It was the Great Smoky Mountains that turned Sevier County into a tourist mecca.
But, the locals found out early on that tourists needed more than motels, restaurants and the great outdoors.
As it turns out, there’s only so much nature one Midwestern family can absorb before they need a different level of stimuli.
In the early days, much of that stimulation came in forms native to the area. They trafficked in bear related knickknacks and the (often stereotypical) traditions of the mountain people.
Let’s call it the Hee Haw effect. If the people paying the bills wanted cornpone and banjo music, by God that’s what the good people of Sevier County were gonna give them.
But the ultimate arbiter of what exactly Pigeon Forge and the area will be is what the tourism dollars will support.
Over the years, that means a wider variety – branching away from outlet malls, go-cart tracks and mini golf. It has led to some decidedly non-East Tennessee attractions deep in the heart of the Smoky Mountains.
Here are some bizarre, out of place and quirky attractions that have made their way to Great Smoky Mountains of Sevier County:
6. The Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge
First of all, out of place, doesn’t mean bad. The Titanic is actually a very cool attraction – much higher on my must-see list than many of the more “traditional” tourist spots in town.
But the view coming up the curve in the Parkway where the – I don’t know what you call it, is it the bow? – of the mighty ship towers over traffic with fountains simulating the ship slicing through the Atlantic and scraping a giant fake iceberg remains one of the most incongruous sights of my life.
Sure, a visit to Titanic is an excellent chance to interact with some diverting history and make very wonderful dad jokes about Rose scooting over and making some room for Jack on the door, but honestly I’m too busy marveling at the improbable nature of life, the universe and everything and cursing myself for not having the genius-level foresight to come up with the damn thing myself.
Somewhere, someone said, “Hey people really, really liked that movie. We should invest millions into a multiple of maritime-themed museums and place them hundreds of miles inland.”
This is a Bubba-Gump-Shrimp-level hustle and I respect it.
5. The Margaritaville Resort(s)
First of all, mad love to the troubadour who penned a fantastic little song about giving up on life, getting drunk every day and transcending to a plane of existence in which “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw?” is a love song.
Jimmy Buffett – who hasn’t written a hit since “Cheeseburger in Paradise” created an empire so powerful, a brand so strong that someone thought it would be a good idea to stick a resort with a Caribbean-beach ethos smack on the shores of the mighty Little Pigeon River.
Just when everyone else thought they had the answers and made their hotels varying levels of mountain-themes, Jimmy Buffett’s people changed the questions and blew everybody’s mind.
And if that’s not enough, there’s one in Pigeon Forge, too.
That’s right. Sevier County has more than one Margaritaville themed resort.
And soon, Pigeon Forge will be home of the very first Camp Margaritaville in the whole country.
God has a sense of humor, y’all.
Never doubt it.
4. Paula Deen’s Family Restaurant in Pigeon Forge
The Deen brand isn’t as strong as Buffet’s, but Paula Deen having a restaurant in the heart of Dolly Parton Country is an affront of both good taste and geography.
Paula Deen is a native of Savannah, Ga. – a community with its own rich food culture and booming tourist business.
Though non-southerners tend to think of Virginia to North Florida over to Arkansas as one big swath of homogeny, the truth is Deen is no more Appalachian than Wolfgang Puck.
And until Dolly Parton sees fit to invade Savannah and open a theme-park, I think it’s impolite for Deen to come up here with her sugar-don’t-melt-in-her-mouth accent and get her South Georgian ways into our good mountain-folk business.
3. The Melting Pot in Gatlinburg
I love the Melting Pot.
Love it. Love fondue. Love dipping various food stuffs in melted cheese. Love paying a lot of money to cook for myself at the table.
My fondest dream is to go to a hibachi place, push the guy out of the way and start serving up fried rice and teriyaki chicken with a side of rice puns and an onion volcano.
The Melting Pot is the closest any restaurant will ever come to letting me do that. But it is pricey and kinda of French and on the surface those are two of the least East Tennessee concepts ever.
Though, if we’re being real, the Melting Pot is far more East Tennessee than anyone in the corporate office would like to admit.
Open bars are cool, but in East Tennessee the absolute pinnacle of wedding couture is a chocolate fountain.
Honest to God, the only person more taken with cascading liquid chocolate than an East Tennessean is Willy Wonka.
Quick side note: One Black Friday, Macy’s was selling fondue pot chocolate fountain things online and I ordered one with visions of becoming a fondue God.
I was pricing heavy turtleneck sweaters and vintage hi-fi turntables on which I could play jazz records. Then, it arrived and I hooked that sucker up.
You may be asking yourself if it worked out the way I had imagined.
Reader, it did not.
The Melting Pot is located conveniently in downtown Gatlinburg.
2. Alcatraz East Crime Museum in Pigeon Forge
I don’t know about you but when I think about Pigeon Forge I think about Al Capone, the White Ford Bronco from the OJ chase and Ted Bundy’s trial dental mold.
Here is a sentence from the Alcatraz East website presented without further comment.
“The Alcatraz East design incorporates the ornate features of the Tennessee State Prison, as well as guard towers inspired by the Alcatraz lighthouse and modern day watch towers.”
Like Titanic, if you can ultimately get past the existential crisis created by stepping into an Alcatraz Museum roughly 17,000 miles from Alcatraz, then there is a morbid curiosity to be satisfied at the museum.
Would you like to see the car in which Bonnie and Clyde met their bloody end and learn how buying a knock-off purse on your last trip to New York is part of an international counterfeit network that includes medication and electronics?
Then Pigeon Forge is the place to be.
1. Parrot Mountain and Garden in Pigeon Forge
There is, located in the mountains of East Tennessee not far from Dollywood, an avian oasis, a paradise for Pollys. There is, my friends, a Parrot Mountain and Garden of Eden.
Parrot Mountain has hundreds and hundreds of exotic birds from all over the world.
The birds are housed exactly as you’d expect in English style cottages where they can “enjoy sun, rain and fresh air as in their natural habitat.”
Honestly, the animal exhibits in the Smokies don’t have the greatest history – I’m looking at you – See Live Bears. But Parrot Mountain is an eco-tourist bird park in which the birds are well cared for and healthy.
Visitors can feed parrots and have a picture taken holding a bird in the garden. Or, in the walk-in aviary Australian Lorikeets, drink nectar from a cup in your hand.
You can visit the nursery and see the newly hatched babies.
Some of the birds are even for sale, but if I may offer a word of advice, that’s not an impulse buy kind of thing. You think getting a puppy at Christmas is bad?
Try bringing a macaw with a 50-year life span home from a Smoky Mountain vacation.
Parrot Mountain closes seasonally from late November through early March.
Do you agree with this list? Let us know in the comments!