Titanic: World's Largest Museum Attraction
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
"When you put your hand in the water, move it around. It makes a big difference."
Titanic ship's officer Steve stands with us on the refrigerated bridge of the doomed ocean liner -- the all-indoors replica in landlocked Tennessee -- helping us understand what it's like to splash around in the sub-freezing North Atlantic. The 28-degree water circulating in a trough is one of the attraction's interactive exhibits. When you dip in your hand it's cruelly cold, but when you move it around -- like you would if you were trying to swim -- it feels like a bayonet is being stabbed into your arm. Ow, it hurts. "Now," said Steve, "you know exactly what it felt like."
Officer Steve is one of the many costumed crew members that wander the Titanic attraction, popping up seemingly out of nowhere, ready to answer questions or call for assistance on their Bluetooth headsets if you stump them, which probably doesn't happen very often. We normally steer clear of role-playing interpreters, but at Titanic Pigeon Forge they're actually helpful, and they don't try to pretend that you've somehow traveled back in time to 1912.
Titanic Pigeon Forge is even grander in scale than its older, slightly less grand sister ship in Missouri. You enter the "immersive" attraction through a replica of the quayside dock in Southampton and are given the boarding pass of one of the passengers or crew of the Titanic. Will you survive? Probably not, but along the way you get to wander through recreated parts of the ship ranging from the boiler room to steerage to the famous Grand Staircase (Which alone cost over $1 million to build, according to First Class maid Steffi, another crew member). Artifacts from the Titanic are scattered, sparingly, throughout: a deck chair found floating at the wreck site, a dead man's pocket watch frozen in time at the moment the ship went down.
The Titanic carried 7,500 bath towels and 36,000 oranges, according to one display, but not enough lifeboats, which is why so many people ended up in the painful water and then died. Ghostly voices at various exhibits lay the irony on thick. "What a glorious time we're going to have on Titanic," says a man in the First Class stateroom. "The press says she's unsinkable!" exclaims the Titanic's designer in the blueprint shop (He died, too). "Lucky me, I've got a ticket on the Titanic!" says an Irishwoman in steerage. "God bless this noble ship!"
Special displays focus on the Titanic's children (half survived), dogs (3 of 12 survived), musicians (all dead), and heroic postal clerks (all dead). "There's no way to know how many mail sacks they tried to remove before they became completely submerged."
Because everyone knows the Titanic story, the attraction is a magnet for nit-pickers. Steffi told us that visitors sometimes challenge the size of the Grand Staircase (The one in the Hollywood movie was inaccurately bigger) or point out that its molding doesn't match the salvaged pieces displayed earlier on the tour (Those pieces were from a different Titanic staircase). "I've had people tell me, 'This isn't so hard,'" said officer Steve, referring to the steeply sloping decks where visitors can stand to experience the Titanic's final moments. "I tell them, 'Try wearing bowling shoes and not falling down. Shoes back then had smooth leather soles.'"
Crew members told us they've encountered visitors who insisted that Titanic Pigeon Forge was moving (it doesn't) or who claimed that they had been aboard the real Titanic in a previous life. And although the attraction opened in 2010, the employees say it's already haunted: displays turn on by themselves and one crew member saw Titanic Second Officer Lightoller, who is long dead, on the bridge. It struck us as the best kind of endorsement: your fake boat is so real that the real boat's ghosts feel comfortable haunting it.
The tour ends with a stop at the "Survivor Wall" to see if you made it, then both the living and dead exit into the gift shop, where they can buy Capt.-Smith-at-the-Wheel salt and pepper shakers, replica Titanic First Class dinnerware, or a paperweight with a tiny Titanic and iceberg bobbing on a sea of blue oil -- pick it up and make the boat smash into the iceberg again and again.