July 17, 2007


...Continued from Part I.

I hate Atlanta. Ok, I don't mean that, I just hate driving there. I've spent time behind the wheel in all the driver's nightmare towns: Boston, L.A., Philly, Manhattan (where a semi snagged the front of my bumper and dragged my car 20 feet), and San Francisco (where I got impounded). But no city has ever wrecked me like Atlanta (#$%*! Peachtree Streets everywhere!). After my solo jaunt to Athens I pulled into downtown Atlanta around 10 PM. I could see my hotel from the exit ramp. Twenty minutes later I was on an interstate leaving downtown Atlanta. And that's when a pattern started to form. I would loop back into the city where I would spend about a half hour in the maze of one-way streets and then I would get spit out onto an interstate again. I shoestringed in and out of the greater downtown area six or seven times. I was still in this holding pattern after midnight and some of the locals started giving attention to my stray, rented 2007 Sport Utility Vehicle. Folks yelled some stuff and even approached me at a couple stop lights. Did I mention I forgot my phone back in the hotel? It was that kind of night.

Well, nothing happened, except that I started feeling more miserable about my situation. At one point I found myself speeding South on I-75, in the opposite direction of my bed; so naturally, I took an exit to loop around and get northbound. But this exit didn't loop back, so I drove miles down some other highway until I found another turnaround. Surprise, that one didn't loop back either. At this moment I was three highways removed from my route home and I was still moving away from my quiet hotel room. Finally, I desperately veered down yet another exit that emptied me into a little out-of-the-way burg where your Tuesday evening options were limited to a liquor store, a strip club, and a nail salon, all fortified with window-bars and all sharing the same parking lot which happened to be hoppin' that night. Well, after another half hour and some serious traffic violations I was back in my room. Around 1:30 AM room service brought up the best pepperoni pizza I've eaten in my life.

I figure all that's worth mentioning (despite the personal foolishness it reveals) because it turned out to be one of the most memorable times of my trip and it will continue to serve as a reference point because I don't know when I've ever felt so lost or frustrated. I actually value the experience now. And carving out a new vacation low definitely made for much sweeter highs for the remainder of the journey.


Oh, if only I had known during my Atlanta tribulation that mere hours later I would be worlds away from the grit of A-Town touring through small green communities wholesome enough to attract busloads of senior citizens. Places where soft simpletons like myself are encouraged to stay, provided we bring enough money to spend on ice cream. Why, Santa Claus himself started showing up on billboards, personally inviting us to spend a day in his land. (In retrospect I'm not sure why we didn't make time to stop.) But soon we arrived at Gatlinburg's little brother, Cherokee...

(almost all my photos will grow when clicked.)

I'm fond of the town because it's a bit unkempt and it's not as modernized as other nearby fun spots. We stopped long enough to pour in a few tourist dollars.

This shot of Discount Souvenirs sums it all up.. impulse buys in front of a gorgeous woodland backdrop. (Plus, any establishment that uses "Hobo" as a primary font has already won my support.)

I've never seen such an impressive unlicensed "Thing" from the 2005 Fantastic Four film adaptation. (It's a coin bank that stands over two feet high.) "Regular Price: $40 This Weekend Only: $10"
The sign, the structure, the landscaping all says to me... "It's recreation time friend. Just relax and enjoy. This is how we've been doing it for like, fifty years. So you're in expert hands. And if it happens to rain, no worries, just park under my sturdy columns while you check into one of my clean, affordable rooms where you can watch the color TV."
Or maybe I'm reading into it too much.

Once you hit Cherokee it's pure vacationland wonder all the way to Gatlinburg thanks to the crooked mountaintop road that connects the two towns. Throughout the last hour of driving motorists are tempted by dozens of picturesque pull-offs. I found myself conflicted. The views are astounding but who can fully appreciate them with knowledge that the Ripley's museum is just twenty minutes away? During this stretch I turned on some Disneyland ambient music and the woods became instantly enchanted. Before I knew it I was back in my beloved Smokey Mountain tourist trap.


Promotional photo

I was first introduced to Gatlinburg in 1986. I was a junior high student on a West Virginia bound road trip with my grandparents, mom and sister (dad had to work). Along the way I heard the grown-ups debating whether or not we should even stop there. I felt no need to chime in because I'd never heard of the place and I couldn't see how some tiny mountain town could possibly have anything to offer a too-cool-for-school teen like myself. Today I realize that my grandfolks were hesitant because they feared that if sis and I were exposed to such pure awesomeness we wouldn't want to leave. (Of course, they were ultimately correct.) But gramps made the fateful decision to stop as I remained apathetic in the backseat.

We got closer and I started silently admiring the scenery as well as the fact that my ears kept popping from the altitude; something I had never experienced outside of an airplane. I turned up my Walkman to drown out the childlike awe that started to percolate. And then Wham-O! Gatlinburg hit my eyes without warning and suddenly I was staring at Xanadu- Home of the Future!

This is a brochure from that first trip.
Sadly, this place is long gone.

I tore off my headphones and rolled down the window. We slowly passed through the business district... restaurant, mini-golf course, novelty shop, diner, fudgery... haunted house?! They had haunted houses just sitting out on the main street!? I didn't know a place like this even existed. It was like a little piece of Disney World had broken off and ran into the mountains to hide. I couldn't get out of that car soon enough.

It wasn't so different this time around. Thankfully the town's essence hasn't really changed all that much. Here's a shot of a shopping plaza that's in the center of everything...

There's a prevalent diagonal wood motif up and down the main drag. So 1980s, yet so comforting.

Look closely and you'll see that those are ghostly heads right above the Fudge Shoppe; because right around the corner it's...

That's right. A spook show in the middle of town. Grim Reapers and Mennonite ladies sharing the same sidewalk!

The brochure above is from '86. I finally got the nerve to go inside in '92. A small audience stays seated as ghostly effects play out around the room. In following with standard Spook Show procedure there's a "blackout" at the end and glowing ghosts swirl about the darkened chamber. (At least that's how it happened back in the day.) Here's a shot from 2002...

I find it interesting that they've since returned to all white signage. But that's just me. Anyway, even the non-ghostly stuff is pretty great. The Pancake Pantry for instance...

and there's this pleasant looking Shoney's with its understated sign and attractive rock walls. Makes me want to buy a newspaper and plant myself in a booth for the morning.

And there's this place...

"Self Defense and Tobacco Accessories" So that nobody can mug you for your rolling paper I guess. This shop wasn't around when I was thirteen, but as I walked by I could feel my inner thirteen-year-old getting rowdy.

Back to the spooky stuff. Mysterious Mansion is an off-the-strip walkthrough spook house that's worth looking for. It's not so much about guys with chainsaws as it is finding your way through secret passages and such. But there are some fun tricks in there too. It's also said to be Gatlinburg's oldest haunted house. Here's my vintage brochure...


And here's how it looked a few weeks ago...

I realize they're everywhere now, but my fondest G-burg attraction will always be the Ripley's Believe it or Not museum. It was the second one constructed (1970) and the first one I ever set foot in (I'm up to eight now). I was heartbroken when I returned in '92 to find it freshly destroyed by a fire (along with a haunted house called House of Seven Gables). But Ripley's reopened in 1995 and it's twice as big now. Here's another '80s pamphlet...

And one from later on...

And here's a current shot of the museum...

The town seems to be turning into Ripleyburg nowadays. There's the Ripley's 4-D theater, two Ripley's mini golf courses, two lackluster Ripley arcades, the Ripley's Haunted Adventure...

Photo from 2002

and the massive Ripley's aquarium...

I know of several aquariums that light their jellyfish like this. It does make for good photos.

The place is nice but to tell ya the truth I was sort of hoping that their aquarium would have incorporated some extra Ripley's magic to set it apart from others. Maybe I was expecting some freak show fish, or some genius fish or I don't know.. something. But I didn't see even a single Ripley sketch in the building. Unless they start taking some tips from Disney they're well on their way to completely watering down their brand. They've got "Ripley's Old Macdonald's Farm Mini Golf" for crying out loud. Where did this needless barnyard theme come from? How does that have anything to do with Mr. Ripley? How much cooler would it have been to golf around the classic Ripley oddities?

I hope Robert L. Ripley's ghost haunts this place something awful.

Anyway, regardless of the current commercial rampage, in my book the original museum will always stand among the greats when it comes to touristy intrigue.

On my recent visit there were two long awaited attractions that I finally coughed up admission for. Both remain practically unchanged since the day I pulled into town over twenty years ago. The first is called Ober Gatlinburg (That's "Over Gatlinburg" to you non-German speaking folk.)

Like I said, the logo, the signs, and the building were identical two decades ago. I love that. It's as though all these years it's been thinking "If I just stay true to myself, eventually some appreciative young man will come around and patronize me." I'm glad that I finally got the hint.

Their ambitious roster of summer activities includes ice skating, concrete bob sledding, a sky lift, a mini amusement park and the expected shops and eateries. I've steered clear of this place in the past because for one, you have to take a ten dollar, fifteen-minute air tram ride before you even get to see the park grounds and I figured that by then you're at the point of no return.

This street level atrium is where you catch a tram up to the full resort. As I walked through I felt like I was on the set of Logan's Run.

I've always assumed that their business model depended on isolating customers up on a mountain and then showing no mercy on their pocketbooks. In truth it was quite reasonable. Three hours of ice skating was $7.50. (I'd be surprised if many tourist's ankles can withstand half that time.) And their Chair Lift appeared twice as long and was half the price of the Sky Lift back on main street...

Admission: $12.00

Ober Admission: $6.00

Ice skate til you die.

Nothing special here. Sometimes it's just good to take a gander at a classic tourist-town pizza stand. Pizza and vacation. Woodgrain panels and pizza. Vacation and woodgrain panels. It all works.

That first trip with my grandparents was also monumental for me because that's when I decided to start my own collection of commercially manufactured pranks. (if you don't count the Mechanical Servant machine I blogged about way back when.) There were just too many places selling too many classic jokes to resist. But these days it seems as if retail racks of gags and magic are an endangered species. So it was nice to discover this display (bearing my own package designs no less!) in an Ober puzzle shop...

The second previously uncharted amusement that I finally conquered is called World of Illusions...

If you inspect this old pamphlet closely you can see how the place used to look. (It had sort of an athletic club elegance) If you compare it to the modern snapshot below you'll notice the exterior now boasts a slew of modifications.. the faux airplane, some colorful flags, dayglow yellow paint, a string of lights and a magician that never shows up inside...

See that yellow "Now Open" banner? In the olden days crowds clustered in front of that window because it was home to a 'genie in a bottle' illusion. An actress (concealed somewhere on the premises) was projected into a small glass bottle and she could communicate with curious gawkers by way of hidden microphones.

My Grandpa specifically warned me about this exhibit from the moment I first saw it. The concept was incredibly enticing to me but after hearing my grandparents speak of it so harshly (based on their previous experience with the place), my interest was stifled. Their heavy-handed advice stuck with me throughout subsequent Gatlinburg visits, but this time destiny took over and I eagerly paid the $7.00 entry fee. Actually, before swiping my debit card the lady in the booth rather harshly insisted on seeing my identification. Is it common for thieves to rush over to the World of Illusions right after a successful purse-snatching?

Before I walked in I took a moment to admire the assortment of life-size figures tucked beneath the canopy which are designed to beckon foot traffic...

(Publicity photo. Now Picard is elsewhere.)
It's a veritable history of summer blockbusters in wax. Members included Doc from Back to the Future, Gollum, Neo from The Matrix, young Anikin Skywalker, Harry Potter, and Mini-Me. I'm guessing they invest in a new one every few seasons. It's a telling display of the establishment's continuing struggle to appear culturally relevant. But once you enter the building you've seen the last of the modern icons.

An excited buzz hit me as I ventured into the dark hallway. I looked through a Plexiglas window in the wall and faced my first optical deception...

Hmmm. Looks like a wizard. He seems to be on his side moving up and down with the aid of some mechanical device. Well, the device is unseen. I suppose that does technically qualify this as an illusion.

The next one was a bit more satisfying, but not by much...

A slowly flickering strobe light revealed a Frankenstein's Monster outside a window behind a little girl. (An illusion in the loosest sense of the word.) Standing to the left of the girl is what appeared to be a scientist or a doctor. This baffling detail was even more unsettling.

Next I encountered a series of framed displays that revealed the secrets behind various kiddie magic tricks! This is wrong on so many levels.

Then there was a mannequin that changed into a "beast." (looks Werewolf-ish to me)

I give them bonus points for including classic movie monsters. Anyway, I photographed one more before my camera battery died, but it's a corker. Witness Superman (with a Beatle cut) using his x-ray vision to see Lois Lane's panties...

After about eight more "illusions" I pushed open a door to the next leg of the museum.. or so I thought. I was shocked to discover that this turned out to be the exit back onto the street. Despite all the warnings I was dumbfounded by the lack of content. Especially when you consider that it's called world of illusions as opposed to "Pithy, Dimly-Lit Hallway of Illusions." The entire exhibit was maybe 25 yards long. At once I walked back to the beginning and re-looked at every sorry trick. I quickly reached the exit once again and my grandfather's words "Rip-Off" flashed in my mind. But then a few minutes later came the words 'quaint' and 'charming' and 'sort of cool.' I've since theorized that were I to have actually gone inside when I was a kid, today I would view it as a dear, nostalgic refuge.

The whole "Got-yer-money, sucker!" mentality is pretty fascinating to me. It takes a certain kind of person to pull it off year after year. I wonder how they justify it to themselves. I wonder how the cranky lady responds to requests for refunds. You just know she has an ironclad defense in place. Interesting how the owners of this joint have decided to put so much effort into the deceptive veneer rather than simply beefing up the payoff (though I realize space is limited) or heaven forbid, lowering admission fees.
At this stage in life, I take a certain joy in getting duped by outfits like this. The key is knowing that it's coming, and I get a kick out of playing into the ruse. Plus it's well worth the money for the goofy snapshots and a new story to tell; or blog post as it were. And speaking of which, I think I'll end this post as abruptly as the conclusion of the World of Illusions tour. Happy travels to you.

UPDATE: Todd at Neatocoolville just posted some great 1970s Gatlinburg brochures! Check them out here.

P.S. I just ordered Tim Hollis' new book on the pre-1980s Smokey Mountain tourist scene. Can't wait for it to arrive...

You can get it at Amazon.


Swanky said...

You were in my 'hood. I worked in the Gatlinburg area for years and years. I got in free most of those places and spent a day going through and marveling at how poor they were. There are still a lot of the vintage places scattered about, but it is harder and harder to tolerate the crap to try to see the good stuff.

We all wonder what brings the gazzillion people to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg each year. Sometimes the traffic is backed up for 4 hours to get in there (a 20 minute drive). Go carts and putt-putt golf and fudge and outlet shopping.

All the expensive rip off places like you tried, man, if you take your family through a couple of those, and stay at a hotel and all, you've spent enough to have a real vacation in some place nice!

And the tourists never go to the mountains even. And in many of the surrounding areas, they have built so many log cabins for rentals on the mountains, there is no natural beauty left. Ironic.

Its just harder and harder to find the gems in all that stuff. All the years I worked there I thought I would document the cool places left and just ended up wanting to get out of town faster and faster instead.

I swear Ripley's was exactly the same as when I saw it 30 years earlier... It was still kind of creepy accidentally too.

Flashfink! said...

If Ripley's aren't quite what they used to be, it could be because they're owned by foreigners.The museums, aquariums and all things Ripley are owned by Vancouver billionaire, Jim Pattison.

He's been the area's most well known car dealer for decades but "The Jim Pattison Group" has grown to such huge dimensions that it would be almost impossible for somebody living here to not be directly affected by them on a daily basis.

If you go to www.jimpattison.com you'll see just how huge one businessman can become. It looks pretty "corporate" but the entertainment page (which primarily deals with Ripley's)is pretty slick looking.

Not mentioned in the site (but pretty well known around these parts) is that Pattison owns a mansion in Palm Springs that once belonged to Frank Sinatra.

I've never met "Jimmy" myself but his cousin, the non-billionaire rockabilly musician Cadillac Bob Pattison is a good friend and occasional co-worker of mine.

sweetheartville said...

Almost the very same nightmare you experienced in Hotlanta happened to my husband and I in New Orleans while on our honeymoon. It was as if some sadistic higher power was conspiring to make us insane and/or die from starvation in and endless maze of on and off ramps and seedy one way streets. Actually, the whole ridiculous night (and the subsequent trashy motel we settled for after two plus hours of driving in circles) is now our favorite funny honeymoon memory. One for the grandkids, I tell ya. Looks like you had a great trip, though. Thanks for sharing.

Nolan said...

Hi there, great post. Your trip sounds like such fun.

I stumbled upon the abandoned Xanadu in Florida a couple of years ago and took some pictures of it before its untimely demise. Here they are!

Randi said...

I came across your blog. It's very good. The pictures are awesome!

wonderboss said...

You hit a nerve with this one, Kirk; finally had to contact you. Your first Gatlinburg is experience is almost exactly the same as mine ('cept that mine happened 15 years earlier) and it made a similar life-changing impression. Anyhow, I have a huge archive (well, a big box anyway) of Gatlinburg kitsch...which just happens to include interior fotos of the original Ripley's. Drop me a line at wonderboss@yahoo.com and I'll shoot some scans your way.

Kirk D. said...

I feel your pain as I've worked a job catering to tourists before (The Track in Destin Florida). Our boss always told us that tourists want to leave their brains back at home. Fellow employees had bumper stickers that said "Welcome to Florida, now get out!"
I've been reading about Gatlinburg in Tim Hollis's book and your attitude has been shared by locals for most of the century. One Gatlinburg resident put it this way... "We want your money, but we don't want you."

Thanks flashfink for the very interesting info! It all makes sense to me now. You can tell Cadillac Bob that his cousin Jimmy is now on my list. :)

sweetheartville- that actually does make me feel a little bit better, so thanks for sharing. Every good honeymoon has at least one nightmare, I know mine did. Long story but there was a missed reservation, a lengthy power outage and a mysterious toothbrush under my pillow.

Nolan- Absolutely wonderful photos!
I envy your experience. You're lucky giant robot guardians didn't attack you. Thanks so much for sharing.

randi- Hey thanks! I hope you've had a fun visit.

wonderboss- woah, that sounds amazing. I'll be emailing you directly! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I haven't been to the World of Illusions since I was about 10 or so, but it doesn't appear that things have changed at all. Almost everything you described was there back in the '80s, so essentially, your childhood is complete. But I'm disappointed there was no mention of the biggest ripoff in Gatlinburg - the Space Needle and Arcade.

I'm jealous, though, I'd love to go back there. I haven't been in about 12 years.

Devlin Thompson said...

Don't underestimate the power of the Ripley's Aquarium. That place is DANGEROUS!In 2000, Mandy and I went there and petted the stingrays , and within 24 hours, we were married (which was NOT on our agenda when we left home). It is my belief that we were in some way hypnotized by the Power of Ripley's! Also, we saw a good deal on a billboard ($69 Drive-Thru Specia!), which may have influenced us...but I still ascribe it to Ripley's magic.

swanky said...

A more popular phrase up there among locals is: "If it's tourist season, why can't I shoot them?" I have seen this on bumper stickers.

Best dumb tourist line evar: "When do they turn the smoke machines on up in the mountains?" So that's how they get those Smoky Mountains!

Kirk D. said...

anonymous- I'm glad to hear you verify that WOL has remained unchanged. I have yet to visit that crazy space needle though. Next time! And no doubt it will remain frozen in time for me too.

devlin- great wedding story! I'd love to see it illustrated by Mr. Ripley himself. Wait, oh my gosh my wife pet one of those too! I'd better see if she took a secret husband on that trip. I held one of those horse shoe crabs the wrong way and the attendant yelled at me which left me feeling like a naughty five year old. Those fish ARE cursed.

swanky- ha! that's pretty good. Now it's your turn to go on vacation and have fun invading some other poor saps home. Gotta keep the balance in the vacation universe.

fletch said...

You missed the grandest illusion of all in the World of Illusions: making your money disappear.

Joey Booth said...

I worked in a t-shirt shop in Gatlinburg. We had shirts that said Gatlinburg Polo Club...Gatlinburg Beach...ect.
I would actually have tourist ask me "How do you get to the Beach?"

Anonymous said...

Visit my website to see old gatlinburg photos:


Kirk D. said...

fletch- I've seen that one all too many times.

joey- ha, classic. Any retail job has its pitfalls, but woe to those who serve tourists.

thanks anonymous- very cool photos, I like the ones of the old haunted house the best.

Robert Robinson said...

I want to know what happened to Ripley's World of the Unexplained. I remember talking my parents into letting me and my brother go inside. I remember a nude witch next to a fireplace and a statue of Bigfoot when you first came in.

Kirk D. said...

Robert, wow, now I want to know too! I've never heard of it but thanks for putting it on my radar.

Anonymous said...

Ive been to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, the place reminds me a lot of the Wisconsin Dells.

Anonymous said...

I stand in awe of your blog, sir. You have captured the essence of my feelings about Gatlinburg. To steal a line from "Jerry McGwire", you had me at "So 1980s, yet so comforting."
Kudos to you for putting into words what I have felt about Gatlinburg since my maiden visit in 1979. In a world where things seem to change on a daily (if not hourly) basis, seeing the basic spirit and essence of Gatlinburg still clinging to life in 2014 is a comfort unmatched in any other vacation spot. And your comments on Ober Gatlinburg were SPOT ON as well. It even SMELLS the same way it did when I first entered its hallowed Alpine hall in 1979. Well done, Sir!

Kirk D. said...

I'm glad you can relate! Thanks for the kind words. -Kirk