Monday, June 4, 2018

The Hidden Rides and Themed Attractions of....Tennessee (Pt. 2 - Smokies)

At some point after the adoption of the automobile and the expansion of the highway system, travelers began to head to the Smokies in significant numbers. There's two sides to the National Park; one in Tennessee, and the other in North Carolina. The two competed against one another for many, many years, but ultimately it was Tennessee that won the tourism battle out thanks to the proximity of the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg area to a major city and airport (Knoxville). In 1961, the area's first theme park of note opened, called Rebel Railroad. Centered around having a really big train, Rebel Railroad was never a monster success. It rebranded multiple times as different owners took the park over. Pete and Jack Herschend wound up deciding to make it an expansion of their Silver Dollar City park in 1977, renaming it Silver Dollar City and building a number of rides that largely duplicated their Branson efforts. Still, the park didn't seriously excite the community or the tourists.

Trying to think of a way to shift public opinion, the Herschends brainstormed on ideas as to what could make their new Silver Dollar City just as much a part of the local landscape as the original was with Branson. An idea was hatched and ultimately the deal was made to re-brand the park to the most famous resident of the area: Dolly Parton. Under the Dollywood name, the park took off in attendance, and is now may be the most well known destination theme park in the US outside Orlando or Southern Califoria. It's given Dolly a link to future generations who aren't as familiar with her (she's one of the most prolific and successful popular songwriters of all time in addition to being an actress and musical artist) and benefited her charities greatly along with her own bottom line.

The explosion in Dollywood coincided well for Herschend with Branson's decline as a major destination and shifting migrating patterns that favored the Carolinas and Georgia for young professionals. The number of families going there has never been greater, and has caused many entrepreneurs to open up a vast assortment of tourist traps, gaudy arcades, go-kart tracks, dinner show theaters, wax museums, and mini golf. Some scoff at this as a bastardization of the wilderness areas a short distance away. I too lean on beliefs that perhaps anarchoprimitivism may be right. But this is also a website where we relish the palaces of consumerism. One man's trash is another man's treasure, and in no place on earth is this axiom perhaps more relatable than in the towns of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

If one must pick a place to begin, it must be with a pair of independently owned, operated, designed, maintained, and within alternate universe dark rides. I speak of course about the Jurassic Jungle Boat Ride and Earthquake: The Ride. Earthquake is by far the smaller of the two, fitting in a tight space along the Gatlinburg main drag. It can best be described as "no budget Earthquake: The Big One" of classic Universal Orlando fame - you board a train (a really narrow train with two across seating) and then...things happen. We don't want to spoil the surprise, but it involves lava monsters and an ape in a crate. Jurassic Jungle Boat Ride is precisely what it says it is and nothing like what you think. There's a combination of cheap animatronics and random figures, a really bizarre tilt track finale, and boats that aren't boats (there's about 8 inches of water and they r ide on wheels while being pulled along the course).

There are not just insane low rent dark rides here in town. There's high end attractions as well - Wilderness at the Smokies being a great example of that. There's a 60,000+ square foot indoor water park with modern and even themed slides, expensive hotel rooms, laser tag, full golf courses, jet boat rides, and restaurants. The Island sits along TN-441 in the center of Pigeon Forge having recently been developed - its a huge mixed used development with a Margaritaville Hotel, several restaurants, a giant ferris wheel, arcades, and even small amusement rides. Abutting The Island is one of the two major Herschend owned dinner shows - Dolly Parton's Celebration At Smoky Mountain Adventures (a mouthful to be sure) and a really awesome museum themed to crime with Alcatraz East. There's some shockingly incredible stuff in there, including OJ's White Bronco and the Son of Sam's Volkswagen Bug.

Celebration at Smoky Mountain Adventures isn't the only dinner show game in town either: Pigeon Forge has an array of tribute shows, magicians, and big themed extravaganzas. New for 2018 is an old favorite: the Lumberjack Feud, now presented by Paula Deen. That show previously occupied the theater of Dolly's Celebration, but it was bought out just a few years ago and extensively redone. It joins two other cavernous and impressively themed dinner shows; Hatfield and McCoys (a variety show based around the feuding families, now with a Bellagio's O style pool) and Dolly's Stampede, a permanent rodeo complete with clown, buffaloes, and massive LED screens.

Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg also has multiple "edutainment" style attractions featuring museum-style exhibits in expansive themed environs. Wonderworks has an outpost here with the usual upside-down building, science geared hands-on exhibits, ropes course, and laser tag arena. Not terribly far from that is the Titanic Museum, housed in a building shaped like a full scale model of the old boat. Like the locations in Orlando and Branson, there's various items which were recovered from the ocean floor in 1987 interspersed with mockups of spaces on the ship based on old models and photos. Pictures in the "grand staircase" are options. Hollywood Wax Museum has 4 locations nationally, and their Pigeon Forge one isn't that different from the likes of their Branson facility. There's the wax museum; it's there and it's big. But there's also an array of other connected attractions: Outbreak, a year round haunted walkthrough; Castle of Chaos, a multimedia shooting attraction/ride which uses a rotating seating base and a circular theater that contains multiple screens and animatronics; and Hannah's Maze of Mirrors, which is exactly what you think it is. World of Illusions exists out in the tight Gatlinburg strip as a outdated and frankly bizarre magic museum filled with static scenes and displays on how basic slight of hand magic is performed. And then there's Ripley's Entertainment. Oh yes, Ripley's.

Ripley's owns and operates 8 different attractions in the Smokies - the Odditorium itself is actually under heavy renovation and isn't slated to reopen for awhile, but that's not their signature attraction in the area. That honor instead goes to the Aquarium of the Smokies, a large and impressive facility featuring acrylic tubes through tanks, glass bottom boat rides, and penguins. I too can never get enough penguins. Multi-attraction tickets can be acquired for their other spots too: Ripley's 5D Moving Theater (what it says it is), Ripley's Haunted Adventure (haunted walkthrough style attraction), Ripley's Mirror Maze, Guinness World Records Adventure (museum exhibits on past record holders and various games/puzzles throughout the building), and mini golf. Ripley's possesses two impressively themed courses in the area - Davy Crockett's in Gatlinburg and Old MacDonald's in Pigeon Forge.

Mini golf on the whole is, much like Orlando, Ocean City Maryland, and Myrtle Beach, a serious attraction in and of itself. New to the scene is Crave, an indoor/outdoor course themed to sweets and candy in Pigeon Forge proper. That indoor part is really nice if you show up between November and March when temps can easily go below freezing. Outside, Professor Hacker's and its signature "Does this count as a dark ride?" train start to the course has a location in Pigeon Forge too. Fantasy Golf has a multicolored dragon, unicorn, and giant octopus. Blindshot Barnaby's Circus Golf tries to mix funhouse stunts with mini golf in an indoor setting. Hillbilly Golf is the one that I find most attractive of them all, starting off players with a funicular ride up a hillside before turning them loose. The downside there is unimaginative hole design, but still, funicular ride.

Funiculars go uphill pulled by cables and counter weights. You know what else is pulled up hills by cables? That's right, Alpine Coasters. The Smokies have perhaps the highest density of the attractions anywhere, with 5 operating and at least one under construction representing 3 different manufacturers. Wiegland is the world leader in Alpine Coasters, and they've got 4 models here - Rowdy Bear Mountain, Goats On The Roof, Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster, and the Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster. For my money, Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster and Goats on the Roof are the best of the 4, but I get that you might just disregard my opinion. I'm okay with that. Ober Gatlinburg has one from Aquatic Development Group - I actually really like the one in Branson, but hear terrible things about this ride. I can't tell you if it is good or not though, because I've gotten shut out of it twice when it snowed. Yes. The coaster built for snow can't run in it. Almost none of this matters because there is a new mountain top event center/attraction called Anakeesta, and they are getting a mountain coaster from Brandauer. The stats say its gonna be the shortest, but Brandauer's single rail alpine coasters are well known as being by far the wildest and fastest of the genre. While they aren't under rider control, I'd be remiss to note that the area has two zipline coasters: like a zipline, but on suspended steel track to allow for turns and airtime hills. There's the Dome Zipcoaster just on the exit of Pigeon Forge (with a monster truck school bus to take you up) and the newest one at Rowdy Bear.

Alpine coasters are effective because they are generally single seat rides that riders control themselves. Go Karts are kinda like that: you can figure out how fast you want to least until the limiter kicks in. And yes, there's a lot of go-kart facilities in Pigeon Forge and Sevierville. They range from the "serious" types at Xtreme Racing Center to the vertical multi level tracks of Lazerport, Speedzone, Adventure Raceway, Fast Tracks, The Track, and FunStop. The Blake Jones Karting Center (Blake, in case you were wondering, is a whopping 21 years of age and already raced in NASCAR and ARCA) has an indoor set of electric karts under unique circumstances: the building had opened as a roller rink, and the karts run on a short course on top of the old hardwood. NASCAR Speedpark is an amalgamation of multiple attractions in the area, run as low rent as possible, but does feature pay one price go karting (the signature of the Wisconsin Dells) and a small roller coaster. FunStop, Fast Tracks, and The Track (both locations) also feature rides: most of them are geared for small children, but there's also some big thrillers. The Track has a Skycoaster-esque ride called the Skyflyer with a different support system and vests. Fast Tracks and FunStot both have "propeller" rides akin to the Skyscraper rides like Orlando's long gone Katanga.

There's some "spooky" style attractions for visitors to enjoy in the region: families seeking fewer scares and more of a escape room type of feel can find it at the gigantic Pigeon Forge pyramid containing The Tomb. It's an Egyptian themed walkthrough attraction featuring puzzles galore to get to the finish line. Scarier times can be had at Ripley's Haunted Adventure and the Mysterious Mansion, both in Gatlinburg. The latter gets a 4 1/2 star rating on Tripadvisor, and is often lauded by themed attraction fans as one of the best walkthroughs in the country.

Finally: interactivity for the whole famile. Magiquest has a huge standalone facility that is in Pigeon Forge. Get a wand, wave it at stuff, learn spells, and earn points useful for nothing but bragging rights. I've considered going a few times, then remember I'm in my 30s. Not embarrassing: the Shoot Em Up 7-D Theater in Gatlinburg, built by Alterface. The seating is similar to what has been installed at Cedar Fair's parks of Carowinds and Californa's Great America (saddle style with motion), and you get two films with guns that actually work pretty well. You can occasionally stop by and get on for as little as $6, which makes it dollar-to-minute the best standalone attraction in the Smokies.

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