From cowboys to cuckoos, Route 66 in Oklahoma offers a 400-mile-long playground of kid-friendly attractions the whole family can enjoy.
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A trip down Route 66 very well may be the perfect family vacation. From the bustling streets of downtown Chicago to the palm trees and glitter of Southern California, the Mother Road offers her children a virtual midway of kid-friendly attractions: cowboys and Indians, fiberglass giants, petting zoos, playgrounds, neon signs, tacky souvenirs and a thousand other delights no kid can resist.
Nowhere does the road appeal to my inner 5-year-old more than in Oklahoma, where you can walk into the mouth of a smiling blue whale; learn to twirl a lariat like Will Rogers; or fall asleep in a real teepee, listening to coyotes sing a wild and beautiful lullaby in the distance.
If you are a child – or a child at heart – the best way to experience Oklahoma’s share of Route 66 is in what author Michael Wallis refers to as “spoonfuls.” Rather than attempting to sample the whole state in a single day, choose a smaller section of the road – say, 100 to 150 miles – and take the time to explore its treasures in depth.
Traveling east to west, you'll encounter the first giant outside Waylan’s Ku-Ku Burger in Miami. The restaurant – the last known remnant of a 1960s fast-food chain – serves hamburgers and milkshakes from a building shaped like a giant cuckoo clock. A yellow-and-green cuckoo in a chef’s hat perches just under the gable. Inside, owner Gene Waylan and his staff serve kids’ meals in cardboard boxes shaped like classic cars.
A few miles west, in the small town of Afton, another giant bird waits to greet us. Tulsa Tripper, a fiberglass penguin as tall as a man, is one of the quirkier items at Afton Station and Route 66 Packards, a restored D-X gas station that houses a small Route 66 museum and a collection of vintage cars. While visiting Afton Station, children can use a pressed-penny machine to crank out their own Route 66 souvenirs.
The little community of Chelsea is home to the world’s largest concrete totem pole, a 90-foot-tall behemoth anchored by a giant turtle whose sea-green head makes a perfect staging area for family photographs. The totem pole is part of Ed Galloway’s Totem Pole Park, which includes several smaller totem poles; a curious 11-sided building that houses a small gift shop and a collection of hand-carved fiddles; and a nature trail where kids can stretch their legs and blow off a little steam. The park is located four miles south of Route 66 on State Highway 28A.
No giants here, but the memory of Oklahoma’s favorite son looms large over the city of Claremore, where the Will Rogers Memorial Museum – located north of Route 66 on Will Rogers Boulevard – gives young travelers an opportunity to try their hand at trick roping as they learn about the life of the beloved humorist. The memorial includes galleries, archives, theaters and a special children’s museum. Parents will get a kick out of Rogers’ hilarious observations on politics, human nature and the idiosyncrasies of American culture, which ring as true now as they did three-quarters of a century ago.
Since 1970, Catoosa – a small town just east of Tulsa – has been home to one of the strangest characters on Route 66. The Blue Whale was once the centerpiece of a small roadside amusement park that included a swimming hole, an alligator pit and a giant wooden replica of Noah’s Ark. After the complex closed, the enormous concrete whale went into a slow decline for several years before undergoing restoration in 1997. Although swimming is no longer permitted, families can still climb into the whale’s head to look out the portholes at the top or enjoy a picnic lunch under the shade trees next to the pond. Close supervision is recommended for small children.
While small-town Route 66 boasts of behemoths, Tulsa is home to two businesses centered around attractions of tiny proportions.
In downtown Tulsa, just past the distinctive dome of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, a small pink and green neon sign advertises the 11th Street Cleaners. The dry-cleaning business shares its space with an unlikely roommate: Karlene’s Dollhouses. This fun little shop sells a wide assortment of dollhouses, along with furnishings and accessories to go with them.
Five hundred miles and 25 years removed from the dollhouse of my childhood, I catch myself daydreaming about afternoons spent sitting at the dining room table with my mother, creating my own miniatures. On the way out, I buy a tiny flat of flower seedlings, just for old times’ sake.
In southwest Tulsa, the old community of Red Fork is home to another collection of miniatures. Over the clinking of silverware and china, a train whistle sounds and a model train races around a track near the ceiling at Ollie’s Station Restaurant. The fried chicken and friendly service make the diner a favorite haunt for southwest Tulsans, but it’s the restaurant’s huge collection of model trains that makes it an ideal stop for families traveling with children.
Just behind the Carnegie Library on Route 66 in Sapulpa, Heritage Park – known locally as “The Big Build” – stands as a testimonial to the power of volunteerism. Over a period of nine days, using materials donated by a local bank, about 1,700 volunteers of all ages and backgrounds teamed up to construct a unique children’s playground celebrating the city’s history. The long-closed Teepee Drive-In is featured here, along with elaborate sliding boards, a pretend firehouse and a giant oil derrick that kids can climb. Restrooms are available, making this a good pit stop for fidgety kids.
Fans of Disney/Pixar’s 2006 film "Cars" will take a special interest in Stroud's historic Rock Café where in 2001, the diner’s owner, Dawn Welch, entertained a team of writers and animators who were researching Route 66 for an upcoming animated film. Five years later, Welch became an international celebrity when word got out that she was the inspiration for Sally Carrera, one of the key characters in the film.
Chandler is home to two museums steeped in local history. The Route 66 Interpretive Center, situated in an old National Guard armory, offers families an exciting chance to explore the history of the Mother Road through short films viewed from the seats of vintage cars or a virtual hotel room. A few blocks away, the Lincoln County Museum of Pioneer History and Children’s Historical Resource Center features a mishmash of exhibits, from an old telephone switchboard to a stagecoach, post office and marionette theater.
At well over 100 years old, Arcadia’s Round Barn is one of the oldest attractions on Route 66. Young physicists will enjoy exploring the loft, where the barn’s round walls and domed ceiling create a natural parabola effect that allows visitors to hear each other whisper from opposite sides of the room.
At the westernmost edge of Arcadia, we stop for dinner at POPS, a recent addition to Route 66. POPS is one part gas station, one part diner and one part souvenir shop. Outside, visitors will find unique architecture and a 66-foot-tall pop bottle. Inside, a sleek, retro-style diner serves burgers, chili, steaks and gourmet cupcakes, which customers can wash down with their choice of more than 650 kinds of bottled soda.
West of Oklahoma City, Route 66 flattens out, carrying travelers over a terra cotta landscape fringed with wild grasses and dotted with attractions that seem tailor-made for tourists with children in tow.
The tallest spiral slide in the United States can be found just off Route 66 in Oklahoma City. Science Museum Oklahoma – an ever-expanding museum where kids are encouraged to touch, explore and even climb on the exhibits – is home to GadgetTrees, a two-story treehouse designed to teach children about everything from nature to Newton’s laws. Kids will love zooming down the sliding board until they’re dizzy, while parents will appreciate the large bench at the base of the exhibit, where they can rest for a few minutes while keeping an eye on the fun.
Cruising Route 66 between Hydro and Weatherford, a large barn will catch your eye. Painted on the roof is a large sign that says simply, “The Maize.” The barn is part of P_Bar Farms, where visitors can wander through a 7-foot-high corn maze, play a game of laser tag or spend an afternoon making new friends at the Barnyard Petting Farm and Blaze’s Chicken Ranch. Check with the farm for seasonal offerings, as the maze and laser tag are only available in the fall.
After working up an appetite with a romp around the farm, families can cruise into Weatherford for lunch at the 1950s-style diner at Lucille’s Roadhouse, a larger-than-life replica of the Provine gas station between Weatherford and Hydro where Lucille “Mother of the Mother Road” Hamons lived and worked until her death in August 2000.
If the kids are fidgety after they finish their malts and burgers, Clinton’s 15-acre McLain Rogers Park is an ideal place to stop and stretch. Beyond the gorgeous Art Deco sign marking the entrance to the park – constructed by the Works Progress Administration – families will find playground equipment, picnic areas and a Route 66-themed miniature golf course.
Elk City’s Ackley Park – located next to the Elk City Museum Complex, which includes the National Route 66 Museum and a mock Old West town – is home to the Centennial Carousel, where erstwhile equestrians can go for a spin on one of 36 hand-carved wooden steeds; Old Town Miniature Golf and the Choctaw Express Miniature Train, which offers rides around the lake.
Just off Route 66 in Texola is a one-room, block building that once served as the city’s jail. Rumor has it that crime in Texola dropped significantly during the winter, as would-be criminals were loath to risk a night in the Spartan structure with no heat and no glass over the windows. The building is a perfect spot to stage a sunset photo op at the end of a busy day.