By Emily Paster
Because I didn't grow up in the Chicago area, I don't know about some of the area's hidden gems — you know, the great family places that fly under the radar because they aren't part of a big chain and don't advertise on television or radio. I usually only find out about such places — the great pick-your-own farm or the charming petting zoo — when another mom mentions that she is taking her kids there. Sometimes, I only find out about a place after it's too late and my kids have outgrown it. That was nearly the case with Donley's Wild West Town.
The owners of Donley's Wild West Town, an old-fashioned, Western-themed amusement park located in Union, IL, invited me to visit their park with my family this summer. I had never heard of Wild West Town and was not sure what I would find. But I am so glad that I took a chance on it. Wild West Town is a fun, low-key alternative to a big, expensive amusement park, and as such, is ideal for families with little kids. Zuzu at 9 years old, is on the high end of Wild West Town's target audience, and in fact, a more jaded and cynical 9 year old might have turned her nose up at Wild West Town's charms. Luckily, Zuzu is not that kid.
Wild West Town offers pony rides, a petting zoo, some small carnival rides, shooting games, and a goofy show all in keeping with its Wild West theme. While my kids enjoyed all of these activities more than once, their favorite activity by far was panning for "gold" — otherwise known as pyrite or fool's good — in a replica of an old gold mine. One kid told JR that he had found 51 pieces of gold. So guess how many we had to find? That's right, 52. It didn't matter how long it took; nobody beats the J-Man. A close second to panning for gold were the hand-operated pedal cars, which the kids begged to go on over and over.
Your admission card gets you multiple chances at most of the attractions at Wild West Town, so you don't feel like you are being nickel-and-dimed. Souvenirs and the crafts are extra, but it is easy enough to avoid those if that is your goal. You enter through the park's Wild West Museum, which has cowboy and Native American memorabilia. My kids were interested enough to spend a few minutes in the museum.
We arrived shortly after the 10 am opening on a gorgeous, not-too-hot summer Saturday and found the park blissfully uncrowded. We sampled all of the activities, with a heavy emphasis on the gold panning, before catching the noon Wild West show. Of course, JR and I had to leave the show early because he was afraid of the gun fight — that kid really can't stand loud noises — but Zuzu enjoyed it. We then paused for lunch at the Old West Steakhouse — a pretty good place for a burger and a homemade strawberry lemonade — before going back to the park for another round of everything. By this time, the park had filled up, but the lines were still pretty short. Finally, around 3 pm, we were ready to go home. My husband and I pronounced the day a complete triumph: the kids had fun, we all got to spend a beautiful day outside and it didn't break the bank.
I only wish I had learned about Wild West Town before this summer. This is a perfect destination for Chicago families with kids anywhere from 3 to 8 years old. The park is small enough to navigate easily; the lines for the rides are short and little kids will enjoy the Wild West theme without irony. Union, IL is just an hour-and-a-half drive from Chicago and is also home to a railroad museum, so you can make a full day of it, if you are so inclined.
Full disclosure time: I was given four complimentary passes to Donley's Wild West Town for review purposes. I was not asked to write about my experience and all opinions expressed herein are my own.