So I’m telling Mike Donley in frustration that I didn’t make it until 2 p.m. to his Donley’s Wild West Town with my party of 12 when we were supposed to be there at 10 a.m. because traffic was murder getting out of Chicago and my GPS insisted on steering me the wrong way and…
“Well, that’s all in the past, isn’t it,” Mike interrupted gently. “Leave it all behind and go out back and…”
“Meander?” I volunteered.
“Nope,” he said. “Just mosey around.”
And as soon as we entered what the kids in the group were calling “Cowboy Town,” it was all left behind – the hustle and bustle of the city, the gnawing worries of everyday life – as we were transported to another time, circa 1850, and another place, the Old Wild West, in a restive place just 88 miles and 90 minutes outside of Chicago.
Since it’s opening in 1974, this charming Old West theme park in Union, Illinois, has been an under the radar favorite. It’s a family-owned business that Larry Donley, his wife, Helene, and their sons, Mike and Randy, started because of their passion for antiques.
The Donley’s collection, on display at a fascinating onsite museum, includes a variety of cowboy memorabilia like wooly chaps, gun belts, guns, spurs, lariats, and boots. It also features death masks from dead outlaws’ faces, wanted posters, gold and silver mining tools, Civil War weapons, medals, a Union soldier’s diary, and Larry Donley’s personal antique phonograph and music box collection that has been judged one of the finest in the United States.
As their collections and the museum grew, the Donleys built the Wild West Town, a family amusement park encampment located behind a “streets of yesteryear” façade, resembling every old TV western town, which serves as the main entrance.
From the museum, an old time movie theater, and the fortune teller in the entrance, is a set of doors that lead to what Mike Donley called “out back,” but seems more like the portal to a Twilight Zone dimension that exists only in the imagination.
Welcome to Dodge City
Suddenly, you’re surrounded by cowgirls and cowpokes, a horse-drawn pioneer covered wagon on one side, a trading post on the other, while farther down is the blacksmith’s shop.
Some of the cowboys are showing visitors how to toss lariats to rope cows; others are practicing tomahawk throws into wooden blocks – not easy at first, but surprisingly satisfying when you hear the thud of the blade solidly landing into the chunky wood.
As you pass a vintage carousel horsey merry-go-round from 1951 next to the Indian teepee, you come to the famous C.P. Huntington Train that whisks you around “Cowboy Town” and highlights its attractions.
You eyeball the petting zoo, where you can feed ponies, ducks, lambs, roosters, goats and a pig; the tracks where handcars are raced using only “kid power;” the O.K. Corral, which offers pony rides; the Runaway Mine Cars roller coaster; and the Sweet Phyllis Mine itself, where you can pan for gold!
Generally it’s hot in this wide-open outpost. Venture canoe rides along a mini-lazy river help the kids cool down from the mid-day heat. You can also visit the Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor or grab a snappy sarsaparilla at Clayton’s Saloon – and what’s a cowboy town without a dusty saloon?
Or a jail? Donley’s is complete with a replica of a territorial jail, and once the U.S. marshal in charge places you in a replica cell with no amenities except the jail floor, you realize it wasn’t purty to be a locked-up desperado back in those days.
But once you’re let out and continue the tour, visit the bow and arrow range, the Buffalo Bill popgun shooting gallery and the Huck Finn slingshot range, where you can practice your skills at all three.
Then it’s showtime, as Donley’s presents three Wild West Shows daily that feature live-action vignettes from the wild and wooly gunslinger days. Our show was about Black Bart returning to get revenge on the sheriff who sent him up the river…and the saloon gal who was “friends” with both of them! You get to see fast draws, fancy gun handling and trick shots – but the actors also warn about gun safety – in a very entertaining half-hour or so.
We ended our day next door at Donley’s Old West Steakhouse. It’s a family-friendly environment filled with surprisingly tasty and affordable food.
There’s “App-Ti-Yi-Yippy-Yay-Zers!” including Prairie Fire Chicken Wings, Rattlesnake Bites, and a Crock O’Chili, a variety of sandwiches and burgers, “Fallin’ Off the Bone” BBQ Ribs, Filet Mignon and the Cowboy Rib Eye.
The “Li’l Cowpokes Menu” includes kid-friendly favorites like Wagon Wheel Pizza, Miner’s Gold Mac ‘N Cheese, Grizzly Gulch Grilled Cheese, and the Get Along Little Doggie hot dog. The Steakhouse also offers a Fish Fry Dinner special on Fridays, Slow Roasted Prime Rib on Saturdays and Oven Roasted Chicken on Sundays.
Donley’s Wild West is an absolutely great one-day experience that makes you feel like you really have gotten away from it all for a while. It’s best for kids toddler through tween age, but also great for adults watching their children be happy, and for those who are still kids at heart themselves.
Donley’s Wild West Town in McHenry County at the intersection of Route 20 & South Union Road, at 8512 South Union Rd. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through August 23, and on Saturdays and Sundays from August 24 through October 27. Tickets are $15. The Steakhouse is open until 9 p.m., 10 p.m. on weekends. For more info, call 815/923-9000 or visit www.wildwesttown.com.