Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Top 10 Budget & Family-Friendly Things To Do in South Wisconsin | 2016Family Vacation Recap

Several months back, I told you about our new "Scratch Map" -- where you scratch off the states that you have visited, to reveal a full color map beneath.  Well, that map sparked our family vacation planning this year.  Our goal was to go somewhere new that was still within a reasonable driving distance for us and our three kids.  So, after looking many different directions, we decided on our 2016 Family Vacation destination...Wisconsin!

Enjoying the windmill farms as we travel through Indiana

Beautiful farmland views on our way North (from Alabama to Wisconsin)

Bison herd in Wisconsin
The resort we chose talked of being "all inclusive" -- having golf (not that we would ever golf!), horseback riding, petting zoos, indoor/outdoor waterpark, rock-climbing walls, and more...So honestly, I didn't do much "planning" prior to leaving for our trip.  I googled the area from time to time, but never saw any "must-do" things, so I quit planning and fully anticipated parking daily at the waterpark and just letting the kids live it up there, while I "relaxed".  Well, there were many "unplanned" circumstances and several "non-disclosed" details regarding those amenities at our resort, which that led me to searching out other things for us to fill our days with.  And, you know what?!  Those things are what the kids enjoyed most...the small, unique experiences that I originally didn't even know existed.  And those things are the reason I'm that, should you ever find yourself in the Mid/South Wisconsin area, you'll have a great start of frugal, family-friendly ideas of fun things to explore!!

More beautiful views of the farms

Here are a few of our personal favorites...

1.  Jelly Belly Warehouse Tour/Sampling (FREE)
Okay, so this was the coolest place (and the most talked about part of our vacation from our kids)!  I really didn't know what to expect, but we were pleasantly surprised!  It is decorated with all kinds of Jelly Belly art and history (which we all enjoyed!) You get a warehouse "worker" hat to wear through the warehouse tour, which is a little "train" that is narrated by an employee and also audio/videos at different spots.  You get to see "art" made from Jelly Belly candy...and when I say art, I mean impressive artwork.  And at the end of the tour, you are given your own sample bag of the original Jelly Belly flavors, and are then able to visit the Jelly Belly shop.  The Jelly Belly shop has (my kids' favorite) the sample bar of all of the Jelly Belly flavors -- including all of the yucky ones (skunk spray, stinky socks, rotten cheese, and more).  You can try any and all of them (you just have to have patience if there are many people there, as you have to ask for each one you want to try).  Thankfully, they also have a "can't handle it" trash can in case you need to spit out one of those yucky ones (Katie was thankful for that area!).  All of their store items are very reasonably priced, and they also have many clearance areas to shop at!  We spent less than $10 for our entire Jelly Belly experience, and came home with all kinds of treats and surprises for us and some of our friends/family!  I think my kids would have been perfectly content to visit here every day of our vacation, had we let them.  It's definitely a "must see" if you've never been!
Jelly Belly Warehouse Tour entrance

2.  East Troy Electric Railroad Train Depot/Museum
This small museum and train ride was a great highlight of our vacationing!  The fares were reasonable for a family (and free for 2 and under), and were good for the entire day.  I will say, as a visitor who knows nothing of the area, I expected the rides to be a bit different than they were.  Their website describes that there are 3 locations that the train stops at.  Honestly, I assumed that each of those locations were places that you'd spend some time, and then hop back on the train to get back by the last train pick-up time.  However, in reality, The Elegant Farmer stop was really the only time we "got out". (I'll highlight that stop later in the post).  It was totally worth the trip for the experience of a vintage electric railroad train ride...and the conductor was full of history, stories, and was especially great with the kids...but don't expect it to be a "full day" type of event.

The museum was a neat place to see, as can buy your tickets there, watch miniature train sets, see historical relics, and hear stories from the volunteers that work there.  It may not have been what I "expected", but it was definitely an enjoyable experience for all of us!  As a side note, there are multiple electric be sure you talk to the volunteers when you are buying your ticket to know which one you want to be on (ours was an old Chicago train complete with "flipping seats" that switched your position since the train doesn't actually turn around...which we all loved experiencing), but we passed an open air train, as thankful we weren't on that one on such a hot day!!  It pays to ask for those details that aren't totally clear on the site!

They also do "dinners" and other special events on the trains.  We weren't interested, but if that's your type of thing, be sure to look up those details, as well!

And, don't forget to stop in the old-fashioned ice cream parlor right next door to the museum for some great ice cream treats :-)

East Troy Electric Railroad Train Depot/Museum

Riding the train, old-style Chicago

3.  Elegant Farmer
We stopped at the Elegant Farmer while we were riding the East Troy Electric Railroad, and we loved it so much, we went back later on during our vacation for more fresh produce!  I will say, they have "daily specials" that are WAY cheap (our first day was very cheap, very GOOD blueberries)...we just assumed they were always that cheap, but two days later, the blueberries weren't so cheap, but watermelons were.  SO, I say that to say, if you are wanting to have some for now and some for later (as we did), buy it THEN...don't wait!  They have all kinds of fresh produce and great Wisconsin cheese, along with a little eatery, and their famous "paper bag apple pies"!  I never got it, but their grilled cheese sandwiches looked amazing!!

4.  Choo-Choo Charlie's Restaurant
We absolutely LOVED this little restaurant!  They had model trains all around the place, which the kids (especially Addison) were amazed with.  Those trains also "deliver" the food to your table area (just make sure you sit near the tracks, as some tables are too far away from the tracks to fully enjoy).  The kids were given colored pencils and crayons to "color" the tablecloth while we waited for our food, which was great for keeping them in good spirits, even after a long day.

The food was very reasonably priced and totally delicious!  Mark mentioned several times how "real" the chicken fingers tasted, instead of the "normal" fast food style typically tastes.  We were all full and fully satisfied with our lunch at this diner-style restaurant.

The kids also enjoyed ringing the bell and seeing "Charlie" the dog while there.  Great food, fabulous service, and super-sweet staff who went above and beyond to make our vacation as awesome as possible!  I highly recommend this place!!!
Watching the trains go around and around at Choo-Choo Charlie's

Visit Kenosha
So, we actually went to Kenosha specifically for Choo-Choo Charlie's Restaurant (which I had found reviews for online, and it seemed like a unique place to try).  But while at the restaurant, the owner came to our table and talked with us while we waited, gave us a great little magazine about things going on in Kenosha, recommended the 3 museums (that you'll hear about shortly), and even gave us a few tokens for the trolley system that picks up right outside of their restaurant.  This website (above) has great information like the magazine did, so I recommend checking it out for special events that may be going on.

5.  Kenosha Fine Art & Natural History Museum (FREE)
This is one of the 3 museums found in the Kenosha area (all very close together, and all are stops for the Kenosha trolley).  We didn't even know about these places prior to the manager at Choo-Choo Charlie's telling us about them!  But we had a great time at these museums!!  This one was full of fossils and artifacts of all kinds on the bottom floor, and a beautiful fine art museum on the top floor.  There was also a quaint souvenir shop with very reasonably-priced items.  And, what was better than a FREE history and art lesson that we all enjoyed!?!  And, it's opened daily...just check the times before you go.
Kenosha Fine Art & Natural History Museum

6.  Kenosha Dinosaur Discovery Museum (FREE)
Here is another of the free Kenosha museums (my kids' favorite)!  It was small, but had a huge amount of dinosaur fossils and replicas within it's walls.  Lots of dinosaurs that we had personally never heard of (and I have a dinosaur-loving little boy), so he was thrilled!  It also had an area where you could see the fossils that their archaeologists were currently working on, as well as a little kids area.  It didn't take us a long time to go through this museum, but again, it was free, and TOTALLY worth the time!  **It is CLOSED on Mondays, so if you are making plans to see all 3 Kenosha museums together, don't choose Monday!**
Kenosha Dinosaur Discovery Museum

7.  Kenosha Civil War Museum (Minimal Cost for Adults/Kids FREE)
This Civil War Museum was incredible!!  Definitely a one-of-a-kind museum.  I was thankful to see that they allowed all children in for free (a great way to encourage learning about our great country's history!).  There is a charge for adults, but it was totally reasonable...and even cheaper if you actually live in the area.  This Civil War museum focused mainly on the Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin areas and their parts in the war efforts.  The museum has many personal stories and testimonies all throughout, which made it make history truly come "alive" for the kids (and for me, too).  There was also a 360* movie presentation about "Seeing the Elephant" (when the soldiers actually saw battle for the first time), which was a very interesting and educational from several different perspectives.  I could have spent all day here, myself, reading about and looking at all of the many historical relics this museum held!  I highly recommend this museum.  It was a highlight for me on our trip, for sure!!

Kenosha Civil War Museum

8.  Racine Zoo
When I saw the zoo's cheap admission prices on the website, I figured it would have to be a sad excuse for a zoo...but I also knew it would fill a little time with the kids (even if I wasn't impressed).  So, we decided to give it a try, and we were all delightfully surprised!  Have I seen bigger and better zoos?  Well, of course...the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans is still my favorite, by far (but it is also more expensive).  But I have also paid much more for zoos that had much less to see/do.  This zoo was very kid-friendly...had lots of "shade" places as you walked...great interaction areas (even with wallabies!).  The animals were mostly all out and active, even in the heat.  And there was a great little play area that my kids would have stayed at all day, had I let them!  This one cost a little, but we all enjoyed our day at the zoo.  

Racine Zoo fun

9.  Menominee Park & Zoo, Oshkosh, Wisconsin (FREE)
Menominee Park & Zoo (City of Oshkosh site)
Visit Oshkosh Calendar Guide
So, I had NO idea what to expect at the Menominee Park area, but we had a little time to kill one afternoon and decided to give it a try.  I was hoping for a small play area for the kids.  BOY!  Was I surprised!!  This place was HUGE, and could easily take an entire day for you, should you want it to.  This park is surrounded by Lake Winebago (which to this small-town Alabama girl, looked like an ocean), where you could enjoy the water and sandy beach areas...and then they had nice shower/bathroom areas to clean up when needed.

But in addition to the beautiful lake scenery, there was a beautiful circular walk area that took you around and through a FREE zoo that housed both domestic and exotic animals.  My kids LOVED this little "surprise" to our park adventure.  There were probably 40 or so different animals there, and all were very easy to see.  (And, in case you need to know, there are bathrooms at the zoo entrance, as well!)

Then we made our way around to their really cool "wooden" playground area, where my kids could have played all day long!  It was a very large playground area, so I followed my kids around constantly, as you couldn't sit somewhere and see them all over the park, but it was lots of fun!  It was totally made for all ages...
Lake Winebago

Menominee Park & Zoo 

White Wolf in Menominee Park 

10.  Red Ridge Riding Stables
$3 off per rider PRINTABLE COUPON
We gave our kids the choice of one "special" outing (something that we knew would cost a bit more than our other activities)...horseback riding or an indoor waterpark.  To my surprise, they chose horseback riding, as it was something that they rarely get to experience (if ever)!  So, there were two riding stables (both near the Wisconsin Dells area) that I had found online, and both were comparable in price.  This one offered an additional $3 off per rider coupon (online), and mentioned many times on their site that their guided trail rides were perfect for beginners to advanced riders, so we decided to give them a try.  I knew I would not be riding, since I had Addison, so we would have 3 "mostly beginner" riders.  Helmets were offered, but not required (you did have to sign a waiver if you chose not to wear one), and who knows how often (if ever) they were sprayed or cleaned...but this momma is never without her Thieves Spray!

I guess my review of this place is both positive and negative, so please bare with me as I explain.  Upon arrival, there was no welcome area or person waiting to direct you to where you should be.  We made our way to the barn, where we met the owner, who is obviously great at what she does and loves horses (but lacks little to no customer relation skills).  She came across as very harsh and rude at times...I often thought, we just need to leave now.  There were also times that I thought she was kidding about her horses "needing" the treats (that you could purchase for an additional $5 or so), but then later came to realize that she made it clear (once the kids were on the horses) that they should have treats in order to ride.  I digress...but just suffice to say, she lacks people skills majorly...or maybe was having a really bad day.

She sent the group out with her helper, told me that we could hang out at the barn or clean stalls or whatever while we waited for the hour tour to be complete, but that she had somewhere to go (and she left!).  The mommy in me was trying to stay calm, but I was worried about my babies (but thankful my husband was with them).

Needless to say, despite the owners less than par customer relation skills and her seemingly rude attitude, my family loved their guide, their horses, and their ride!  Mark and the kids were told fun stories, etc. by the trailguide, and the kids talked about this horseback riding experience for weeks!  I think she really just needs a "storefront manager" to greet you with smiles and information, and then get you set on the ride while she takes care of the farm.  But that's just my two cents.

It was a great experience...but it would have been nice to know what we were walking into.  We may give the other stables a try, should we find ourselves there again, and just let her keep her $3 off.
Ready to Ride at Red Ridge Riding Stables
Addison loved the barn cats while we waited...

Those would definitely be the "highlights" of our trips, but we also enjoyed shopping in the Oshkosh area.  I think it's closed now, but Katie loved the one and only American Girl outlet store!  We also found a great little Lego hobby shop called Bricks & MiniFigs, where you could buy and sell legos in bulk or as individual pieces.  This place would be awesome for kids like my son, who love to collect the MiniFigures that *only* come in the $100+ sets!  We also stopped in a Once Upon A Child store and scored Katie an American Girl mini doll for only a few dollars!  Those are my types of {frugal} shops!!

The activities were fun and frugal...the views were breathtaking...the weather was picture perfect.  I absolutely loved our Wisconsin trip, and look forward to adding many more trips like that to our "map" over the next years!!