"Trucker's Disneyland" Is The Pit Stop To End All Pit Stops
Come for the fried chicken. Stay for the dentist's office.
Sometimes you need gas. Sometimes you need a dentist. Sometimes you need to wash your dog. Sometimes you need a movie theater. Sometimes you need a haircut. Sometimes you need a museum.
Rarely do you need all of these things at once. But in case you ever do, there is a place for one-stop shopping: the Iowa 80 World’s Largest Truckstop, otherwise known as “Trucker’s Disneyland.”
Perched on a massive expanse of 225 acres about three hours west of Chicago off of Interstate 80 -- America’s second-longest highway, which extends 2,900 miles from San Francisco to New Jersey -- the sheer size of the place is mind-boggling. You could fit 170 football fields into the truck-stop grounds. It's currently six times the size of the Pentagon building, and has expanded dozens of times since opening in 1964.
“Without truck stops, trucks stop."
Here, nearly 900 trucks can park as their drivers indulge in a hearty meal, or perhaps get a haircut and a cavity filled courtesy of on-site barbers and dentists. There are places to wash their bodies, pets, and big rigs, or just catch a flick. Casual road trippers can explore the on-site museum or stock up on the massive snack selection.
It's a mini city unto itself, one that employs some 500 Midwesterners, who come to serve the unsung road warriors who keep America humming.
“Without trucks, America stops,” says Heather DeBaille, who has worked at the truck stop for 26 years and is VP of Marketing for Iowa 80 Group, owner of several truck stops across the country. “Without truck stops, trucks stop.”
Here, you might see truckers bellied up to the counter at the Iowa 80 restaurant discussing tales from the road. You could spot touring musicians like Bono and presidential candidates stopping by as they make the long haul along I-80. You might even see elephants being weighed on the truck scale when the traveling circus stops for gas.
DeBaille says many truckers will plan their routes to be able to stop at Iowa 80, which drivers started dubbing “Trucker's Disneyland” around 20-30 years ago. “They just get overwhelmed,” DeBaille says. “It’s like a candy store. They’re like ‘look at all this cool stuff for my truck. Look at all this chrome. Look at all these lights.’ And they’re just in heaven.”
So what the hell is there to do for non-truckers here? And why is this living testament to the American trucking industry worthy of your time for those just passing through? Let us count the ways.
Get a taste of hearty home cooking
While Iowa 80 comes complete with its own mall-styled food court showcasing titans of the fast-food industry from Wendy’s and Taco Bell to DQ and Pizza Hut, the move here is to head to the 300-seat Iowa 80 Kitchen restaurant, where you can grab a home-cooked meal 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (the truck stop never closes.)
While truckers are known to be enamored with the buffet (which is temporarily closed due to COVID), the all-day breakfast is never a bad idea while the meatloaf and pot roast are popular dinner choices. Is it the best meal of your life? Certainly not. Is it way better than a bag of Cool Ranch and a Monster Energy drink? Certainly yes. Thought, of course, you can stock up on those here too.
Get schooled in trucker history in an actually legit museum
Iowa 80 services around 5,000 people a day, split evenly between truckers and regular travelers. As most truck stops lean heavier on the trucker side of the equation, Iowa 80 (which is about four times the size of most truck stops) tailors to a more diverse audience. Atypical amenities geared towards the general public include the retro-style Iowa 80 Trucking Museum, a free museum where you can learn the history of trucking from 1903 to 1984 through a variety of actually pretty cool truck exhibits, including more than 100 antique trucks and vintage gas pump displays. Feel like catching a flick? Request a movie and they’ll pop in the DVD for you in the truck stop’s surprisingly legit 60-seat movie theatre on the third floor, complete with plush theatre seating and cup holders.
Medieval maces and Truckers Jamboree!!
It's pretty easy to spend an hour or so wandering around the place and taking in the vibe, while browsing an odd assortment of wares from shoes and toys to CB radios and medieval maces.
While you could visit Dr. Thomas Roemer, the on-site dentist who’s had an office in the truck stop for the past 25 years -- or Iowa 80’s in-house chiropractor, Dr. Justin Seifert -- you probably won’t. So we’ll skip that. But Irene’s Barber Shop may be worth your while for fans of old-school third-generation family barbering in dire need of a long-delayed quarantine cut. The 24 showers are also incredibly clean and hotel private bathroom-quality, but you probably won’t be using those either. Or the gym. Or the laundromat. Or the trucker’s chapel.
Time your drive-thru right and you might find yourself at the annual Walcott Truckers Jamboree festival, a raucous festival featuring live music, truck pageantry, carnival-style games, food, and more. It's a virtual event this year, thanks to the pandemic, but last year drew 45,000 people over three days. Hopefully, come 2021, it'll be back in full swing. Best to start cross-training for the truck-pull now.
Show some love to the truckers you depend on
So where does that leave you? With a unique piece of American culture right at your fingertips. With a worldview-expanding experience you wouldn’t otherwise have if you simply drove on by. With an unexpected introduction to a culture that’s not quite your own. And in the end, isn’t that what travel is all about?
Just remember to give a nod to the truckers on your way out.
“Everything we get comes on a truck,” DeBaille says. “We need the drivers because they haul us everything that we consume every day, whether it’s our groceries or our clothing or whatever we want comes on a truck. And I think with COVID, people started to see that and they started to realize that and they started to appreciate that a lot more.”
And Iowa 80, besides just being an ideal venue to stock up on absurdly large slabs of beef jerky and more Iowa Hawkeyes gear than any one human could ever need, is the perfect place to do just that.
“You see a truck on the road but you don’t see the driver -- and the driver is what humanizes trucking,” DeBaille continues. “And they’re out there doing their job, they’re away from their families, and sometimes it’s hard. They have to deliver their load in a certain time frame and follow a lot of regulations, and drive in all kinds of weather. They just want to be appreciated.”