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Save gas while checking out these Kansas City roadside attractions

Emily Standlee
The large fiberglass penguin, kangaroo, giraffe and elephant at Kansas City's Penguin Park were made by hand in the mid-1950s by engineer and craftsman Vernon Jones.

This list includes a possibly haunted winery, a popular location for wedding photo shoots, and of course, giant penguins.

As road trip season approaches, so increases the innate desire to burn rubber on America’s highways.

And even though we’re landlocked, the blacktop crisscrossing Missouri is dotted with all sorts of weird get-out-and-stretch situations, including ones that involve giant penguins and potentially haunted wineries (as long as you have a sober chauffeur).

If you can’t leave the city yet, you’ll find a “roadside” attraction on this list that’s located downtown. It’s so cool we couldn’t help but write about it.

There’s just one thing standing between you and putting the pedal to the metal — gas prices. Which is why these spots aren’t far from the Kansas City metro!

Penguin Park

First and foremost: giant penguins.

(And giraffes, elephants and kangaroos.)

Best suited for kids and kids at heart, Penguin Park is about five minutes from I-35 in the Northland.

The quirky green space was built as part of Lakewood Greenway in 1957 and held a single merry-go-round, fire engine replica and wooden bridge. All precursors for the humongous zoo animals populating it today.

Designed by Vernon Jones, project engineer for the city, Penguin Park houses several penguins, including a 25-foot-tall bird from 1965. When it began to show signs of wear and tear in 1989, Jones came out of retirement to fix the fiberglass friend. In 1996, park goers of all ages saved the giant penguin from destruction, instead renovating the park and keeping it in its proper home.

Penguin Park: 4124 N.E. Vivion Road, Kansas City, Missouri

Belvoir Winery and Inn

Emily Standlee
The grounds of Belvoir Winery and Inn were once home to a fraternal organization known as the Missouri International Order of Odd Fellows.

A little south of Liberty, take a pit stop or stay overnight at the historic Belvoir Winery and Inn. The collection of brick buildings sits 25 minutes from Kansas City and 10 minutes from I-35.

Though only one of four on-site structures is currently operational, the complex is a good example of turn-of-the-century Jacobethan Revival architecture. Guests can purchase wine from a bar within the main building (which was once an orphanage), sit out on the sprawling side porch or view a human skeleton on display.

Wait. What? Why is there a skeleton in a winery?

The grounds were once home to a fraternal organization known as the Missouri International Order of Odd Fellows. The group dedicated itself to humanitarian work, giving “aid, assistance and comfort to its members and their families.” That included burying the dead. There’s even a cemetery within walking distance of the main building.

According to the winery’s website, the IOOF is “a secret society” with “its own system of rites and passwords.” Spooky. If you’re dying to explore the other buildings — one of which is an old hospital with furniture still inside — Belvoir offers themed paranormal weekends, investigations and mystery dinners.

Belvoir Winery and Inn: 1325 Odd Fellows Road, Liberty, Missouri

The Needle and Button

Emily Standlee
A monument to Kansas City’s historic Garment District, the 15-foot-tall needle and button sculpture is similar to a statue built in 1995 in New York City's Fashion District.

If the penguin in the park needs a behemoth button for its suit jacket (or whatever it is penguins wear), we know the perfect spot.

Existing as a monument to Kansas City’s historic Garment District, the 15-foot-tall needle and button sculpture is simultaneously kitschy and cosmopolitan. A similar statue — built in 1995 — looms over the Fashion District in New York City.

It’s not that the piece itself is kitschy. It’s just that, well, we’re asked (as viewers of art) to consider something so domestic on a large scale. Plus, the whole thing feels secretive. You may have walked past the red button a dozen times, never knowing it was tucked away amongst some very attractive apartment buildings.

Remnants of the Garment District haunt the area between 6th and 11th Streets and Washington and Wyandotte Streets. One of these is a green sign with a fox beneath it on Broadway and 10th that reads “Seiden’s Furs.” Artists have wanted to turn the attached building into a studio for years.

You can make an appointment to check out over 350 garments, sewing pieces and accessories inside the Historic Garment District Museum.

The Needle: W. 8th St. & Broadway, Kansas City, Missouri

Historic 12th Street Bridge

Emily Standlee
The lower section of the 12th Street Bridge to Kansas City's West Bottoms is sometimes closed for events and wedding receptions, but it's usually open to cars and pedestrians.

The entrance to this one is a bit hard to find — chances are, you’ve driven over it. But have you driven under it?

Completed in 1915 and renovated in 1966 to the cool tune of $1,976,104, the 12th Street Bridge was originally built to scale the bluffs separating downtown Kansas City from West Bottoms. Still visible today in the area are the vestiges of stockyards, factories and the city’s first Union Depot rail station.

The 2,300-foot-long structure, sometimes called a “viaduct” — a nod to ancient Roman aqueducts, which consist of a series of arches — reportedly replaced a previous cable car trestle.

Not only does the bridge offer picturesque views of both sides of West Bottoms, Strawberry Hill and Kansas City, Kansas, it’s actually a double decker. Though the lower section is closed off periodically for events and wedding receptions, it’s usually open to cars and pedestrians.

Road trippers who come from I-70 and take the bridge’s lower level into the city will find themselves in the eccentric Westside neighborhood. The Latino and Mexican American-influenced community is known for its art, modern houses and trendy-slash-cozy brunch spots. The bridge’s upper level turns into James Street near the Kansas state line.

The 900-foot-long 8th Street Tunnel once also linked downtown with West Bottoms. Though commuters of the past took a thrilling ride through the bluffs via streetcar, maintenance became an issue and eventually the tunnel went out of operation.

Today, one of its entrances sits beneath the State Street Bank & Trust; however, the tunnel itself is closed to the public.

Just goes to show there’s more than one way to take a trip.

Historic 12th Street Bridge: 1198 Beardsley Road, Kansas City, Missouri

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Emily Standlee is a freelance writer at KCUR and a national award-winning essayist.
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