Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg - A Mecca
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Pigeon Forge and sister tourist-trap-town Gatlinburg sparkle like junk jewels on a necklace choking Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Mini-mecca Cherokee applies torque from the North Carolina side). Sheer statistical density hampers any attempt to assess this mecca cluster (as with super-stuffed Wisconsin Dells and Branson). A hundred attractions crush your sense of proportion and dignity.
There's no way to see everything, and no way you would want to. Our best single-day penetration tops out at six or seven attractions, then a panicky escape for oxygen. But you could always spend the night at one of the many, many fine motels in the area...
In terms of seniority, Gatlinburg came first, then Pigeon Forge was created, it seems, to accommodate all of the water parks and fireworks outlets. The attractions have spread from the mountains like an alluvial fan, reaching Interstate 40 way north in Sevierville. That's a good place to start before plunging into the maelstrom. Just off the main road, near the helicopter tours landing pad and the muscle car museum, is the Sevierville courthouse and the Dolly Parton statue. Rub her for good luck; she grew up here! The statue is the wide-eyed, barefooted young Dolly -- no rhinestones, and definitely pre-Dollywood, which is just down the road.
Pigeon Forge once had more miniature golf courses and water slides than anywhere, until Wisconsin Dells roared by them in the late 1990s. But here, everything is conveniently arrayed along US 441, offering a mind-boggling procession of dinner shows, musical revues, laser tag arenas, and game arcades. Drive until something speaks to you.
In our case, it's the promise of an authentic still and hillbilly habitat in Hillbilly Village. It's free -- you just have to wade through this double-wide souvenir shop to get to the decrepit, rotted scattering of rust and broken plywood hill people out back. Pose in a hillbilly shack!
The Elvis Presley Museum has anchored this strip since the '70s, while newer attractions like the Dinosaur Walk Museum and the soon-to-be-complete Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Museum complete an enviable triumvirate of culture
We tried out an attraction here named Flyaway Freefall back in 1985, on our very first Pigeon Forge visit. Today it still thrives as Flyaway Indoor Skydiving, where visitors leap into a giant wind silo while wearing aerodynamically buoyant jumpsuits, then float in eerie suspension (Flyaway has since opened branches in other meccas, including Niagara Falls in 2008).
Three Bears Gifts is another time-tested classic, built around the correct assumption that people love to throw food at animals. Despite its name, and occasional protests from animal activists, this attraction has proved so successful that it now has FIVE bears in its big play pit,. Cries of "Hey, bear!" will be yelled by visitors here for generations to come.
No mecca is complete without a celebrity Death Car. Carbo's Police Museum shows off the one that killed Buford Pusser, the ax-handle-wielding sheriff of "Walking Tall" '70s movie fame.
Pigeon Forge is not immune to the high attraction churn that we've seen in other meccas, which of course means that you have to visit every few years just to see what's new. As for what's gone, that includes the druggy skull that once devoured go-carters at the Family Fun Center, bulldozed and replaced with a Walgreen's; the very strange Bunny Golf, which featured dozens of live rabbits; and the classic Hee Haw Village, some relics of which have been moved to the Archie Campbell Museum over in Bulls Gap.
The Pigeon Forge experience naturally flows into the older resort town of Gatlinburg, nestled in a forested pass. Sit in the traffic jam on Gatlinburg's main street as massive gravitational forces push the mountains, factory outlet stores, and padded pleasure zombies in on all sides of your car. Park if you can, and see the sights. Fudge being made. Four Ripley's-owned attractions. Low, low factory outlet prices. Gatlinburg's oldest attraction, Christus Gardens, finally packed it in by 2008, but new attractions like the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum are carrying on the tourist tradition, and old standbys like Hillbilly Golf appear to be going strong.
Oh yeah, Dollywood. It's between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Looked corporate and too expensive, so we skipped it. Maybe next time!