Ohio refuses to stay in one lane. The Buckeye State doesn’t attract only one type of person. Instead, all kinds of people visit to discover everything from football to manatees.
Ohio’s top attractions are fueled by the passions of both staff and visitors. Because of this enthusiasm, the state’s signature attractions, such as the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Columbus Zoo and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, consistently draw visitors from all over the country.
Travel planners should plan plenty of time for groups to explore these rock star Ohio attractions.
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Groups can watch the bellyflops, spins and acrobatics of California sea lions and harbor seals at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s new Adventure Cove exhibit. Opened in 2020, the $40 million exhibit features a 60-foot-long tunnel where visitors can appear to walk underwater next to the playful swimmers. A 250-seat amphitheater will show off more of these mammals’ tricks this year.
A new indoor area called Jack Hanna’s Animal Encounter Village houses more than 60 species of animals, including sloths, African penguins and cheetahs. The exhibit was inspired by Jack Hanna, the zoo’s director emeritus and television personality.
“Right off the bat, you can hear harbor seals’ barking that welcomes the visitors to the park at Adventure Cove,” said Roger Dudley, director of tourism sales for Experience Columbus. “Then Jack Hanna’s Animal Encounter Village brings the animals closer to the people. The animals that used to travel with Jack Hanna now have a facility where the public can visit them and sometimes see them out and about in that exhibition.”
The new exhibit adds to the zoo’s already extensive displays that provide a home for more than 9,000 animals and 650 species from around the world. With an attached water park, golf club and other educational exhibits, visitors will rarely run out of new things to discover.
Groups can opt for either a self-guided tour of the zoo or a curated tour experience such as the Wasafiri Adventure. Participants have breakfast at the Heart of Africa exhibit before the zoo opens to the public. The private experience allows groups to take photos with select animals and feed giraffes.
Groups with a mix of people — some who want to scream as they drop 300 feet and others who want to relax and watch a show — can find a range of entertainment at Kings Island in Mason.
“It is a well-rounded amusement park experience,” said Scott Hutchinson, director of marketing and communications for the Warren County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We hear that a lot when we speak to people who are followers of roller coasters throughout the nation. They view Ohio as a mecca for roller coasters. They feel Kings Island is best for people of all ages because it has little kids’ rides all the way up to rides for grandma and grandpa.”
The park’s new Orion giga coaster debuted in July 2020 as one of seven giga coasters in the world. The park’s tallest, fastest and longest steel roller coaster features a 300-foot drop and a maximum speed of 91 miles per hour.
Roller coaster enthusiasts can also enjoy the park’s other trademark roller coasters, such as the Beast and Mystic Timbers. Beyond these adrenaline-producing experiences, the park offers more than 100 rides and attractions. The park’s Planet Snoopy-themed area has been voted “Best Kids’ Area in the World” for 18 years by Amusement Today. The area features Peanuts-themed rides, shows and attractions.
Kings Island also connects to Soak City Water Park, with 50 aquatic activities such as water slides, tropical lagoons and kids’ play areas.
Ohio State Reformatory
A prison with a marble floor seems like a contradiction. Yet at the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, decorative architecture contrasts abruptly with crowded cellblocks.
The former prison’s Victorian Gothic and Romanesque architecture was intended to encourage inmates to repent. These lofty intentions were at the heart of the Ohio State Reformatory, built in 1896 to house young first-time offenders. The site transformed into a maximum-security prison in 1946 and closed in 1990; it later reopened for tours.
“Visitors are not going to find this attraction anywhere else,” said Jodie Snavely, group tour and media director for Destination Mansfield. “We suggest groups factor in anywhere from two to three hours because there is so much to see. Every time I go through, I hear or see something different or hear a new story.”
Groups can learn about the site’s use as the main filming location for “The Shawshank Redemption” on the History Meets Hollywood Tour. Several rooms appear just as they did in the movie, such as the warden’s office, Brooks’ hotel room and Andy’s cell with a hole dug through the wall.
The Shawshank Bus Tour incorporates the Ohio State Reformatory into a larger tour of 11 filming locations in three hours. The tour ends with a walking tour of the prison using Andy’s entrance in the movie.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
No one can walk by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without noticing it. Just like the bold, energetic music it honors, the building stands out. Architect I.M. Pei designed it as a glass pyramid anchored by a 162-foot-high tower.
The inside proves just as inventive, with a mix of priceless memorabilia, videos that celebrate the music genre and interactive exhibits.
“One thing that gives you chills is the floor-to-ceiling video screens taking you through dramatic performances from the induction ceremonies,” said Gordon Taylor III, vice president of convention sales and services for Destination Cleveland. “The last one I saw was Tom Petty and Prince. It is a concert with two people who have passed away, but it’s like you are seeing them in person. You can feel the room vibrate. It is so impactful.”
Groups love to include the Garage exhibit. Participants can imagine themselves as real-life rock stars by playing, mixing and recording their own music. After seeing so many famous guitars off-limits to guests, visitors can grab a drum, guitar or other instrument to create a souvenir song.
Some groups take the entire day to explore the seven-story museum. Planners can arrange a meal voucher for the All Access Cafe.
Pro Football Hall of Fame
Jewelry isn’t something guests expect to admire at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton. However, at the “Lamar Hunt Super Bowl Gallery” exhibit, visitors gawk at the Super Bowl championship rings, which started out modest and grew to the size of a small fist. The surprising exhibit illustrates how the winning team’s logo is crafted into the bejeweled design.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame has been exceeding expectations since its simple beginnings in 1963. Canton was chosen as the site of the Hall of Fame partially because the American Professional Football Association, now known as the National Football League, was founded in the Ohio town in 1920.
“There is a misconception that you have to be a diehard football fan to come here,” said Lauren McRitchie, coordinator of the Pro Football Hall of Fame experiences. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. It is not just a museum with stats lying round. You learn the history of the game. It is interactive, and everyone can take something away from it.”
The Hall of Fame Gallery houses bronze busts of each of the more than 300 inductees. Visitors can learn about each member through touch-screen kiosks that include bios, photos and videos about the inductees.
The holographic theater “A Game for Life” uses multisensory theater techniques to relate football stories that illustrate how the game can teach life lessons as well as entertain. Groups can view these exhibits and more on a guided museum tour for an insider’s look at the museum’s diverse collection.