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HomeA&ECulture
Published: Sunday, 7/19/2009

Indiana: Educational, recreational attractions bloom in Indianapolis urban park

BY MIKE KELLY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
Downtown Indianapolis. Downtown Indianapolis.
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The Indianapolis Zoo. The Indianapolis Zoo.
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INDIANAPOLIS Next time that know-it-all sports buddy of yours starts blabbing, here s a good way to shut him up. Just pose a simple question: What college football team is the defending NCAA Division I national football champion?

He probably won t hesitate long before smugly declaring that, of course, it s the Florida Gators, who won the national title by virtue of their victory over Oklahoma in the 2009 BCS Championship game in Miami back in January.

At that point, you can smile condescendingly throw in a chuckle if you d like and ever-so-politely inform Mr. Sports Center that he happens to be dead wrong. The correct answer of course would be the University of Richmond Spiders, pride of the Colonial Athletic Association.

That s right. Because the BCS Bowl Series that everybody watches on TV isn t connected with or sanctioned by the NCAA, the results of its so-called championship game technically don t matter a bit. What does matter, however, is the annual NCAA Division I Football Championship game in Chattanooga, Tenn. where last December, Richmond defeated the Montana Grizzlies of the Big Sky Conference to win the national title.

This little tidbit is brought to you courtesy of the newly reopened NCAA Hall of Champions, a refreshingly enjoyable museum and interactive playhouse, and just one of several family-friendly attractions in downtown Indianapolis White River State Park.

The 30-year-old park, located on the western edge of downtown Indy, is a one-of-a-kind jewel America s only urban cultural state park. That means that instead of woods, meadows, and campgrounds, it s packed with museums, concert venues, and other cultural attractions.

Once home to messy and foul-smelling meat-packing plants and paper mills, the area encompassed by the park s 250 acres now includes a series of canals, walkways, promenades, and grassy areas plus the aforementioned first-class recreational and educational attractions.

The Central Canal Walk is a three-mile loop, with paved walkways below street level on both sides of the canal perfect for walking, jogging, and inline skating. As popular as it is with the locals, the park and its attractions also have become a major tourist magnet for the nation s 13th largest city, bringing in more than 3.5 million out-of-town visitors a year.

Here s a look at some of the park s highlights:

NCAA Hall of Champions

Closed for 16 months after an electrical fire, the refurbished and expanded facility reopened in March with dozens of new exhibits and interactive displays. Visitors can test their sports knowledge, make calls as a referee, learn about college sports history, see what it s like to be on the receiving end of an 80-mph tennis serve, and use simulators to play soccer, golf, hockey, and other sports.

Many of the old attractions are still here, too, such as the life-sized bronze Flying Wedge statue in the lobby and the popular 1930s-era basketball court, where visitors can make like LeBron James all day long if they want to.

Indianapolis Zoo

Considered by many to be the crown jewel of the park, the zoo has almost 4,000 animals, most of them in cageless settings within simulated natural habitats. There s everything from elephants to polar bears, giraffes and tigers to dolphins, and sharks that can be petted by anyone brave enough to plunge their hands into the water.

This summer, the zoo is displaying a pair of rare Komodo Dragons, the largest lizards in the world, measuring up to 10 feet in length.

The facility is the only zoo in the country to be accredited as a zoological park, aquarium, and botanical garden. The privately run nonprofit is also the largest zoo in America to operate without the use of tax dollars. Its White River Gardens includes three acres of lush greenery, flowers, and seasonal exhibits, and during the summer, a glass-enclosed conservatory is housing a colorful butterfly exhibit.

Indiana State Museum

Exhibits here highlight the state s arts, cultural, and natural history in high-tech, hands-on fashion, and even the museum s exterior walls tell a story. Built into the fa ade, sidewalks, and railings are 92 small sculptures, each representing one of the state s counties. One you shouldn t miss is from Delaware County. Located almost 20 feet off the ground, it features nine Ball jars (the canning jars are made in the county), eight of them filled with pickles and the ninth showing the fat orange cartoon cat Garfield wedged inside (Garfield s creator, Jim Davis, is also from the county).

A new collection of Lincoln artifacts and memorabilia, including rare signed copies of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation, will go on display here early next year.

The museum also contains the state s largest IMAX theater screen, its six-story-high screen facing a 400-seat auditorium. Among the films showing this summer on the oversized screen are Under the Sea 3D, The Alps, and Alaska.

Eiteljorg Museum

One of only two museums east of the Mississippi to showcase Native American art as well as western paintings and bronzes, the Eiteljorg features several masterpieces from well-known artists such as Frederic Remington, Georgia O Keeffe, and Charles Russell.

The dramatic-looking, adobe-styled museum, which doubled in size a few years ago, will mark its 20th anniversary later this year with a holiday attraction called Jingle Rails, a sprawling model train display depicting an imaginary train trip through the West.

Victory Field

Home of the Indianapolis Indians, a Triple-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the cozy, 13-year-old park has been praised by Sports Illustrated and Baseball America magazines as one of the best minor league ballparks in the country.

The 15,500-seat field provides a striking view of the downtown skyline, and a grassy sloped area beyond the outfield walls offers families an inexpensive spot to picnic while watching ballgames.

Congressional Medal of Honor Memorial

The names of all 3,410 individuals who have been awarded the nation s highest military honor are etched into 27 curved glass walls here. Periodically throughout the day and evening, stories recorded by Medal of Honor recipients are played, and touch-screen monitors provide information about each recipient, and the wars in which they fought.

Governor s Lawn

The grassy outdoor amphitheater, which is perennially named one of the top 100 outdoor venues in the world by Pollstar magazine, can accommodate up to 7,500 people for concerts and festivals. It s the site of a summer concert series that this year features acts including O.A.R., The Fray, Crosby Stills & Nash, Bonnie Raitt, and The Moody Blues.

Rides

Bicycles, tandems, surreys, and pedal boats are available for rent in the park. Motorized Segway tours are also offered (a bargain at $45 an hour), as well as canal rides in gondolas imported from Italy.



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