A local shares memories of Magic World – a defunct theme park in the Smoky Mountains
Imagine reaching into a child’s toy box in the late 70s, past the Star Wars figures and the Godzillas and Bat-people, and pulling out the little bits of molded plastic that didn’t get played with as much as the other toys. Then sprinkle 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. The theme park 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.
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What was Magic World like?
If you never experienced Magic World, imagine being on the set of a late 50s sci-fi movie. At the entrance, there was 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. The dinosaur museum was next 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. These days, modern parents wouldn’t let their children pet the wooly mammoth without a tetanus shot. But for the times, Magic World was cheesy 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.
From the Mad Headsman’s Haunted Castle, it was a short walk to The Flying Saucer. The saucer was a strange metallic spaceship, piloted by beings from the red planet Mars. Inside was a panoramic film tour of the Great Smoky Mountains – with scenes soaring over Clingman’s Dome and diving under Fontana Lake. 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.
Problematic parts of Magic World
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 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.
What happened to Magic World in Pigeon Forge?
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). There were also bumper boats and a tilt-a-whirl. But Silver Dollar City had rechristened itself to Dollywood in 1986. And by the 90s, it was growing fast. The competition was fierce. Magic World held its own for a good while.
But eventually, the Magic was gone. 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 when it closed than it had been 25 years earlier. The parties involved could not reach an agreement.
In 1996, Magic World closed for good. 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. They are the volcano and what looks like part of the original ship. A plaque is also on display at the mini-golf course. It 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.”
Do you remember Magic World in Tennessee? Let us know in the comments below.