Sep 12 2012
After a busy summer of swimming lessons and family get-togethers and other activities for which I was an excellent chauffeur for children, we finally had a chance for a family getaway at the end of August. Our destination was Omaha, Nebraska, one that might not have been on our radar if the Omaha visitor’s bureau hadn’t offered us some free tickets so we could check things out. We found that Omaha was an excellent family vacation destination and closer to our home than we’d expected. After visiting the area, I heartily recommend Omaha as a place for Midwestern families to visit for a long weekend or a longer family vacation.
These are some of our Omaha highlights.
Henry Doorly Zoo
When we mentioned to people at home that we were headed to Omaha, many asked if we were going to the zoo. Of all the things in Omaha, this seems to be the most famous among families, and I’d read excellent reviews of the zoo as well. Still, I was unconvinced. We’ve been to some pretty good zoos. How would Omaha’s stack up?
I’m pleased to report that I was impressed. After having visited the San Diego Zoo this winter, I’d say that the Henry Doorly Zoo holds its own. As a visitor, the two seemed comparable in size and had many similar amenities like a skyride and narrated tram. Sure, San Diego has pandas, but the Henry Doorly Zoo has an impressive range of animals on hand, and enough of the exhibits are indoors that a rainy or wintry weather should not deter people from visiting. With exhibits ranging from the desert to a butterfly garden to a swamp where I actually found myself telling the kids it was like the beginning of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, the Henry Doorly Zoo has a wide variety of experiences available for its visitors.
We arrived at the zoo just before it opened and left just before closing; it is truly a full-day experience and one that any zoo-loving family should consider in their Midwestern travels.
Bob Kerry Pedestrian Bridge
The Missouri River waterfront area in downtown Omaha is well-developed with parks and trails, and perhaps its most recognizable landmark is the Bob Kerry Pedestrian Bridge. The bridge is long and beautiful, and not so scary as I’d expected, and it allows pedestrians to stand in both Iowa and Nebraska at one time (a feat not so easy considering that the entire states’ shared border is created by the Missouri River) or simply take advantage of the extensive trail systems on both sides of the river.
Near “the Bob” is the National Park Service’s headquarters for the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, where visitors can pick up information about other Omaha and NPS sites, as well as exploring a few hands-on exhibits related to the Lewis & Clark expedition. (There is no in-house Junior Ranger program here, however; the Lewis & Clark trail Junior Ranger activities are available exclusively online.)
On our wish list for another time is a gondola ride in Heartland of America park.
Though a boutique shopping and restaurant district isn’t usually tops on our list with a carload of kids, we headed to Old Market for lunch. We found the Spaghetti Works restaurant to be family-friendly and tasty, and eating outdoors on the patio reminded us just a bit of San Antonio’s Riverwalk. There’s a wide variety of restaurants in this area (including a Subway if you need something quick for kids) and many shops lining the cobblestone streets. Just be sure you have a map of the area (the Omaha Visitor Center is just down the street) to help you navigate the one-way streets, and bring change for the on-street parking meters for the most convenient parking.
Gene Leahy Pedestrian Mall
Also reminding us of San Antonio’s Riverwalk was the downtown Omaha Gene Leahy Pedestrian Mall, a beautiful promenade along a waterway anchored at one end by the public library. (What could be better than that?) The walk here is pleasant, with interesting benches for those want to pause for a bit, but the most fun part for families is sure to be the big slides.
Our server at SpaghettiWorks clued us in to the slides, and the found some sheets of wax paper so the kids could go even faster on their way down. (I mention that the kids went fast because I was terrified of going down the long slide myself.) Located just a few blocks north of Old Market, any family visiting Omaha should be sure to try out the big slides.
The Durham Museum
Though our kids’ favorite part of the Durham Museum was the temporary Mindbender Mansion exhibit which has since moved on, I found the Durham to be a beautiful museum showcasing the area’s history. Located in the city’s old art-deco train station, stepping inside led me to imagine what it would have been like to enter that grand station as a traveler, perhaps on my first trip from the fields and farmland to the big city. The main floor is well-preserved in providing that experience to visitors, while the lower levels allow the chance to walk through actual train cars of various eras and learn about the history of Omaha and environs. Having just read The Devil in the White City, I found the exhibit on the Trans-Mississippi Exhibition, held just five years after Chicago’s World’s Fair, to be captivating. I also spent many minutes poring over a series of panoramic photographs of downtown Omaha, all taken from the same vantage point over more than a century.
Joslyn Art Museum
Just west of downtown Omaha, the Joslyn Art Museum provides a cultural element both indoors and in its outdoor sculpture garden. We went primarily to see Grant Wood‘s Stone City, Iowa, in person, but were also delighted to find some of Dale Chihuly’s work here. Though not all of my children are art enthusiasts (yet), one of my sons walked through all the galleries with me while the other kids stayed with my husband and tried to count the number of glass pieces in Chihuly’s installation for a scavenger-hunt game on the museum-promoted SCVNGR app.
Wildlife Safari Park
Just southwest of the city of Omaha near Ashland, the Wildlife Safari Park offers a drive-through opportunity to see buffalo, elk, deer, and other wildlife from your vehicle, farm animals in a petting zoo and bald eagles in an aviary, and wolves and bears if you’ve brought your hiking shoes and are up to doing some walking on a beautiful yet sometimes-challenging path.
If you’ve enjoyed driving through South Dakota’s Custer State Park or other animal refuges, you’ll like the Wildlife Safari Park. The drive and hike took us about two hours to complete, and there’s a visitor center available if you’d like to extend your visit.
Omaha Children’s Museum
Though we keep thinking our days at children’s museum are drawing to a close as our children grow older, our kids seem to have a different idea. Though they were outgrowing some of the Omaha Children’s Museum sections, they would have stayed all day in the Super Graviton ball machine area. They’re still asking to go back again and play with the balls.
Strategic Air & Space Museum
Just across the highway from the Wildlife Safari Park is the Strategic Air & Space Museum. Fans of military aircraft will appreciate the wide variety of aircraft on display at the museum, and there’s a small play area available for kids whose dads might find the planes more interesting than they do. The upcoming Robots exhibit looks to be interesting for kids. (Note: the lunch counter at the museum will accept cash or checks, but not credit cards.)
Other Things to Do
Tucked between the Wildlife Safari Park and the Strategic Air & Space Museum, Mahoney State Park is a popular destination in the Omaha area. In addition to the usual state park activities, Mahoney offers a waterpark, trail rides, and miniature golf.
For a unique stay near Omaha, sleep in a train caboose at Two Rivers State Recreation Area.
In addition to the Durham Museum and the Joslyn Art Museum, several other Omaha-area sites participate in the family-friendly Railroad Days each June. My friend Ann wrote excellent reviews of Railroad Days when she visited a few years ago.
For those interested in the westward expansion of the United States, the Mormon Trail Center offers insight on pioneers who traveled through Nebraska on their way west.
Just across from the Omaha Visitor Center, take your photo with a bronze statue of Chef Boyardee on the grounds of ConAgra headquarters.
Where to Stay
If you’re planning to do most of your Omaha sight-seeing downtown at the museums, zoo, Old Market, and riverfront areas, a downtown-area hotel may suit you best. Since we were also including the Safari Park and Strategic Air & Space Museum in our trip, we chose to stay in the suburb of La Vista, which was convenient to both areas. The Embassy Suites there was beautiful and family-friendly, and our three-night stay was without any sort of complaint. We walked across the parking lot to shop at Cabela’s one evening, and across the road to try an Omaha-original Runza sandwich another night. (I heartily endorse the mushroom and Swiss Runza as something to eat while you’re in Omaha.)
Omaha: A Good Midwestern Family Destination
We squeezed a lot into our 3.5 days in Omaha; families could easily spend another day or two exploring the area. As an interesting place for a family getaway without driving too far from our Minnesota home, I found Omaha to fit the bill just as well as Chicago, Duluth, Madison, or St. Louis, Midwestern cities where we’ve vacationed previously. I recommend that families looking for a Midwest vacation destination consider Omaha in their plans.
Have you vacationed in Omaha? Is there anything we missed?