Meandering Man: Museum Hopping in Kansas City

Union Station Kansas City Christmas 2018
Just wandering around Union Station in Kansas City will leave you gaping for a good half hour. As a bonus, there’s Science City, rooms and rooms of model trains, a theater… and barbecue just over the bridge! Photo by Katie Foutz

Science, Jazz and Negro Leagues Museums: Dad About Town

As a guy who travels for work dozens of times a year, I know that nothing gets me primed to explore a new city like the cramped confines of another hotel room.

As a dad who hauls the whole fam, often plus dog, on the road at least a half dozen more, that desire to escape into the unknown open increases by approximately a factor of five.

At least when I’m on the road with family I’m steered onto a proper path, or paths, by the good planning of my wife. I end up seeing more, eating better, and of course, enjoying the ways my sons and she take in the new sites in their own ways.

So our recent trip to Kansas City over the holidays was more of a man’s guided meandering through some great museums, including Science City and the sprawl of Union Station; the dynamic duo of the American Jazz Museum and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at 18th & Vine; and Hallmark Kaleidoscope at Crown Center.

We probably could have spent hours more at each stop, poring over the intricacy of model train towns; or drinking in hundreds of tracks from the early heyday of jazz; or savoring the myths and legends of baseball in a bygone era, a music all its own. But our daily itinerary of a late morning start, followed by a few free-form, wandering hours, capped by a mid-afternoon brunch, seemed just the right helping of adventure for our extended family group, ranging in ages from the youngest nephew, at 2, up through our oldest boys, on the edge of teenage restlessness, through shepherding parents and nana.

I won’t lie: the two-hour nap in the hotel, afterward, examining the insides of my eyelids was every bit as blissful as the new sites.

Model Train Displays at Union Station Kansas City
Packed with 8,000 square feet of miniature rails and engines and towns, the Model Train Exhibit at Kansas City’s Union Station mesmerizes kids and adults alike. And it’s FREE!

Union Station: Trains, Science City, Barbecue

Union Station has been a hub of Kansas City culture for more than a hundred years now. Even as trains whisked visitors in and out of the country’s commercial center at the midpoint of last century, locals would converge on this downtown spot to enjoy the best restaurant, biggest bookstore, and community events like the mayor’s Christmas tree lighting.

The cavernous interior is worth a good half hour of goggle-eyed wandering all by itself. It was once second to only New York City’s Grand Central as the nation’s largest. And though highways have long ago emptied the terminals from cross-country commuter traffic, the station remains a vital cultural destination by hosting hall after hall of museums, including Science City and the Model Train Exhibit.

Our caravan of kids and adults spent a good hour buzzing among the 8,000 square feet of miniature rails and train towns. Anyone who grew up in small town, USA, will instantly feel an affinity with the squared-off, two- and three-story downtown hotels and banks and ballrooms and diners that evoke an America we just passed through not so long ago, tantalizing enough you wish you could shrink down and step across the broad streets, the straight sidewalks. That is, when a surprise dinosaur or ninja or Batman isn’t sharing the landscape.

Seeing a Lego Pikachu Pokemon sharing the gangway of a high plains fort with the rest of the blue-shirted cavalry as war-painted natives paddle down a clear-Lego river ensured the kids got as much of a kick out of these setups as nostalgic, damp-eyed adults. And hell, what good would a model train be if it didn’t deliver fun along its electric rails?

As a side benefit? All that clickety-clack doesn’t cost a cent.

From the train exhibit, we backtracked to the Science City gift shop, which is where you buy your tickets and affix your blue wristband for open-ended hours of fun. You’d be forgiven, as a cynical parent of a certain age, walking down the first corridor, past the black-light tunnel and the big screen shadowing the movements of jumping kids and shimmying adults into wondering, “is this it?” as you come up hard and fast on the space saucer slide terminating in a glass-walled exit. But then the pathway takes a hard left into a huge, multifloored space that echoes the type of course a kid might set: up and down and all around, through myriad nooks and openings too narrow and random for an adult’s orderly view to slip through.

The whole sprawling expanse is custom engineered for kids to wander and play, wander and play, and adults get in the act, too, whether that’s climbing into a news helicopter, plunging your hands into a tornado, placing objects on a spinning disk to emulate gravitational forces, swinging on a vine in an echoing cave, or taking time out to construct cabins and towers and cathedrals from rainbow-colored building sticks.

Every few feet there’s something new and hands-on to devote a minute or 30 to, enough so the hours fly by and before long, the kids and adults are dragging a bit. Our vacation body clocks are tuned a bit differently, and so when 3 p.m. rolled around, we were lurching to the “hangry” side. Luckily, Union Station is stocked with ample eateries to satisfy. Or, if you’re of the discerning set, like us, and are after some world-famous barbecue, in addition to a bird’s-eye view of passing trains, you can exit the station by way of a bridge over the tracks and into the edge of downtown, where the absolute best barbecue joint I’ve ever visited (and revisited, darn near to a hundred times now without ever having a bad meal) has set up shop. 

Fiorella’s Jack Stack caters to the hungry museum crowds just steps from the bridge. We found the wait time midway through a post-Christmas Wednesday too daunting for our crew, so we simply zipped over to our usual barbecue outpost in Overland Park where there was no wait for our party of 9, and ample draft beer, towers of onion rings and heaps of burnt ends and beans and cheesy corn to devour. Capping it off with a nap made for a fitting end to a busy afternoon.

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Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Kansas City
18th & Vine in Kansas City delivers a double dose of history in museums devoted to jazz and Negro Leagues baseball.

Art, Baseball and All That Jazz

For day two of our Kansas City museum binge, we followed about the same schedule — out the door around 11 and back into downtown. Some of us split off to Hallmark’s Kaleidoscope in Crown Center, where kids can relish in an open-ended format similar to that at Science City, creating puppets and puzzles and portraits to their hearts’ content. The rest of us headed for the historic intersection of 18th & Vine.

The juke joints and theaters lining the historic crossroads of African American cultural life in Kansas City seemed deserted in comparison to the crowds at Union Station and Crown Center. We didn’t even have to pay for parking — just pulled up to the curb and ambled down the sidewalk to the doors, where I was further delightfully surprised to find the Negro Leagues Museum and American Jazz Museum were part of the same venue, and that we were only the second group there that morning.

My oldest son was probably most excited about the jazz club right on the premises — though that wouldn’t open for another 7 hours. So he sat patiently through the opening film that related the neighborhood’s historic vitality, and the struggle for its residents to gain equal footing as the entire country struggled to find racial harmony. And still does.

Against this backdrop, the exhibits honoring some of the instrumental fathers and mothers of American Jazz — Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald — render their genius subjects relatable, and human. The format begs you to spend hours and hours there: photographic timelines are intercut with displays that offer written testimony to the music that defined each subject’s greatness, with those seminal tracks available to you at the push of a button. The music emanates from speakers above you, and you’re practically awash with the sound. It’s a soulful, immersive way to experience this uniquely American art form.

In another nook you’ll find mixing stations, the better to appreciate and manipulate the different instruments in various jazz ensembles. My son got hands-on (and headphones on) in this area, and again, we could have spent hours and hours there. But the Negro Leagues museum beckoned, not to mention our by now second-guessed itinerary of having lunch compete with our banquet of history. One needed addition to the museum complex is a cafe, right in the center, instead of the pop and treats in the jazz gift shop. Or else, a more clear invitation to step outside to some of the soul food joints, with easy return access.

After passing through an old, metal turnstile and gazing upon a faithful recreation of a 1930s-era field through a chickenwire backstop, the baseball museum hits its stride with a film you take in by climbing up green wooden bleachers. James Earl Jones (who else?) narrates a concise history of the Negro Leagues, from their founding to their eventual dwindling and demise as legends including Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby and Satchel Paige broke the Major Leagues’ color line.

You trace a winding course through exhibits devoted to the games’ great characters, including Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson, culminating in a step onto the recreated field. I found the old-time, wooden lockers devoted to Hall of Fame players so much more intimate and charming than the busts at, say, the Pro Football Hall of Fame just up the road from my Ohio hometown. The lockers are touchable, approachable. Though, sadly, the jerseys hanging inside are mostly recreations from (one of my faves) Ebbets Field Flannels and other retro makers, which made it odd, to me, that those same jerseys weren’t available in the gift shop (I probably would have bought a Monarchs jersey I’d had my eye on for years, to accompany my Cleveland Buckeyes 1945 champs jersey). The plaques are printed reproductions of the ones I guess hang in Cooperstown, NY. Another curiosity.

There’s nothing more fun, though, than stepping on to the lit field to culminate your visit. You can almost feel the ghosts of Paige and Gibson and Bell embodied in the sculptures set up around the diamond and field. I could honestly read the stories and decipher the old jerseys for days.

But soon enough, it was time to press on. We met up with the rest of our crew in packed-to-the-rafters Crown Center, after circling the block three or four times for parking. We talked our way into the Halls garage, where you can validate anywhere from 3 to 6 hours without paying a dime. This was where, a decade and a half ago, my bachelor party straggled home to our hotel, and nabbed a stack of a dozen hats from the Fritz’s Railroad Restaurant for kids, which ended up on the heads of relatives during our reception and became something of a kitschy family tradition at weddings since.

There was no getting in to Fritz’s on this afternoon, as the line stretched well into the hallway. But there were other options, kid-friendly as well as serving beers to the adults. I won’t ever write home about Kansas City pizza, but it’s as good as any to much on, I guess, and tamp down hunger so we could cap our second packed museum day by taking a break to color at the Crayola Store, get our parking ticket stamped and head back out into the dwindling light.

The final score was four museums (or was it five? six?) in two days that left me wanting more. More trains, more jazz, more baseball, more barbecue. More KC, served large. Just the way I like it.

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