Region's attractions draw millions of visitors

2014-03-16T00:00:00Z 2014-08-29T17:30:15Z Region's attractions draw millions of visitorsTimes Staff nwitimes.com
March 16, 2014 12:00 am  • 

More than 1.1 million visitors flocked to Indiana Dunes State Park in Chesterton in 2013, attracted by its 2,182-acres of landscape and its soaring dunes and sandy beaches.

The park and the adjoining Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, with an annual 1.8 million visitors, remain Northwest Indiana's top attractions, helping to introduce visitors to other points of interest.

The Lake County-owned Deep River Water Park and neighboring Albanese Candy Factory in Hobart; U.S. Steel Yard in Gary, home of the Gary South Shore RailCats; and the Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville, are among venues which draw visitors to Northwest Indiana.

Deep River, with its wave pool, river ride, tube rides and slides, saw attendance peak in summer 2010 with 258,733 visitors. Cool weather in summer 2013 kept visitor numbers to 175,037.

Visitors drawn to the region by the water park will often stop by the Albanese Candy Factory, just down the road on U.S. 30, where it's not unusual to have tours of up to 70 people on a summer day observing candy making in the works.

U.S. Steel Yard, drew a record crowd of 8,208 in August 2011 and regularly is among American Association season attendance leaders with a seating capacity of 6,139.

The Star Plaza Theatre, at the crossroads of U.S. 30 and Interstate 65, heads into its 35th year as a music and entertainment venue for the region and beyond.

"What makes us unique is that we were able to establish ourselves as a premier Midwest destination," said Charlie Blum, Star Plaza president and CEO.

The theater with capacity for 3,400 has played host to headliners Tony Bennett, Liberace, Kenny Rogers, the Beach Boys and many more, regularly filling 80 percent or more of seats, Blum said.

Innovation and change keeps visitors coming back to the region's top attractions.

Star Plaza Theatre recently installed a new sound system, welcomed not only by audience members but also by performers.

"They tell me they feel like they're playing in their own living room," Blum said.

Indiana Dunes State Park this year welcomed  the paved, 8-foot wide extension of the Dunes Kankakee Trail bike/hike trail from the Dune Park South Shore station to the park's front gates.

A new bird observation platform at the top of the dune ridge at the west end of the park is due to open in spring.

"It's certainly the beach that draws the biggest crowds," said Brandt Baughman, Dunes State Park property manager. "But the park offers many attractions."

A Passport to the Dunes project is in the works at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, where those who visit passport locations in the park are eligible for a small prize, park ranger Bruce Rowe said.

Deep River is preparing to introduce a new water slide, the Kracken, this season, said Bob Nickovich, Lake County Parks and Recreation CEO.

The park draws most of its visitors from an area within a two-hour drive, Nickovich said.

Taken individually, each of Northwest Indiana's top attractions  don't necessarily make the region a destination.

But include them all, "and all of a sudden you start looking at a synergy that is very attractive to the tourism market in general," Nickovich said.

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