Imagine plunging your hands into a child’s toy box in the late 70s, reaching in deep past the Star Wars figures and the Godzillas and a variety of Bat-people, and pulling out the little bits of molded plastic that didn’t get played with as much as the other toys.
Then imagine taking those toys – the dinosaurs and aliens and plastic soldiers and the other impulse buys strategically placed like landmines for tired moms just trying to get their kids to stop whining at the grocery store – and sprinkling them onto a lot on the Parkway in Pigeon Forge.
These are the types of attractions you would have seen at Magic World, a children’s amusement park that operated from 1971 to 1996 in Pigeon Forge.
Magic World was a relic of its time, nestled in between the car museum and the Twin Water Ski-Doo, across from the Police Museum and just down from Baby Animal Kingdom and Porpoise Island. Or at least it was in its 1979 heyday.
In Pigeon Forge, your neighbors can change identities frequently.
What was inside Magic World
If you’ve never been to Magic World, imagine being on the set of a late 50s sci-fi movie.
You entered through a 100-foot volcano that held an 80-foot fresh-water aquarium deep in its heart.
Merlin the Magician lived not far down from the Land of Arabian Nights, which featured a Magic Carpet Ride. The Haunted Castle rested on one corner of the lot, across from the Flying Saucer.
The Dragon Train took you through Dinosaur Valley, ruled by giant – and not overly realistic prehistoric monsters – to the dinosaur museum where you could get your picture made with a wooly mammoth that looked like it was the last of its species with two feet in the extinction grave.
For children of the 70s and early 80s, Magic World was a place of wonder. If you were the right age to look past the cracks and crevices, to see not the dinosaur that is actually in front of you, but the dinosaur it was meant to be, then Magic World could have been a rival to Disney, which offered much of the same fare but with a higher investment behind it.
Viewed through today’s lenses, however, Magic World is a tribute of a different time. Modern parents wouldn’t let their children pet the wooly mammoth without a tetanus shot and, possibly, a course of rabies inoculation.
But for the times, Magic World was cheesy (in a good way) heaven. The Haunted Castle, for example, featured a Phantom of the Opera-esque ghoul, Frankenstein and Dracula as well as an executioner known as the Mad Headsman.
Seriously, did someone hold a copyright for the Headless Horseman in 1990? Washington Irving died in 1859; surely we didn’t have to break our brains coming up with a new ghoul to stalk the dungeons of our medieval castle. And – though I had to Google it to make sure – a headsman is an axe-wielding executioner. Why does he have to be mad?
Hey kids, there’s a guy whose job it is to cut off heads in the dungeon of the haunted castle. Oh, not scary enough for ya, eh? Well, guess what … he’s mad!
From the Mad (Shaking My) Headsman’s Haunted Castle, it was a short walk to the The Flying Saucer, billed as a strange metallic spaceship, piloted by beings from the red planet Mars.
A panoramic film tour of the Great Smoky Mountains – with scenes soaring over Clingman’s Dome and diving under Fontana Lake – played inside the spaceship. This was IMAX for the 70s.
The show that put the Magic in Magic World belonged to Merlin. The famed wizard – in the form of a person in a giant head stolen from the set of H.R. Puffinstuff – performed feats of magic with a variety of assistants.
Like many things of the era viewed from a modern perspective, Magic World reflected the attitudes of the day when it came to other cultures. To use the preferred euphemism, there were parts of Magic World that could be considered “problematic” today.
The Land of Arabia Nights, for instance, had a ride that carried passengers – in a similar style to Disney’s Peter Pan ride – over assorted dioramas that featured scenes from the classic 1,001 Arabian Nights and a few Middle Eastern stereotypes.
Magic World also had the The Confederate Critter Show, a Chuck E. Cheese-style animatronic show featuring a variety of characters dressed up as Confederate officers and singing mountain ballads.
A 1979 brochure promises, “You’ll grin as General Cornelius Bearpatch spins his yarns, strums his guitar and sings some of your favorite mountain ballads. Then tap your toes and slap your knee to the banjo pickin’ of Colonel Stonewall J. Fox. And Major Mosby Greyhound III will rock the house down with his rinky tink piano.”
Magic World did its best to change with the times, adding more carnival-type rides and diversions.
By 1991, there was a Dragon Coaster and a Red Baron ride (like Disney’s Dumbo but with World War I era biplanes) as well as bumper boats and a tilt-a-whirl. With Dollywood growing nearby, the competition was fierce.
But Magic World held its own for a good while.
What happened to Magic World
However in 1996, the Magic died. Not, reportedly, due to failing business, but rather a dispute over the cost to lease the land. Property on the strip was far more valuable in 1996 than it had been 25 years earlier. The parties involved could not reach an agreement.
Today, all that remains of this once beloved attraction are a handful of scenes that have been integrated into the mini golf course at Professor Hacker’s Lost Treasure Golf, namely the volcano and what looks like part of the original ship.
A plaque is also on display at the mini golf course that honors the original creator of Magic World and Professor Hacker’s: James Sidwell. The plaque reads: In memory and honor of James Q Sidwell, Sr. (Big Jim) … For your vision, integrity, friendship and leadership.”
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