Luciano: What are your favorite tourism gems in central Illinois? USA Today wants to know

When you host visitors to Peoria, what places do you show them?

I ask, because I need your help. USA Today, which is owned by the same company as the Journal Star, is compiling a special travel section highlighting tourism gems off the beaten path. To represent all of Illinois, the Journal Star has been tabbed to submit an entry.

Although you can suggest just about anything, we’re leaning here on our experience with the 2015 project and book, “101 Things That Play in Peoria.” We thought that’d be a good place to start.

Still, though “101 Things” is flush with entries near and dear to Peorians’ hearts, just a few might make for a special trip by an outsider. For example, we love Vanna Whitewall, but it’s hard to see a family from Walla Walla piling into the family van to drive cross-country just to glimpse a fiberglass statue.

So, from 101 choices, we’re going to focus here on a few that allow thorough observation and enjoyment. Let me know what you think about the following. My contact info is below. In the end, I’ll have to pick only one selection for USA Today, so make your best arguments — yea or nay.

Community Solar System: Locals like to joke that Peoria is the hub of the universe, but it’s pretty much true at the Peoria Riverfront Museum.

There, you’ll find a 46-foot-diameter sun — the center of the Community Solar System. It’s one of the world’s largest, and what the museum describes as “the world’s most complete large-scale model of the solar system.”

The scale factor is 99,000,000:1, spread across 6,000 square miles of central Illinois. The closest planet is Mercury, 4.8 inches in diameter and located near the playground at the RiverPlex, 0.36 miles away from the museum. Earth is 5 inches and 0.94 miles away, at Constitution Park.

The biggest planet, Jupiter, is 55 inches in diameter and 6.2 miles away, hanging in the lobby at Gen. Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport. Other planets are in Pekin, Princeville and Wyoming.

Of several dwarf planets, Pluto is 0.9 inches in diameter and located 40 miles away at Good’s Furniture in Kewanee. The farthest outpost is another dwarf planet, Eris, which is 0.9 inches in diameter and located 62 miles away at Western Illinois University’s Horrabin Hall. A complete run-down of the model can be found at

Maybe this suggestion sounds quaint. But think of all the territory and photos a family would get to cover while zipping from site to site. That’d be an all-American vacation you’d never forget.

Dan Fogelberg Memorial: Memorials sometimes come off as sad or drab. Not the Dan Fogelberg Memorial. It’s completely Fogelberg. It’s no mere marker.

The commemoration stands out from and blends into Riverfront Park, near the waterway he loved. It’s not a place, it’s an experience, as much as any of the Peoria native’s best ballads.

Soon after the singer-songwriter died at age 56 in 2007, a band of friends and fans began soliciting donations for a tribute, with the Peoria City Council’s blessing. Two years and more than $15,000 later, the group unveiled the memorial, centered by three large granite boulders. Each is engraved with lyrics from a Fogelberg song: “Part of the Plan” (“Love when you can, cry when you have to ”), “River of Souls” (“To every man the mystery sings a different song ”) and “Icarus Ascending” (“Love is the only thing that matters.”). A bench sits off a ways, marked with Fogelberg’s photo, allowing visitors to take in a picturesque backdrop provided by towering trees and the flowing Illinois River. 

Meanwhile, Fogelberg fans seem to be growing in number, as evidenced by their continued fascination with the back story to “Same Old Lang Syne.” The memorial could make for the perfect pilgrimage for Fogelberg aficionados.

Grandview Drive: Maybe this suggestion seems too obvious, but does a slow spin along Grandview Drive ever disappoint? 

We know Teddy Roosevelt’s historic about Grandview Drive, but outsiders likely do not. When in town for a 1910 speech, as his touring car bounded high above the Illinois River Valley, his driver apologized for adverse road conditions. The former president famously replied, “What difference does it make? I have traveled all over the world, and this is the world’s most beautiful drive.”

The 2.5-mile road, built in 1903 and part of the Peoria Park District, is the only linear park on the National Historic Register. The valley side of the road is owned by the Peoria Park District, which is undeveloped except for occasional benches, each one a simple yet magical spot to stop and stare.

As if Grandview weren’t enough to draw visitors, there’s an underappreciated link to Peoria architectural attractions. Frederic J. Klein, who helped develop Grandview Drive and designed several residences there, also had a hand in designing the Madison Theater, the Apollo Theatre, Glen Oak Park and Springdale Cemetery Mausoleum.

But his most novel work likely was No. 80 on the “101 Things” list, the Japanese Bridge in lower Bradley Park. The footbridge, which spans Dry Run Creek, was constructed for $5,500 in 1922. The open railing and decorative portal reflect Japanese-stye architecture — a singular Peoria attraction.

Festival of Lights: Granted, it’s not here year-round. But as far as attractions — local or anywhere — few dazzle and sparkle as brightly as the East Peoria Festival of Lights, which this yuletide will celebrate its 36th anniversary.

With millions of lights illuminating more than 30 floats — the perennial favorite, Starship Enterprise from “Star Trek,” is powered by 48,000 bulbs alone — the festival debuts yearly in November with the Parade of Lights and runs through Dec. 31 at the Folepi’s Winter Wonderland drive-through display. Associated events include Folepi’s Enchanted Forest and the Narrated Nativity. A complete rundown of activities is available at

Of the countless bulbs and changing displays, perhaps none has shined as brightly as the wreath atop Fondulac Drive. Like a star atop a Christmas tree, the wreath serves as the highest hallmark of the holiday event. For many passersby on Interstate 74 and Illinois Route 116, along with other nearby routes, the wreath heralds the start of the holiday season.

And there’s an extra reason to get excited this year. The festival is a 2020 contender for Season 8 of “The Great Christmas Light Fight,” the extravagant-lighting competition on ABC-TV. How did the festival fare? The results will be broadcast in December.

Peoria Holocaust Memorial: How can the mind comprehend the slaughter of 11 million people? The Peoria Holocaust Memorial uses the simple visual image of buttons. Outside the Peoria Riverfront Museum, 11 million buttons commemorate the loss of 6 million Jews and 5 million others.

The two-year project involved the help of local schools, groups and volunteers who counted the buttons, which poured in from 49 states and five foreign countries. The buttons are encased in 18 glass columns in the shape of the Star of David. Eighteen is symbolic in Judaism for the word “chai,” which means life.

The site alone carries solemn, riveting power. Plus, visitors can also take advantage of taking a look inside the museum.

The book “101 Things That Play in Peoria” is available through Amazon.

PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at [email protected], and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on