Tag Archives: activities

10 Cheap Things to do in Omaha This Summer

April 27, 2017 by

This is going to be no ordinary summer in Omaha, and the best part is, you won’t have to budget much to enjoy it with your family. There are inexpensive and free activities throughout the metro, from a pool with a pirate ship to a trail that leads to a waterfall. There are indoor and outdoor film series for families, as well as free festivals. Here are 10 ideas for cheap fun in Omaha.

1. Spraygrounds

For free water fun, head to one of the city parks with a sprayground: Benson Park, Fontenelle Park, Kountze Park, Orchard Park, Seymour Smith Park, Upland, Morton, Westwood Heights, and Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge Plaza. These spraygrounds are great because they’re also near playgrounds. You can find additional outdoor fountains and spraygrounds that cost no admission to play in at Omaha Children’s Museum, Joslyn Art Museum, Shadow Lake Towne Center, and the First National Bank Tower.

2. Festivals
Free summer festivals in Omaha have kid-friendly aspects to them, while introducing new things to see, hear, and taste. Dance at a music series like Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing and Stinson Park at Aksarben Village. The Omaha Summer Arts Festival has an entire area dedicated to children’s activities.  Shakespeare on the Green has a tent of costumes for children to try on. Taste of Omaha is free, but you’ll want to buy tickets for food and rides.

3. Hikes

For the price of park admission, an adventure awaits on a nearby trail. One kid favorite is an easy trail that leads to a waterfall at Platte River State Park just outside of Omaha. Head to Hummel Park to search for the staircase that always baffles its climbers—no one can settle on how many steps there are. For a gem hidden in the middle of the city, visit Heron Haven Nature Center just northeast of 120th and Maple streets.

4. Unique Pools

Swimming is fun no matter where you go, but some local pools offer some fun extras worth checking out. The popular city pool at Lake Zorinsky has waterslides and a fun splash. Cross over the Missouri River to Council Bluffs to visit the city pool, Pirates Cove Pool, where kids can play around a pirate ship and use two waterslides. Head indoors to the Salvation Army Kroc Center and check out the newly renovated pool and waterslide.

5.   Explore the Old Market

The Old Market has so many things for kids to see, hear, and taste. On Saturday mornings, stroll the bustling farmers market. Visit any day of the week and you’ll likely encounter musicians playing music and charming horse-drawn carriages. Kids love the Old Market Candy Shop and Hollywood Candy. Head to The Passageway for toy store Le Wonderment, and then go on a hunt for the Zodiac Garden hidden behind an art gallery there.

6.  Downtown Fun

There’s more fun just beyond the Old Market. Slide down the big slides at Gene Leahy Mall. At Heartland of America Park, you may catch a gondolier offering inexpensive rides around the lake. Cross the “The Bob” pedestrian bridge to take that iconic picture standing on the state line. The building at the base of the bridge is the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters, which has a visitor’s center with free kid-friendly activities.

7. Bowl or Skate for Free

There are two national programs for children to sign up for that get them free rentals at local venues. Kids Bowl Free allows kids to have two free games each day all summer long. Shoe rental may not be included. Kids Skate Free is a similar program. SkateDaze participates in this program that allows children 12 and younger to skate for free once a day all summer long. The skate rental fee isn’t included.

8. Family Movies Series

Ruth Sokolof Theater at Film Streams has a great series for families, and children’s tickets are only $2.50. They show a mix of classics and first runs. Large chain theaters often have film series during the summer featuring slightly older movies at a discounted price. Check your closest Marcus Theatre and AMC Theatre to see if they’re participating. Check the calendar of events for Midtown Crossing and Sumtur Amphitheater to see when they show free outdoor movies.

9. Fan Fest

Feel like you’re a part of the NCAA Men’s College World Series experience for free at Fan Fest right outside the stadium. You can get into the spirit by playing interactive games, taking a photo with the trophy, meeting players, and soaking up the atmosphere. Fan Fest is open through the run of the series. Go to Open Day Celebration to catch batting practices and autograph sessions, concluding with the opening ceremony and fireworks. That’s all free, too.

10. Fort Atkinson

On the first Saturday and Sunday of the month, May through October, head to Fort Atkinson to see interactive historic recreations depicting life 200 years ago. Children can complete a scavenger hunt, earning a little treat at the General Store for finishing it. Actors shoot off a cannon during the re-enactment, which is cool for some kids and too loud for others. A state park permit is needed to get into the park to see the re-enactments. 

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of Family Guide.

 

Neighborhoods, USA

February 20, 2017 by
Photography by Provided

Chris Foster quickly developed a deep appreciation for his Gifford Park neighborhood after arriving in 1986. He joined its neighborhood association when it was launched a couple of years later and served as its president for a two-year stint that ended in 2001.

But it took a trip to Pittsburgh that year to trigger an epiphany. He realized what his midtown neighborhood could become.

On the trip, members of Omaha’s Planning Department and folks from various Omaha neighborhood associations traveled to the Steel City to attend that year’s “Neighborhoods, USA” national conference.

At the NUSA conference, hundreds of attendees passionate about improving neighborhoods and building stronger communities gather to swap ideas, participate in educational workshops, tour neighborhoods, and honor the innovative and life-changing work of neighborhood betterment projects.

And 2017 will see an exciting culmination of the efforts of city planners and Omaha neighborhood advocates like Foster—the 42nd annual NUSA conference is coming to Nebraska for the first time. The conference will be held at the Omaha Hilton Hotel and CenturyLink Center from May 24-27.

“NUSA coming to Omaha is a great training, educational resource, and networking opportunity for Omaha neighborhood leaders to learn about what’s going on in neighborhoods all around the country,” says Julie Smith, a conference organizer and neighborhood alliance specialist with ONE Omaha. “We will learn about programs other cities have and know that they face a lot of similar challenges, as well.”

A Fourth of July parade attracts residents in the Maple Village neighborhood.

Years in the Making

Discussions to bring NUSA to Omaha started six years ago, according to Norita Matt, a city planner who attended that 2001 conference with Foster. Years of planning led to Omaha’s presentation to NUSA leaders at the 2015 conference in Houston that landed the bid to host this year’s event.

“There is a lot that goes along with it; you have to have the mayor’s support and plenty of city support,” Matt says.

The Omaha conference will include local keynote speakers; dozens of local, national, and global workshops; awards for exceptional neighborhood betterment programs; local and national exhibitors; and a mayor’s reception.

The highlight of each conference, Matt says, are the Neighborhood Pride Tours during which attendees learn how neighborhoods use innovation and elbow grease to better their communities. More than 20 tours, including two in Council Bluffs, will focus on the rich history, unique designs, and revitalization of neighborhoods, she says. Tours are capped with receptions, local entertainment, and demonstrations of different cultures through music and dance.

“Going into the neighborhoods gives us a chance to hear about challenges and what people are doing to bring back the neighborhoods,” she says.

Gifford Park is one of many neighborhoods to participate in the city’s annual Spring Clean Up.

Two Omaha keynote speakers will highlight a key crucial neighborhood betterment effort. Jose Garcia and Terri Sanders will present their groups’ efforts to revitalize the 24th Street corridor, Omaha’s original “Street of Dreams,” connecting North and South Omaha, including the Fair Deal Village MarketPlace near 24th and Burdette streets.

Fostering a Better Community Life

For Foster of the Gifford Park association, NUSA coming to Omaha holds special significance because of his profound experience in Pittsburgh more than 15 years ago.  >

“I described it as a life-changing experience because I saw a presentation on inclusiveness involving community gardens,” Foster recalls, describing how he was “blown away” by a Seattle speaker who described the city’s network of community gardens.

Foster and others spent hours with the speaker at a local coffeehouse, and he then found himself doodling ideas about a vacant piece of land behind the Gifford Park home he shares with his wife, Sally.

Soon after, they were cleaning up the double-wide lot and purchasing the parcel for $4,000. Others joined in to transform the lot at 3416 Cass St. into the Gifford Park Community Garden. A youth gardening program soon followed.

A mural on North 30th Street emphasizes the history of the Florence neighborhood. Photo by Mele Mason.

A couple of years later, the garden expanded and an “adventure playground,” complete with a double-decker treehouse, was built as a way to build community ties among Gifford Park families and children.

Since then, a host of neighborhood activities and services have been developed, including a community bike shop and a free youth tennis program held each August at 33rd and Cass streets.

The conceptual seeds that revitalized Gifford Park’s community were planted at that NUSA conference years ago.

“NUSA provides me with some leadership development,” Foster says. “It gets people excited, invigorated, and motivated to want to take on projects in neighborhoods or work with the city and take on leadership roles. As volunteers, we have more effect on our neighborhoods than almost anything else. We’re the owners and stakeholders who can actually get it done.”

Visit nusa.org for more information.

The 42nd annual NUSA conference is coming to Nebraska for the first time. The conference will be held at the Omaha Hilton Hotel and CenturyLink Center from May 24-27.

A mural in Prospect Village celebrates the North Omaha neighborhood.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Camp Time

April 10, 2015 by

Originally published in April 2015 HerFamily.

The benefits of summer camps extend well beyond keeping children busy during summer vacation. Social interaction with a new group of people, focused exploration in a particular area of interest, introduction to fun new activities, and learning to be more independent and self-reliant can greatly enhance a child’s confidence.

But summer camp also means immersion into an unfamiliar environment, adjustment to a new group of peers and adults in authority, and time away from family that some children aren’t ready for.

Holly J. Roberts, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and associate professor of pediatrics with the Munroe-Meyer Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, says readiness varies from child to child, but there are some indicators that can help guide parents in determining when and if their child would enjoy a day camp or overnight camp experience.

“Children younger than 4 are likely to not really be ready for this level of transition from a predictable routine,” she says.

However, children between 4 and 7 may be ready for day camp if they’re able to separate from parents fairly easily, and especially if they’re enthusiastic about the camp theme or activities. For this age group, Roberts says, school-based or childcare center-based summer programs provide a great opportunity to sample the day camp experience in a familiar environment. Children over 7 who are accustomed to spending the day in school usually handle traditional day camps just fine.

However, overnight camp readiness may take a few more years. “Generally, kids are usually ready for overnight camp around 11, and they begin to be comfortable being away from their parents around that age. Typically, children younger than 7 are not ready for an overnight camp,” Roberts says.

“This is not a hard-and-set rule, either, it’s based on development and the child,” she emphasizes. “Can the child manage their own hygiene, like showering? Do they have full control over toileting? Is the child able to ask for help or state their needs if they need something? One of the best indicators of readiness for a summer sleepover camp is that a child can successfully spend a night or two with a friend or a relative.”

Even the most eager child can experience pangs of homesickness, and it won’t surprise a good camp staff, Roberts says. Parents should be familiar with the process the camp has in place to address homesickness, but in the care of experienced and compassionate staffers, children usually don’t pine away for home sweet home very long.

“Homesickness is a common thing, and there’s probably going to be a wave of that even in kids that are ready,” Roberts says. Packing some comfort items and a few prepared letters from home (with a positive tone rather than a lament of how much the parent misses the child) can help alleviate pangs.

Sometimes it’s the parent who’s not ready to separate, and that can lead to what Roberts calls, somewhat tongue in cheek, “kidsickness.” Finding a quality camp with managers who welcome questions and offer tours, that conducts background checks when hiring staff, and that has strong safety policies in place can help alleviate parental fears.

“I think a parent really needs to be ready for this before a child is ready,” Roberts says. “A lot of kids receive their cues from their parents.”

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Party of Six

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

You might think that Shauntel and Delon Tobin of Northwest Omaha live for Tuesday nights. It is the only night of the week that their dance card is not full with their children’s practices or games. But the family actually enjoys the barely-controlled chaos, according to their daughter McKenzie, a fourth grader at Picotte Elementary.

“I don’t like staying at home. I’m just one of those people that likes to go about and travel a lot, “ says the 9-year-old.  McKenzie is a dancer. And her talent, and many evenings away at practice, has made her quite the star.

McKenzie and her 10-year-old sister Gabriella’s dance team recently won the Rainbow Dance Competition. Their prize? A once-in-a-lifetime “meet and greet” with the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes in New York City in July. The sisters attend Next Step Dancing with Maren and practice multiple times a week.

McKenzie, who is nicknamed “Macaroni,” appreciates the support she gets from her parents taking her to lessons. “I feel encouraged when they do that. I’m happy,” she says.

Besides the two sisters, there is also 9-year-old New York Yankee fan Jaiden, who is Gabriella’s fraternal twin. He plays baseball and also loves playing games on his PlayStation. Finally, there’s little 3-year-old Madison, also a dancer and a “Doc McStuffins” fan.

“We are a close-knit family and I love it,” says their mother Shauntel, who works full-time as an insurance representative with Traveler’s Insurance.

Each day begins with Shauntel rising alone in the darkness at 4:30 a.m. so she can take her time getting ready. “I also make sure everybody’s stuff is lined up for the day,” she says.

The organized mom’s preparation involves laying the kids’ clothes out and making sure their backpacks are filled with the proper homework, any papers that need to be signed and their homework folders.

Next, she wakes up husband Delon, who works as a pharmacy technician at Alegent Creighton Lakeside Hospital. After he is ready to go, the couple wakes up all four kids at 6:30 a.m. They shower and get dressed, then head for breakfast. “While I’m cleaning, he’ll be doing breakfast for the kids. They love waffles and pancakes from scratch.”

Then, presto, it’s off they go for their day in their Diamond white Toyota Sienna, the minivan they consider a home-away from home. “We live in our car sometimes. We’re always running here or there,” Shauntel says.  Each kid has their own ipad and regularly plays educational games on the popular learning app Agnitus.

After Delon finishes his shift at 3:30 p.m., he picks up the kids from daycare and returns home for snacks and homework time. Then, bing-bang-boom, they are out the door again after Shauntel arrives home from work an hour later.

It is a 20-minute drive from their home in Northwest Omaha to Jaiden’s baseball practice across town at John G. Neihardt Elementary School.

Navigating the busy Omaha streets at rush hour requires patience and often, a deft turn of the radio dial. As a stress-breaker, the family all joins in on a country musical sing-along. “We just let everything go and everybody sings in the car.” The girls love Taylor Swift, while Shauntel prefers Jason Aldean and Rascal Flatts.

“Some nights you catch every red light and it’s like ‘ugh.’ Or you get stuck behind an accident. Then you have those nights where the traffic is perfect and you’ve caught almost every green light and you’re there in a little bit,” she says.

On nights that Jaiden has baseball practice, they first drop him off and then drop the girls off at dance. Next, begins a series of ping-pong-ish driving moves for daddy.  “Then Delon will leave and go pick up Jaiden and come back and watch the rest of the girls at dance,” Tobin says.

The day finally wraps up around 9 p.m. “There’s just no way we would get it all done if it wasn’t a team effort. So we come together and we pull it off, and it comes off every day,” she says.

The two met while they were employees of the Cracker Barrel in Chicago and were married in 2006. After visiting Shauntel’s family in Omaha, Delon knew he wanted to make Nebraska their home.

“The thing I will remember to this day is the first time at night when I saw all the stars. It was like a crystal, clear night. The air quality to me was superb. I looked at her and I said, ‘we’re going to have to move here.’”

Having lived on the edge of Chicago, an area prevalent with steel mills, the Tobins prefer the cleaner air available to them in Omaha, especially since their children also have asthma.  Given the opportunity to transfer with his job, they jumped at the chance.

As a dad, Delon loves being part of his kids’ myriad activities and seeing them progress by overcoming shyness. “To see them come out of their shell and just grow personally, that is amazing,” he says.

They also have a lot of support from Shauntel’s mother, Kim Konig and her husband Jeff, who attend all of Jaiden’s games. “They are very busy with four kids. I don’t know how they do it. It would drive me nuts,” Konig says.

For Shauntel and Delon, all the effort is time well spent. “We just want to make sure the kids have the best possible experience growing up. We don’t force them to do any of their activities. We just take them and support them,” Tobin says.

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Exploring Omaha on Valentine’s Day

February 7, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Valentine’s Day is all about sharing the love and letting your spouse, your children, your friends—even your dog—know that you care.

But when it comes to Valentine’s Day celebrations, it can be a little difficult to share the wealth when you find yourself stuck in the stereotypical rut of chocolate, flowers, and the same dinner at your favorite restaurant every year.

Home to dozens of distinct neighborhoods, Omaha offers hidden gems that are waiting to be discovered, as well as classic landmarks that might be overlooked on Valentine’s Day.

Meghan Francis and Kerry Jones, founders of the Omaha-based blog Wise Owl + Sly Fox, brainstormed some unique Omaha Valentine’s Day activities.

“I guess we’ve always been old souls with old styles, and that’s one great thing about Omaha: There’s just so much history here,” says Francis.

Together, Francis and Jones came up with a Valentine’s Day “tour of Omaha.” Pick and choose from different activities to show loved ones a small portion of all the intimacy, history, and romance that Omaha has to offer.

Get your heart rate up in the morning with a walk or run with your loved one through the Field Club neighborhood. Located along an old railroad bend, the Field Club trail offers visitors a brief glimpse into a bygone era. Although you’ll have to bundle up, the sights of this secluded area include gorgeous ravines, snow-capped trees, and abandoned railroad tracks.

If your partner is a history buff, make a quick stop by the Gerald R. Ford Preservation Center near Hanscomb Park. An exhibition on Ford, the only president to have lived in Omaha, is open by appointment by calling the center’s main phone line at 402-595-1180. The exhibit is available for private viewing Monday through Friday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., free of charge. The exhibit features photos of his birthplace, family memorabilia, and gifts given to Ford by world leaders and well-wishing locals.

For lunch, hop on over to Dundee, home to both casual and higher-end fare in an all-accessible setting. Stop by the French Bulldog for something on the trendier side or try Dundee Dell for classic comfort food from an Omaha staple. Both spaces offer comfortable opportunities to spend some time watching the eclectic crowd of Dundee.

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If you’re looking for an afternoon activity once the kids come home from school, Valentine’s Day crafts are an easy way to get the whole family involved. Francis and Jones suggest making homemade cards.

“We’re big fans of sending things through the mail. It’s just always a fun thing, and it’s something that we don’t do a lot in this day and age,” says Francis.

“Send them to your grandma, your single aunt, veterans at the VA hospital, whoever,” adds Jones.

For crafting supplies, head out to South-Central Omaha. David M. Mangelsen’s has been stocking Omaha’s crafting closets since 1961, and is an easy stop to find any Valentine’s Day-related arts and crafts supplies you could think of. A few hours coloring, gluing, and bedazzling might expose some hidden creativity among the family.

If you want to end your night with a more traditional Valentine’s Day celebration, spend the night in the Old Market, which is home to a host of restaurants that offer the quintessential romantic dinners by candlelight. Francis and Jones’ personal favorite is La Buvette, a French-style café and grocer.

For some after-dinner entertainment, look to the Omaha art scene. Many of the Old Market’s art galleries, including the Passageway Gallery and Anderson O’Brien Fine Art, are open until 9 p.m. on Fridays for some late-night shopping.

Although, after a whirlwind day around Omaha, you might want to hit the sack early.

“I Just Want Someone to Love Me”

November 1, 2013 by

I’ve worked at Lutheran Family Services for well over three years now, and I can pinpoint my toughest day at work.

It was the day I was interviewing foster children for a fundraising video. At the time, I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be. I could have done a better job preparing myself. But I didn’t.

So I walked into the conference room and started interviewing “wards of the state,” one by one.

What struck me the most was that they were just kids, not statistics. Kids, very similar to my own children. Attractive, smart, funny—really delightful to be around.

One young man had worn nice slacks and a tie because, as he put it, “I just want to look nice.” This was the same boy who shyly told me about coming in second in a free-throw contest just that afternoon. Later, he admitted how much he liked to play football and really wanted to be on a team, but he couldn’t because there was no one to take him to practice. As a football mom at the time, that just broke my heart. How could there be no one willing to make that commitment to this child who was obviously an athlete?

Another beautiful young woman talked about her frustration with her education. Because she had been moved from one foster home to another, one school to another (she had lost track of how many), she was a year behind in high school. She should have been preparing to graduate, she told me, but all of the moves had set her that far back. She couldn’t decide whether she wanted to be a nurse or go into the military. I suggested being a nurse in the military. She thought that was a great idea. “I’m going to have a bright future,” she told me.

The kids talked about being taken out of their homes because they weren’t cared for properly. Being in foster care is not their fault. They’ve lost the only home they know, and many times they lose their siblings, too. Few foster homes can take sibling groups. Despite efforts to help siblings stay in touch, it’s a challenge.

While the goal is always reunification with family, it’s not always possible. And once these children become eligible for adoption, the goal then becomes finding the right permanent family. Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska operates a program that searches a child’s history to find that one relative, teacher, or neighbor who might be willing to provide loving permanency.

I realized that if every parent could sit where I sat that day, all of these children would already have homes. We often hear of the numbers of children in Nebraska’s foster care system, but for their own safety, we don’t always see the faces or hear their stories. But the simple message from each one of them was the same, “I just want someone to love me.”

Can you imagine your own child feeling that way? I couldn’t either. So, on that tough day at work, when all I wanted to do was take home every child I had talked with, I went back to my office, and I wept for them. And I wished with all of my being that the right family for each of those beautiful children was just a few steps away from making their dreams come true.

November is National Adoption Month. If you are interested in learning more about becoming a foster parent, or foster child adoption, please call Lutheran Family Services at 402-661-7100 or e-mail: fostercare@lfsneb.org.

Skinny Bones Pumpkin Patch

September 24, 2013 by
Photography by Skinny Bones Pumpkin Patch

The Skinny Bones Pumpkin Patch in Blair, Neb., is a family affair. Daughter Haley Bledsoe has designed the 10-acre corn maze (opened for the fall on Fri., Sep. 13) since its first season six years ago. “It’s hard to do,” says her mother, Maria. “I’ve tried.”

This year, the maze’s design showcases sheer complexity rather than an actual image to be seen from above. “You will absolutely get lost,” Maria assures, stating that she still can’t go through this year’s maze without getting turned around.

And that’s saying something because the Bledsoe family has been tending the maze since the beginning of summer. “We use twice the amount of seed as other mazes,” Maria explains, adding that most cornfields are planted in just one direction. “We plant in two directions for a really thick corn maze, so you can’t see your neighbor on the next row.” The field is entirely organic, and cultivating the maze involves old-school techniques.

“We map it on a grid, and then we count the rows, using stakes and chalk spray,” Maria says. No GPS here. “After the corn is two or three inches tall, we mow the paths with a riding mower.” A dragger rides behind the mower, getting rid of any stalks. Continued mowing and dragging throughout the summer makes for smooth, compacted paths.

“We wanted to be known as the most manicured maze around,” Maria says. “You think of a corn maze, and you think of ruts and bumpy ground and how you can’t take your stroller over that. We wanted to do something different.”

When the corn is 13 to 14 feet tall, all seven Bledsoes take corn sickles to the maze, trimming leaves that have grown into the paths and hand-pulling any stalks that might have been missed. At least, it used to be that way. Maria says they’ve had to hire help for the last three years, what with the growing business and some of the children going to college and overseas.

But some traditions never die. Saturday nights, for example, are always haunted at Skinny Bones. Brave guests traverse the maze guided only by moonlight (“We confiscate flashlights,” Maria says), knowing costumed actors roam the maze ready to deliver a good scare. Nothing is sacred, not even the hay rides. Is it kid-friendly? “That’s up to the parent,” Maria defers. “Some kids absolutely love it.”

For parents who think their children might appreciate a tamer atmosphere, Maria suggests Friday nights. Flashlights are welcome, no scarers are present, and there’s even a children’s maze this year. It’s about a 10th the size of the original.

For a full list of attractions and pricing, visit skinnybonespumpkinpatch.com.

Harvest Fun

August 16, 2013 by

Fun festivals don’t end when autumn rolls in—there is still plenty to do in Nebraska as the dog days of summer draw to a close and the school year begins.

Harvest festivals are a great way to celebrate the end of summer and the transition to a new season. It’s a time to enjoy the prosperous crop and an exposition for the year’s produce. Many communities statewide celebrate the harvest with their own autumn festivals.

Nebraska City’s 45th Annual Applejack Festival is one such festival. The whole family can enjoy a parade, a car show, and an arts and crafts fair from September 20-22. If activities are what you’re looking for, participate in the Fun Run/Walk, boogie at the AppleJam Carnival street dance, and stop by Kimmel Orchards or Arbor Day Farms to pick your own apples and feast on homemade apple pies and sweets.

And there’s more than just apples. You can pick your own produce at Roca Berry Farm in Roca, Neb., Martin’s Hillside Orchard in Ceresco, Neb., or Bloom Where You’re Planted Farm in Avoca, Neb. Kids will love scouring fields for pumpkins, picking raspberries, taking in the sights on hayrack rides, eating caramel apples, and exploring all kinds of farm-related activities.

After you’ve enjoyed the state’s fall harvest festivals and picked your bounty, head to one of Nebraska’s state parks for cool autumn events. Visit Mahoney State Park and gaze at the stars on August 16 and September 13, or listen to and tell great stories on September 14 at the 11th Annual Moonshell Storytelling Festival.

If adventure is what you’re looking for, head up to Ponca State Park September 21–22 for the 9th Annual Missouri River Outdoor Expo to learn about wildlife-related and outdoor recreation activities including wildlife viewing, fishing, hunting, archery, shooting sports, camping, off-highway vehicle recreation, and boating recreation.

The season may change, but the fun doesn’t have to stop!

Go to VisitNebraska.com to find more festivals and events to make your autumn truly festive.

Light Up Your Summer

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Mid-America Expositions

Nebraska may not be stereotypical wine country (Hello, California), nor does it play host to the world’s largest hot air balloon festival (that’s reserved for Albuquerque, N.M.). However, that hasn’t stopped Mike and Joe Mancuso from hosting a unique summer’s end event that combines the two in a family-friendly way. On the fringes of Omaha, wine is poured and balloons soar at the Nebraska Balloon & Wine Festival.

Attracting thousands of people each year, this is the event’s seventh anniversary. Happening August 9 and 10 at the Coventry Campus, just south of 204th and Q streets, this year promises an expanded event, with more wines to taste and enjoy and more family fun. The festival begins at 5 p.m. on Friday and 3 p.m. on Saturday. General admission adult tickets can be purchased at the entrance for $7 and children 12 and under tickets are $5.

“Part of the success that we’ve seen with the Taste of Omaha event is the high interest in doing an event in the western part of the city,” says Mike Mancuso, president of Mid-America Expositions, the producer of both the balloon festival and foodie event. “We thought the best atmosphere would be with hot air balloons, which turned out to be a positive and enjoyable part of the event.”DSC_1341_web

Half the festival’s namesake focuses on wine and the ever-growing popularity of wine tastings. Wine connoisseurs, wine lovers, and those interested in trying something new interact with chefs while sampling the various Cornhusker state wines throughout the duration of the festival. A special wine and food presentation will be given at 6 p.m. each night. Tickets can be purchased prior for $12, and includes five wines to taste and a souvenir wine glass, or they can be purchased at the festival for $15.

“This is the one time we can put all the Nebraska wineries together at one place. Nebraska is known for having great soil and producing great crops. Why not grapes and making great wine?” Mancuso says.

Mac’s Creek Winery & Vineyards, out of Lexington, Neb., has been participating in the festival since day one, seven years ago. Joining as a way to reach the Omaha wine market, the high attendance and exceptional running of the event kept the vineyard coming back, says Seth McFarland, owner and vineyard manager.

“We have vastly different wines [from California]. We have different grapes, which gives us a different starting point in terms of behavior growth,” says McFarland. “We’re also Nebraskans, so we’re not afraid of hard work. That, combined with the unpredictable weather, promotes exceptional flavors.”

“This is the one time we can put all the Nebraska wineries together at one place.” – Mike Mancuso

With more than six million spectators attending hot air balloon festivals each year nationwide, Nebraska is throwing its hat into the ring as a premier hot air balloon destination. At the festival, guests can take a hot air balloon ride, as well as see the balloons dance to the musical beat of live performances and witness a balloon light show. The balloons launch at 7 p.m., with the “Balloon Glow” light show beginning at 9 p.m.

Veteran balloonist Mark Enholm will conduct these balloon rides and light shows. Returning this year to serve as balloonmeister, Enholm has been with the festival since its inception. “My job is to coordinate the different balloonists and balloon events,” he says. “All of them are commercial pilots, meaning they’re licensed to carry two or three guests per flight. The first year, we had five balloons participate. This year, we’ll have nine or 10; most are local, though we’ve added one from Des Moines and another from Missouri.”

Enholm credits Mother Nature for contributing to the festival’s growth over the years. “We’ve been very lucky with the weather,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to get—rain, tornadoes, hail…In six years, we’ve been very successful in both our flights and the glows.”IMG_8070_web

He says the professionalism of the balloonists is also a factor. “The pilots go out of their way to make the rides fun and enjoyable. We don’t want riders white-knuckling it. The safety of our passengers is paramount.”

New to this year’s event is the Vintners’ Lunch. This special lunch, from noon until 2 p.m. on Saturday, focuses on supporting local businesses. Fresh, local foods will be paired with Nebraska wines by Omaha’s best chefs to provide a homegrown food experience for luncheon guests.

“Our VIP food and wine tastings have been so popular…we wanted to add another opportunity to add the wine to the food,” Mancuso says. “We thought since the vintners were staying with us overnight, it would be great for them to do a lunch before the last day of the event.”

That’s something Omahans can raise their glasses to.

For more information regarding the Vintners’ Lunch and the event itself, visit showofficeonline.com/nebraskawineballoonfestival.html.

Hit the Trails

Photography by Nebraska Travel & Tourism

Allow the beauty of Nebraska to inspire your family to get out and play together. Experience miles of renowned bike trails and hiking paths that wind through scenic splendor and offer breathtaking views. Nebraska is crisscrossed with dirt, gravel, and hard-surface trails that will guide you through some of the most beautiful parts of the state. So load up the bikes, lace up your hiking boots, and get the family moving.

One of the state’s premier destinations for trail seekers is Chadron State Park, tucked into the northwest corner of Nebraska. Mountain bikers come from far and wide to ride what are considered to be the top single- and dual-track destinations in the nation.

If hiking is more your style, head to Toadstool Geologic Park north of Crawford, Neb. Here, you will discover an unexpected, lunar-like terrain that’s perfect for exploring. Or take in the natural beauty and winding trails of western Nebraska’s Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area near Gering, Neb. Here, trekkers will discover rocky buttes and picture-perfect wilderness virtually unaffected by the passing of time.

The eastern end of the state offers a bounty of outdoor adventure as well. Hikers and bikers alike will enjoy the Cowboy Trail between Norfolk and Chadron, the nation’s longest rail-to-trail project in progress. The trail’s signature sites are its long bridges that offer spectacular views.

For mountain bikers, the Steamboat Trace Hike/Bike Trail along the Missouri River or the more metropolitan MoPac Trail West in Lincoln are great choices for an invigorating excursion.

Despite being surrounded by nearly a million people, Bellevue’s Fontenelle Forest is a haven of deep solitude with 17 miles of walking trails. In North Omaha, Neale Woods Nature Center’s nine miles of trails weave through heavy forests, hilltop prairies, and riverside woodlands.

With a state park system that stretches from border to border, you don’t have to go far to find quality trails. Spend a weekend camping at Branched Oak Lake State Recreation Area or rent a cabin or teepee at Platte River State Park—parks near the metro that offer several hiking and biking trails. Indian Cave State Park is almost 30 minutes southeast of Nebraska City, Neb., and near the city of Shubert on the Missouri River. It’s a 3,052-acre region that’s ruggedly pristine and has 22 miles of hiking and biking trails.

Hundreds of trails are waiting for you to explore, so go to VisitNebraska.com to find one to tackle today. Or order the new Nebraska Bicycle Map at transportation.nebraska.gov.