Your little buckaroo would love to meet a real cowboy (why else would he spend playtime chasing bad guys and roping imaginary cattle?). Skip the flight to Wyoming and do the next best thing: spend a day at Donley’s Wild West Town in the quiet village of Union, Illinois. Nestled an hour northwest of Chicago in the pretty McHenry County countryside, it packs a restaurant, museum and more than a dozen rides and activities, plus an exciting Western gunfight show starring cowboys, villains and cops.

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Wild West Town has been open and run by the same family since 1974. Despite its long history and incredible charm, it remains a mostly undiscovered gem. Take advantage of all there is to see and do before the secret gets out about the old-timey fun, which includes everything from panning for faux gold to tomahawk throwing. Kids ages 3-10 will get the biggest kick out of it; in fact, many come dressed in cowboy boots, hats and bandanas. They blend right in with the costumed employees who greet you at every turn with a friendly “Howdy, partner.”

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The first — and original — part of the park is a museum filled with authentic cowboy and Native American memorabilia, such as spurs, police badges, pistols, moccasins and headdresses. Attached to it is an ice cream parlor and popcorn shop attached to an old-fashioned movie theater that reels silent films throughout the day.

While inside is great when you need to cool down, your herd will want to flock to outdoor attractions first. The park is a re-creation of an Old West town — saloon, general store, county jail and all — and you can quickly get the lay of the land on a train ride. After that, giddyap to theme park rides, including a kids’ canoe water ride and mini roller coaster called Runaway Mine Cars (there are no loops, but bumpy drops make you feel like you’re gliding down the side of Jackson Peak).

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Walk-up activities give kids a taste of what life was like on the open range. Learn to use a slingshot with balloon targets, fire off cork pop guns, get a cattle-roping lesson (using fiberglass cows) and draw back a kid-friendly bow at an archery range. A petting zoo, pony rides, carousel, playground and gold-panning area (complete with a huge wooden clapboard “mine” and water chutes) make sure there is never a dull moment.

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Several times a day, a live Wild West show brings excitement to an enclosed outdoor theater. In the show, Black Bart is a villain on the loose and he’s threatening to take down the town. Luckily, a brave sheriff, his goofy deputy and a cancan-dancing damsel are there to put up a fight. The show has professional stunts and gunfights, which are a thrill to watch.

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Eating at the onsite at either Clayton’s Saloon or the Ice Cream Parlor is a bang-up time in itself. Kids will love the fun menu items perfect for a budding cowboy at the Parlor, like walking tacos, nachos and pulled pork sandwiches, and can wash it down at Clayton’s with a cool Sarsaparilla Soda.

All of the rides and attractions at the park are included in admission of $17/person. It’s a great deal and wonderful escape for urbanities looking for a breath of fresh, country air.

So go West, bronco busters.

Donley’s Wild West Town
8512 S. Union Rd.
Union, IL
815-923-9000
Open daily thru August 20, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Open weekends only from August 26-October 29, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Admission: $17/person; free for ages 2 & under (find a $3 off admission coupon online)
Online: www.wildwesttown.com

Have you been to Donley’s Wild West Town? Let us know what you think in the Comments section below.

— Maria Chambers & Kelly Aiglonx

Photos: Courtesy of Donley’s Wild West Town and Kelly Aiglon