Have you ever visited a place that totally exceeded your expectations? That’s what happened when my husband and I spent three days in Waco, Texas.

It was Parent’s Weekend at Baylor University, where Sondra is a freshman. Not being familiar with Waco, we assumed there wouldn’t be much to do in our free time. Definitely a wrong assumption!

We began with a morning visit to the Cameron Park Zoo , which was the first of our many surprises. Since Sondra is 18, our family is beyond the "Look at the big lion. Can you roar like a lion?" stage. (In an effort to relive her pre-school years though, she sat in one of the courtesy wagon/strollers and had Allan give her a quick ride.) The exhibits and layout of the zoo kept us all saying "Look at this! How cool! Check out the lemurs!" In fact, Sondra had visited the zoo earlier in the week with her friends and was delighted to go again.
The zoo had an assessable feel. The animal habitats allowed the animals freedom to move, while also letting us see the animals. The white rhinos seemed within petting range. (Not that we’d want to pet one.) The entire zoo had a lush, natural feel while being completely wheelchair and stroller accessible. Our family would have certainly bought a season pass if we lived in Waco.

The next surprise was the Mayborn Museum , right at the edge of the Baylor Campus. Again, we entered, thinking we’d see another museum with display cases of dusty artifacts and a few stuffed owls. Wrong again. The huge museum offers walk in dioramas. We strolled through a mock-up of a cave, complete with dripping stalagmites and stalactites. As a tech-savvy teen, Sondra enjoyed the audio tour using her cell phone. For parents with young children, the 16 themed rooms designed for kids to have interactive experiences were remarkable. Depending on the room, kids could explore bubbles, transportation, optics, the walk on piano and film themselves as a TV news anchor. The outside historic village had 15 wood framed building to create the feel of an early-Waco village. Again, we were surprised at the scope of exhibits and high quality attention to detail. Sondra even spoke to a staff person about getting an application to work at the museum.

Quick! What’s the world’s oldest major soft drink? If you guessed Dr Pepper, then reward yourself by buying a Dr Pepper next time you’re at the store. Dr Pepper (without a period after Dr) was invented in Waco in 1885. Today, the Dr Pepper Museum includes the original 1906 bottling plant and a restored turn-of-the-century soda fountain…offering Dr Pepper of course! Three floors of exhibits give a unique perspective on a popular soft drink. Remind your children to obey the sign stating "Belching is not encouraged".

We stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott , right next to the Brazos river and the Waco Suspension Bridge. The bridge was the first single span suspension bridge west of the Mississippi. We stood on the bridge to partake in a college-student tradition: Tortilla Tossing. Evidently Baylor students (instead of studying) stand on the center of the bridge and attempt to toss corn tortillas onto a large pylon, 30 feet away from the bridge. Sondra handed us a package of tortillas and we tossed away. No need to worry about tortillas that hit the water. Large fish opened their mouths and seemed to inhale the floating tortillas. After that excitement, I was ready to get to bed. The Marriott’s bed’s were extra comfortable and we appreciated the in-room refrigerator. (Allan still feels a need for a bedtime snack of chocolate and cold milk.) A pool, exercise room and easy walking distance to restaurants made this a great family-friendly hotel. The staff were friendly as parents and students seemed to overtake the hotel. One front desk employee didn’t hesitate when I asked if he could keep 10 frozen dinners in a freezer until we got to Sondra’s dorm the next morning.

The next day the surprises continued as we visited other Waco attractions. Even though we’re not super sports fans, we enjoyed the Texas Sports Hall of Fame . Football, basketball, tennis, golf auto racing and other sports are all represented with exhibits and memorabilia. It’s a bit of a shock to compare your hand to the size of the average NBA player’s hands. As a tennis player, Sondra studied the display showing the evolution of tennis rackets.

Everywhere we went, we were greeted with Texas hospitality. We met several locals, who raved about the quality of life in Waco. The surprises continued as we saw the other possibilities of places to visit.

The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum helps you understand how the Texas Rangers brought peace to the rough and tumble frontier when people didn’t have the luxury of casually tossing tortillas from a suspension bridge.

Due to the fact that we had to attend some of Baylor’s planned events, we couldn’t hit all the other places we wanted to see. We’re looking forward to our next visit to check out the River Walk, the Waco Civic Theatre, the historic Victorian homes, the Pape Gardens, Lake Waco Wetlands, the Homestead Traditional Crafts Village…and many other surprises!

Silvana Clark is a writer, motivational speaker and mother of Sondra, whom she home-schooled for a year so they could travel the US in an RV.