The post-World War II/Baby Boomer/Generation X family vacation is probably best epitomized by the 1983 film National Lampoon’s Vacation. If you grew up in that era, you likely (at least once) piled into the “family truckster” and headed for a popular vacation spot like an amusement park, beach or national park. Your destination probably featured cheesy side attractions like alligator farms, tacky historic villages, unremarkable mini-golf courses and gift stands stuffed with authentic souvenirs, most of which were made in China. After one or two trips, the kitsch and camp were recognized by even the youngest family members, and many of the sub-attractions were mocked or became the butt of inside jokes.
Today it’s not uncommon to fly to a destination like Orlando, Las Vegas, California or Hawaii and stay in a nice hotel. Attractions are destinations unto themselves, priced accordingly. Even the once mundane side attractions, like miniature golf courses, are opulent and often feature other activities such as go-cart tracks. Worth the premium costs in most cases, these mega-establishments have taken something away from the family vacation of days gone by.
Southern Indiana is one spot where attractions abound and value exists without camp or kitsch. Its central attraction is Holiday World in Santa Claus, about an hour and a half west of Louisville — the oldest themed amusement park in the U.S.
Opened in 1949 as Santa Claus Land, it became Holiday World in 1984 to reflect the park’s other themed areas. Today it features rides, shows and a large water park called Splashin’ Safari. Though it’s geared toward families with younger kids, the three roller coasters and larger water slides are great fun for teens, college kids and even bigger “kids.” Consider the “lazy river” ride in the Splashin’ Safari area — always a popular ride for all ages at water parks, it tends to have long lines. Holiday World’s solution? Build another one.
There are so many rides between the “wet” and “dry” areas that lines are relatively short compared to other parks. More out-of-the-box ideas include complimentary sun block, handy in the Southern Indiana summer sun, as well as free unlimited soft drinks and free parking.
Southern Indiana, though, isn’t limited to a top-notch amusement park. The state bills itself as “Lincoln’s Boyhood Home,” as this part of the state is where the 16th President of the United Stated lived from age 7 to 21. Specifically he lived in an area just a few miles from Holiday World in that are now Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial and the adjacent Lincoln State Park (pictured). The latter offers a musical based on Lincoln’s life, written by Northern Kentucky University professor Ken Jones, that’s performed during the summer months.
The memorial features a visitor center with a small entrance fee, displaying artifacts from the Lincoln family’s time in the area as well as a 15-minute film presentation. Visitors can then walk from the memorial building to the living farm. At the halfway point you’ll find the pioneer cemetery where Lincoln’s mother is buried. The farm is a recreation of life in southern Indiana circa 1820.
Similarly, the Lincoln Pioneer Village, about 20 miles south in Rockport, also recreates that time period. This attraction is itself of historic significance, as it was built in 1935 as part of two depression-era “New Deal” programs, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Works Progress Administration.
Head 30 miles east to Evansville, Indiana’s third largest city, and you’ll find mounds made by ancient peoples at Angel Mounds State Historic Site. These mounds are related to Ohio’s famous serpent mounds near Peebles.
Across town you’ll see the Mesker Park Zoo, which is undergoing a face lift. Completed in 2008 at cost of $15 million is the tropical rain forest exhibit. The park also boasts the oldest Nile hippopotamus in captivity; she turns 60 this month. More improvements are planned, and the park plans on being one of the county’s premier zoos when renovations are complete.
Lodging in the area is easy to find, and ranges from national chains to campgrounds. Next door to Holiday World is Lake Rudolph Campground & RV Resort, where you can bring your own equipment or rent an RV. It has a pool as well. If camping isn’t your bag, you can stay down the road at Santa’s Lodge, which also features a pool as well as a restaurant. Another nice place to cool off or grab a snack is Frosty’s Fun Center and miniature golf across the street.
To tempt your sweet tooth, check out the restored Santa's Candy Castle, about two miles from Holiday World. Originally built as part of a larger Santa Claus Town in the late ‘30s, it’s one of only two buildings remaining from that attraction. The fully restored castle building houses all kinds of tasty goodies, plus activities for the little ones. The whole history of the place is fascinating, and the folks who work there are happy to share it.
Heading back east, you can explore Marengo Cave in Marengo County. Discovered in 1883 by two school children, it’s one of only four show caves in the state. There are two different tours you can take — one takes 35-40 minutes, the other just over an hour.
Time in Southern Indiana is nostalgic but not necessarily old-fashioned. There’s something to be said about finding this variety and quality of attractions within easy driving distance — so maybe it’s time to pile the whole tribe into the family trickster and hit the road.