There’s nothing quite like a carousel ride for the young and the young at heart.
Listening to the cheerful organ music playing as you glide along on a brightly painted pony while the outside world, with its stresses and cares, blurs to meaninglessness, is probably as close to paradise as an earthbound mortal can get.
The C.W. Parker Carousel Museum, 320 S. Esplanade in nearby Leavenworth, is a little touch of paradise in Kansas. It doesn’t just appeal to kids; its collection of historical carousel horses and other carnival and amusement park memorabilia will evoke feelings of nostalgia in their parents and grandparents, too.
Named one of the “Eight Wonders of Kansas” by the Kansas Sampler Foundation, the nonprofit museum is located in the former factory of C.W. Parker, “the Carnival King” and once the largest manufacturer of carousels and amusement rides in the world.
Your tour of the museum begins with a short film about the life and times of C.W. Parker (born in 1864), a flamboyant and extremely enterprising entrepreneur who began his career with a simple carnival game (a “high striker” device) in Abilene when he was just 17 years old.
Parker bought his first carousel soon afterward and then decided to improve the design by building his own. Just 10 years after starting with nothing but a broken-down, used carousel, he was a millionaire.
In 1910, he moved his factory operation to Leavenworth, where his business continued to grow to the point of having four carnival trains crossing the country at one time. The museum today offers countless interesting artifacts from his amusement park business, including two working Parker carousels, the 1950 “Liberty” carousel and a 1913 carousel, which includes two whimsical “Kansas jackrabbits” along with the usual horses. Also on display, a Primitive (hand-cranked) 1850 carousel, with horse bodies made from hollowed-out logs, is too fragile to be ridden.
The best part of your visit, of course, is climbing aboard one of those beautiful horses (or jackrabbits) and hanging on for dear life while the 1913 carousel (the second-fastest in the country) revolves at an astonishing speed.
If you’re feeling a bit peckish after your whirlwind ride, Leavenworth offers a variety of options for satiating your hunger and thirst. Housed in a 19th century cast-iron stove manufactory, High Noon Saloon & Brewery, 206 Choctaw St., warms modern tummies with an award-winning selection of hand-crafted beers and a menu of burgers (beef and buffalo), steaks, prime rib and other hearty fare. Visitors can sip a tasty sextet of ales and lagers, which are crafted in small batches on-site and served in 4-ounce samplers, 16-ounce pints, and even 32-ounce gusto mugs (for exceptionally parched palates).
The wooden main bar at the High Noon Saloon was built in 1894. Rest your foot on its well-worn brass rail, and you might be touching history! In its prior location inside a local historic hotel, Abe Lincoln was reported to have rested his presidential-hopeful foot on this same foot rail.
The Corner Pharmacy, 429 Delaware St., is the real deal, a charming touch of nostalgia that will make baby boomers reminisce about the “good old days.”
This pretty 1905 building (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) houses a soda fountain and lunch counter that was rated the “No. 1 old-time soda fountain” in the Kansas City area. In addition to the mouthwatering creamy goodness of ice cream, floats, malts, sundaes, banana splits and milkshakes, you can also order items like burgers, fries and pork tenderloins from the old-fashioned grill. Families will love the low prices, too.
Railroad buffs will get a kick out of eating at the Pullman Place Family Restaurant, 230 Cherokee St., with its antique railroad décor, unique train memorabilia, and “hometown diner” atmosphere. Underneath a glass-topped table, you can view a model railroad, with a working antique train. While you’re keeping your eye on the miniature rail cars, please your taste buds with items from the menu, like burgers, fish and ribs.
Historic downtown Leavenworth provides an eclectic variety of shopping — from antiques to British tea selections to handmade jewelry.
The Book Barn, 410 Delaware St., is a cluttered (in a truly delightful way), dog-friendly, independent bookstore run by Bob and Barb Spear, both passionate booklovers. (They are always hosting fun, family-friendly events.)
Queen’s Pantry, 510 Delaware St., carries more than 170 blends of loose tea, including black, herbal, green and rooibos, as well as British groceries and tea accessories.
The “First city of Kansas” offers many more attractions, but I hope that I’ve whetted your appetite enough that you want to jump in the car and explore it yourself. Happy daytripping!