My first family vacation brings memories of rainbow flip flops, one long blonde braid swinging over my shoulder as I sipped Orange Crush and watched my dad play Pac-Man at an arcade. The heat made those flip flops stick to the bottoms of my feet and that Orange Crush taste so much better. The humidity made even the quarters sweat, lodged between the Pac-Man screen and the plastic of the joystick dashboard. When we escaped the darkness of the arcade the sunlight was so blinding it took my breath away and my dad’s hand steadied me. The sky was so blue and the lake water so startlingly beautiful, the whole world seemed trapped under an Instagram filter. All I wanted to do was be in that light and hold my dad’s hand, taking in the water and summer sunshine. That was the Lake of the Ozarks in the 1980s.
Friends, not much has changed. The sunlight still dapples the lake chop and refracts the color of the water. Natural beauty is all around you and a simpler time and a slower pace are Lake of the Ozarks hallmarks. For the uninitiated, you might not realize you’re still in Missouri. You might think you have nudged the calendar back a few decades and are reliving a time before i-devices and handheld video games, when a round of putt-putt was the highlight of summer vacation and everyone fought over the last quarter at the arcade.
These days family fun trips (especially with teens) are often a whirlwind vacation death march, packing in as many theme parks, attractions and shopping malls you can fit into an x-day span. Complaints of “I’m bored,” from the kids are met with exasperation from the parents, who double their efforts at providing electronic entertainment and as much vacuum sealed air-conditioned stimulation as possible.
You’re not going to find a ton of that (well, not really) at the Lake of the Ozarks. But, in my opinion, you’re going to find a whole lot more. If you want an affordable quality time with your family where you actually have space to talk to each other–and not your phone–climb aboard. I’ve got a plan that checks off all the boxes: food, fun and scenic beauty.
Captain Ron’s offers a broad and varied menu with loads of delicious appetizers plus a kids menu. A snapshot of their menu includes seafood, custom-made burgers, salads, pizzas and bacon lobster quesadillas. (Yes, bacon AND lobster.) Best of all, there are two stages, one inside the restaurant and one outside, with a full bar, and yes, that’s a full bar both inside and outside on the patio. A real sand beach with deck chairs flanks the front of the restaurant along with boat docks for those who want to motor up. An adorable pirate-themed playground sits a few hundred feet from the sand. Bring life jackets and let the kids go nuts. If you plan ahead, make reservations for the Gypsy Rose and take a pirate boat cruise along the water before or after your meal. You could spend an entire evening at Captain Ron’s!
Wobbly Boots Road House
Wobbly Boots Road House has been given a nod from Southern Living, Golf Magazine and the Kansas City Star and if that doesn’t give you confidence, these photos should provide ample evidence of “best in class.” Try the burnt ends or the barbecue nachos. Feeling dietary guilt? Try the salads topped with your choice of meat. Order up a glass of iced tea to wash it all down with and find yourself in barbecue heaven. The restaurant also serves up on-stage entertainment; call ahead to find out who’s playing. With ample room, Wobbly Boots can handle a large party, so bring the extended family when you come.
Randy’s Frozen Custard
Randy’s is a lake tradition
stretching so far back, even the old timers can’t remember a time when Randy’s didn’t exist. Belly up to the yellow-light lit/sliding glass booth, place your order and chow down on the frozen dessert of your heart’s desire. Plan for lines during the summer and play “20 Questions” while you wait. The Ozark Turtle Sundae is hard to beat!
Bagnell Dam Strip: Dogpatch Arcade, T-shirt shops
Arcades are still fun. Even though practically every kid across America has a video game or access to video games at home, there’s just something unique about placing the token in the slot and opening fire on whatever galaxy is in need of your rescue. The Bagnell Dam strip offers arcade games, skee-ball and novelty stores. During “Hot Summer Nights,” watch the cars cruise by and walk along the strip hand-in-hand. Just don’t forget to bring the spare change.
Looking for the quintessential family resort? Tan-Tar-A is epic in proportion to the years of memories made within this resort’s borders. Two swimming pools, an onsite putt-putt course, restaurants, shopping, horseback riding and an arcade are just a few of the amenities you can find there. Renovations have been rolling out over the past several years. The suites with double king beds and fold-out couch are perfect for large families. To truly get the benefit of the resort, plan to stay several days, kick back at the pool and don’t miss the big buffet breakfast at Black Bear Lodge Restaurant. If you’re looking for a day or an evening without the kids, check out the kids activities/camp options.
Timber Falls Indoor Waterpark
If you’re staying at Tan-Tar-A in the winter months or want to avoid the sun in the summer months, Timber Falls Indoor Waterpark at Tan-Tar-A is the place. The 20,000 square foot waterpark includes a three-story tree house, complete with bridges, water blasters, tunnels, a gigantic 600-gallon tipping bucket, four water slides, a lazy river, an over-sized whirlpool, and a large activity pool featuring a variety of water games.
Ha Ha Tonka State Park
For lake regulars, Ha Ha Tonka State Park may be well-known stomping grounds. For the uninitiated, this beautiful park with paved and unpaved trails, gorgeous vistas of the lake and castle ruins (yes, castle) provides the perfect backdrop for a picnic, a hike or just a short walk to stretch your legs after that long car ride with the kids. The castle ruins are the remnants of a turn-of-the-20th-century manor built by a prominent Kansas City businessman and is situated high atop a bluff. The view from the bluff is spectacular. One of Missouri’s “hidden gems,” the scenic beauty and history of the land makes Ha Ha Tonka State Park a true bucket lister. There’s also boating/floating opportunities at Ha Ha Tonka Spring, located in the park’s lower section. Even if you’re not getting in the water, the trail along the spring is beautiful (and paved).
Rent a Boat or Pontoon
While the kids are at Timber Falls, rent a pontoon or speed boat and take to the lake. Water skiing, jet skiing, swimming, fishing–all possible with plenty of rental locations to find every option you need. (The double pontoon with the built-in slide is a family favorite!) Pick up the kids, pile the family into the boat and pull the kids on an intertube behind the boat. It’s a wild ride and one they’ll never forget. Host a family reunion and anchor your boats and boat hop–it’s the thing to do at the lake! Best of all, the beauty of the water and the cool breezes are fantastic. There’s just nothing like the view of the water right from the boat.
While you’re at the Lake of the Ozarks don’t forget to send a postcard to friends. Use an actual stamp. You’ll remember the good times you had and remind your family that the best things in life haven’t changed from when you were a kid.