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TULSA, OKLA. — The kids darted ahead, out of sight.

I glanced at my husband and frowned.

“Well,” I said. “I guess I will have to slide through the elephant trunk.”

After all, I had asked for it. Tulsa made me do it.

When planning our spring break trip, I drew a circle around our home city of St. Louis. I didn’t want to drive more than six hours. I wanted family fun, something different and full of surprises.

Tulsa, about 400 miles from St. Louis, sat on the southwest edge of that circle. In the fall, the city had just opened a 66-acre, $465 million jewel of a park along the Arkansas River called Gathering Place, a name that literally beckoned me. The park’s landscape architect, Michael Van Valkenburgh, led recent changes to the Gateway Arch grounds back home.

We had to go.

Gathering Place had a lake for kayaking and rowboating, miles of winding paths, tucked-away gardens and a stunning lodge and boathouse. Its massive adventure playground had a crane slide and a flathead fish climber and a banana slide and yes, that elephant slide that will accommodate middle-aged mom bods.

In just a few days in Tulsa, our family discovered more: Route 66 landmarks. One of the country’s largest collections of art deco architecture. Native American and western artwork, a charming sea turtle and nature within minutes — sometimes within — the city center.

Tulsa builds on its historic past to ensure its future. It was formally incorporated in 1898 but had been settled by several Native American tribes before then. Soon after its incorporation, the town struck oil, bringing a gush of new residents and giving the city the nickname the Oil Capital of the World. Tulsa was hit hard by the fall of oil prices in the 1980s, and by then, many of the art deco buildings built by oil money came down in neglect and disrepair. The ONEOK baseball field, which opened in 2010 as the home of the Tulsa Drillers, and the BOK Center, an arena that opened in 2008, have spurred city center development.

Downtown destinations 

We spent the first night in the sleek, oil boom-themed Hotel Indigo (complete with oil-derrick-shaped door hangers), which opened in November in downtown Tulsa’s Blue Dome District. The district is named for a blue-domed former gas station, part of the original Route 66. We enjoyed a hearty breakfast at the quirky Dilly Diner next door (try their Dilly Diner blend coffee by the local Topeca roasters) and poked our heads into the shops of the nearby Boxyard, a development made two years ago out of former shipping containers. At dinner at Albert G’s barbecue, I devoured a baked sweet potato topped with pulled pork, telling myself it was healthy.

Travel to Tulsa

A view of an underground tunnel connecting the Philtower and the Philcade buildings in downtown Tulsa. Oilman Waite Phillips had the tunnel built to transport supplies between the two buildings and also to feel more secure as he walked between them. Photo by Valerie Schremp Hahn

The city’s past still shines. Kelly Gibson of Tours of Tulsa (toursoftulsa.com) met us in the art deco-themed lobby of the Atlas Building, now a hotel, for a walking tour of downtown buildings, many of which were connected by underground tunnels. That’s partly to protect people from Tulsa’s weather extremes, she said, and partly “to be fancy. Everyone wanted to be fancy.”

We did feel fancy ducking into the elaborate lobbies of buildings, most of which serve as office buildings, hotels and residences. She told us about Waite Phillips, one of the early oil barons of Tulsa, who built a skyscraper in downtown Tulsa (known as the Philcade building), donated land in New Mexico to the Boy Scouts (known as the Philmont Scout Ranch) and built a mansion south of the city that he later donated to the city for use as an art museum (known as the Philbrook. We sense a pattern, Waite).

The lobby of the Philcade, in a T-shape for Tulsa, is home to the Tulsa Art Deco Museum, a free display of furniture, fashions and even fish bowls made in art deco style. We checked out nearby Decopolis, a hoot of a store selling a great selection of local history books and gifts.

We stayed the next night in the nearby Brady Arts District, in a Fairfield by Marriott that included one of the few downtown hotel indoor pools and within walking distance of several shops, restaurants and attractions, including the historic Brady Theater and a quirky general store called Ida Red, which sold T-shirts that simply said “Thanks, George!”

That’s George Kaiser, of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the main funder of Gathering Place and other Tulsa ventures. The Kaiser money had its roots in oil and has branched to banking, which probably makes it easier to manage all that oil money and give it away.

We ducked into Magic City Books, an independent bookstore located in the recently renovated Archer building (also Kaiser foundation-funded), where I picked up a book on Tulsa art deco. Next door, we window shopped at Made Modern Handmade, which offered a great selection of locally made gifts. We spent dinner and the rest of the evening at Shuffles: Board Game Cafe, where our 11 year-old son was especially stoked to play Fireball Island, a pricey board game we didn’t have at home. ($6 to play, shufflestulsa.com)

The Woody Guthrie Center, across from the Guthrie Green outdoor gathering space and concert venue, opened in 2013 after the Kaiser foundation acquired the Guthrie archives. The folksinger and songwriter wrote “This Land is Your Land” and more than 1,000 songs. “No weapons allowed except guitars,” it says on the front door under the visiting hours, giving you a hint that inside, you’ll learn how Guthrie used his to give a voice to struggling Americans.

Listening stations and interactive exhibits kept the kids interested, especially a mock farmhouse porch where we sat on a chair, donned a set of virtual reality glasses and experienced the dust bowl cough-free. ($12 adults, children free, woodyguthriecenter.org)

Within a stone’s throw of the Guthrie Center is a free and perfectly weird quirk of city infrastructure known as the Center of the Universe. Stand on a circular spot in the middle of a concrete pedestrian bridge, shout or croon a Guthrie ballad, and listen to your voice echo.

Beyond the center

We topped the week staying in the Post Oak Lodge, about six miles from the city center, far enough away to feel rural and prompt us to burst out in songs from “Oklahoma.” The former Catholic youth retreat is now a hotel and event space, with cottages furnished like hotel rooms with shared living rooms. The expansive lodge served a tasty breakfast buffet, and the grounds offered walking trails, a fishing pond, a flying disc golf course and a zipline canopy tour, which wasn’t open during our stay. At dusk, we counted deer as we drove the windy road to and from the city. (postoaklodge.com)

Travel to Tulsa

A statue called "Spring Giant" watches over the children's garden of the Tulsa Botanic Garden, which opened in 2009. The Children's Discovery Garden opened in 2016. Photo by Valerie Schremp Hahn

We visited the nearby Tulsa Botanic garden, where the ceremonial spade didn’t break ground until 2007. Its major features, like 3-acre floral terraces and a children’s garden, still pack a punch. You can hike a trail around the lake or take a longer trail through the prairie and forest. The kids enjoyed “painting” with water on a slate wall next to a 15-foot “Spring Giant” stone face. A map in the visitors center lays out the gardens’ plans and potential for the next two decades. ($8 adults, $4 children, tulsabotanic.org)

The nearby Gilcrease Museum boasts its own gardens and houses one of the world’s largest collections of Western and Native American art and artifacts. The museum does a great job catering to kids with hands-on displays about pottery building and the lost wax process, along with a gallery where you can open drawers of moccasins, spears and other curiosities and use a tablet computer to find out more about them. For a good meal with a sweeping view of the Osage hills, visit the Restaurant at Gilcrease. ($8 adults, children free, gilcrease.org)

The Tulsa Zoo, located in Mohawk Park northwest of the city center and adjacent to the airport, was founded in 1928 and houses more than 400 species of animals on 85 acres, about as much land as the St. Louis Zoo. A newer Lost Kingdom habitat takes you to a world where you expect to see Indiana Jones leaping over the boulders. Vines and “ruins” serve as habitats for animals like snow leopards and red pandas. Our favorite spot was the indoor rainforest building, where statuary, flora and fauna made for an immersive Jones-like adventure. ($12 adults, $8 children, tulsazoo.org)

Travel to Tulsa

The terraces leading up to the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa in late March 2019. Oil baron Waite Phillips bought the 72-room mansion and lived there with his family before donating the mansion and the grounds to the city for use as an art museum. Photo by Valerie Schremp Hahn

Valerie Schremp Hahn

The Philbrook Museum and Gardens, a short drive from the Gathering Place, stuns inside and out. The 72 -room mansion was once the home of oilman Phillips, who later donated the building and grounds to the city of Tulsa for use as an art museum. It’s always more fun to look at art in former library spaces and reception halls, and as we roamed we “claimed” bedrooms as our own. A balcony overlooks terraced gardens and a reflecting pool, where the Phillips family cooled off on humid Tulsa days.

Be sure to roam the grounds and discover “Slumgullion,” artist Karl Unnasch’s transformational log cabin chinked with multi-colored fabric, stained glass windows made of colored bottles and plates, and a fireplace of stacked books. Philbrook also has a downtown museum in the arts district. ($9 adults, children free, philbrook.org)

Just south of the city in the suburb of Jenks, the one-story Oklahoma Aquarium sprawls along the shore of the Arkansas River, which yes, has its own denizens worthy of aquarium display. The kid-friendly yet substantial exhibit halls featured creatures we’d never seen before, like upside-down jellies, grumpy-looking stonefish and vertical-swimming shrimpfish.

Travel to Tulsa

A red orbicular burrfish, which live in the Indo-West Pacific Ocean, peeks from his home at the Oklahoma Aquarium in Tulsa. They inflate like a balloon if they see a predator. Photo by Valerie Schremp Hahn

At the enchanting, new Polynesian Reef exhibit, colorful fish swam back and forth to a soundtrack of island music. The kids befriended a loggerhead sea turtle in the Sea Turtle Island exhibit, and they laughed as the turtle seemed to wave his fin at their movements. Of course, our 9-year-old daughter left the aquarium with a $18.99 stuffed sea turtle from the gift shop. (Adults $17.95, children $13.95, okaquarium.org)

After visiting the aquarium, catch a meal at the Tulsa-based Los Cabos (I enjoyed the fish tacos with a small side of guilt) or one of several other restaurants along the Riverwalk, an entertainment district next to the aquarium on the river’s shore.

Tulsa has more in store: Phase two of the Gathering Place is in the works, with plans to break ground on a Children’s Museum Discovery Lab next to it this year. The Tulsa Botanic Garden will grow, and a new octopus exhibit will open later this year at the aquarium. The 1983 movie “The Outsiders” was filmed here, and a museum at the Curtis brothers house is set to open later this summer.

Even if I give the elephant truck slide a pass next time, Tulsa gave our family reason to return.

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Valerie Schremp Hahn is a features writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.