Sandusky, Ohio is mainly known for two things: being the scrappy blue-collar backdrop of the movie Tommy Boy (fun fact: the movie wasn’t filmed in Sandusky), and the Cedar Point theme park.
Cedar Point boasts several of the world’s tallest, wildest roller coasters as well as plenty of rides and attractions for kids. In fact, it draws so many families to the area each season that a number of indoor and outdoor water parks, laser-tag arenas and the like have popped up around it. Those are easy enough to find if that’s your thing, but did you know Sandusky and the nearby Lake Erie Islands (accessible by boat or ferry) offer a number of far less crowded hidden gems for families?
Here are five local favorites:
Grab Some (HUGE) Ice Cream at Toft’s Dairy
Toft’s Dairy is beloved by locals, and readily available in the freezer aisle of most area grocery stores (and yes, there’s also an outpost at Cedar Point). Ohio’s oldest dairy is located off the beaten tourist path, making this a fun and leisurely stop for some of the best ice cream you’ll ever eat. Fair warning: Toft's scoops are more than generous; take a seat at one of the antique school-desk style seats along the ice cream parlor’s far wall or the ample shaded patio seating before making a run at your gargantuan cone. 3717 Venice Rd, Sandusky; toftdairy.com
Be Merry at the Merry Go Round Museum
The Merry Go Round museum is located downtown near the waterfront, an easy walk from the ferries but tucked away from much of the seasonal throngs. Inside, you’ll find some beautiful antique painted ponies, but the real highlight is the chance to ride the full-size, indoor, vintage carousel. Don’t forget to take a #carouselfie of you and the fam. 301 Jackson St, Sandusky; merrygoroundmuseum.org
Make 200 New Friends at Lagoon Deer Park
The Lagoon Deer Park has the mom-and-pop tourist stop feel of the road trip vacations of your youth. It’s not polished or flashy, but it delivers plenty of fun for animal lovers as over 200 friendly animals--from deer and elk to sheep and even peacocks--greet you excitedly. Junior anglers can pull a fresh catch from the stocked fishing ponds (You must bring your own fishing gear, but a state fishing license isn’t required). Maybe it’s your sparkling personality that makes the emu follow you so loyally around the park. Maybe it’s the food you purchase at the gate to feed them. No one can say for sure. 1012 Martins Point Rd, Sandusky; lagoondeerparkohio.com
Play Groovy Geologist at the Glacial Grooves State Memorial Attraction
Rent some bikes or golf carts and head to the north side of Kelley’s Island to see this Natural National Landmark, the most accessible example anywhere of the grooves left by prehistoric glaciers. They’re quite large and the uneven terrain is fun to clamber around (but not on, for preservation reasons). After your impromptu science lesson, take a family hike on one of several trails nearby, like the North Pond Boardwalk. 739 Division St., Kelleys Island, OH; www.kelleysislandchamber.com/place/glacial-grooves/
Wade Into a Pool Party at JF Walleye’s on Middle Bass Island
Only a few miles yet world away from the weekend tourist and party crowds of Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island is its far quieter cousin, Middle Bass. Middle Bass is far less developed. Whereas Put-in-Bay is awash in restaurants, bars and attractions, Middle Bass offers only a few quiet beachfront parks, a single winery and a couple of restaurants, which most visitors travel to and from via rented golf carts. But even this most introverted of islands has a fun secret: JF Walleye’s, where it’s business in the front, party in the back.
This beach-shack style restaurant has the kind of standard beach decor and greasy but not bad lake bar food you would imagine, and a friendly if-young and seasonal staff. But step onto the back patio and you’ll hit the family hidden gem jackpot: the very large and winding resort grotto-style wading pool dubbed The Blue Lagoon, complete with man-made waterfall. With patio and lounge chair seating nearby, and frequent live music, parents can have a bite, sip or soak while the kids splash. 1810 Fox Road, Middle Bass, OH 43446 www.jfwalleyes.net/
Brooke Preston is a lifestyle, copy and comedy writer (and work at home mom) based in Columbus, Ohio. Her work has been featured in National Lampoon, McSweeney's, The Second City Network, The Huffington Post, Romper, Columbus Monthly, Columbus Parent, Travel Portland and more. She's the co-founder of The Belladonna Comedy.