OKOBOJI, Iowa — Miles of beaches, crystal clear waters and dozens of local restaurants are just a few of the draws that bring thousands to the Iowa Great Lakes every summer.
"I always say if you haven't been here for 10 years, you really haven't been here," said Paul Plumb, "The park has had so many things happen in the last five years." Arnolds Park Amusement Park sits along the waterfront of West Lake Okoboji. Its historic wooden rollercoaster is an iconic lakefront feature, much like the cabins of Fillenwarth Beach.
"We have 96 different units here at Fillenwarth Beach. Most of them are right on the waterfront," said Director of Operations at the resort, Rachel Fandel.
Like the rest of the world, the Iowa Great Lakes Region was also impacted by COVID-19, and now with inflation and workforce challenges, this summer could throw another curveball.
"Workforce has always been a challenge for us in the Iowa Great Lakes Area just because we do have so many seasonal businesses," said Okoboji Tourism Director Rebecca Peters, "because of that, we have we've been able to kind of face this issue head on for so many years."
The summer season in Okoboji isn't just for Iowans and those who live in the Iowa Great Lakes. The region brings in students from across the world to get a taste of Iowa culture and experience a summer of fun they will never forget.
"We also are really fortunate to have a number of J1 Visa students join us in the Iowa Great Lakes Area to experience what this area is like and what the United States is like," said Peters.
A number of the students spend their summers with Arnolds Park. "I noticed because we use a visa program, a couple of different visa programs where we bring not only students but other HTB visas in from overseas and from other countries," said Plumb, marketing director for the park, "we have used that program extensively this year. Knowing that the job market is really tough right now. It's hard to find employees."
These students not only come to work, but experience summers in Iowa, bringing a little bit of their own culture and traditions along, too.
"We were blessed with their culture just as much as they were with ours," Plumb said, "being exposed to all the different cultures that we are because of that program has really helped us grow."
These businesses also work with area schools to bolster the workforce. And locals who live here year-round are dedicated to seeing the region thrive.
Fandel, who has been with Fillenwarth Beach since she was a teen, has seen the dedication firsthand. "You know the improvements that are continually made, the people that sink in hours and finances into this area is just really incredible."
"We are so fortunate for the investment that's been made in this community really over the last 5-10 years and more," said Peters. "This community is constantly looking for ways to improve but also to embrace the history that we have." Fillenwarth Beach has been part of the community for over 100 years, with cabins, cottages, and activities for people of all ages during the summer season.
"We have a very extensive recreation program where we have arts and crafts, we have chocolate tasting, beer tasting, wine tasting, there's always something fun to do for our guests," Fandel said.
And much like Fillenwarth Beach, Arnolds Park has been a stop for many families for generations.
"People come here for many years," Plumb said. "As you know, it's a generational place but not only parents bringing their kids but grandparents and great-grandparents are coming here and enjoying the same things that they enjoyed when they were kids and like you said just family memories that will last a lifetime."
The park is constantly making improvements, while also holding true to its historic roots.
"We tried to create that retro look to the park and just a place for people to bring their families and make memories that are going to last a lifetime," Plumb said as we walked up to The Legend rollercoaster. It's one of the oldest wooden coasters in the United States.
"Our goal is just to see people smile," said Peters as we stood in one of the many museums, this one housing some iconic pieces from Arnolds Park's early days. "This is such a family friendly destination and it has been for generations and so like I said, our goal is to see people having a great time making memories and smiling and enjoying everything that area has to offer." From Arnolds Park, to Fillenwarth Beach and everything in between, the Iowa Great Lakes community takes all challenges head-on to provide the best possible experience to anyone who stops by.
"2020 presented a huge challenge for a lot of us. And we were able to kind of reimagine the way that we do business in this area and it really allowed people the opportunity to still get out and still enjoy the Iowa Great Lakes even through the pandemic," Fandel said, "I'm just really proud of this community and their ability to adapt to those changes. And it's just been really wonderful working with business partners outside of the resort, and I'm really appreciative to all of those people."
Arnolds Park opened for the season on May 21st. The park is open to the public for free with ride tickets sold separately.
Fillenwarth Beach is quickly filling up reservations for the season, you can find more about their cabin rentals here.
The Arnolds Park Area is also home to the Iowa Rock and Roll Museum, the historic Roof Garden, and a new outdoor music venue that will be open this summer for free concerts and events.
SEE THE VIDEO
Web articles from my time at Siouxland News.