A great weekend’s journey is right inside our region. Here are some of our area’s excellent places to play.
Caterpillar Visitors Center: Ride With the Big CATs in Peoria
Q: What has a giant dump truck, an assortment of large earthmovers and a ton of kid-friendly displays on how they’re all made?
A: The Caterpillar Visitors Center, in downtown Peoria, a 50,000 square-foot tribute to the city’s largest employer, and the manufacturer of America’s familiar yellow construction equipment.
Opened in fall 2012, the place is especially kid-friendly, but it’s no less fascinating for adults. In fact, many of its 106,000 visitors during the first year were Caterpillar employees and customers, hailing from all 50 states and nearly 20 countries.
“We built this for three reasons, and the first was for our employees,” says Kathryn Spitznagle, visitors center manager. “We have employees all over the world. They may work for Caterpillar their whole careers and never see the final product.”
The visitors center is also dedicated to the Peoria community and Caterpillar’s customers, who can personally experience these machines in an interactive display that begins inside a massive Caterpillar 797F mining truck. Standing two stories tall, this full-scale replica is built with the hauler’s actual front, including the grill, radiator and cabin. Its real counterpart weighs 400 tons.
Inside this much-lighter version is a 62-seat theatre, where visitors can learn about Caterpillar’s customers and the 797F. “It has rumble seats, and you feel like you’re behind the driver’s seat,” says Spitznagle.
The visitors center includes several interactive exhibits and theatres, as it walks you through the manufacturing and design process. There’s a set of 3-D displays that show the company’s product design process, and a station where kids can design their own custom earthmover, then email that image to mom and dad.
Kids especially enjoy the product floor, where the No. 31 Caterpillar NASCAR and six genuine Caterpillar products are on full display. Inside these actual cement mixers, wheel loaders, backhoes and tractors, kids can sit in the cabins, push buttons and even “test-drive” two machines in a computer-driven simulator.
“They’re the same simulators we use to train our operators,” says Spitznagle. It’s much shorter, though, about three minutes, rather than several hours.”
Located downtown next to the Peoria Riverfront Museum, the visitors center was a popular spot for families on their summer vacations. Now, it’s also a growing destination for schoolteachers, who can find supporting educational materials, such as scavenger hunts and puzzles, at the visitors center website.
“Just this September, we launched a curriculum for grades K-12 students that aligns with the Illinois core standards,” says Spitznagle. “Teachers are excited because it’s something that aligns with curriculum, so it’s easy to get permission to go.”
Inside the social room, kids can celebrate birthday with Caterpillar-themed parties, and adults can enjoy off-site office gatherings, some of which come with scavenger hunts and access to the displays.
With world headquarters located across the street, Caterpillar rarely offers public tours of its Peoria-area manufacturing center. Now, the visitors center puts the company up close and personal with its hometown.
“Many in Peoria have been touched by Caterpillar, whether it’s a family member, neighbor or friend who’s worked here,” says Spitznagle. “There’s very much an allegiance.”
The visitors center is open Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information, visit caterpillar.com/visitors-center.
Green Lake, Wis.: An Icy Outdoor Playground All Winter Long
Green Lake, Wis., comes alive this time of year, with many winter activities on and around the state’s deepest natural lake. This winter has been an exceptional time to play outdoors around the ice – in this lakeside community, ice conditions are the best they’ve been in a generation.
If you like snowmobiling and iceboat sailing, this is a fast and exciting place to be. Iceboats glide across the ice on many weekends, at speeds up to 60 mph, depending on ice and wind conditions. Green Lake’s regatta brings sailors from around the world, and lucky spectators could catch a ride. To get a glimpse of this wild ride, check out the Facebook page for the century-old Green Lake Ice Yacht Club.
Green Lake County also boasts nearly 150 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, for those who prefer to keep their feet on solid ground. For up-to-date trail information, call the hotline at (920) 294-3220.
Don’t forget about ice fishing, which is a big part of Green Lake’s winter fun. Green Lake is famous for its population of Lake Trout, but it also yields many other fish as well. There are plenty of guides around who specialize in “hard water” fishing. You will be provided with transportation out to a heated cabin for the day, and with all of the equipment, bait and knowledge that you need to catch a trophy fish.
The area also has plenty of snowshoeing and cross-country ski trails to explore, along beautiful, historic routes. Families can stop by Deacon Mills Park, borrow a free set of ice skates and enjoy the most beautiful lake skating rink around.
When the snow and ice finally disappear, birding is a popular pastime in the area, where you’ll find many different sanctuaries within a short drive. Observe a wide variety of animal life around Green Lake itself, with its connected marshes and tributaries, or try to find some of the 300 kinds of birds at the famous Horicon Marsh Wildlife Area. The nearby Necedah National Wildlife Refuge is one of Wisconsin’s largest savanna restorations, and is home to more than 100 types of birds, plus numerous reptiles, butterflies and endangered species.
Wind down after a full day of outdoor activities by visiting Green Lake’s own Evensong Spa, ranked among the top 100 spas of the world. Check out a live show at historic Thrasher Opera House in downtown Green Lake, which showcases a variety of acts from children’s theater and folk music to comedy and jazz. In late March, check out Heidel House Resort & Spa’s Brew Fest, where you can meet microbrewers from around the state, and sample more than 100 different styles.
This winter, reconnect with your wild side in the great outdoors, and leave the closed-in air behind. Experience the Good Life in Green Lake, Wis.
For more information on any of these fun activities, contact the Green Lake Chamber of Commerce at (800) 253-7354, or see VisitGreenLake.com.
Grand Geneva Resort & Spa: A Grand Winter Getaway in Lake Geneva
There’s something truly magical about Lake Geneva during the winter. From the first snowfall of the season to the crisp seasonal air and array of annual festivals and activities, it proves to be an idyllic winter getaway for guests from near and far.
Adding to what makes the destination so amazing during the winter is Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, the area’s only AAA Four-Diamond resort. The sprawling campus and its sister property, Timber Ridge Lodge & Waterpark, offer numerous activities and special events throughout the winter.
For skiers and snowboarders seeking a place to carve throughout the season, The Mountain Top is one of Wisconsin’s premier ski and snowboarding destinations. With 18 winding scenic slopes, ranging from beginner-level trails to courses creatively developed with expert skiers in mind, Grand Geneva offers a winter destination perfect for a getaway with the entire family or a corporate office team outing. Night owls need not worry, either; The Mountain Top invites you to ski as late as 10 p.m. And don’t stress about the lack of snow in the forecast. The Mountain Top has the power to create its own powder, employing more than 20 snowmaking machines to turn the snow-capped mountain into fresh, skiable terrain.
In the spirit of learning, the resort offers “Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month,” a nationwide initiative throughout the month of January that encourages children and adults to take lessons from professional instructors, and challenges current skiers and snowboarders to improve their skills with advanced classes.
In February, Grand Geneva hosts its annual Winter Carnival. The one-day event is held at the resort’s Mountain Top ski hill and offers activities ranging from snow school demonstrations to tobogganing competitions, slalom races and more. The Winter Carnival concludes with a Torch Light Parade and fireworks. Admission to the Winter Carnival festivities is complimentary; regular fees apply for snow activities including skiing, snowboarding and cross-country skiing.
A winter holiday has to include timeless activities such as ice skating. So, grab a pair of skates and a complimentary hot chocolate and test your skills on the rink. Or, gather your friends and family and challenge them to a sled race down the hill.
If the snow isn’t quite your thing, grab your bathing suit and head over to Timber Ridge Lodge & Waterpark for indoor water fun. Unwind on a tube in the lazy river or plunge down 35-foot-high slides and make a splash. On that note, keep things warm and indoors at Grand Geneva’s WELL Spa, which offers an array of spa therapies and body treatments. What says winter more than a soak and a hot stone massage? Did someone say spahhhh?
Speaking of reinvigorating oneself… for those looking to kick off 2014 with a healthier regime in place, Grand Geneva offers an intensive, three-day wellness program that integrates the three pillars of a lifestyle change: fitness, nutrition and wellness. The Wellness RETREAT is designed for guests to look and feel better. Sessions include chef-prepared meals, premium WELL Spa + salon services, group fitness classes, daily consultations with certified nutritionists and cooking lessons, all customized in pre-arranged itineraries. Whether your goal is fitness, nutrition, stress relief, weight loss or a well-deserved pampering, the Wellness RETREAT is rejuvenation and training for the body and soul. The retreat will be offered throughout 2014.
There you have it. Snow? Check. Skiing? Check. Water slides? Check. Spa? Check. What more could you ask for in a winter destination?