Family Fun in Des Moines, Iowa

From a high-thrills coaster to idyllic parks and farms, Des Moines, Iowa delivers. Here's the scoop on what to do with the family while visiting.

Just off I-80, emerging from cornfields and flanked by a winding river, Des Moines is not only the capital of Iowa. It’s the unofficial heart of the heartland. Throughout the area, family activities define the city’s character and make it easy to plan a summer getaway for kids of all ages.

Ride a monster

Got thrill seekers? Plan a day or two at Adventureland, a short drive northeast in Altoona. Here, it feels like you’re stepping back in time and into an old-school amusement park – but with some modern twists to keep teens and tweens happy.

The park recently completed a $9 million roller coaster dubbed The Monster. The steel coaster races 2,500 total feet, at times reaching speeds of 65 mph. You can point out some of the coaster’s other thrills as you’re waiting in line to ride – there’s a 101-degree drop, along with several spots where kids will feel like they’re in zero gravity. Find less-scream-inducing attractions, too, like the Tilt-A-Whirl, bumper cars and other classics among the 100-plus rides.

Your ticket gets you into the water park, Adventure Bay, too – home to Iowa’s largest wave pool and longest lazy river. Be sure to stop at Petunia Pig (right by the log ride) to order your oversized pickle on a stick from a stand that looks like a giant pig – a definite family selfie stop (single day is $42/ages 10-plus, $37/4-9 years old; discounts for multi-day passes; $10/parking).

Pick a park

Dotted around the city are several parks worth a stop for an impromptu picnic or outdoor stroll. The John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park on the west side of town has walking paths among its 4.4 acres interspersed with public art by 22 sculptors from around the world. Kids can even walk right into some, like the towering “Nomade,” made up of white letters shaped into a person (free, sunrise-sunset).

Teeming with both sculptures and animals, the Blank Park Zoo is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. Younger kids will love the interactive Curious George: Let’s Get Curious exhibit running through Sept. 11, which makes them part of the storybook. Older kids will likely want to spend their time checking out the 800 animals in the zoo like tigers, sea lions, leopards and my teen’s favorite – red pandas ($13/adults, $8/kids).

Day at the farm

Of course, since Iowa is in the middle of farm country, be sure to let kids see what it would be like to live – and work – on a farm. The Living History Farms west of town stretch over 500 acres and give kids a chance to see what it would be like to farm during different times in history, like a 1700 Iowa Indian farm, an 1850 pioneer farm and a 1900 horse-powered farm.

Many weekends also have special events for families, from parades to pioneer weddings to old-time baseball. There’s also a circa-1875 Town called Walnut Hill, where kids can see period-dressed artisans at various shops ($9/ages 2-12, $15/13-plus).

3 burger joints

Farm-fresh ingredients meet creative, calorie-defying eats for truly tasty fun.

Jethro’s BBQ. This local chain’s claim to fame is the towering Adam Emmenecker Challenge sandwich. Named for a popular past university basketball player, it bursts with pork tenderloin, an Angus steak burger, brisket slices, bacon, fried cheese and buffalo chicken tenders – all coated with melted cheese and a cheese sauce. Maybe share this one?

Zombie Burger. This local fave won airtime on the United States of Bacon for its Walking Ched (as in “cheddar” – get it?) burger, boasting a bun made of deep-fried mac ‘n’ cheese. Wash it down with a Zombie Unicorn shake – vanilla ice cream, marshmallow cream and Fruity Pebbles.

Big City Burgers and Greens. Go a little lighter with ground beef, turkey or veggie burgers at this popular standout. Fried pickles and fries tossed with truffle oil and pecorino cheese earned top rankings, too.


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