Travel: Kansas City

It may seem unlikely, but 1,200 miles from Cape Canaveral, in the heart of the American midwest, youngsters are preparing for a job that could take them further than they ever dared dream...

ALLAN Sherman's 1960s musical parody on American summer camps – a lament of malaria, ptomaine poisoning, alligator-infested lakes and search parties, until the sun comes out, and suddenly all is fantastic – gave baffled Britons an insight into one of the strange institutions of US life.

Kids' camps are still going strong but things have come a long way since Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh. There are variations on the theme: maths camps, circus camps and chess camps (internet testimonial: "My son is even more excited about chess and does not focus on winning, which is great" – The Seymour Family, Providence).

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But the concept that must top the lot has to be the space camp, an all-weather affair that would fire up the enthusiasm and imagination of any child. And there is such a thing, in the heart of America, 1,200 miles from Cape Canaveral, at the unlikely venue of Hutchinson, Kansas.

The Cosmosphere and Space Centre is first and foremost an enormous museum, founded in 1962 by an amateur astronomer. It houses the biggest collection of American space artefacts outside the Smithsonian in Washington DC, including the Apollo 13 command module of "Houston, we've had a problem" fame and the biggest haul of Russian space memorabilia outside Moscow. It also renovates and restores space relics for other museums, and creates replicas for film studios.

Then there are its summer space camps. The museum runs a wide variety of different programmes for a wide variety of ages, from six upwards. But it is the Future Astronaut Training Programme that really captures the imagination. The youngsters run a space mission, all taking on roles from flight engineers to mission controller and astronaut, in a Nasa-style environment. The mock-ups of the Space Shuttle and mission control look like the real thing and, with instructors who include former Nasa professionals, they are run like the real thing. There is astronaut training equipment, including a centrifuge to experience G-forces, classes on the basics of rocketry and robotics, and television cameras so the children can take on the roles of television journalists and cameramen, to film their fellow campers stepping out of the Space Shuttle after a successful flight.

In the spirit of international space co-operation, campers are welcomed from afar, and for overseas families who want to drop the children off for a space adventure, Kansas has a lot to offer (though space camp mums and dads will have to be back at the Cosmosphere to take part in Graduation Day celebrations).

A more down-to-earth children's attraction awaits nearby. Hutchinson is also home to a recently opened underground salt museum, a joint venture by the still-working salt mining company and a storage company that uses the caverns to keep-sake, among other things, the original footage of famous Hollywood films. Once you've descended 650 feet you board a trolley-train that chugs its way seamlessly around glistening white caverns to an exhibition area.

A short drive to the south-east is Wichita, a smart and pretty city on a river that is home to an open-air Old Cowtown Museum (with recreated Wild West buildings where you can enjoy a chuckwagon supper), and the Keeper of the Prairie, a 44ft sculpture of an American Indian that stands majestically at the confluence of the Big and Little Arkansas rivers. A riverside walk around here is particularly pleasant at dusk, when the area's native American heritage is commemorated with a fire-and-music display.

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Lawrence (near Kansas City, which is reachable in one stop on Continental Airlines from Edinburgh) is a pretty university town with a main street full of interesting stores, good restaurants and the beautiful historic Eldridge Hotel, which reopened four years ago, after being restored to its 1920s grandeur.

Lawrence is a breath of fresh air from shopping-mall America, but for real fresh air, there's the prairie. In the mildly rolling landscape known at the Flint Hills (proof that everything is relative), midway between Wichita and Kansas City, is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, a rare remnant of the vast open space that was home to millions of bison before they were replaced by cows and crops. You can explore its 11,000 acres, with its 450 species of plants, by tour-guide bus or on foot (on short treks to scenic look-outs or backcountry day-hiking trails). A popular place for lunch is the nearby pretty village of Cottonwood Falls, where Sue Smith, cafe-owner and heritage buff, keeps country traditions alive by organising craft festivals. The one thing the preserve currently lacks is bison (pronounced "buffalo" by almost all Americans), but a herd is set to be introduced any time now.

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There are more than 300 agritourism businesses in Kansas, with an increasing number of working farms and ranches inviting guests to stay. Helping to look after new-born foals is encouraged at the Sun Rock Ranch, south of Junction City, while The Flying W Ranch at Cedar Point offers campfire lessons on cowboy lore and prairie life and the Circle S Ranch, outside Lawrence, is a luxurious country inn located on a 1,200-acre cattle ranch.

For something completely different, you can go to a symphony concert. Once a year, in June, the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra decamps to the prairie for the Symphony in the Flint Hills, one of the most imaginative and breathtaking concerts you're ever likely to attend. It's an open-air programme of appropriate music (Copland, Bernstein's theme from The Magnificent Seven and a mass sing-along of Home, Home on the Range), with supporting food and drink, history and heritage tents, nature rambles, covered wagon rides – and a backdrop of local cowboys idly riding across an extremely wide horizon.


Getting there: Continental Airlines ( has flights to Kansas City from Edinburgh, via Newark, from around 540, to around 750 for high season.

For information on Cosmosphere kids' camps see A two-and-a-half day residential camp centred around flying a simulated shuttle mission costs around 160, with accommodation at the nearby Hutchinson Community College. A four-day basic-level stay for 11 to 14-year-olds costs about 330. There are also non-residential camps; at the simplest level, five-day, half-day programmes for the seven-to-tens cost 60. For teenagers who have progressed through earlier grades there is the possibility of scuba-diving certification and trips to the Johnson Space Centre in Houston and the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

For a different kind of musical experience, see

Eldridge Hotel, Lawrence (

For more information on tourism in Kansas and brochure requests, contact Derek Mackenzie-Hook, Kansas and Oklahoma Information Service (08450 533290, [email protected],

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• This article was first published in Scotsman on Sunday on 10 January, 2010.