It’s easy to write long essays raving about the work of Disney Imagineering, Universal Creative, and design companies like the Goddard Group and BRC Imagination Arts. Immersive environments and cutting-edge rides keep pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. They’re hardly the only game in town, however. There are countless other locations around the country that can deliver an entertaining day. Many stretch the definition of a theme park but still offer a great experience.
A perfect example is Grant’s Farm, the ancestral home of the Busch family in St. Louis. Opened to the public in 1954, the 281-acre park offers an engaging mix of history and relaxed entertainment. The only fee is $12 for parking, which is a bargain while most ticket prices keep increasing. Although it’s surrounded by residential neighborhoods, Grant’s Farm feels like a haven set apart from the suburbs. The unique mix of an animal sanctuary with an old-school amusement park might seem awkward yet provides surprising charm. It’s like having a glimpse at former Busch parks like Sea World and Busch Gardens before they built high-tech attractions.
It’s a little surprising that the Busch family hasn’t sold the park. Following Anheuser-Busch’s acquisition by InBev in 2008, the company wasted little time in selling Busch Entertainment to the Blackstone Group. There’s quite a bit of Busch history in this place, however. The National Park Service considered designating Grant’s Farm as a national park back in 2010, but no movement has happened. While this prospect sounds good on the surface, it would probably remove most of the site’s best aspects. I doubt the government would enlist AB to keep giving out free beer. The brewer is now part of an international corporation but retains close historical ties to the area.
A Smooth Transition
A visit to Grant’s Farm begins with a refreshing shift away from the outside world. Since there is no admission charge after parking, you don’t need to navigate turnstiles or ticket booths. Instead, you cross a small bridge and leisurely walk towards the tram station. Lines can build up by mid-day, but they move steadily through the small queue. After bypassing an awkward photo stop staffed by an outside vendor, it’s a relief to board the trams for a relaxing and slow-moving trip.
The tram ride is a simpler version of Kilimanjaro Safaris with visitors scrambling to snap photos of different wildlife. The environment includes less variety, but the feeling of anticipation of what’s around the corner is very similar. The journey through Deer Park could include bison, black buck antelope, and zebra roaming in surprisingly large spaces. The openness creates a much different atmosphere than your typical zoo.
A Glimpse at History
During this journey, you’ll also pass several interesting structures with long histories. The first is Grant’s Cabin, a two-story home built in 1855 before Grant led the Union troops in the Civil War. Purchased by August A. Busch in 1907 and moved from its World’s Fair location, the cabin (originally named “Hardscrabble”) was restored in 1977. It’s too bad the trip doesn’t stop at the four-room cabin for a closer look. It’s still an impressive structure to spot during the ride. I have a clear memory of walking outside the cabin during visits as a kid, but that does not occur today.
The other landmark is only seen at a distance but also has an interesting history. The Busch Family Estate is a gorgeous mansion that you only glimpse between the trees during the ride. Built in 1913, the former residence is now a venue for weddings and other special events. It remained closed to the public for many years and just started functioning as an event space in late 2014. The cost is certainly very high, particularly if you choose the “Big House” option to rent the inside space.
The Tier Garden
You’ll spend the most time at Grant’s Farm in the Tier Garden, which is the ultimate stop for the tram journey. The mix of shows, rides, and animal experiences is low-key but offers plenty to see. Animal Encounters includes the expected close visits from birds, snakes, and others along with painfully cheesy banter from the hosts. The show’s current theme of connecting the animals with their favorite movies doesn’t really work. Even so, there’s enough guest interaction and fun moments to make it worth the time. It’s like Universal’s Animal Actors on Location but on a smaller scale. The park also offers an Elephant Education Show within a much larger structure.
A popular activity for kids is feeding the baby goats, who will drink right from their hands inside the pen. After visiting the Milk House, it’s time to risk your hair and face down quite a large number of goats. It’s a cool experience, but be warned that the goats are quite aggressive. Parents with young children will want to stay very close. For an additional charge, adults and kids can also ride a camel. The less adventurous can also talk with camels on the ground level.
It’s hardly a surprise to find a carousel at Grant’s Farm, but it’s still worth the time for little ones. This ride is kept up much better than a similar one at Six Flags St. Louis, though it does require a small fee. There are special “fun passes” to save money on multiple experiences, and it’s all quite reasonable. While it might sound thrown together, everything in Tier Garden maintains a certain atmosphere. It’s casual and gives you a chance to get a close look at some different animals. The bald eagles are just a few feet away, and you’re able to get quite close to the camels and birds. It’s like a small-scale zoo, but themed on a quieter level.
A Charming German Courtyard
The final stop before re-boarding the tram is the Bauernhof, which means “farmstead” in German. This courtyard is a pleasant spot for lunch, especially on less sweltering days. The food offerings are pretty standard fare including bratwurst and pretzels. The big draw is the free Anheuser-Busch beers, which go beyond the typical Budweiser and Bud Light. It’s a throwback to the hospitality spots that used to be commonplace when Busch Entertainment ran parks like SeaWorld. This placement near the end of the park is perfect, especially for worn-out parents.
Surrounding the Bauernhof are stables containing horses and a collection of carriages. It’s extra touches like this beautiful area that keep Grant’s Farm from being just another local park. Near the parking lot, there’s a large enclosure for the famous Budweiser Clydesdales. More than 50 reside in the stables, and it’s easy to get an up-close view of them. It’s one of many reasons to check out one of St. Louis’ true gems. Whether you’re an out-of-town guest or a local who hasn’t visited lately, Grant’s Farm is definitely worth a trip. These additional photos should help explain its allure.