A Visit to Wamego, Kansas, the Center of the Wizard of Oz Universe
Thinking all the thinks
It wasn't a tornado that transported us, but as we barreled down the interstate in a rainstorm, it may as well have been. For when we landed in Wamego, Kansas, it was as if we landed in another place. Highway 99 was somewhat desolate, and we could swear we heard banjos. A tow truck trailed behind us until we hit what the locals call "The Road to Oz."
What is a trip to Kansas without visiting Oz? We've all seen the iconic film and perhaps even read L. Frank Baum's books, and even though Baum wasn't from the Sunflower State, his legacy sits in a small 2.25-square-mile town. The main drag is known as the "Oz cluster," anchored by the Oz Museum, which was only founded in 2004, not long after Wicked arrived on the Broadway scene.
Before hitting the main attraction, you'll want to fortify yourself at Toto's Tacoz (515 Lincoln Ave., 785-456-8090; totostacoz.com). A surfing Toto watches over what resembles a tropical outdoor café with rainbow umbrellas and artificial palm trees. In fact, there are Totos hidden everywhere on the walls and in the décor! Owners Craig and Colleen Lord can often be found behind the counter, ready to serve you Aunt Em's Nachoz, a Bust My Buttons burrito (among the largest I've ever seen!) or the namesake dish (available soft or crispy). I went with the Patty-O Burrito (for obvious reasons)—a flour tortilla barely holding its contents of chicken, lettuce, pico de gallo and cheese with some chipotle sour cream—and got to meet the employee it's named for. My brother-in-law has an incredible appetite, but he walked away from the Bust My Buttons (an incredible amount of meat, rice, beans and cheese) satisfied, and my picky Munchkins were amazingly pleased with their picks from the kids' menu.
With a full belly, you're ready to journey to the Emerald City. Once inside the Oz Museum (511 Lincoln Ave., 866-458-TOTO; ozmuseum.com), you'll pay the minimal admission (just $3 to $8), then enter another world past the screen door of Uncle Henry and Auntie Em's farmhouse. Stop to pay your respects to the fallen Wicked Witch of the East on your way to explore 117 years of Oz history.
These fantastical items are on permanent loan from Friar Johnpaul Cafiero, a Franciscan priest based in Chicago whose family has been collecting related items for decades. You'll find W.W. Denslow's color illustrations from the first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as well as translations of the original story into other languages—including mock German (Der Wizard in Ozzenland). The rooms are packed with memorabilia from the 1939 film, including miniature flying monkeys, character masks, and cast photos and trivia. Also among the treasures is a dress worn by Judy Garland in the movie (did you know her shirt was pink, not white?) and a pair of ruby slippers that were covered with Swarovski crystals by artist Jeffery Merrell in commemoration of the musical's 50th anniversary.
In front of the theater room, which loops the MGM movie on a full-size screen, are the footprints and handprints of the Little People who played Munchkins, including Margaret Pellegrini, Ruth Duccini and Jerry Maren. This was a highlight for my kids, whose hands and feet never seem to match the size of anyone's in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in LA. Popping up throughout the museum are character scenes re-created with mannequins dressed in replica costumes: the scarecrow in Thinker mode, the Tin Man frozen before a cord of wood, Glinda about to cast a spell, and more. Just before the end, you can also hop in the balloon to escape from this wonderful world.
As this is a museum, there is the obligatory gift shop, but among the T-shirts and mugs are cool finds such as Oz-themed board games, witches' brooms and storytelling dolls. And who doesn't need an emergency witch-melting kit (a.k.a. a reusable water bottle)?
Artifacts and artistry
Each fall, the museum and the Wamego Chamber of Commerce host Oztoberfest (www.oztoberfest.com), with costumed characters, guest speakers who worked on the film (including Munchkins!), contests, car shows, concerts and activities for kids. Any time of year, though, you can wind down from your day and absorb all that history at the Oz Winery (417 Lincoln Ave., 785-456-7417; www.ozwinerykansas.com). Wamego native Brooke Balderson and her husband, Noah Wright, stock a tasting room with a witty selection, an array of imported, artisanal cheeses, and specialty treats from Emporia, Kansas' the Sweet Granada. You can sample a flight of three ($8) or five ($12) seasonal wines of your choice: Among the offerings are A Witch Gone Good, a sweet white; a Cabernet Sauvignon called Drunken Munchkin; Dorothy's Dream, a strawberry blush; and the tropical Fraidy Cat Sparkling. A small cup of chocolate chips accompanies the Port-style Lion's Courage, while butterscotch chips are served with the sherry-like Surrender.
As another storm moved in, we decided it was time to take the road out of Oz. What is it about Dorothy, witches, flying monkeys and the like that speaks to the American soul more than a century later? That's beyond the scope of this travel piece, but rest assured: Wamego will charm you like a field of poppies.
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