It’s pageant travel time, the time of year when you can visit all three of the current Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageants and the new Mary Ingalls Pageant in Vinton, Iowa. I’ve certainly come a long way since my very first time when my mother surprised me for my birthday with a trip to the Walnut Grove pageant for the whole family. (I didn’t know anything about it, we were supposed to be visiting western Wisconsin and then she added another two days.) But she hadn’t done enough research. Other than the museum and the pageant itself we didn’t have a clue what to do. We still had a great time, but I wish I’d known what I know now, so here you have my best pageant travel advice.
UPDATE January 12 2018: I changed a couple of things that are different from 2015. First, the best iced tea in De Smet is now at the Oxbow. Drink it there, their eat there glasses are quart jars which they will refill and their to go cups are small, but you can drink it there and then ask for a refill in a to go cup. Sadly Subway no longer has any kind of tea and the Dairy Queen only offers fountain tea. I’ve left the information about the Mary Ingalls pageant below, but due to bigger issues with control of the building the pageant will most likely not be given in 2018.
EXTRA ADVICE WALNUT GROVE CAST REUNION: Since they just released that the Walnut Grove pageant will have a big cast reunion in 2019 I will add that as soon as they release information – most likely in fall 2018 – get your tickets for the pageant as soon as you can so you can sit near the stage. Also, if the hotels will make reservations this early (honestly I’ve never tried a year and a half out) MAKE THEM NOW! Within Walnut Grove proper there is only camping available and it makes a big difference on how close you can stay. The bed and breakfast in Tracy (when I last checked in 2015) wouldn’t make reservations until January 1st of the year the reservation was in. Also intend to park your car and leave it there if you’re going to be doing anything within the town proper during the reunion. During 2014 parking was ridiculously full be prepared park a fair distance away and to walk all over town. In 2014, people started lining up a full hour before opening time for the autograph lines so remember to start early. At at least one point the line for the group across from Fond Memories antique & craft shop went all the way through the queue and back past the funeral home way down the block. If they follow the same schedule as last time, your chance to get a photo with all the cast will be Sunday morning so if you want one be sure to include Sunday in your travel plans.
Your first decision is what pageant or pageants to visit. It really isn’t a case where if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. I would recommend that any trip that you plan to include either Walnut Grove or De Smet also include the other if at all possible, but be sure to match your dates correctly. De Smet includes Sunday night performances, Walnut Grove doesn’t. To put it loosely, Walnut Grove’s pageant is more Hollywood with lots of neat special effects and a real drama, De Smet’s pageant is like eavesdropping on the Ingalls family and it rotates through telling the story of one of the books set in De Smet each year, and Mansfield’s pageant is a musical. Vinton’s Mary pageant is just getting off the ground, but gives you a nice look at what it was like for Mary to attend the College for the Blind. Check out my tips below for each specific pageant.
Fragments of a Dream aka The Walnut Grove Pageant
Check in to the night’s hotel or bed and breakfast or camp grounds before you go out to the pageant grounds because you don’t want to be hunting for your place to stay in the dark. At the Walnut Grove pageant you want a reserved ticket. You can still buy them at the gate, but reserved seats come with a folding chair and a place close to the stage. They also offer general admission tickets, but with them it’s bring your own blanket or chair and find your own spot on the hillside. I sometimes buy a second reserved seat just to be sure of a little room (the chairs are welded together), but either way the chairs are the best option. I personally like to eat at the community center in town about a block away from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum (service groups arrange them as fundraisers and they call them pageant suppers), but there are two other restaurants in town if you prefer. On the pageant grounds itself you can get high school sports concession stand type food (hot dogs, popcorn, etc).
The best public restrooms in town are at the museum proper, so I’d go there before heading out. If lines are long there, you can also use the bathrooms at the community center where the pageant dinners are held. If you still find lines, try two blocks away from the museum at the gas station on Highway 14. It’s a little farther, but definitely within walking distance although you may want just to drive over while you have to move your car between the museum and the pageant grounds anyway. Even when the town is incredibly busy people tend to forget about them so even during the 40th Anniversary event when the town was bursting at the seams I didn’t find lines there. At the pageant grounds the bathrooms are behind the concession stand with the doors facing towards the seating area.
Be sure to get a program when you come in, but if you miss one they give out programs and sell other souvenirs at a small stand across from the concession stand. The show starts with the pageant singers who are a local singing group, but sometimes they have a celebrity speaker, etc. before the show. I’ve heard advice from local people to nip in right before the pageant proper starts, but I normally go early to take in the whole show. Once the pageant starts especially watch for the early scene with all the live animals and then watch for the house to flip around 180 degrees and for them to build the church.
From Highway 14 if you turn on the main road toward the museum heading south, take the first right (now heading west) and then the first paved left (now heading south again) out about a mile and half or so from town.The parking lots have named rows with signs with the Ingalls family names to find a place and make note of which row for when you’re coming back. Going back you can mostly follow the crowd, but watch for intersections because people peel off when you don’t want to and there are several gravel roads that feed into the paved ones so it’s easy to think the road you are on continues when actually the pavement ends and it’s gravel there on out and you should have turned instead.
I recommend pants and taking along a sweatshirt and bug spray, but the last year I went it fooled me it was so hot and I had to take the sweatshirt off again, so you don’t know. Dressing in or bringing along layers are the key. Weather can also be a bit unpredictable, but don’t worry the organizers keep an eye on any severe weather that might threaten and have a plan to deal with it.
Walnut Grove Pageant FAQs (from pageant organization, with some improvements from me):
Get More Information:
Find them on Facebook:
De Smet Pageant
In De Smet the pageant grounds are right outside of town on the east end of town between Highway 14 and the Ingalls Homestead. The signage is good and you should see it right away. The only reason to buy reserved seats in De Smet is if you want to pay by credit card. You can do that up at the Ingalls Homestead before gate time. Otherwise just buy tickets when you pull your car in. They have wooden benches set up, but bring a lawn chair and set it up down front. The benches are spaced to allow a row of chairs in between so you can sit your chair pretty much wherever you want, but be sure to honor any space they have blocked out down in front of the stage area.
They give you a newspaper about the pageant and do a roll call of states, so yell loud for Iowa. They have different events going on to keep you busy before the pageant. They have stand up wagon rides, a display of some kind (old farming machinery, a model of the town, twisting hay – different things on different years), and a giftshop called the What Not Shop which has some unique Laura stuff take a look. They also give you a free ticket for the wagon ride (I usually give mine to a kid, although I do admire their on and off the wagon system so watch them load and unload). The wagon has no seats and the sides hit me about mid-thigh. When you’re on the outside it can feel like you’re going to fall off, although as far as I know they haven’t had an accident. Riding once was enough for me. Since they are shorter the sides keep the kids in fine. Look out for their stick your head through photo board and stop by the concession stand and ask if they are giving out free posters. They generally have extras, but you specifically have to ask.
They have the same kind of concession stand food available as Walnut Grove, but again you might want to eat in town. They have a country club (good but slow service) and a Dairy Queen and a Subway. The Oxbow is a family restaurant that has been catering to Laura fans for decades and now has the best iced tea in town. The Oxbow also honors the PBS discount card if you have one. There is also a store that also serves food called Ward’s Store. They stay open later on pageant nights for the tourists. I must give a shout out though to the creative additions the pageant concession stand made lately. In 2013 they had Long Winter Snow Cones and in 2014 they offered These Happy Golden Years wedding cakes (they were Little Debbie type things, but A for effort!). Take along the same clothes, bug stuff etc. as Walnut Grove, but more bug stuff, it’s right by a slough. Also, don’t forget the lawn chairs and/or blanket.
De Smet Pageant FAQs:
Find them on Facebook:
The Mansfield pageant is unique in several ways. It has the best seating with back support (no need for folding chairs here). It is a musical. Frankly, I think the songs are better than in the Little House on the Prairie: The Musical. I came out of the Mansfield pageant singing and can still do a bit of a song or two.I came out of Little House on the Prairie: the Musical being wowed by their staging which was great, but with not a single tune in my head. Staging is not the first thing you want to think of when you come to a musical.
Laura’s Memories tells the story of Laura’s entire life as a series of musical flashbacks. They bookend them with scenes of older Laura talking to an unidentified woman, but clearly references the only known recording of Laura’s voice. They don’t want anyone to have to learn too many pages so they swap out who plays what role a couple of times during the performance which can be a little confusing until you figure that out. The pageant grounds are located right by the high school connected with Laura Ingalls Wilder Elementary with you entering through the park. Reserved seats aren’t required here either.
Their Facebook presence is a closed group that is more designed for participants than attendees.
Mary Ingalls Pageant
The pageant that is newest on the block is the Mary Ingalls Pageant which was first held last summer. It tells the familiar story with a different twist, sharing Mary’s point of view rather than Laura’s. While the beginning follows the familiar story, the middle shares what it was like to be a student at the Iowa School for the Blind. This section was constructed with help from alumni of the school to make sure it accurately reflected the experience. That was my favorite part and it ends with a reenactment of Mary’s graduation in the very place where it really happened (note that the auditorium has been expanded since then, but still). The final part picks up Mary’s life in De Smet after the school based heavily on “Grandpa’s Fiddle” by Rose Wilder Lane as published in The Little House Sampler, William T. Anderson, editor. It really gives you a better feel for this time in the Ingalls Family lives as well. I strongly recommend you visit this pageant.
The pageant is held at the Iowa School for the Blind in Vinton, Iowa. There are a couple of motels in Vinton and a much larger selection in Cedar Rapids, an easy drive away. There are plenty of restaurants in town, including a McDonalds and some nicer places as well. No food is sold at the pageant. One of the most difficult parts of the location is the lack of nearby parking. The next door parking lot is incredibly small, but several nearby businesses including the elementary school have agreed to open their lots. Volunteers are available to drive up attendees on golf carts, giving you car to door service.
Unlike the other pageants this one takes place inside so most of the things listed for take alongs don’t apply. I did however bring a pillow to sit on which I was very grateful for, but no one else in my group seemed to have any issues, so that’s totally optional. Most of the seating is unpadded auditorium style chairs and folding chairs. Be aware that there is also seating in the balcony overlooking the stage through the staircases on either side of the auditorium doors inside the door of the auditorium. Unfortunately their location close to the inside of the doors of the auditorium proper can lead to congestion at high people traffic times.
You want to get there early because most people seemed to aim for door opening and the place was full to bursting already the first night when I got there at about 6:15 pm. People also didn’t seem to move around much once they got a seat despite various activities which makes it harder for everyone to get in and out of rows even if you wanted to. Outside the doors to the auditorium is the main hallway which is abundantly large at most times, but got terribly clogged both before the play started and after it ended. Be patient and hang out in your seats or talk to other fans before trying to push through. Bathrooms are down the hall from the auditorium. If your back is to the front door entrance of the building and you are facing the doors to the auditorium, the women’s room is on the left side and the men’s room is on the right. The doors to each are around the corner were where the hall quits following the interior wall of the auditorium, makes a turn, and heads off down the wings.
Reviewing the Basics
- Bring Bug Spray
- Dress in Layers or Bring Jackets and Blankets or Both
- I’ve decided to add a pillow to my bring alongs, maybe I’m just getting old, but these benches and chairs are getting HARD.
- For Walnut Grove, make reservations for both tickets and lodging as soon as possible.
- For De Smet, bring along a lawn chair and/or a blanket.
- You may want to eat or go to the bathroom before you head out to the pageant grounds.
- For Vinton, remember you’ll be inside, but you’ll probably be hot. There is air conditioning, but it really isn’t designed for that large a crowd. Come early and plan on mostly staying in your seat once you’ve gotten one.
Road Trips for Readers wrote a recent post about pageant travel and quoted me extensively. Read that here.
UPDATED January 12 2018: Besides the corrections and extra information I added above. I also fixed a dead link to the other pageant travel article.
Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation.Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+,LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. She is currently President of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.