The Unexpected Charms of Rockford, Illinois - My Family Travels

We are in a Victorian era, one-room schoolhouse where a costumed interpreter holds up a one-legged wooden stool. “This is for children who can’t sit still,” he explains. “They stay here until they get their wigglies out.”

Welcome to Midway Village in Rockford, Illinois, a family community about an hour north of Chicago with a lot to offer visitors. We’ve just begun our tour of this surprising collection of late 19th-century farmhouses and businesses from the region. There’s a hardware store and the Chamberlain Hotel.  They would be lifeless shells if it weren’t for our entertaining guide.

The Midway Village Museum holds more elements of Rockford’s history, including the manufacturer whose socks became more popular as toy monkeys than as footwear. There are displays about the Rockford Peaches, the women’s baseball team that dominated the sport from 1943-1954. The remarkable story about these Girls of Summer who had to wear dresses in public doesn’t hit home till Bobbi and Helen, two former players who work as docents at the museum, begin to talk to us.  In Rockford I am reminded that a good guide can really make your trip.

Rockford is More than Meets the Eye

The small city of Rockford curls around the Rock River, site of a marina for local rowers and the place to rent standup paddleboards for some touring in nice weather.  Near the shore we can see the Coronado Theater which has been restored for the many local performing arts groups. The Jefferson Street Bridge leads to the riverwalk and right into downtown.

Among the several museums near the river is the Discovery Center Museum?, especially fun for families, more a place to play with science and nature than an exhibition space.  We roam around, milking a cow, making cornhusk dolls and testing our muscle strength to see our bodies in action.  An educator demonstrates how gases work with wacky experiments that often fail, making us even more curious to learn about chemistry. 

The Burpee Museum of Natural History ? next door has two of the most rare dinosaur specimens on the planet. Because of their excellent condition and unusual status as juveniles, researchers come from all over to admire Jane, the tween Tyrannosaurus Rex and Homer, a younger Triceratops.  The exhibit space that surrounds them has stepstools that allow small children to see into each case, and the climbing ‘tree’ in the middle of the museum gives them a place to play while learning about the rain forest.

Rockford is Full of Surprises

Visitors with time to spare should wander into Crimson Ridge, an unusual private shopping mall packed with a range of luxury and fashion brands ranging from Godiva chocolate to Swarovski, with the largest collection of Vera Bradley bags and luggage outside of the company’s Indiana hometown. It’s the kind of shop where men take naps and women visit over complimentary glasses of wine — be warned you may never leave.

Your kids may want to move into Volcano Falls, an old-fashioned minigolf course with arcades, a go-kart track, ice cream parlor and batting cage.

Then there’s the award-winning Anderson Japanese Gardens, where David led us around and had plenty to say about the gorgeous trees and fountains. Teak teahouses built without any nails by Japanese craftsmen are tucked into the slopes, and other structures such as symbolic gates adorn the ‘back yard’ of his family’s home.  On a group tour you will learn that their koi pond is actually filled with all sorts of fish, because ducks migrating from other bodies of water carry fish eggs on their webbed feet.  And if you’re lucky you may even see a wedding in progress in this beautiful setting.

Rockford should be called Parkford

Perhaps even more surprising is that this city of 150,000 has nearly 150 public parks for its residents. Davis Park, one of the largest, is the site of many festivalsMagic Waters (open summer only) is the city’s publicly operated waterpark, with a Tiki lagoon for little children, lots of waterslides, a popular lazy river, and free life jackets for all ages.

Several other parks cater to the young athletes who drive into town with their teammates, chaperones and coaches.  Visiting soccer and baseball teams from as far away as Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the rest of Illinois come to stage their playoffs here.  The many motels and hotels that rim the downtown area cater to adult escorts and offer rooms that sleep four to six kids.  Two of the bigget tournaments are the  Puma Cup and the Watermelon  Tournament.

At Sportscore One, for example, the 105-acre soccer and baseball complex features eight lighted softball diamonds and eight regulation soccer fields, as well as 11 practice soccer fields. If there’s anyone in the family who’s not out on the field, they can enjoy the nine sand volleyball pits, two playgrounds, boat ramps, fishing pond, and a recreational path.

With a combined 124 acres, the Sportscore Two and Indoor Sports Center complex is even bigger and more varied. Facilities include Wedgbury Stadium, an Indoor Sports Center and more than 32 venues for outdoor sports, including in-line hockey, badminton, rugby and football. As the base for the Rockford Chariots Wheelchair Athletic Association, it also attracts adapted and wheelchair sports players and visiting teams.

Sportsfans can be spectators almost all year round at American Hockey League games or at Beyer Stadium — the place the Rockford Peaches once reigned is now home to the popular all-women Rockford Starfires.

Trip Planning Details for a Rockford Family Vacation

We enjoyed our stay at the Hilton Garden Inn (877/782-9444), located at 7675 Walton Street, Rockford, IL 61108 just a quick walk from the airport shuttle terminal and right off I-90. Families will appreciate the indoor pool with water toys, take-out pantry and free WiFi, coffeemaker, fridge and microwave that make the rooms feel homey.

Families who are staying longer or who come during winter will get a kick out of the CocoKey Waterpark inside the Clocktower Hotel (815/398-6000), located at 7801 E. State Street, Rockford, IL 61108. The contemporary conference center hotel boasts indoor and outdoor pools, an indoor tennis court, two restaurants and the 60,000-square-foot waterpark, CoCo Key, with a large variety of water slides, activity pools, a lazy river, an interactive play island, private cabanas and, if that isn’t enough, a huge video arcade.

Last but not least in a town with few signs of Swedish heritage is The Stockholm Inn at 2420 Charles Street, Rockford, IL 61108 where locals meet for Swedish pancakes. No one tells this story better than John Groh, Rockford’s director of tourism. And here he is:

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