Surfing in Nebraska? It’s possible at Pawnee Plunge (columbusne.us) water park in Columbus (84 miles northwest of Omaha). The state’s only FlowRider surfing simulator lets surfers try to balance on big waves. For a milder experience, tube down the Lazy River or watch little ones scramble over the Explorer Ship, with its water cannon and toddler-friendly slides.
Pawnee Plunge, Columbus. Photo courtesy of Nebraska Tourism.
Thrill-seekers scream into a watery entry after plummeting down one of the six-story-tall, high-speed water slides at Island Oasis Water Park (grand-island.com) in Grand Island. If tame is your game, a 350,000-gallon wave pool with a zero-depth access is an easier way to get in the swim.
Find thrills for the entire family at Hastings Aquacourt Water Park (cityofhastings.org). Toddlers tag along on a family water slide, while older kids cannonball down the zippy tube slide. This park also contains a big wave pool and a river float, plus, it’s less crowded than most water parks.
Hang onto your inner tube and float in the wave pool at the Eugene T. Mahoney State Park’s (outdoornebraska.gov) Family Aquatic Center in Ashland. This 700-acre state park along the bluffs of the Platte River also features hiking, camping, an arboretum, a miniature golf course, and an arts and crafts center.
Eugene T. Mahoney State Park, Ashland. Photo by Blaine Moats.
Water towers at Mahoney State Park and at Splash Station (fremontne.gov) in Fremont dump thundering cascades of water into the pool every few minutes. Also at Splash Station, a colorful train engine beckons younger kids with easy stairs and water slides.
Kids can channel their inner boppers on the boogie-woogie keyboard at Norfolk’s AquaVenture Water Park (ci.norfolk.ne.us) in the northeast part of the state. The 8-foot-wide, foot-activated keyboard sprays as it plays. And a 310-foot-long slide courses through a dark tube with spiraling stripes of light for a thrilling experience.
The Big Blue Water Park (beatrice.ne.gov) in Beatrice (44 miles south of Lincoln) is so big there’s rarely a crowd in the 9,000-square-foot pool. Little ones splash in the kiddie pool with its bubbling fountain; the bigger kids head for the water slides and diving boards.
Museums and Discovery Centers
Bubbles big enough to encapsulate a child, and light and sound waves made of flame are some of the ways entertaining educators demonstrate how science works at the Edgerton Explorit Center (edgerton.org) in Aurora (22 miles east of Grand Island). The popular Explorit Zone includes more than 30 hands-on exhibits. Kids beware: There’s a good chance you’ll need to drag your parents away from the full-motion flight simulator.
Edgerton Explorit Center, Aurora. Photo courtesy of Nebraska Tourism.
The Archway (archway.org) monument and museum spans Interstate-80 near Kearney. It’s worth a stop at the 310-foot-long Archway to see how pioneers persevered along the Oregon Trail, when bison stampedes were still a threat. Outside the museum, kids follow a 4,800-square-foot labyrinth in the TrailBlaze Maze; parents watch from the Maze Overlook.
See an actual Pony Express Station at Minden’s Pioneer Village (pioneervillage.org) southeast of Kearney, where more than 50,000 pieces of Americana fill 28 buildings. Car buffs appreciate the 350-piece automobile collection, which shows the evolution of transportation.
Some 12 million years ago, northeast Nebraska was home to giant tortoises, saber-toothed deer, raccoon dogs and the barrel-bodied rhino. At Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park (ashfall.unl.edu) in Royal, watch paleontologists as they work to uncover Nebraska’s prehistoric past from this rare fossil bed. More than 200 amazing skeletons are preserved for viewing, and interpretive guides field questions from visitors.
Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park, Royal. Photo courtesy of Nebraska Tourism.
At the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum (sacmuseum.org) in Ashland, visitors see an awe-inspiring collection of some of the mightiest airplanes and rockets ever built. Kids gravitate to the state-of-the-art flight simulators, where they can strap in for anything from a scenic cruise to a combat mission.
Age-appropriate educational toys, interactive displays and engaging lectures make children's museums ideal for eager minds. At the Omaha Children’s Museum (ocm.org), the Fantastic Future Me exhibit lets kids digitally enhance their image with mix- and-match career-type outfits, such as a doctor’s coat and stethoscope, football helmet and chef’s hat.
Burrow out of sight in the kid-size Prairie Dog Tunnels exhibit at the Lincoln Children’s Museum (lincolnchildrensmuseum.org). At the North Platte Area Children’s Museum (npchildrensmuseum.com), youngsters role-play as actors and doctors. Experiment with microscopes and a Braille writing machine at the York Area Children’s Museum (yorkareachildrensmuseum.org).
Visitors to Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium (omahazoo.com) see snakes up close in the Desert Dome’s Rattlesnake Canyon, the largest indoor rattlesnake exhibit in the world. Kids climb through a tunnel and pop up in observation bubbles inside Gorilla Valley, where they’re face-to-face with massive primates. The new African Grasslands expansion stars giraffes, lions, cheetahs, zebras and a herd of elephants.
At the aquarium, tanks of slowly undulating jellyfish in fantastic shapes and colors mesmerize your troupe. With 1,200 species on 140 acres, this zoo—rated by TripAdvisor as one of the top 10 in the world—requires at least a full day to navigate.
Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. Photo by Jay Wilde
The original miniature Iron Horse train (now 50 years old) takes visitors on a one-mile loop to get a look at some of the Lincoln Children’s Zoo’s (lincolnzoo.org) more than 350 animals. At the primate exhibit, visitors try to spot pygmy marmosets—the smallest monkeys in the world. And kids with energy to burn dive into the giant sandbox and scramble up a rope wall.
Intriguing creatures lurk beneath the surface of Nebraska’s lakes and rivers, and you can see many of them at the AkSarBen Aquarium (outdoornebraska.gov) in Gretna (15 miles southwest of Omaha) on the banks of the Platte River. You’ll do a double take when you see the prehistoric paddlefish, with their long, shovel-like snouts. Guests walk past 12 exhibits of freshwater fish and amphibians at this aquarium.
When an elk bugles, the eerie call will likely grab your attention. That’s one of the wild encounters you might experience at the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari (wildlifesafaripark.com) in Ashland. A 4-mile driving trail brings you up close to the free-roaming bison, deer and elk on the park’s 440 acres of natural wetlands and prairies.
Scramble up the Viewing Tower to get a birds-eye look at the herons, Sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans living on 10-acre Crane Meadows. Wolf Canyon overlook provides access to hiking trails and to views of black bears and gray wolves.
Did you know the Colombian black-headed spider monkey has a fingerprint—on the tip of its tail? That’s just one of the fun facts you’ll uncover at Scottsbluff’s Riverside Discovery Center (riversidediscoverycenter.org), a 25-acre zoo and education facility in western Nebraska. The center houses about 175 animals and specializes in protecting and breeding threatened and endangered species from around the world.
Riverside Discovery Center, Scottsbluff. Photo courtesy of Nebraska Tourism.
Kids get down and dirty in the Dino Dig, where they experience the hands-on thrill of uncovering Tyrannosaurus bones. Young paleontologists cool off at the Splash Pad, a watery playground with fountains and jets.