The 1912 sinking of the Titanic offers a storyline that would tempt any tourism mogul. But unless you can bankroll a fun-house/motion-master IMAX ride that puts hundreds of visitors in the center of the calamity -- and thus far no one has -- you're sunk. You could open a museum of artifacts instead, but that presents a problem: most of the ocean liner's contents ended up at the bottom of the North Atlantic.
In the late 1980s, John Whitman of Sidney, Ohio, tried to navigate around this obstacle by opening a Titanic theme park, which combined entertaining distractions with a handful of artifacts. Whitman wanted to build a huge replica of the ship (he owned the original blueprints) and a fake Liverpool wharf through which visitors could wander. But his dreams were premature, and without support from the town, or almost anyone else in Ohio, his attraction folded.
Then came the movie in 1997, and suddenly the Titanic was a hot property. Two businessmen opened Titanic: Ship of Dreams in a strip mall in Orlando. They sweetened their collection of Titanic stuff with items from Titanic's sister ships, so that you could look at stuff that was nearly identical to the stuff lost on the Titanic. They also significantly upped the "attraction" ante by building a replica of the ship's Grand Staircase, and its bridge, and by populating the museum with actors dressed as the crew.
Business differences eventually split the partnership. One partner, John Joslyn, departed with his memorabilia.
Now, Joslyn is back. Titanic, phase three, is here.
Joslyn's place, opened on April 10, 2006, is called Titanic: World's Largest Museum Attraction. Turning "museum" into an adjective is necessary, as the museum by itself is not a world's largest anything. The "attraction" part, however, has been greatly improved over Orlando.
Titanic is housed inside a half-scale replica of the front half of the ship. Concept drawings show it emerging from a huge billboard on which is painted the back half. That billboard hasn't been built yet, so what exists now is impressive, if incomplete. Although the smokestacks stand ten stories tall, visible in the distance to drivers around Branson, don't expect to lose yourself in an exact replica of the RMS Titanic, where you can crawl through the coal bunkers and shimmy up to the crow's nest. This is a two-story building -- a 20-room 16,000 square foot walk-thru -- wrapped in a doomed ship facade.
Imagery and overt connections to the 1997 James Cameron Hollywood blockbuster won't be found either. The focus is on the historical Titanic -- a reasonable course in a town where the average visitor is a senior citizen. The elderly Branson demographic could also explain why lack of a motion thrill ride is not a problem.
The "museum" contains 400 artifacts, more than in any previous Titanic attraction: a dollar bill carried by the Titanic's barber, a menu from the Titanic's dining room, some letters written on Titanic stationery, a couple of life vests, two deck chairs, a pocket watch from a dead passenger. Still no match for the density of items you might find in, say, Branson's Veterans Museum. But at Titanic, there's enough going on that you probably won't care.
You enter Titanic through a stucco iceberg wedged into the side of the ship. Once inside, you're invited to chill your hand on a wall of ice, a new application of the tongue-sticking technology that has frozen Santa Claus Land "north poles" for generations. You're issued a "boarding pass" with the name of a Titanic passenger or crew member, and won't find out if you live or die until you're almost to the gift shop. But you can make an educated guess about your fate. For instance, if you are Reverend somebody, you drowned after giving your life jacket to some heathen
Costumed historical interpreters wander about: men in double-breasted officer uniforms, women dressed as chambermaids. Audio atmospherics are everywhere: foghorns, clanking bells, muffled voices, barking from behind a door labeled "Dog Kennel." You walk past a cramped Third Class cabin and an engine room boiler. "Try To Shovel Coal Into The Furnace," a sign encourages, and placing the shovel with the glued-on coal into the boiler elicits a whoosh of pleasing combustion.
You ascend a replica of the Titanic's Grand Staircase -- even grander than the one in Orlando -- and find yourself in First Class. There you'll see a sumptuous suite of rooms, and a guy resembling Titanic's captain walking around, assuring everyone in a sonorous baritone that everything is fine. You walk onto the bridge, and then out to a room facing a black backdrop peppered with tiny lights -- the Promenade Deck on the final night.
The Sinking Room has a series of progressively steep sloping decks you can try to stand on, a lifeboat in which you can sit, and a bowl of 28 degree salt water where you can immerse a finger. Endurance is timed by a nearby clock, and you probably won't last a minute. It helps you to understand why nearly everyone in the water quickly succumbed.
One exhibit encourages you to watch as a styrofoam cup is put into a tank replicating the pressure currently crushing the Titanic on the seabed. The cup is compressed to the size of a marshmallow. The message is clear to us: anything that went down with the Titanic is in no condition to be displayed in a museum (in consolation, you can write on a cup and have it squashed as a souvenir).
The Memorial Room comes next -- where you can scan for your name on a glass wall to learn whether you're alive or dead -- and then the Recovery Room, which displays the 26-foot-long model of Titanic's collapsed bow used in the Cameron movie.
Then it's on to the gift shop, which sells only souvenirs that reflect the opulent, ultra-elegant Titanic. It's as if the horrific tragedy, catalyst for the "museum attraction," had never happened. Do you really want your luggage labeled with a "Titanic" tag? Do you really want to walk around with "Titanic" on your shirt or hat? Actually, yes which probably says more about us than about the Titanic or this attraction.
John Joslyn told us that he once negotiated with a Las Vegas casino to build the kind of Titanic attraction that we dream of. "You'd be chased down hallways by walls of water," is how he described it. The deal fell through, but John still has the vision, and he's more likely to succeed where others have failed.
Until then, kudos to Joslyn for dropping anchor in Branson, and to Branson for accepting a museum into its bosom that does not involve patriotism or Christianity. Oh, and also for having the optimism to associate itself with a giant sinking ship.