Creating a New Legacy
Ropes courses and water playgrounds… state-of-the-art aquariums and touch tanks… these are just a few of the exciting attractions coming soon as part of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Venture Parks complex. Yet excitement isn’t the Commission’s only goal.
After the opening of Platte River State Park’s Crawdad Creek in the fall of 2016, Owen Roberts-Day visited with his daughter, Hattie. Owen watched his daughter happily playing in the water, where children are encouraged to get wet and learn about the creek’s resident ﬁsh and frogs. She repeatedly pulled the trigger on her water pistol, shooting water into the creek.
“As a teacher, I know many families who can’t afford to go on lavish vacations, but can afford the $6 it takes to get a carload of people into one of our state parks for a day,” said Roberts-Day, who frequently visits Nebraska’s state parks with his family. “Plus, it’s right here in our own backyard.”
Since 1921 when Nebraska’s first state park opened near Chadron, Nebraska’s state parks and recreation areas have provided families and individuals the chance to hike, ﬁsh, camp and enjoy Nebraska’s great outdoors. Over the years, as park visitors’ tastes have evolved, Nebraska’s state park system has responded by offering larger and more modern lodging, more electrical sites, and wheelchair-accessible ﬁshing piers, among other features.
But Crawdad Creek, with its picturesque pools that invite park guests to get wet, is new territory. It was the very ﬁ rst feature to be completed as part of the Venture Parks complex, which aims to meet the needs of a new generation of park visitors who expect more activities and amenities.
Venture Parks will bring innovative, educational, exciting and often unexpected features including a treetops ropes course, a climbing wall, glamping cabins and much more to four southeastern Nebraska parks – Eugene T. Mahoney State Park, Platte River State Park, Schramm Park State Recreation Area and Louisville State Recreation Area.
“We wanted to look at our parks differently – to use them differently – to introduce people to a safe environment where they could experience nature,” said Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Director Jim Douglas.
Crawdad Creek is just the start.
“The most exciting parts for me about the Venture Parks complex is meeting the needs and wishes of the next generation of parkgoers in a way that leads to a greater appreciation for the outdoors, and watching the combined enthusiasm of all the people that are making this happen.” — Jim Douglas, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Director
What do we want to become?
The Venture Parks concept began in 2014 when Douglas asked a small group of his staff a question: “Who are we and what do we want to become?”
For years the state’s 77 parks and recreation areas had offered various activities: horseback riding, swimming, ﬁ shing, wildlife viewing and kayaking among others. But the group knew they would need to add exciting, family-friendly attractions to continue to draw visitors.
“Because of the changing demographics and social norms of people in Nebraska and beyond, we decided that some portion of our state park system needed to be more than a walk in the park,” said Douglas. The group knew that different people sought different experiences from the outdoors. Some wanted excitement, while others a spot where they could spend a tranquil afternoon.
Douglas and his colleagues began to discuss what a new type of state park system might look like. “It was a small group of us in an outdoor setting,” Commission Division Administrator for Parks Jim Swenson remembered, “and we started to ask each other questions: What made you want to come and work for the Nebraska Game and Parks? What caused you to love the outdoors? How do we capture these ideas and invigorate visitors to have those same outdoor desires?”
Those conversations sparked plans and fundraising efforts to create new amenities at these four parks.
As the projects began to take shape, Douglas and his team honed in on the logistics of overhauling these very popular parks. They hired a consultant who advised them how much visitation would have to grow and how much they would have to charge for new attractions to ensure the project would be financially self-supporting. They decided to divide the project into four phases, adding new features and activities over the course of several years.
They then embarked on an aggressive fundraising campaign to raise the estimated $35 million the new attractions are projected to cost. The ﬁrst people they approached was the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Board, whose immediate excitement for the project led the group to the Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation, which has a mission of stewardship for Nebraska’s outdoor and recreation resources. Dick Bell, the Commission Chairman and Foundation member, was key to what has been a successful fundraising effort.
“Thanks to our innovative public-private partnership and many generous donors, the Venture Parks complex is becoming a reality,” said Bell.
The Nebraska Legislature in 2015 approved the estimated $35 million project and authorized $7.3 million of Commission cash funds to be used for the project. Together with the Foundation, the Commission approached private donors with the goal of raising nearly $28 million of the $35 million needed for the project.
In 2016, ground broke on the Venture Parks complex.
An Exciting “Edventure”
Aksarben Aquarium has, since 1979, been a place for school-age children in the Omaha and Lincoln areas to come in contact with nature. However, with education displays dating back to its opening, it is time for a learning upgrade.
The Aquarium’s new Interactive Exploration Center will focus on the state of Nebraska’s most valuable resource – water. The new-and-improved aquarium will feature tanks triple the size of the old ones, and will house entire ecosystems.
Visitors will be able to see how coolwater streams ﬂ ow into rivers and ﬁnally into reservoirs. A farm pond ecosystem will be featured in its own tank, as will small species such as stonerollers and daces that people don’t often see.
Finally, visitors will have the opportunity to touch live ﬁsh in the shovelnose sturgeon touch tank. For Swenson, this project is personal. As a child, he often tagged along with his dad and grandpa when they were spending time outdoors, which inspired his career in conservation more than anything he learned at school. “At the aquarium kids can learn and not even know they’re learning,” he said. “You can teach kids in the classroom, but you also have to let them touch it and smell it for these kids to fully appreciate what they’re looking at.”
The nature center will also feature live animals – including snakes, turtles, and frogs – and young visitors and students will have the opportunity to play on a 12-feet-tall bur oak tree slide, crawl across balance beams, and ride a stationary bike that, with the help of 55-inch TV screens, simulates mountain biking the trails at nearby Platte River State Park. For visitors who want to spend their day outside, improved Platte River access will make it easier to canoe and kayak.
At Aksarben, adaptability will take center stage. “When you go into most museums, their displays are 80 percent permanent and 20 percent changeable,” said Outdoor Education Specialist Lindsay Rogers, “but we wanted to design something that featured the opposite. We want people to understand that nature isn’t stagnant, so their nature center shouldn’t be stagnant either.”
Platte River State Park
Find your Wild Side
Crawdad Creek features ﬁve shallow ponds that empty into Jenny Newman Lake and gives kids the opportunity to watch tadpoles, dip their toes in the water and feel mud run through their ﬁngers.
By the time the summer of 2018 rolls around, visitors to Platte River State Park, which opened in 1982, will be able to take a walk right up the hill from Crawdad Creek and visit the park’s new two-tiered splash pad, a replacement for the park’s pool.
Platte River State Park will also offer the state park system’s ﬁrst “glamping” opportunities. Glamping is an upscale camping option, also known as luxury camping, and the park’s three glamping cabins will feature queen-sized beds that can be rolled onto a deck for people to sleep under the stars.
Eugene T. Mahoney State Park
Unleash the Adventure
The Nebraska State Parks system welcomes an estimated 12 million guests per year, and Eugene T. Mahoney State Park remains one of the top tourist attractions in the state. The park’s Family Aquatic Center alone hosts more than 100,000 visitors during the three-month summer season. So it was no surprise that Mahoney would become a centerpiece in the Venture Parks complex.
Mahoney will feature a new tubing/sledding run located on the hill east of the Family Activity Center that will provide families fast-paced thrills that can be enjoyed throughout the year – as Winter Wonderful during the snowy months, including a snow-making machine, and an Alpine Slide area in the spring and summer months.
Just up the hill at the Family Activity Center, a location that already features an ice skating rink during the winter months and an indoor playground all year, a 40-foot indoor climbing wall will be added. In addition, a treetop ropes course will be constructed down the road from the Center, and will feature ziplines, rope swings and a suspended walkway, as well as interactive educational displays depicting the native wildlife, plants and trees of Nebraska.
Louisville State Recreation Area
A Natural Place to Get-Away
Water adventure will be the headliner at Louisville State Recreation Area. From water rope swings to a 21,000- square-foot ﬂoating playground, Louisville will become one of the state’s most exciting camping and water fun hotspots.
Visitors will be able to rent watercycles and paddleboards, and access the Platte River from a new airboat ramp and canoe/kayak landing for ﬂoat trips. “Water is a magnet for people,” said Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Assistant Director Roger Kuhn, “so we want to give easier access so it’s more inviting for users to get on the Platte River.”
Construction on these Phase I Venture Parks projects is currently underway, and many of these features will be open for use in 2018. Other projects, including the ones below, will follow.
At Schramm Park State Recreation Area, a treehouse classroom will overlook an interactive stream and a rock-skipping station. Current hiking trails will also be updated for mountain bike use, and a Captn’ Jim’s Pirate Rafts attraction, which is a raft building activity, will be located on one of the existing hatchery ponds.
Less than 15 minutes away, Platte River State Park will boast an obstacle course, small zipline and ropes course for younger participants, and improved river access for canoes and kayaks. Also, a natural playground and rock wall will help visitors ﬁ nd their own wild side. Finally, visitors will also have the opportunity to use 49 full-service RV campground sites.
At nearby Eugene T. Mahoney State Park, a lazy river attraction and zorbing will be created at the Family Aquatic Center, a “Mudville” area will lure those not shy of getting dirty, and an interactive trail system will welcome hikers and bikers looking for excitement while walking and riding through the park.
Down the road at Louisville State Recreation Area, ﬁshing enhancements, trail development and interpretation, and a King of the Hill attraction will welcome all ages.
Jim Abel, Chairman of the Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation, believes the Venture Parks initiative is an exciting project and is proud that the Foundation’s efforts will beneﬁ t Nebraskans and those visiting our state who are interested in the outdoor experience. Abel, along with the Foundation’s Board of Directors, feels the varied attractions at the four Venture Parks will encourage people to visit each of the parks.
“Given the proximity of the four parks to one another, parkgoers will easily be able to experience each location’s unique activities and attractions,” said Abel. “The Foundation envisions a new connection and purpose for visiting these four parks located in the Platte Valley. These newly developed features will appeal to our existing park visitors and attract a new generation of parkgoers. This will be a major Nebraska tourist destination. The Nebraska Outdoor Venture Parks will be something very special.”
These four Platte River parks will also answer the questions from Douglas and his staff of “Who are we and what do we want to become?” But they will accomplish even more for Douglas. “The most exciting parts for me about the Venture Parks complex is meeting the needs and wishes of the next generation of parkgoers in a way that leads to a greater appreciation for the outdoors,” Douglas said, “and watching the combined enthusiasm of all the people that are making this happen.”
Nebraska’s Outdoor Venture Parks was written by Jeff Kurrus, and printed in the January-February 2018 issue of NEBRASKAland Magazine, published by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.