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Travels in the Heartland: Nebraska Passport program is underway

Smith Falls at Smith Falls State Park
Posted at 10:43 AM, May 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-10 08:29:20-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — The ad slogan may say it's not for everyone, but that's really a misnomer. Nebraska IS for everyone. And the Nebraska Passport program helps people discover the state's attractions. With 70 locations in all corners of the state, the passport program opens eyes as to what Nebraska offers.

Nebraskans appear eager to travel and explore new locations after spending the last year working from home or having their children attend school remotely. Attractions and restaurants look forward to serving more people, with expanded hours and building capacity, having suffered through one of the worst years possible during the pandemic.

So, the Nebraska Passport program, sponsored by the Nebraska state tourism department — Visit Nebraska — offers people an opportunity to get out of the house and explore the state with day trips or weekend getaways.

Barb Quinn stamps a passport at Wenninghoff Farm Market
Barb Quinn stamps a passport at Wenninghoff Farm Market

The passport program includes attractions that provide a look into the state's history, culture and traditions. Businesses, such as restaurants, breweries, wineries and boutiques, seek an opportunity to share their stories with visitors, Nebraskans and out-of-state residents alike.

The program includes physical distancing opportunities, such as eight state parks and recreation areas, Nebraska City's downtown murals and TreeRush obstacle course at Fontenelle Forest in Bellevue.

A young woman attempts to navigate an obstacle course at TreeRush Adventures
A young woman attempts to navigate an obstacle course at TreeRush Adventures

"We are including several outdoor locations this year, as we are helping Nebraska Game and Parks celebrate its 100th anniversary," said Madison Johnson, the state tourism department's passport program coordinator. "We are also partnering with Nebraska City Tourism and the Arbor Day Foundation to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first Arbor Day."

Each passport stop is grouped with similar businesses in 10 categories with unique names, such as Grub and Cuisine, Now Hear This and Time Travel. One category, Childish Things, focuses on family — or child-centric attractions — including the Lee Simmons Wildlife Park near Ashland and Lincoln Children's Zoo.

Elk rutting at Simmons Wildlife Park
Elk rutting at Simmons Wildlife Park

Joining the wildlife park, nine other Omaha Metro attractions are included among the 70 stops: TreeRush Adventures at Fontenelle Forest in Bellevue, Washington County Museum in Fort Calhoun, Hollywood Candy, Fat Brain Toys, Malcolm X Foundation, Spielbound Board Game Cafe and Wenninghoff Farm Market (all in Omaha), Platte River State Park in Louisville and Fork and Hammer restaurant in Plattsmouth.

Spielbound Game Cafe
Spielbound Game Cafe

First-time passport stop Wenninghoff Farm Market anticipates opening the 65-year-old farmers market to new people.

"A friend who did the passport before raved about it," said owner Amy Wenninghoff. "We hope to bring new faces to the market. A longtime customer, who has come to our vegetable stand for several years, had no idea we had the greenhouse."

When you visit Wenninghoff for the passport stamp, you'll want to visit the greenhouse's first building on the top of the hill. With eight quonsets, the market consists of the first two buildings, while the remaining six are used to grow vegetables, flowers and herbs.

"People are surprised we grow our own stuff," Wenninghoff said.

Wenninghoff Farm's greenhouse
Wenninghoff Farm's greenhouse

With stops located throughout Nebraska, the passport program gives you fun reasons for day trips or maybe a few overnight road adventures.

Home of Arbor Day, Nebraska City's stop focuses on the downtown historical murals, highlighting Morton Salt and other local pieces of history.

As the city's official murals representative for the program, First Class Flowers and Gifts owner Laura Liesemeyer is a Nebraska Passport program veteran. While this is her first time as a stop, Liesemeyer has actually participated in the program, collecting stamps over the past four or five years.

"It's a fun way to travel across the state and a neat way to learn about the state," she said. "Visiting small towns and other stores gave me ideas I could use here."

She hopes to meet new people and help share Nebraska City's story with stamp collectors, Liesemeyer said.

Whispering Pines Bed and Breakfast is the other passport stop in Nebraska City.

Historic mural in Nebraska City
Historic mural in Nebraska City

Cindy Chatt hopes to draw people to Tekamah's Chatterbox Brews for more than just passport stamps. With indoor and patio dining available, the taproom offers a casual pub menu.

With live music and local craft breweries serving their brews on Sundays during the summer, Chatt said she thinks visitors will enjoy spending time there.

"I think this is a really good opportunity for people to learn about Chatterbox and the Tekamah area."

As the hometown of cowboy movie star Hoot Gibson, an early 20th century box office draw, Tekamah also hosts an annual rodeo the first weekend of June.

While the 2020 passport season exceeded expectations with 1,185 people completing all 70 stops, an increase of more than 200 people from 2019, Nebraska tourism’s Johnson believes 2021 will be even more successful.

"We fully expect the program to continue to grow," she said. "So many new people found the program last year due to COVID, and I know people are so eager to travel and see what Nebraska has to offer."

As stamp collectors head out for summer fun and stamps, Chatt, Liesemeyer and Wenninghoff are excited to see their faces and talk a little Nebraska tourism.

For more information about Tim and Lisa Trudell, visit The Walking Tourists.

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