LAFAYETTE, Ind. — About an hour north of Indianapolis, Exploration Acres in Lafayette is one of central Indiana’s biggest fall attractions.
However, when owner Tim Fitzgerald opened the can’t-miss fall destination at 6042 Newcastle Road over 10 years ago, it was a much different story.
Fitzgerald already had a successful career for over 20 years working in Indianapolis in the exhibit and trade show business, but the trajectory of his life changed in 2004 when his dad approached him with a request.
“My dad got cancer, and he was looking for something that we could do to kind of renovate the old farmstead where he grew up,” he explained. “So I said ‘I’ll take a crack at it… I’ll come up with something,’ And I discovered agrotourism. “
Fitzgerald studied various agrotourism venues in other states like Virginia and Tennessee and used his own skills and background in design throughout the planning process. Exploration Acres officially opened for business in 2008.
“At that time, we had a 15-acre corn maze, and we had just a handful of activities for people,” Fitzgerald said.
Today, Exploration Acres has 105 employees and is one of the top agrotourism venues in the nation. In fact, this year their 18-acre Purdue University “150 Years of Giant Leaps” anniversary maze took home the number one spot on USA Today’s Reader’s Choice 10Best list for best corn maze in the nation.
The two historic figures highlighted in this year’s maze are Neil Armstrong and Amelia Earhart.
“Neil Armstrong, it was the 50th anniversary of his moon-walk this year and Amelia—of course— she tried to circumnavigate the world in a plane that was actually purchased by Purdue University. A lot of people don’t know that,” said Fitzgerald. “She was also very influential with young women at Purdue... helping them choose to continue their education and was an adviser at Purdue when she was there in the 1930s.”
Clearly at Exploration Acres there is so much to learn, but the learning goes far beyond that very special Purdue University maze.
Kids can also learn about wildlife and their habitats thanks to educational wildlife panels implemented through a partnership with Duke Energy (and help from Purdue University).
“[The panels] teach kids about animal habitats, animal tracks and footprints, different types of trees and leaves they can identify while they’re here,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve also got a panel that teaches them about invasive species that they will actually see in our woods.”
They can also head over to the 60-foot sluice and pan for fossils and gems in the gem mine.
“The teachers can take the actual rocks or fossils back to the classroom with them and use them in classroom curriculum,” he noted.
Although they’ve continued to grow, Fitzgerald says they have remained true to their roots by keeping things simple and continuing their focus on educating people about agriculture while entertaining them.
“We’re not an amusement park, we’re not going to install roller coasters here or a scrambler…We’re just very grassroots,” Fitzgerald said. “You can come out here, leave the cell phone behind, do a fire pit… There are just a lot of hands-on type fun outdoor things.”
They also intentionally create activities that are simple enough for all generations to enjoy together—from toddlers to grandparents.
Here, you’ll find activities like a tube slide, play set, rubber ducky races, tractor train and the corn cannon—which is popular with kids and adults alike.
“You can actually load some ears of corn into a pneumatic cannon and shoot at a target. If you hit it, you get a 2-liter of root beer. If you don’t, you still get a coupon to go do black light golf,” Fitzgerald explained.
On weekdays, you’ll often see several school buses in the parking lot because Exploration Acres is so popular for field trips. One popular activity for many classes actually has an Indy twist.
“We actually have IndyCars on kind of like a pinewood derby track… the kids can pick their color of IndyCar with a pumpkin on it,” Fitzgerald said. “The pumpkins all have personalities. We have Mr. Mustachio, Luscious Lips, Funny Face and Angry Face. And one class challenge another class and the teachers pick the car and race it and the kids cheer for their favorite car.”
Another activity that is always a huge hit with the kids are their tumble tubes—which are not only fun but also help develop cooperative team skills.
“They’re large tubes that are kind of like a hamster wheel. The kids can get in there and they have to run this down the tracks back and forth,” he said.
Visitors of all ages love taking a hayride to their U-pick pumpkin patch, where they grow 48 different types of pumpkins, including an area of all-white pumpkins. And pumpkins are sold for just 35 cents per pound.
Then, there’s the main attraction: the corn maze. It’s actually comprised of four smaller mazes and created in a way that’s truly cutting edge.
“We used to plant the maze and then go in and cut paths with the tiller,” said Fitzgerald. “Now, we actually plant the entire design and just drop the seeds right where they need to be—like an inkjet printer—and the whole maze grows that way.”
While in the maze, you have the opportunity to earn some extra rewards through their rewards program. Just grab a brochure and find each of the 28 posts located on the maze map. At each post, you can hole punch the logo for that specific business to receive a discount or free treat when you present it at that establishment.
Some rewards include a free appetizer or kids eat free at Texas Roadhouse in Lafayette, 50% off mini golf at Monster Mini Golf, $5 off of a purchase of $20 or more at Once Upon A Child and much more.
For an added challenge, you can even try the maze at night! One unique thing about Exploration Acres is they are open until 11 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
Fitzgerald says you can expect a lot of families there during the day, but at about 6 p.m. the complexion of Exploration Acres begins to transform.
“The lights come on; it starts to get dark outside. We get a lot more college kids, high school kids, singles that come out on dates and they do our maze at night,” he said. “They also enjoy doing our fire pits at night. We have the woods lit up with LED lights... have the pedal kart tracks and a combat laser zone area that’s really fun to do at night.”
Four Things You Need to Know About Exploration Acres:
- Exploration Acres is open through Tuesday, October 29th. Their hours are Thursdays 6-10pm, Fridays and Saturdays 10am-11pm and Sundays 12-7pm. Prices are very reasonable. You can purchase tickets for $10 for adults (13+), $8 for kids ages 6-12 and free for kids 5 and under.
- The only activities that incur an additional cost are gem mining ($5 per bag if you buy more than one), the corn cannon ($1 for 3 shots), laser tag ($4 for an unlimited wrist band), U-pick pumpkin purchases (35 cents per pound) or if you want to book a fire pit ($25 per time block). So you get a lot of bang for your buck, even if you choose to do additional activities!
- In addition to the corn maze, Exploration Acres also recently opened a brand new escape maze, which is essentially an escape room that takes place within a corn maze.
- They have also done an amazing job of re-purposing some of the structures on the farm, like turning the corn cribs into modern bathrooms and turning their barn into an event space perfect for weddings and other special events.
For more information about Exploration Acres, check out their website by clicking here. To see more photos and reviews by local Yelpers, check out their Yelp profile. You can also connect with them via Facebook and Twitter.
While in Tippecanoe County, check out these other popular hot spots for family fun: