If you want to put some WOW in your weekend, I’ve got a getaway for you. Less than two-and-a-half hours north on I-35 and you’ll be in Wichita. This surprising Kansas city has attractions for all members of the family.
Wichita really got going with the cattle drives – Wichita’s main drag was once part of the Chisholm Trail. To revisit early Wichita, head for the Old Cowtown Museum. Stroll down wooden sidewalks; check out a building that actually stood on the Chisholm Trail; visit shops and the train depot. It’s a real time-trip.
Wichita’s Delano District retains bits of that cowboy heritage. This was the cowboy “entertainment” area after city fathers decided their town was too sophisticated for the rough and ready transients. My favorite stop here is Hatman Jack’s. Founder/owner Jack Kellogg has created headwear for local, working cowboys and celebrities including Mickey Mantle, Charlie Daniels, Luciano Pavarotti and Harry Connick, Jr. In addition to custom creations, there’s a large stock of ready-made hats and accessories.
The west side of the river is home to a number of special spots. The Sedgwick County Zoo is a real treat with 3000 animals representing almost 400 species. Visitors love the Gorilla Forest Reserve and the Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley habitat.
Further west – actually in Goddard, Kansas – is Tanganyika Wildlife Park, a family-owned facility. I’m extremely picky about recommending animal facilities. There are so many that do not meet standards of conservation and animal care. Tanganyika is accredited by the Zoo and Aquarium Association and is certified by the American Humane program. This is a walk-through zoo – not a drive-through park.
Back in Wichita, still on the west side of the Arkansas River, you’ll find more to do. The Wichita Art Museum has a fine collection of American art and a new sculpture garden.
Speaking of gardens – another of my top picks for the town is Botanica. Wander through a Chinese garden complete with dragon wall; visit the butterfly house in summer; enjoy fountains and flowers in a variety of themed gardens and, even if you’re not a kid, don’t miss the Children’s Garden.
If you’re traveling with children – or, even without – Exploration Place, on the banks of the Arkansas, is an excellent hands-on science museum. A new, traveling exhibit opens this weekend – The Science of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Crawl through a model of a giant, prehistoric snake or measure yourself against the world’s tallest man. The exhibit sounds like a lot of fun but it’s strictly a this-summer opportunity. It travels on September 2.
Old Town, east of the river in downtown, is one of my favorite areas. (You’ll find I have lots of favorite things in Wichita.) I love the Old Town Hotel – great rooms, great breakfast, great location and free parking. This easily-walkable, multi-block area is home to lots of great eateries and another cool museum.
The Museum of World Treasures is a collection of collections. Many of the artifacts were collected by museum founders Dr. Jon and Lorna Kardatzke. You’ll find everything from massive dinosaur skeletons and fossils to World War II displays and exhibits from mummies to the Middle Ages. There are a number of interesting videos giving background on a variety of topics and enough graphic material to keep you reading for days.
Wichita, known as the birthplace of commercial aviation manufacturing, has long clung to it’s soubriquet, “Air Capital of the World.” Part of almost any plane I fly on today once spent time in Wichita. So the present is rosy – and the past is fascinating.
During World War II, the Wichita Boeing plant produced B-29 Superfortresses used in the War in the Pacific. The plant turned out four-and-a-half complete, ready-to-fly airplanes every day. Close to 4000 of these aviation behemoths were made – 1644 came from Wichita. Of those planes, only two flyable aircraft are known to be in existence. One is in Texas. The other, “Doc,” is now on display in a huge hangar/museum on the grounds of the Wichita airport.
Doc was built here in December, 1944. The plane was part of the Snow White Squadron – a group of nine B-29s (named Snow White, the seven dwarfs and a wicked witch) that were not used in the Pacific theater but were used to fly patterns of the U.S. to make sure that there were no holes in radar coverage over the country. All the B-29s were taken out of service in 1956.
A number of planes were flown to China Lake Naval Base in California, dragged into the desert and used for target practice. Legend has it that, knowing it was the last intact B-29, the gunners spared Doc.
After Doc was rediscovered, it took 18 years – until 2016 -- to repair and restore the plane to flying condition. Now visitors can see this magnificent plane and learn about its history and its construction.
One of the display cases has a uniform worn by the women who helped build the planes – the Rosie the Riveters. And if you’re there at the right time, you can meet Connie Palacioz who was 18 when she riveted the nose cone onto Doc. Of all the rivets Connie originally installed in Doc, only seven were missing. And she hasn’t lost her touch – she re-riveted those seven. Now in her 90s, Connie volunteers at the museum – and can run circles around most of the other volunteers.
Wichita has so many other wonderful things to do and see. I haven’t even touched shopping and dining, the Pizza Hut Museum or the summer shows at Music Theatre Wichita. The list goes on!. If you want more information, check out www.visitwichita.com or feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.