If someone told you that in a small town 45 minute southwest of Portland, Oregon, you could find the biggest, most storied aircraft ever built as well as a real Boeing 747 atop a building with water slides shooting from its emergency exits, you might wonder what newly legalized substance the person had inhaled.
The Evergreen Air & Space Museum with its Spruce Goose and the adjacent Wings & Waves Waterpark are located in McMinnville, Oregon. Foodies and wine lovers will tell you the historic town, arguably the quaintest in the Willamette Valley with its farm-to-fork restaurants, is best done as an adult trip.
But even if you are not there to sample the pinots of the region, the conversation with your kids will go from war history to water conservation (educational info flows throughout the waterpark), which means no matter their ages, your children will be hard-pressed to be bored. I'll raise a glass to that.
Evergreen Aviation Museum: Spruce Goose and Beyond
The centerpiece of the Evergreen Aviation Museum is Howard Hughes' H-4 Hercules, or "Spruce Goose" the largest airplane ever constructed with a wingspan the length of a football field and flown just once in 1947.
This is the real thing, not a replica, which initially surprised me as I recalled being awestruck seeing it as a child in Long Beach, California, where it used to be displayed. In 2001, after 9 years of careful transport and reassembly, Evergreen Aviation founder Del Smith and his late son, Michael, opened this first building of the museum campus.
There are dozens of other aircraft and artifacts worth seeing beyond the Spruce Goose: a restored B-17 Flying Fortress, a P-38 Lightning and Russian MiG-21 are among those with histories children find interesting. Being a relatively new museum, displays also include multimedia video and audio experiences.
Volunteer docents, many of them veterans, offer up free information about the Spruce Goose and other airplanes. If your children are curious, these docents are even more engaging. In fact, I recommend asking them (or having your kids ask) about their own backgrounds. Many are pleased to share their personal histories with these aircraft.
The museum has recommended itineraries for either three-hour or full-day visits. If given the ages of children, the museum can make specific recommendations that might include the Kid Zone for younger children. There are also guided tours, which are better for older kids with longer attention spans.
Evergreen Space Museum: Space capsules and rockets
Walk across the parking lot from the aviation museum to the space museum, taking note of the solar system inlaid in the cement, and you find a visual, educational story of human's forays into space. Though some of the capsules, lunar modules and roving vehicles are replicas they are accurate and interesting. Other items are real and part of our country's space program history. The Mercury Space Capsule, designed to put America's first astronauts in space is on loan from National Air and Space Museum.
In addition to the space items, this building also houses an X-15 rocket powered aircraft, an SR-71 Blackbird used in Cold War reconnaissance, and a Titan II rocket housed in its missile silo where visitors can experience a simulated launch sequence.
If younger kids start getting antsy, just outside the front door is the Space Museum Playground with climbers and slides plus a nearby field with old decommissioned tanks dubbed Tank Lawn. A word of caution here, while kids love to run around these old steel monsters, they are genuine, complete with hard, sharp steel edges that little heads should avoid running into.
Wings & Waves waterpark: Blasting through a Boeing 747
Then there's the waterpark, straight from the "You Gotta See it to Believe it" files.
A real-life Boeing 747 is parked on top of a building on the opposite side of the Evergreen Aviation museum. This is the waterpark, roughly 70,000 square feet of crazy water fun that was opened in 2011. Air temperature is a balmy 86 degrees year round, and the water temperature is kept at 84 degrees.
It's a six-story climb from the floor of the waterpark to the top of four main attraction chutes, so it is not for the faint of heart. But all four of the giant rides, including Sonic Boom, Tail Spin, Nose Dive and Mach One (kids must be 48 inches tall or above for that one) are worth it. Through the glass, you will see when you have climbed above the building's rooftop and into the fuselage of the airplane. The first time up and down, at least for us, was a little surreal. After that, the sheer fun of the drops and switchbacks takes over.
Depending on how long your wait is at the top, you may see in its entirety the video of the museum being built around the wide-body airplane. (A spoiler alert that may reassure you: The airplane is not actually resting on the building. The 747 was first placed on its own supports with the rest of the museum structure built around it.)
Splashdown Harbor is a 90,000-plus-gallon wave pool in the middle of the water park. It is flanked by replicas of Apollo rockets and a 20-foot wide television screen that offers up water conservation videos or facts (unless a University of Oregon football game is on, which may take precedence!).
For those familiar with Great Wolf Lodge near Olympia, the offerings are similar, with wave pool, massive dumping bucket (watch out for little ones getting knocked over in the cascade) and watery playgrounds. But for those really addicted to the big showcase rides, Wings & Waves has double the 6-story slides with their four options. The variety is nice, but it also helps lines move faster.
As with any water attraction, parents need to watch younger children. While multiple lifeguards are on duty around each of the pools and slides, not surprisingly the chaotic atmosphere requires attentive caregivers. Lifejackets are available free of charge to children or adults who need them. There is a Tiny Tikes play area.
Visitors cannot bring in outside food, there is an on-site Milky Way Cafe. However, if your family brings a cooler along, there is no limit on exits and re-entries during a single day.
H20 Hands On Science Center
If you need to dry out for a bit, visit the H2O Hands On Science Center where, through 15 interactive displays and games, families can learn about the many reasons "Life Needs Water." Museum Director Larry Wood recommends going there as a way to wind down the visit. "It's quieter, cooler and a great place to slow down. Quite often we're told the kids will fall right asleep in the car."
3 places to stay
- Comfort Inn & Suites: 1.5 miles from Museum, pet-friendly, room rate includes breakfast
- McMenamin's Hotel Oregon: Built in 1905, a historic hotel in downtown McMinnville. Meal discounts with that day's Museum admission ticket.
- Red Lion Inn & Suites McMinnville: 1.5 miles from museum, pet-friendly, room rate includes breakfast
- Wine Country Farm (children under 12 years not allowed): 8.5 miles from the museum. A charming bed and breakfast with its own Armonea Winery, but not for families with young children.
- Trip tip: If a family were to have the luxury of a week off, these museums are a fun way to start a trip that might then take you further out to the Oregon coastline along scenic Highway 101, perhaps even making a loop north through Astoria for a day or two before heading home.
Hilary Benson is ParentMap's TV editor.
Photo credits: Second and fourth photos by Hilary Benson. Others courtesy of Evergreen Air & Space Museum.