A March 2005 trip
to Tulsa by Jose Kevo
Quote: Looking for some place different to plan a family vacation? Tulsa is a surprising midwest favorite with more entertainment venues than even I remembered. Heritage and affluency have modeled this into a cultural center that glorifies its cow-town appeal, and keeps people coming back for more.
Over the last years, Tulsa experiences had been limited to airport runs, that arrival anticipation of seeing family and hesitation upon departure. Now, for once, I wasn't the one flying anywhere. Unable to join my passenger for spring break in Puerto Rico, spending the day getting reacquainted with Tulsa was rather nostalgic. While exploring old family haunts and drifting to find other localities, one thing was still very obvious - Tulsa is a family-oriented city with some of these favorites to enjoy.
Eating at Casa Bonita used to be a highlight. The all-you-can-eat Mexican menu, served inside a recreated Spanish village, was considered upscale before Taco Bell was ever heard of. Parking lots proved locals still swear by this place, but quality was piss-poor on our last visit in '99.
However, Tulsa serves up dining opportunities in mass, including this forgotten favorite. Quick Trip primed my 20's guaranteeing cheapest gas in town and as the Godfather of convenient-store junk food. They vacated Missouri years ago, but were temptingly available about every fifth block. I fueled and gorged twice.
High Rollers & Holy Rollers
Tulsa has always been a prosperous city thanks to Oklahoma oil. A scenic drive down Lewis Avenue, beginning downtown and heading south, showcases decades of affluence. From 15th Street to I-44, old money built mansions that represent wealth more than age; their Beverly Hills-like granduer is very impressive. South of I-44, new money has flourished including on the campus of Oral Roberts University with sci-fi designed buildings gracing the utopic-looking campus.
The Shopping Circuit
Seven mega-malls, surrounded by upscale complexes featuring the likes of Barnes & Noble, Bed, Bath & Beyond, and other household magnets we can't live without, are mostly clustered south of I-44. The highest concentrations are found at the overdeveloped intersection of Memorial Drive & 71st Street. Other rare-find bargains are detailed in the specialty-shopping entry.
Numerous highways and interstates encircle Tulsa, while the majority of city streets are laid out in a grid. Finding your way around can be confusing without a map. Numbered streets run east-to-west, while north-to-south avenues are quickest for crossing the city.
Oklahoma's highways don't always reflect adequate maintenance. From the Missouri border, a pair of turnpikes makes Oklahoma City accessible in 1.5 hours with a 75mph speed limit. Tulsa, the halfway point, costs .50 on the Will Rogers Turnpike.
The Clown's Palace
Halfway between Tulsa and the Missouri border, near the Vinita exit, is a roadside plaza you won't miss. More attention grabbing than inexpensive fuel, the large structure will be spanning the highway. The Glass House was a fine-dining restaurant when I was a kid. It's since been converted into the world's largest McDonald's. Tourist-trap gift shops feature a plethora of unique McDonald's collectors' memorabilia.
Attraction | "Waking Up With the Zoo"
In the age when concepts of confined animals are becoming more controversial, the Tulsa Zoo is straddling the fence keeping up with modifications. Nowhere was this more evident than when trying to view elephants beyond three levels of barricades, compared to the mid-60's, when the thrill was finding them at moat's edge, extending trunks for snatching peanuts from viewers' hands. Otherwise, what would be presumed as some of the hardest animals to maintain were still in outdated yards, especially the bears and jungle cats housed in fake bluffs with small cages and minimal courtyards.
Zookeepers were running behind on their morning check-ups and feedings before turning animals out to begin rituals of waking up. Elongated stretches and yawns commanded the spring morning. While king of the jungle immediately went to pacing, most animals had the right idea lazily indulging favored sunny spots.
The zoo had several newer groupings, including the North American Living Museum with four linked-display houses featuring wildlife from lowlands, forest, desert, and tundra regions. The Tropical American Rainforest left me wanting more with bird, fish, and small mammal exhibits set within a humid jungle that fogged camera lenses and had me sweating by the time I exited. Otherwise, monkeys were still half asleep in the new Chimpanzee Connection, and even playful sea lions, navigating the old pool clearly remembered, appeared to be resting up for the daily 2:30pm performance.
Maps distributed with admission suggest a much bigger park than what's actually found. Corporate sponsors, such as American Airlines and Bank of America, have endorsed separate centers where zoo-related seminars and demonstrations are held. Parents looking for hands-on opportunity with their children will find more educative resources scattered throughout the park than animals, perhaps signs from a zoo of the future that still serves a conscious purpose.
All newer sections come with information stations, interactive displays, and related exhibits that combine the best of museum and zoo qualities. The one inside the elephant center is not to be missed. An interesting African tribal village, recreated next to the giraffe compound, turned out to be more than I expected, with cultural displays and sound affects. There's no shortage of gift shops, places to eat, restrooms, and all that caters to family entertainment, including a large playground and train encircling the grounds.
By time I left 2 hours later, the zoo had proven to be a popular draw on weekend mornings, visitors as diverse as the animals they came to see. The Tulsa Zoo is easily found off north Sheridan Road, beyond the airport, where it dead ends into Mohawk Park. Take a right and follow the signs.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on May 2, 2005
5701 East 36th St North
Tulsa, Oklahoma 74115
Located on 21st Street between Utica and Peoria Avenues in an older, upscale neighborhood, Woodward Park was much smaller than expected, but certainly worth a visit for anyone looking to enjoy peaceful time in natural settings. Walking paths weave through small clumps of forest that had terraced gardens blossoming with early spring's finest. However, the main attraction was still months away.
The Tulsa Rose Garden was one of the largest I've ever seen, extending over four levels and adorned with marble statues, fountains, pools, and benches. For March, the gardens had an arid desert appearance, with bushes already tightly pruned. Green sprouts and markers only suggested how impressive the roses would be in peak season, with sweet aromas that undoubtedly permeate the entire park.
The Botanical House is just that; a small greenhouse with a very intimate, chapel-like environment. The entry is centered around a goldfish pond that has a small fountain trickling a placid soundtrack. A variety of plants encircle the atrium, with smaller halls off to three of the sides. Right of the entry is the desert room; the back walkway contains flowering house and garden plants and to the left is the tropical room.
Compared to the 150-plus plants kept in my house, the at-home feeling was endeared even more so knowing what care goes into maintaining a healthy jungle. If this was something tended by full-time park employees, efforts had been masked to seem like a group of local enthusiasts indulging a hobby. North of the Botanical House is another building that appeared to be headquarters for the park's staff, but turned out to be another indoor garden area with more space, fountains, and benches scattered amid the plants. The structure is covered with an isolative plastic and the sun baking through at high noon was a good indicator this would be an enjoyable place in the dead of winter.
Both museums, the convention center, and the mansion were closed on Sunday, as was a deluxe garden shop next to the botanical houses. There's a minimal playground and picnic area with restrooms, but the highlight beyond the gardens was the wide-open space. A generous amount of people were scattered around the park, enjoying various activities with still plenty of solitude and places to check out for a back-to-nature break. I'll look forward returning to Woodward Park on future visits, especially to see the seasonal changes.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on May 2, 2005
SE corner of 21st St. and Utica
First stop was the Tulsa State Fairgrounds on 21st Street between Harvard & Yale Avenues. Expos and collectors' conventions are held every weekend, except for when the State Fair runs early October. Parking is free. My Dad used to spend hours at gun shows here, about like I've done at sports memorabilia gatherings. This day was featuring a sports car show with local dealerships. Smaller buildings in the rear were mobbed with shoppers at factory clearance sales on electronics and appliances.
A guard suggested the Tulsa Flea Markets, which run east on Admiral, off the Memorial exit.. Backed-up traffic fed into the congestion of shoppers and vendors, eventually lining both sides of the avenue. A person serious about their browsing could waste an entire day at this weekend event, with more indoor/outdoor booths than could be guess-timated. Collectors of kitsch or anything deemed of questionable value are guaranteed to find something amid the junk, overstock, and new items.
A franchise of Cheapo Depot, an Oklahoma favorite for factory closeouts, only compliments unnecessary spending. Prices are slashed on everything, including basic household supplies and hardware, which can turn up hidden bargains. Preparing to enter the store, a sign implied, No shirt, No shoes, No Entry!. I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen one of these, but this was Oklahoma, land of half-breeds, hillbillies, and a booming Hispanic population.
Based on questionings, a vendor mentioned another nearby market specializing in foreign products, and the intersection of Garnett Ave. & 21st Street was definitely passport-worthy. Plaza Santa Cecilia is the heart of a new Little Mexico. Shops and offices providing appropriate services were peppered with inexpensive cantinas, cafes, and bakeries.
The Gator Grand Prix Gameroom, which included indoor electronic go-carts, needed a revolving door with such heavy traffic. Traditional Sunday family outings were on full display, especially outdoors, where car hoods were covered with locals chatting with friends and low-rider occupants cruising by after finishing at the corner car wash. The scene implicated East L.A. gang-bangers, but all was tranquilo, with Tejano music accompanying aromas from outdoor food carts.
Across 21st Street on the northwest corner was another converted shopping complex called Internationale Plaza that had an intriguing mix of foreigners. Cheap restaurants specializing in Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese provided no shortage of places to eat, but one surprise was Nam-Hai, the largest Asian supermarket I'd ever seen.
With more than a dozen aisles, fresh produce and meat sections were indoor strolls comparable to any Chinatown sidewalk. Tanks full of large fish and lobster surrounded a hectic butcher counter. Roasted ducks, hanging by their necks, over-shadowed boars' heads and standard unidentifiable body parts considered delicacies. I resigned looking for exotic plants but made quite the haul on foreign foods—yet another reason to return to Tulsa soon.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on May 2, 2005
A Shopping Junky's Voyage
An introductory film describes the Inca civilization and how they fell to Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500s. It's believed the quest for silver distracted Europeans from ever finding Machu Picchu, tucked away in the Andes. The ancient city was forgotten until a Yale archaeologist rediscovered the overgrown ruins in 1911. Unknowns and speculations still dominate history, but this largest exhibit ever assembled was certainly enough to land Peru on my travel dream list.
Event organizers were numerous on only their second day since opening. A detailed brochure guided patrons through various galleries featuring reconstructed Inca villages, 500-year-old excavated artifacts, and photos and artwork representing the ancient civilization. Numerous interactive displays included self-guided virtual tours of Machu Picchu and the Peruvian Andes. A reconstructed modular of the city was alone worth admission fee, with a 12-minute presentation inside a darkened corridor. A video narrates the purpose of various sectors, while spotlights highlighted the model.
Upon entry to the museum, all personal belongings must be checked, including cameras. Suggested donation admission is $3 if not planning to see special exhibits. The main floor has two elongated wings showcasing artwork from The American West, with a heavy emphasis on Native Americans. Artists likely won't be recognizable but rank as some of the best in their field. Vivid oil paintings were clear enough to be photos. Some dating more than 150 years back.
Scenes from how the west was won, the central plains' great bison population, and indigenous life were spectacular; mural-sized paintings of nature made you feel like you were staring through a huge plate-glass window. In the lower level, at the Kravis Discovery Center, are research resources for the histories of Oklahoma and the American West. Collectors of arrowheads will be astounded by endless banks of index drawers, containing what has got to be one of the largest compilations in the world.
The museum's Osage Restaurant had quite the mid-Sunday afternoon crowd, with a standard menu in a cafeteria setting. Grounds surrounding the museum are worth a ramble if the weather's decent. The Gilcrease Estate has been turned into yet another Tulsa park. The small mansion appeared to be under renovation. A wide front porch encircles the lower level overlooking a Victorian garden. The tomb of Thomas Gilcrease is on the front lawn, with glimpses of Tulsa's skyline beyond. Meandering paths encircle the grounds, with statues, sculptures, and ample benches in secluded spots. Off the northern parking lot is a trail winding its way to a small lake that has a gazebo on the far side.
The museum is easiest found heading west on Pine Street, following signs until it dead ends at Gilcrease Museum Road. Take a left. On maps, Admiral looks like it provides a direct route, but it jogs through downtown before becoming Edison Street.
1400 Gilcrease Museum Rd.
Tulsa, Oklahoma 74127