. The Houston exhibit is not as extensive as some train set-ups are, but it’s lovely in that dim nightlife lighting, and so entertaining for kids.

My little ones were especially fond of the Houston-centric set-up. The display has kid-sized tunnels that allowed them to go under the exhibit and explore without a parent. I’m trying to avoid becoming a helicopter parent, so this is a refreshing thing to see. My kiddos went exploring on their own and even found a Thomas the Tank Engine part of the “secret” train that you have to be almost on the ground to find. Thomas stops every once in a while, but he’s active in his little cave under the Houston exhibit, so don’t miss him if you’re there. 🚂

Children enjoying the "secret" tunnel at Trains Over Texas in November 2022. (Copyright 2022 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)
Trains over Texas (HMNS)
Trains Over Texas (Houston Museum of Natural Science)

The exhibit, in its first weekend this season, was busy, but not overwhelmed by children. I could keep an eye on my kids as they walked beside the trains on their jaunt around the exhibit. That isn’t to say I didn’t have a moment or two of, “Where the heck did my kids go?” but they mostly stayed near the action: the trains. That’s a stellar thing when it takes 20 minutes to get shoes on, y’all. The struggle is real.

The trains -- and especially the setup that shows people and things around Houston and Texas -- are incredibly charming. In the dim room lit by the blue of the fish exhibit, the trains are lit from within with yellow lights that make it look like they’re traveling at night. The displays have trees and people and geographical landmarks -- DQ and the “Be Someone” graffiti -- make it feel like you’re lovingly looking down on your home during a lovely holiday-season evening.

Pro tip: There’s nothing better than a train at night. And books about trains at night are always a big hit. (Here are some of my book suggestions to read if you plan to go to this exhibit and have littles: “Steam Train, Dream Train,” “The Goodnight Train” and “TRAIN.”)

In the adjacent room are the beyond-Houston exhibits. It’s incredibly fun to toddlers -- and heck, to me too (I need to get out more) -- to watch the trains disappear through the tunnels and come out the other side in the Big Bend portion of the display. As the museum notes, “Destinations include oil country salt domes, prairies and wetlands of the Texas coast and state and national monuments such as Enchanted Rock, Pedernales Falls, The Balcones Escarpment and Big Bend National Park. Along the routes to these geologic wonders the trains will also pass through Galveston, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio with other surprises along the route.”

The trains were a huge hit with my kids, and I expect we’ll be back before the season ends to see them again. And guess what, $0 with my membership. If you don’t have a membership, tickets are $25.00 for adults and $16.00 for kids to the permanent exhibits (which include Trains Over Texas).

I know I sound like a walking ad, but that’s what good-value things do to me. When you don’t mess with me, my money and especially my time and effort, I will praise you to high heaven. If you don’t impress me or mess with any of those things, I’m going to say something about it. I’ve written a thing or two about being a toddler mom for Remember manageable Houston family experiences? The museum made that list, too, but as I advised there, I’ll advise here: take it easy if you can and go back multiple times (great when you have membership). The Houston institutions are incredible and huge and offer so much to be savored over time. I’m looking forward to more rainy days and museum fun this December. Keeping an eye on that forecast, Frank!

Have you been to Trains Over Texas? What did you think about it? Let us know in the comments.

About the Author:

Amanda Cochran is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. She specializes in Texas features, consumer and business news and local crime coverage.