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Kansas City: Family Travel Guide

Ride along at the Kansas City Speedway or immerse yourself in culture in Kansas City
Kansas City, Kansas
Visit KC
/ Source: TODAY

What to do in Kansas City

Whether they want a thought-provoking kids museum, a tasty barbecue meal, or a high-energy day at a baseball stadium or race track, visitors will find it in this laid-back metropolitan area. For the uninitiated, it's important to know that as you're plugging destinations into GPS, there are two cities named Kansas City. The one in Missouri is older, larger and often referred to as simply, well, Kansas City. The other one is in the state of Kansas, and people call it "KCK" to differentiate. The road marking the border between the two cities is helpfully known as Stateline Road.

Kansas City, Kansas, Kansas City Speedway
A trip to the Kansas City Speedway is a must. Either join a three hour ride-along experience (where adults can drive the oval at high speeds) or take in a race from the stands. Sarah Crabill / Getty Images

Where to go in Kansas City

Older children (at least 5 feet tall and 100 pounds) can sit shotgun during a ride-along experience at the Kansas Speedway. During this three-hour session, a parent will drive a real NASCAR racecar around the oval at speeds of 100-plus miles an hour, getting tips through a headset from an instructor who's watching the course. Prefer to cheer for the pros? On race day, kids under 12 get in free—don't forget to bring earplugs.

The Moon Marble Company is a nostalgic toy store and marble manufacturer in Bonner Springs. Visitors can watch a marble-making demonstration by a glass artist where they'll learn all kinds of facts (marbles are used to agitate tattoo ink—who knew?) and browse the impressive wall display with bins and bins of these colorful spheres. Along with marbles in 11 sizes, the store has an excellent inventory of retro-inspired and modern toys.

On the Missouri side, kids can commune with more than 200 animals at the Deanna Rose Children's Farmstead, whether they bottle-feed a baby goat, milk a cow or ride in a horse-drawn wagon. There's a replica of a one-room school schoolhouse (complete with a dunce cap) as well as a recreated Indian encampment with an earth lodge and teepees, designed to educate visitors about the state's indigenous Kaw Indian Nation people. Also in Missouri, the buzzed-about Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art welcomes younger visitors with free weekend craft activities. On their weekday morning Junior Jaunts Stroller Tour, a guide will lead parents of babies through a few select galleries, and no one minds if the little ones start getting cranky or chatty.

Kansas City, Kansas, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Free weekend crafts at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art are an easy way to keep little ones entertained.Visit KC

Where to stay in Kansas City

Great Wolf Lodge Kansas City has nailed the waterpark-meets-hotel formula. Crowds are well-controlled because only registered guests are allowed to use the splashy facilities. There are enough slides, pools and play areas to please every kid in your family, whether they're a cautious toddler (zero entry pool), a daring teen (the Triple Twist Slide), or somewhere in between (the treehouse play area or tame Totem Towers slide). And the themed suites, which give kids their own separate sleeping area designed to look like a tent, wolf den or cabin, strike a good balance between affordable and stylish. The staff run activities throughout the day, like morning yoga, craft projects and an evening storytime.

If you love the idea of staying in a restored neoclassical building that was once a bank (and has the marble walls to prove it), book a room at the Ambassador Hotel Kansas City in Missouri. Big and small travelers will be comfortable in the glamorous rooms, thanks to silky, triple-sheeted beds, pillow-top mattresses, Keurig machines, iOs docking stations and giant flat-panel televisions. With close to 500 square feet, even the lowest category double queen digs will give everyone plenty of room to spread out.

Kansas City, Kansas, Great Wolf Lodge
The Great Wolf Lodge strikes a great balance between hotel and waterpark by limiting waterpark visitors to hotel guests only.Great Wolf Lodge Kansas City

Where to eat in Kansas City, Kansas

"It's the best BBQ in Kansas City, which makes it the best BBQ in the world," wrote the late Anthony Bourdain about Joe’s Kansas City (formerly Oklahoma Joe's Barbecue). This wildly popular mini chain's original location is in a gas station, and a trip here is a major KCK bucket-list item. To increase your chances of getting a seat, show up 30 minutes before the doors open, especially if it's a seating where the beloved burnt brisket ends are being served (Monday and Saturday lunch and Wednesday dinner). The kids' menu has smoked hot dogs and pink-size versions of the pulled pork, brisket and turkey sandwiches.

About 15 minutes south of downtown is Stroud’s Fairway, known for its pan-fried chicken, which turns up in dishes like classic platters, chicken fried steak, salad and tenders. Dinner combos come with potatoes, green beans, gravy and a delightfully gooey homemade cinnamon roll.

Looking for more of the best vacations with kids? Check out TODAY's Family Travel Guide.