It’s not often that a number of towns or cities get combined to be recognized as a single entity (Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota quickly comes to mind). However, in eastern Wisconsin, 19 cities, towns and communities, such as Appleton, Neenah, Menasha and Combined Locks, have been brought together to make up the Fox Cities region.
Nestled between the Fox River and Lake Winnebago, the Fox Cities region offers big city and small town qualities for tourists who want to experience history, entertainment, the arts, sports, nature and local culture. Although some of the area’s main claims to fame include the home towns of such personalities as former CNN reporter Greta Van Susteren, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edna Ferber, notorious U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy and magician-escape artist Harry Houdini (who was born in Hungary, but was raised in Appleton) – as well as the birthplace of Kleenex – Fox Cities can offer both metropolitan and rural charm as a tourism destination. And during a recent press tour I participated in Fox Cities, I experienced plenty of both qualities.
For those Montreal baseball fans who sorely miss the experience of catching a regularly scheduled professional baseball game in a live stadium setting, the city of Appleton can fix that, as it is the home of the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (www.timberrattlers.com) of the Midwest League, and is the Class “A” affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Playing at their home turf of the Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium, a 5900-seat venue, the Timber Rattlers play a 140-game schedule between the beginning of April and Labour Day weekend. Proclaiming themselves the “Home of the Good Times”, the Timber Rattlers organization is committed to making every one of their 70 home games fun and family-oriented, and attract about an average of 3700 spectators of all ages per home game.
And there are plenty of good times to be had during a Timber Rattlers game at Fox Cities Stadium. For example, there is the constant presence of the team’s two mascots “Fang” and “Whiffer”; daily ballpark promotions (we went on “Craft Brews and Brats Night”, when craft beers and bratwurst sold for $2 each at the ballpark); regularly scheduled promotional giveaways and theme nights (such as “Bratoberfest”, Lego Night, and special nights dedicated to Harry Potter, Star Wars and Marvel super heroes); reasonably-priced individual tickets (ranging from $8 to $36); plenty of between innings activities and attractions (such as the “Bratzooka” during the 4th inning, when 20 tightly-wrapped bratwurst are shot into the stands from a bratwurst-shaped bazooka device); nine individual sections that can appeal to any group, such as the Kids Zone, a party deck, a “Home Run Porch”, a picnic deck on the 3rd base line, luxury suites and the “Fox Club”, which is also rented out to groups and private receptions throughout the year.
Of course, to make that minor league baseball experience complete is the wide variety of signature ballpark eats that are available around the stadium, including the Timber Rattlers’ unique, award-winning “Rattler Bites”, which are bite-sized bratwurst pieces that are combined with sauerkraut, stuffed into a wonton-type shell, deep fried and served with a spicy brown mustard sauce.
By the way, the particular home game that we attended at Fox Cities Stadium had a happy ending; the Timber Rattlers beat the visiting Great Lakes Loons in a squeaker, by a score of 4-3.
If you’re a fan of the Green Bay Packers, there’s one place you must visit for the ultimate Packers dining experience. Vince Lombardi’s Steakhouse (www.vincelombradissteakhouse.com) is located in downtown Appleton, as part of the Red Lion Paper Valley Hotel. It opened nearly 20 years ago with the approval of Lombardi’s son, and because of the close proximity of Appleton to Green Bay, many Packers fans who are about to attend a game at Lambeau Field make it a point to go and dine at the steakhouse as part of their Packer game day experience. As well, all opposing NFL teams who are in town to face the Packers not only stay at the Paper Valley Hotel, but also dine en masse at the restaurant (which is closed off to the public on game day). And it’s a favorite dining spot for any Packers alumni who are in town for a game, where fans get the chance to do meet and greet sessions with many of its greatest past players; at the table where I was during the meal I attended, I had the sheer luck of sitting at former quarterback Brett Favre’s favorite seat.
And Vince Lombardi’s Steakhouse offers a menu featuring a large variety of cuts of meat that are a steak lover’s paradise, which come from Chicago’s famous stockyards, and are aged between 21 and 28 days. The restaurant also doubles as a museum, in which practically every square inch is covered with over 350 pieces of memorabilia from the Lombardi estate, which tells the colourful story of the legendary Hall of Fame coach, and the glory years of the Packers during his time as its skipper from 1959 to 1968.
One morning, I decided to get a taste of Fox Cities through its best known chocolate shop, dairy and cheese store.
Wilmar Chocolates (www.wilmarchocolates.com) has been in the same location in downtown Appleton since it was established in 1956. What has kept this confectioner open for over 60 years is the old-fashioned way they make their small batch chocolates. They use fresh ingredients from local dairies, growers and bee keepers. And each of their chocolate products are done by hand (handmade, hand cut, hand wrapped and hand packed). Customers also get the chance to visit Wilmar’s kitchen, where they can witness chocolate being hand made by their crew of chocolatiers (or as they call them, “bar-istas”). One of their best known customized services is building your own chocolate bar, in which you get to choose which kind of chocolate you want (milk or dark), plus four mix in ingredients, whether they be crunchy, fruits, nuts, sweets, flavours or spices. The Wilmar bar-ista then combines the chosen ingredients, mixes them together on a marble shaker table, pours the mixture into a mold, and then refrigerates it for up to 10 minutes. The end result is a chocoholic’s dream (I chose dark chocolate mixed with almonds, coconut, cranberries and marshmallows).
Wisconsin is known as “America’s Dairyland”, and that was truly exemplified with a visit to Lamers Dairy (www.lamersdairyinc.com). The Lamer family has been running their dairy since 1913, when they bottled their milk in the basement of their home and delivered it door to door by bicycle. In their current location (which was opened in 1998), visitors can see first-hand how their quality brand of milk is processed from the farm to the bottling, to the store shelves. Their own store that’s adjacent to the plant offers a wide variety of their own dairy products for purchase (including their delicious brand of chocolate milk) under their Dairyland’s Best label, as well as their freshly made hard and soft ice cream.
We then proceeded to have lunch at Simon’s Specialty Cheese (www.simonscheese.com), which has been making some of the best cheeses to come from Wisconsin since 1940, and is best known for their award-winning cheddar, feta, mozzarella, provolone and fresh, squeaky cheese curds. During the lunch, our hosts from Simon’s, along with representatives from the nearby Ahnapee Brewery, showed us a new twist to the wine and cheese party with how to combine what certain cheese goes well with a certain type of beer. We also got a brief lesson in the art and science of cheese making courtesy of Simon’s resident master cheese maker. Terry Lensmire, with over 40 years’ experience in cheese making, delivered a fascinating talk on how certain cheeses are made, how to savour them, and the unique tools of his trade. And Simon’s expansive store allows visitors to take home with them their award-winning cheeses, as well as a large variety of Wisconsin souvenirs and sports team merchandise.
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In the city of Neenah, they have a different twist to the trolley car tours to numerous historical points of interest and places of their city … the two-horse hitch wagon (www.firsthitch.com). We spent one morning on one of their open-air hitch wagons to experience a guided tour of downtown Neenah, especially the ornate mansions that were built during the late 19th century. A good number of those mansions belonged to the members of the two families that established the city’s main industry: Kimberly-Clark, which built a paper company empire, including their best-known brand, Kleenex tissues. And there was one mansion along the tour that will stand out for fans of classic movies; the house that was the birthplace of Howard Hawks, who directed such classics as “Red River”, “To Have and Have Not”, and “Rio Bravo”.
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Our visit to Fox Cities concluded on an entertaining note, as we caught a performance of the Tony Award-winning musical “Rent” by its national touring company at Appleton’s magnificent Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, or PAC, (www.foxcitiespac.com). Built in 2002, this impressive $45 million facility, which houses up to 2100 spectators, has quickly become the venue of choice whenever a Broadway show touring company wants to debut the run of their certain show in Wisconsin.
Its two stages hosts over 350 events each year, including a Broadway across America series (in which this season has “The Lion King”, “Come From Away” and “Anastasia” as part of its line-up), rock and country music concerts, dance, symphony music, children’s shows, motivational speakers and live comedy (PAC officials admitted that their comedy “bucket List” is to have Jerry Seinfeld perform there). With a scale and décor that can compare to any major entertainment venue in New York City, and the first-class quality and variety of shows that are being offered to its local audiences, the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center offers a complete theatre going experience in the Midwest that is second-to-none.
“This venue is very Wisconsin-friendly, mainly because of its cleanliness and newness,” said Trisha Witt, the PAC’s Director of Marketing and Communications. “And no matter what show we hold here, its performers quickly become part of our community in Fox Cities. They immerse themselves here, which is why they love coming back.”
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For more information about visiting the Fox Cities region and what it has to offer tourists, check out their website at www.FoxCities.org.