Rushing water slowly comes into view as a conveyor pulls a raft to the top of a 1,600-foot-long whitewater rafting run. What happens next is an 18-minute wild ride down the recreation channel of Riversport Rapids.
The newly opened rafting facility lies in the heart of Oklahoma City’s downtown rather than in a remote mountain valley. It’s one of several new or recently updated offerings for groups in Oklahoma’s capital.
From John Wayne-theme gatherings to contemporary art experiences to enhancements at its memorials, Oklahoma City’s attractions give even seasoned travelers a reason to return.
Six pumps that each circulate 82,000 gallons of water per minute give novice and Olympian rafters a high-powered ride they won’t soon forget at Riversport Rapids. Sitting on 11 acres in downtown Oklahoma City, this urban whitewater center opened in May to offer rafting and kayaking experiences to people from ages 8 to 80.
“They can run 2,000 people through the facility a day,” said Sandy Price, vice president of tourism for the Oklahoma City CVB. “It’s one of the biggest rafting facilities in the world. It’s fascinating even to watch.”
The $45.2 million center welcomes participants with a range of skills, since the runs range from class II to class IV rapids. Groups can sign up for a 60-minute to 90-minute whitewater experience, which includes the orientation session, raft instruction and multiple runs down the channels.
First-timers can opt for the slower 1,600-foot-long recreational channel, while thrill seekers can try the 1,300-foot-long competition channel. Guides coach riders through rafting techniques before sending them down the rapids, which were specially designed for all ages and all levels of physical abilities.
Free viewing areas allow those who are still unsure about climbing aboard a raft to watch. Groups can package the experience with a meal at Big Water Grill or with the parent company, Riversport Adventures, which offers a range of outdoor experiences. Guests can choose from rafting, the SandRidge Sky Zip, stand-up paddleboards and other adventures.
Dinner with the Duke
The swaggering walk, honest voice and larger-than-life personality of John Wayne sum up the American West for many. The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum will soon offer a new program that appeals to those who grew up with the iconic actor.
Starting this fall, guests can dine at the museum before watching a classic John Wayne film during Dinner with the Duke.
“The food is good. I went out and tried some,” said Price. “They have changed the restaurant, so it’s more of a deli counter. They set up a salad bar, sandwich bar and some pasta options.”
The program begins with the buffet and then moves the group into a small theater. One of the curators introduces the film and provides some historic context before the showing.
The program can include a museum tour so groups can see some of its 28,000 works of Western and American Indian art and artifacts, including the world’s most extensive collection of American rodeo photographs, barbed wire, saddlery and early rodeo trophies.
Those who take the tour and watch a John Wayne film can compare the Hollywood version of the cowboy with real life through exhibits in the museum’s historic galleries. For example, the American Cowboy Gallery examines the life of a working cowboy and ranching history.
Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the bombing of Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum has unveiled an $8 million renovation. The memorial honors those who died, survived or were affected by the April 19, 1995, bombing.
“The story of the museum hasn’t changed, but they are changing how they tell it,” said Price. “They have exhibits with new technology and touchscreens that engage younger visitors who were either too young to remember the bombing or weren’t born yet.”
New interactive exhibits help make the story of the bombing more real. New artifacts, oral testimonies and a section on the investigation and trial of Timothy McVeigh opened in time for the anniversary in 2015.
One piece of evidence not previously displayed is the Mercury Grand Marquis that McVeigh was driving at the time of his arrest. The vehicle is part of an interactive exhibit that ushers visitors along the FBI’s trail of evidence.
Another powerful addition, a 40-foot glass balcony, lets guests take a moment to gaze across the Memorial’s grounds and the downtown Oklahoma City skyline.
21c Museum Hotel
Instead of leveling the defunct 1916 Oklahoma City Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant, designers transformed the factory into a contemporary art exhibition space and boutique hotel. On July 1, 21c Museum Hotel opened to the public in downtown Oklahoma City, the art hotel’s sixth property.
The designers sought to integrate the building’s industrial heritage into the site’s 14,000 square feet of modern art space, 135 hotel rooms and Mary Eddy’s Kitchen and Lounge. For example, the design highlights the factory’s open and light-filled spaces, re-created casement windows, original terrazzo floor, historic storefront and decorative brick.
“It’s amazing, the history that they were able to keep and incorporate into the design,” said Price. “Even if groups don’t stay there, they are working on a group tour menu for lunch and dinner. They can also do art tours for groups.”
Fred Jones, one of the plant’s first employees, worked his way from production line to owner of one of the largest Ford dealerships in the country. The hotel’s restaurant is named for Jones’ wife, Mary Eddy Jones, an art enthusiast and humanitarian. Mary Eddy’s makes use of the building’s original Model T showroom space with large works of art and a wide-open kitchen space.
21c’s contemporary art experience offers free site-specific and touring exhibits. Groups can book a tour to hear about the symbolism of the site’s most impressive works, such as Mechanical Magic, which references materials and mechanics of 20th-century industry in colorful ways.