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More Than Just BBQ: Visiting Kansas City with the Fam

Important note: I know the article title says it’s more than just barbecue, but GET THE BARBECUE. Eat all the barbecue. I mean, do other stuff obviously. But seriously, the barbecue must happen.

Now that we got that out of the way, we can move on to how to make the most out of a few fast days in the place nicknamed the “Heart of America” – Kansas City, Missouri.

Kansas City is likely not one of the first places that comes to mind when you think, “Hey, we live in Minneapolis. Let’s take a road trip somewhere.” But it can be. And it should be. While it’s double the trip time than, say, the trek to the North Shore, it is worth it for a change of scenery (so many fountains), some unique adventures (a college basketball experience or LEGOLAND perhaps?), and the AMAZING food (have I mentioned barbecue?). Our family took off on a Thursday after school allowing us full days on Friday and Saturday, with some pleasant pitstops on the way there and back, and you would not believe how much we fit in!

A 6.5 hour road trip from Minneapolis to Kansas City with three kids, two adults, and a trunkful of snacks, swimsuits, and sandals – we headed south for some “sort-of” sunshine. After this many lengthy treks in the car (and kids getting older), our family has it down pretty well, but if you need some pointers on road trips with kiddos, be sure to check out my blog “How to Family Road Trip Like a Boss.”

So what did we do? Where did we go? How did we fill our time? Here’s what we did on our KC adventure. My only regret is that we didn’t have enough time in our days to do everything the city has to offer!

ZOMBIE BURGER

Breaking up a drive of this duration is important with kids in the car. Our favorite pit stop on this road trip is absolutely Des Moines, Iowa. The lively downtown and paths along the Des Moines River are quite entertaining and beautiful. On our way to KC, we pulled into Des Moines right around dinnertime (3.5 hours into the trip) and knew exactly where we were planning on eating – Zombie Burger + Drink Lab!

Zombie Burger is in the East Village of Des Moines, easy to find street parking, and the kids love the post-apocalyptic decor that looks like something straight out of The Walking Dead. Definitely not scary – more comical – and the food hits the spot. The menu changes often, the craft beers are served cold, and their shakes are just as funky as the names of their burgers. Highly recommend! We never miss it.

Another three hours after we left Des Moines (with full stomachs and happy hearts), we arrived in Kansas City. Our first night there, nothing sounded better than a dip in the hotel pool, some Impractical Jokers on TV, a good night of sleep, and continental breakfast. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express just North of Downtown Kansas City and it did the job just fine.


How We Filled Day ONE:

Kansas City is quite literally the City of Fountains, with 200+ fountains existing (and constantly being kept up) since the late 1800s. Every park, grassy knoll or city corner seems to sport its own fountain, but the most sought out ones include the Bloch Fountain at Union Station (which presents a choreographed show every 90 minutes) and the Crown Center Fountains right in the main square, also has occasional choreographed shows). We encountered lots and lots of fountains, statues, and towers (next time, we really want to climb the WWI Tower) during our visit but the weather was not warm enough to splash ourselves with any of the water. “Darn,” mom says sarcastically.

Our family had a plan on Day One to divide and conquer. Our oldest is almost 13 and really into basketball. Our younger two are 10 and 6 and are super into LEGO. So instead of forcing Mr. Preteen to go to LEGOLAND, I took the littles there while he and dad went to The College Basketball Experience. BOTH were amazing. Wanna hear more?

LEGOLAND

We went on a Friday, booking the opening 11:00am time slot. The building is directly connected to Sea Life Aquarium, so even if the line looks overwhelming or filled with field trips, remember that at least half of those kids are probably going to look at fish. I was shocked at how quiet LEGOLAND was, especially at open and the early afternoon “napping hours.” I was slightly worried about the chaos feeling overwhelming or losing my kids, but the space is laid out very nicely and is definitely not dauntingly large. I never once stressed if one kid wanted to build a car while the other wanted to do the laser maze. Easy to keep my eyes on both spots at the same time – which, parents, I know you appreciate!

My pointers for ease of visit would be to purchase tickets online early, get there in the opening time slot, go on the two rides right away before the lines get long (because the lines moooooveeee soooo sloooooowly). And then maybe do the climbing wall and laser maze because those are the experiences that can also accumulate a wait time. The bathrooms are easy to find and conveniently located. There is a Starbucks in the space if mama needs a bevy. The space is cleaner than I expected but when it got crowded, it felt crowded.

The rest of the place is just interactive exhibits and spaces to play, which was awesome! My kid’s exhibit highlights were the car ramps (build your own car and test it on 3 different-sized ramps – warning: THEY WILL BREAK), Ninjago laser maze (lasts about 60 seconds but my 6-year old ninja wannabe thought this was SO COOL), the LEGO Art Gallery (you make your own tile “art piece” and hang it on the masterpiece wall – do you like mine? I worked really hard on it – “MOM RULES!”), walking through MiniLand (see LEGO builds of The Wizard of Oz, KC Chiefs Stadium, and an incredible replica of Kansas City), and the 4D theater show, all included in regular admission.

Other exhibits included a LEGO train playground, a DUPLO play spot, Merlins Apprentice Ride (think Disney’s Dumbo ride but with wizards instead of elephants), Kingdom Quest blaster ride (think Duck Hunt on a track), a train track, a build-your-own (LEGO) pizza parlor, LEGO Friends Lake City (so much pink!!!), earthquake tables, and a Ninjago climbing wall.

Speaking of cost, regular admission is $19.99/person. If you want to include the Virtual Reality ride and VIP Photo Pass, price goes up to $30.99/person. And if you have time to do LEGOLAND and Sea Life Aquarium, you can pay for a combo ticket for $32.99/person. We did the normal $19.99 and spent four hours there. Worth every penny.

Parking is pretty simple because you can just use the Crown Center parking ramp and get your ticket validated (covers the first 3 hours, I believe). Street parking is available too but harder to find and had a pretty short time allowance. Once you’re parked, you could also check out Crown Center (which is home to the Hallmark Kaleidoscope experience – Kaleidoscope is an amazing hands-on art exhibit for kids. We did this many years ago and loved every second of it, but unfortunately it was closed when we went. It will reopen June 7, 2022 so DO CHECK IT OUT – website is here and I promise you’ll love it. Oh, and it’s free. WOOOOOO!)


THE COLLEGE BASKETBALL EXPERIENCE (CBE)

While the two littler kids and I were at LEGOLAND, my husband took our 12-year old to The College Basketball Experience at the T-Mobile Center in downtown Kansas City. They are both basketball-obsessed so this was a much better fit for them than four hours of LEGO. Plus, admission to CBE was cheaper at only $13-17/person (kids 3 and under are free). There is no discounted parking or specific parking lot, so you can do a nearby ramp or street parking (both metered and non-metered). Current hours for the CBE are 10am-6pm from Thursday-Saturday, 11am-6pm on Sunday, and closed on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. You cannot order advance tickets or reserve a time – you just pay at the ticket window when you get there and you can re-enter throughout the entirety of the day.

If you’re like me, you might not get a whole lot of “But what is it?” answers via the CBE website or their social media pages. So what IS the College Basketball Experience exactly? This is all the information I got out of my husband and son:

The College Basketball Experience is an interactive and educational outing that is good for all ages interested in the sport. The space is home of the College Basketball Hall of Fame – with a giant room of all the inductees’ information and authentic medals and trophies. It is two levels high, with walls covered in history, photos, legends, record-breakers – an extravaganza of college legends! There are spots to check your shoe size, measure your vertical and test your wingspan. Also on the first floor is a small corner with a giant (low) hoop and soft balls for the tiniest ballers to go release some energy. There’s also TVs that challenge you to a Dance Dance Revolution-esque dribbling contest, an electronic passing challenge, and a few classic arcade basketball shooting games like you’d see at Chuck E Cheese.

The upper level has a full-size court, half-size court, electronic free throw contest spaces with authentic scoreboards, an interactive countdown court where you can take assigned shots from all angles of the basket, a “pretend you’re an announcer” area, and the “copycat shot” exhibit where you push the button and run to the lit-up circle on the floor and beat the buzzer – basically replicating famous moves from college all-stars. All the exhibits are interactive and allow you to just grab a ball and play. My son’s favorite spot was the “dunking hoops,” which is a lineup of hoops ranging from 8 to 10 feet high, challenging players to see how high they can really dunk.

Doing the Buzzer Beater Challenge – with the “support” of his father LOL

After a few hours of experiencing the CBE, my husband’s takeaways were to get there early because he can see it not being as enjoyable if it’s super busy. For a basketball fan, it’s super cool and worth the price of admission. Our 12-year old was an ideal age, he thought, but it would be enjoyed by younger or older kids as well. Avoid weekends if possible but remember it’s only open Thursday through Sunday. Everything is inside so this could be something to do during the colder months too. Was a unique stop for the boys and I’m really happy they did it.


JOE’S BARBECUE

Remember at the top of this article I said to make sure you save room for all the barbecue? I was NOT kidding. There are so many amazing food joints in KC, but being in the location it is and having the reputation it does, you’d be deprived of the full Kansas City experience without hitting up a barbecue meal at least once (if not twice…or thrice…no judgement). We posted online in the MinneMama Adventures Facebook Group asking what not to miss in the world of BBQ in KC and Joe’s Kansas City was hands-down the most frequently mentioned. Since that aligned with everything my husband had read, we knew we had to go, no matter how long the line might be.

Joe’s Barbecue has a few Kansas locations, but we were determined to eat at the OG. The original Joe’s was built in a gas station in 1996 so it’s not like it’s been around forEVER, but 25 years is a good run and they’ve made themselves quite legendary in that amount of time. It can definitely be busy at this location since it’s such a famous choice, but when we went we were pleasantly surprised to not stand in line for more than five minutes. Also definitely worth noting: THEY ARE CLOSED ON SUNDAYS. All other days they open at 11am and close at 9 or 10pm.

The single file line to order sits next to the kitchen space and the right is all indoor dining. They do have some limited outdoor seating too but we decided to eat inside so we could smell the meat (that sounded less awkward in my head). When it was our turn to order, everyone scrambled to make their final decisions and landed on burnt ends, pulled pork, a Carolina pork sandwich and ribs. I regret not getting a “Z-man” which is their signature sandwich (meat choice with crispy onion rings on top), but we were all very pleased with our meals. They had a couple sauces on the table to choose from – original and a little spicier – and we made sure to douse our food in it all. We got local beers from their tap options and the kids got refillable sodas.

The slaw was so so yummy, the fries were the perfect amount of crisp, and they have a store that sells sauces, spices, t-shirts, and other various tchotchkes to commemorate your classic Kansas City dining experience. See their whole menu here. Not planning on heading to KC anytime soon but you’re drooling over the food from your own hometown? Have it delivered directly to you – it’s not a cheap option, but authenticity has a price.


CITY MARKET IN THE RIVER MARKET

Ahh, River Market – a beautiful diverse community near downtown Kansas City that is filled with life, art, shopping, history and food. We spent a whole lot of time walking these streets after eating all our barbecue, taking in the skyline, stopping at a cookie dough food truck, buying stuff we don’t need from street art vendors, and taking note of the massive list of breweries, coffee and ice cream shops and restaurants we could choose from next time we head to the city.

Our end destination was the City Market, a public farmers’ market with a long history and over 30 year-round local growers and sellers offering speciality foods, meats, produce, flowers, apparel and more. The hours vary by season, but we were there on a spring Friday and, while I did wish we were there for the Saturday or Sunday market, this at least allowed us to see the space, buy a churro, and listen to a little live music. The City Market is constantly hosting events – check them out online to see if your trip might coincide with one.

Free parking for the City Market is available in the Market Square on weekdays but free street parking (or paid parking) is readily available (or consider taking the KC Streetcar). Directions and hours of the City Market can be found here.

There is a huge building near City Market that is home to the Arabia Steamboat Museum, a paid museum ($5.50/kids; $14.50/adults) that tells the story of a steamboat lost in the Missouri River in 1856 and recovered in 1988. For any vessel-lovers out there, this could be a nice stop for the memory book.

We walked through Union Station and over some cool train tracks and bridges as we made our way back to our car. Having zero plans that evening, we debated a few options…

1) Do we head west 10 minutes and go to Fritz’s Express for dinner? Fritz’s is a railroad-themed hamburger joint where an electric train actually brings your meal to your table – no servers needed. (There is also a Fritz’s in Crown Center, FYI). Decided kids were a little old for it.

2) Do we go out for MORE barbecue? We talked about Jack Stack or Slap’s BBQ or Arthur Bryant’s or Gate’s – all contenders in the “best BBQ” category. Decided no to more barbecue that night.

3) Do we do something mom and dad want to do because we just spent hours playing with LEGOS and eating cookie dough? Yes. This was the decision. So we wound up driving into the Iron District and it was an ideal and beautiful way to end the night…


IRON DISTRICT

While looking for something to do that was family-friendly but had an adult vibe, we happened to drive past this barrage of brightly-colored shipping containers in North Kansas City and heard live music from our open car windows. My husband slowed down so we could see the hubbub and it turns out we were driving right past the Iron District, a unique outdoor “block party” that supports local start-ups with entertainment, retail and dining options. This little surprise wound up being my favorite find of the trip!

The Iron District sits on the corner of 16th Ave. and Iron Street, about 5 minutes north of downtown and is only open Thursday-Saturday in the summer (hours vary by day and season – check their website to stay updated) and the vendor list changes out to highlight various businesses. We were super excited about our vendors – the nachos from the Taco Tank were some of the best I’ve ever had (and I know me some nachos) and the Tiki Huna offered some excellent cocktail drinks. The actual artistic arrangement of the place was what our family loved about it the most though (yes, even more than the nachos). With the live music playing in the corner, we were able to hear it AND each other talking from our clean and adorable picnic table upstairs while umbrella-clad tables filled the space below us. And dogs – so many dogs. It was a great way to spend a sunny Kansas City evening and we would be frequent visitors if we lived in the area.


How We Filled Day TWO:

KANSAS CITY ZOO

If you cannot tell from the ridiculous photo below of my equally-ridiculous kindergartener, we spent a large chunk of our second full day roaming around the enormous and beautifully-kept Kansas City Zoo. Do I love zoos? They’re not my favorite. Maybe I’ve seen too many “bad” ones in my day, heard too many stories, witnessed too many tiny enclosures or sad wildcats. But THIS zoo – well, this zoo does it as right as a zoo can do. Our kids thought it was so amazing and I have to say, it was the best zoo I’ve been to in forever.

Be sure to plan this day ahead of time because the zoo closes “early” (like, 4-5:00) and it really takes a long time to do the whole zoo so go early. And ordering tickets online will save you money too. Check their seasonal hours here. If you don’t have a specific date you need to see the zoo, I suggest purchasing your tickets for the first day of your trip because they are good for up to 60 days after your selected date. That way, if it weather looks iffy or something comes up and you need to be flexible with your zoo day, you can be.

How much are we talkin?
Ages 2 and under are always free but all other guests who pay ahead of time online (excluding KC Zoo members and Jackson County residents) will pay either $17-18 depending on age.

The zoo also offers Platinum or Gold vouchers. These are basically add-ons of different levels and range from $7-10/person. The Platinum wristband includes unlimited rides on the African Tram, KCZoo Railroad, Sky Safari, Endangered Species Carousel and Kenyan Cruise. The Gold wristband is all of those except the Sky Safari and Kenyan Cruise. You CAN also purchase these add-ons individually for a range of prices per person, but when we added it all up, the wristband would’ve been a much better deal for our family of five.

What are these add-ons, you ask?
This is a BIG zoo, so these transportation add-ons are super nice to get you from point A to point B – especially when it’s hot and little legs are losing energy. The zoo is separated by country and it definitely takes awhile to cover the entire world on foot. The African Tram will take you from the main bulk of countries to Africa, which is a bit separated from everything else. The Railroad is a simple train that takes you around the Australia/Tropics/Water animal portions with a fun lit-up tunnel our kids enjoyed. The Sky Safari is located in Africa and takes you over top the animals of the African safari (like giraffes, zebras, and ostrich, but we had a hot afternoon so they were all hiding for our ride). The carousel sits right next to the penguins and there was not a big line for this one, so we went on multiple times. All the other rides had decent lines so I recommend maybe getting on as many as you can early in the day before it reaches its busiest. If I could do it again, I would head straight to Africa in the morning and do the tram and sky ride, see the safari at its liveliest, and come back to see the portion near the entrance last. Oh, and the Kenyan Cruise, a relaxing boat cruise around the safari, looked amazing but it was closed when we went. Boo!

And more…
Strollers are pretty easy to use at this zoo as most paths are paved or graveled nicely (can rent single/double strollers or a wagon for under $12/day). You can bring in food and drink and there’s a lot of seating for picnics. Don’t want to lug all your own food in? Try one of the five restaurant/snack options at the zoo. Expect classic zoo prices and options if you eat here, but we saved some money by getting the refillable drink container for the whole family to share. You can leave the zoo to eat at the car and come back in with a hand stamp.

Each day there is a schedule posted with feeding times, sea lion shows, and animal demonstrations. Check the website beforehand to plan out your day. Animals like morning time, so get there early for the most action. Bring quarters to feed the farm animals. Wear comfortable walking shoes. Pack water bottles and sunscreen if it’s hot. Bring hand sanitizer because, well, it’s a zoo. Don’t miss walking amongst the kangaroos. Check out the new alligator alley and (coming in 2023) the aquarium. Pet the stingrays. And take your time if time allows. There’s lots to do and if you have the ability to make it all count, make it all count.

And make room for the gift shop – it is not tiny and your animal-lover might have a hard time pulling the decision trigger (like my daughter, who spent 40 minutes searching high and low for a squirrel monkey, which they DID have as a plush – I’ve never seen her so ecstatic!).



BOULEVARD BREWING COMPANY

Do you like beer? If the answer is yes, read on. If not, do you like craft cocktails? Seltzers? Artichoke dip? Meat and cheese trays? If the answer is yes, you can read on as well.

Because Boulevard Brewing Company – a Kansas City staple since 1984 – has it all. Not to mention an awesome building, outdoor space, and large free parking garage. Is a brewery the most kid-friendly activity we could list in this blog? No. But we DID just spend all day at the zoo, and dogginnit, we deserved a quality Boulevard lager and a big ass bowl of pretzels, amIright?!

Our kids had a good old time here anyway. We found a table, bought them each a Polly’s soda (the cherry tastes like cough medicine, according to my children), ordered ourselves a beverage, and chatted about our time at the zoo like we would at home around the dinner table. You can do a tour here as well (one hour long, not recommended for young kids, every ticket is $10 regardless of age), but that did not interest any of us – especially the kiddos. But if you have a more inquisitive beer-making mind, maybe consider it. Kids are only allowed on the public brewery tour.

When you park near Boulevard, you’ll want to go into the space pictured below. They’ve gained number of buildings over the years but the Tours & Recreation Center (below) is where you can sip, sample, and mingle with a glass, a flight or a crowler from the crowler station. Also – there’s a gift shop. Try the Tropic Slam Ale or Unfiltered Wheat Hazy – highly HIGHLY recommend both.

Believe it or not, that was our day in a nutshell. No vacation day should end without a dip in the hotel pool, so we of course did that (even me!). Exhausted from 22,000 steps at the zoo, we barely had energy to think about food, but after our quick dip, we ended our night eating in our pajamas, hair still wet and filled with chlorine, at The Waffle House.

The only ones there, a jukebox playing the oldies, and three happy kids who were allowed to order whatever they wanted off the menu at 9:30pm – it almost doesn’t get any better. After gobs of greasy eggs and enough chocolate chip-covered pancakes to feed a small village, we decided we should probably get some sleep. And we did. Hard.

DES MOINES, IOWA

I know, I know, we already stopped in Des Moines on the way TO Kansas City. But there’s a lot to explore here and it is literally halfway between KC and MPLS, so it just makes the most sense. So on the way back home on Sunday, we made an extra long pitstop in this city again and got some steps in (took some calories in too).

The Des Moines River is really a beautiful sight. Again, lots of bridges to choose from (our favorite was the “Women of Achievement” Bridge – love the name too!). We parked in the East Village area, saw the state capitol, walked Grand Avenue, peeked into some bookstores and coffee shops, found the Robert D. Ray Asian Garden (cool story, read the panels), cruised the Riverwalk, climbed at the skate park on the river, and ate the world’s most unhealthy and DELICIOUS cinnamon roll at Cinnaholic. I wanted to also get to the Pappajohn Sculpture Park on the other side of the river, but alas, time did not allow. Guess we will have to go back again someday.

The road trip is part of the trip, so make it exciting! Google “playgrounds” and get out and let them run. Type in “trailhead” and take a short hike. Search “local ice cream” and grab some sugary goodness. Pull over at a random rest stop and swing from the trees. Fill up with gas and let everyone in the car get a special treat. The drive shouldn’t be a chore – it should be a piece of the whole adventure. Easier said than done, yes. But definitely doable.

Upon our arrival home as we crashed into our own beds, I told my husband I wished we could’ve stayed just one more day…or three. I had a list of adventures we didn’t have time to get to, so I’ll share those with you here. Then go – plan your trip – bring the kids – and enjoy all the barbecue.

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