Middle America is called flyover country, but acclaimed destinations are giving people new reasons to put boots on the ground here.
In 2018, Tulsa’s Gathering Place was named the nation’s best new attraction, courtesy of the USA Today Readers’ Choice Awards.
In 2017, the award went to the Wonders of Wildlife Museum & Aquarium in Springfield, Missouri, which since has been voted the nation’s best aquarium.
Score it this way: Middle America is on a winning streak.
Shelby Stephenson and animal keeper Keaton Garland embarked on a recent publicity tour to help spread the word about the Wonders of Wildlife Museum. They brought company with them to the Tulsa World’s newsroom: a Swainson’s hawk named Oliver and an African pygmy hedgehog named Harley. The hedgehog was named after the DC Comics character and has a sister named Quinn.
The best part of making road trips with Oliver and Harley?
“We get to take them into our hotel room and just spend time with them,” Garland said. “I mean, how often do you get to get to say that you just kind of hang out with a hedgehog on the floor?”
Oliver and Harley were on their best behavior during a photo shoot and, of course, they made new friends.
“I would say one of my favorite parts of getting to travel with these animals is what we saw just a few minutes ago and that is peoples’ delight when they see them and that’s exactly what we do at Wonders of Wildlife,” Stephenson said.
“It’s all about surprising people and introducing them to things they maybe have not seen. ... It’s about amazing visitors with how incredible nature is with a goal that, you know what, I want to get outside with my family. I am going to put down the cellphone, turn off the television and get some time in the great outdoors.”
The Wonders of Wildlife Museum is the great indoors. It’s a 350,000-square-foot museum and aquarium with approximately 35,000 live animals, including mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians.
“To put that in perspective, that makes us larger than the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in D.C., so this place is big,” Stephenson said.
“We have got a mile and a half of trails that you are going to wind through on your journey through Wonders of Wildlife and you will experience habitats from all around the world. You are going to travel through all seven continents. You are going to travel through the African savanna, where you might run into creatures like Harley. You are going to travel through Antarctica and the Himalayan mountains and the Amazon rainforest.”
Visitors can even explore a shipwreck on the ocean floor, according to Stephenson.
“And while you are doing this, you are fully immersed, so it’s a 4D facility. You are experiencing changes in sound effects, temperature, smell — everything you are doing. You have left Springfield, Missouri, and you are actually in these different parts of the world. The whole reason we do that is with the goal of introducing people to our amazing planet and the creatures that we have in hopes that it will inspire them to go spend time outdoors and ultimately get involved in conservation.”
A sister property to the south (Dogwood Canyon Nature Park) presents an opportunity to experience the Ozarks after experiencing the world. Visitors to the nature park can go trout fishing and horseback riding, in addition to seeing bison, elk and longhorn cattle.
Stephenson, noting that Springfield is on the path from Tulsa to Branson, said she hopes visitors from Oklahoma and the region will make the trip to the Wonders of Wildlife Museum.
“We are not even 2 years old yet, but in our first year alone, we welcomed 1.6 million visitors from all around the country and even around the world, which was really exciting to see,” she said.
Stephenson said the museum was 10 years in the making, and it represents a lifelong dream fulfilled for Bass Pro founder Johnny Morris, who wanted to take inspiration from great natural history museums around the country and create a 21st century facility in the heartland of America.
Said Stephenson: “Making a trip to New York or D.C. is not as feasible for people who live in the Midwest, but a trip to Springfield, Missouri, it’s right in their backyard and it’s this amazing facility where they can go and learn and enjoy.”
For operating hours and information, go to wondersofwildlife.org.
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