Saturday, January 01, 2011

Winter Vacation

We headed down toward San Antonio for a winter vacation on December 27th. The announced plan was:

  • The River Walk

  • Six Flags Fiesta Texas

  • SeaWorld

The unannounced plan added stops in Fredericksburg and Johnson City. The reason for these stops is that, according to my research, these are places that know how to celebrate Christmas.

Our base of operations for this adventure was the La Quenta Hotel on Utex Boulevard in San Antonio. We have stayed there several times in the past. They are basically at the intersection of I-10 and Loop 1604. This is almost within walking distance of Six Flags Fiesta Texas and a short distance from SeaWorld. Their rates are usually reasonable.

San Antonio River Walk

The San Antonio River Walk is one south Texas's premier tourist traps. The City of San Antonio has build a loop in the San Antonio River one level below street level. It is well landscaped with well maintained walkways and pedestrian bridges. Many hotels, stores and restaurants open on the River Walk.

As with most urban tourist traps, free parking was virtually unavailable. Streets either have no curb-side parking or all of the spaces were filled. Free municipal parking lots, of course, do not exit near a tourist trap. We found fixed parking prices starting at $5.00 up through $10.00 for the evening, along with hourly rates. As you might expect, the $5 lot was full. We settled for a $7.00 lot.

We went down through an artist community whose name I have forgotten. We spent several hours just walking, looking at the holiday decorations. There was one Christmas tree near the mall end, but colored lights were strewn from the trees overhanging the river. We considered taking a river tour, until we noticed the price - $8.00 per person in a crowded barge with wooden benches. Most of the restaurants had menu prominently posted. Unfortunately, not all of them had prices along with the selections.

We selected an interesting looking restaurant, the Rainforest Cafe. The menu contains many interesting items. We started with an "Owesome Appetizer Adventure", followed by "Planet Earth Pasta", "Parmesan Chicken Expedition" and "Rasta Pasta." For desert, (as if I need a desert!) we sprang for their signature "Volcano," a stack of ice cream scoops with slabs of brownie.

Six Flags Fiesta Texas

On the 28th, we went to Six Flags Fiesta Texas. It was raining off and on all day. Only about two-thirds of the park was open; many rides, especially the water rides, were closed for annual major maintenance. The bumper car ride had been temporarily converted to an ice skating rink, using artificial, plastic ice. They added a few special shows - one in the Biergarten and one in the Fiesta Theater.

They were also selling hot chocolate in souvenir mugs. From what we saw, many people were put off by the price of the mug. The cocoa mix was provided by Starbucks. They missed a great advertising opportunity: instead of having Six Flags sell their cocoa mix, they should have put a coupon on the envelope and let Six Flags give them away. With a lower price, more people would have bought the mugs, and gotten the coupon. Some of those coupons might have led to new regular customers.

Once the sun set, the buildings were lit up with multicolored lights. The photograph above, which I took from an email Six Flags sent me, will give you an idea of the lights. When I was growing up, this is how all the local little towns decorated their Main Street. I miss those decorations during the holiday seasons.

SeaWorld San Antonio

On the 29th, we went to SeaWorld San Antonio. They decorated for the holidays in a very different way than their competition up Loop 1604. The only ride that was closed was the white water raft ride and, again, it was for the annual major maintenance. They aimed their decorations more for the younger crowd. They added a "candy cane forest" and a "snowman town."

In the Penguin Encounter, they added a nursery with two young penguin chicks that the parents abandoned, requiring them to hand feed them. For our daughter, this was the highlight of the trip. Within the large penguin enclosure, a number of mated pairs were raising chicks.

They changed the orca show and the sea lion show, adding a strong Christian theme. Finally, some business actually highlighted the Birth of Christ! Again, this is a part of the holiday season that we have lost over the years - a part that was important and prominent when I was growing up.

They changed the lighting at night, making the trees look like a part of a snow-scape. In the candy cane forest, the night lighting did not look right. They would have been better to use hollow candy canes and light them from within.

The Trip Home

On the 30th, we headed toward home. When we got to Johnson City, I hung a left down US 290 toward Fredericksburg.


This is an old town, originally settled by mostly people of German stock. It is the county seat of Gillespie County. Since World War II, it has become a tourist trap. Main Street is mostly small shops in old buildings. Check out their web site and their interactive map.

We wandered around through the shops on Main Street. Most of the shops had Christmas decorations. They even have a store window decodrating contest: this year, the Tea Rose Home linen shop won. In the Marktplatz (Market Square), a park in the center of the city, there was a huge traditional rotating Christmas tower.

We had promised our daughter either Italian or Chinese cuisine for dinner. We asked the locals and they recommended Pasta Bella Restaurant. We had only a short wait to be seated. It is a very small place - only a few tables and a wait-staff of three. Because the place was crowded and they were understaffed, there were a few problems - the appetizer was served after the salad and immediately before the entrees were served. Our drink orders were never taken. One entree was served cold, but that was replaced with a fresh one that was hot. The food was excellent.

When we left the restaurant, the whole street was lit with the Christmas lights. The theme was not just "holidays." it was "Christmas!"

Johnson City

We headed east on US 290 toward Johnson City. Yes, this was the home town of President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson's "Western White House" is just west of town along US 290.

Downtown Johnson City was ablaze with multicolored lights, all around the court house and along the downtown business district. The electric company encircled all of the trees on their campus with white lights. It was gorgeous!

What Ever Happened to Christmas?

When I was growing up, the day before Thanksgiving, all of the shop owners decorated their windows. In some, the store's products where displayed in a Christmas setting. In others, fraternal, youth and veterans groups decorated, partially as a recruiting tool. Some were commercial, some were deeply religious and some were secular - but almost all were Christmas. Colorful lights were strung everywhere! Some stores played music out into the street. Christmas was in the air! Christmas shopping was about how the recipients would react when they found your present under the tree and opened it. The decorations built up the mood.

This year, as with many recent years, Christmas shopping was a chore, not a joy. Most of the stores had little or no decorations and those that did kept it holiday, not Christmas. The mall had minimal decorations, except for the "get your picture with Santa" section. The downtown areas were dark: they made Ebenezer Scrooge's Counting House look festive. I had no desire to spend money and comparison shopped to get only what I absolutely needed. I did not even get gifts for everyone on my list - why bother?

Merchants want us to spend our money in their shops. But they do not encourage the Christmas spirit of giving. Now, I know of places that will appreciate my business, places where Christmas is in the air!

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