'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 truck stop is mind-boggling. You could fit 170 football fields within its 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 or a cavity filled courtesy of onsite barbers and dentists. There are facilities to wash their bodies, pets, and big rigs, or kick back and catch a flick. Even casual road-trippers can explore the museum or stock up via the extensive snack selection.
It's a miniature city unto itself, one that employs some 500 Midwesterners, each serving the unsung long-haul warriors who keep America's economy humming.
“Without trucks, America stops,” says Iowa 80 Group vice president of marketing Heather DeBaille, who has worked at the truck stop for the last 28 years. “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 can spot touring musicians like Bono or presidential candidates popping in as they make the trek across I-80. You might even see elephants being weighed on the truck scale when the circus drops by for gas.
DeBaille says many truckers will plan their routes around a stop at Iowa 80, which drivers started dubbing “Trucker's Disneyland” some 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!’ They’re in heaven.”
So what's there to do for non-truckers in these parts? And why is this living testament to the American trucking industry worth checking out for those of us who aren't professional drivers? Let us count the ways.
Fuel up with a home-cooked meal
While Iowa 80 comes complete with its own mall-style food court showcasing all kinds of 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. This is where any road-weary visitor can treat themselves to a hearty meal 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.)
Truckers are known to be enamored with the buffet, but 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 Doritos and a Monster Energy drink? Certainly yes.
Pull off for a little entertainment
Iowa 80 services around 5,000 people a day, split evenly between truckers and regular travelers. And while truck stops generally 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 toward the general public include the retro-style Iowa 80 Trucking Museum, a free exhibit where you can get schooled in the history trucking from 1903 to 1984 through a variety of thought-provoking displays, including more than 100 antique trucks and vintage gas pumps.
Feel like catching a flick? Request a movie and they’ll pop it in the DVD for you via the truck stop’s surprisingly legit 60-seat movie theatre on the third floor, complete with plush seating and cup holders.
Creature comforts aside, you're here to party
It's pretty easy to spend an hour or so wandering around and soaking up the vibe, browsing an odd assortment of wares from shoes and toys to CB radios and medieval maces.
While you could visit Dr. Thomas Roemer, the resident dentist who’s operated an office in the truck stop for more than 25 years—or, for that matter, Iowa 80’s in-house chiropractor, Dr. Justin Seifert—you probably won’t. So we’ll skip that. Similarly, Irene’s Barber Shop stands tall for fans of old-school third-generation family barbering and the 24 showers are also incredibly clean, but you probably won’t be using those either. Or the gym. Or the laundromat. Or the trucker’s chapel.
However, time your drive-thru right and you might find yourself catching the annual Walcott Truckers Jamboree festival, a raucous festival featuring live music, pageantry, carnival-style games, food, and so much more. The 2021 festivities drew an estimated 44,500 people from 22 states and three Canadian provinces over three days. Best to start cross-training for the truck-pull now.
Don't forget to thank the hard-working truckers
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 past. With an unexpected introduction to a culture that’s not quite your own. And in the end, isn’t that what road trips are all about?
Just remember to give a nod to the truckers as you merge back onto the highway.
“Everything we get comes on a truck,” DeBaille says. “We need the drivers because they haul us everything we consume every day, whether it’s our groceries or our clothing or whatever we want comes on a truck. I think during COVID, people started to see that, and they started to appreciate that a lot more.”
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. “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.”