Remembering Porpoise Island, a dolphin-themed park in Pigeon Forge

dolphins at porpoise island

Porpoise Island was a Polynesian-themed attraction in Pigeon Forge from 1972 to 1984 (photo from an old Porpoise Island brochure, shared with permission from OldGatlinburg.net) 

The ill-fated Polynesian-themed attraction that barely lasted a decade in the Smoky Mountains

They imported people from Hawaii and tame deer from “all over the world.” The porpoises? They lived in Mississippi, of course. Children, I’m going to tell you a tale. I certainly wouldn’t blame you a bit if, in the end, you called me a liar. Indeed, I might even agree with you. But the truth, they say, is stranger than fiction. From 1972 to 1984, in the heart of Pigeon Forge, TN, there existed a Polynesian-themed attraction called Porpoise Island. So hang on. This is gonna get weird.

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island whiz kid show building next to seal with ball on its nose
Porpoise Island had a show featuring exotic birds and their barnyard friends (left) and a sea lion show (right) (photos from an old Porpoise Island brochure, shared with permission from OldGatlinburg.net

What was Porpoise Island?

Located on what is now The Island – currently, no porpoises to be seen – the attraction offered a myriad of animal shows and a native Hawaiian group trained in traditional dance and song at the famed Kamehameha School. Visitors to the park were treated to authentic island greetings and hula dancers in grass skirts. There were 20 porpoise performances per day in a large – but not giant – saltwater tank. There was also a sea lion show and an exotic deer ranch featuring tame deer from around the world. And, in possibly the strangest sequence of words I will ever have to write, there was a Bird Vaudeville Theatre, in which an acting troupe of exotic birds known as the Island Whiz Kids performed side-splitting antics with the assistance of their barnyard friends. 

You could also pet the porpoises, but it was the ’70s. I’m surprised they didn’t let you take one home. Porpoise Island is also famous for being the first Pigeon Forge attraction to use television commercials featuring the catchphrase “The porpoises are calling you!” which is, upon reflection, almost up there with “Children of the Corn’s” “He wants you too, Malachi” for the 1980s era nightmare fuel.

porpoise island entertainers
Visitors to Porpoise Island were greeted with authentic island greetings (photo from an old Porpoise Island brochure, shared with permission from OldGatlinburg.net

Why Porpoise Island?

So we’ve established what Porpoise Island was, but we have a bigger question. Why? I have a theory. A lot of early Sevier County tourism success was built on the back of Wild West-themed attractions. Americans with disposable income in the ’50s and ’60s loved the Wild West. But what else did they love? Tiki-culture. Restaurants and bars based on an idealized version of South Pacific culture began popping up around the world as early as the ’30s. But it was in the heady days of the post-war boom that Hawaii, which became a state in 1959, became a cultural obsession. 

Hawaii was exotic, but it was still American. Specifically, it was part of America that most folks who traveled to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, on the outskirts of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, would never get to see. But by the time the park opened in 1972, some of the shine had worn off the Tiki bar popularity. However, someone with money to invest must have thought that it was a special time for a Polynesian renaissance. So, in the great Sevier County tradition of throwing whatever idea you’ve got against the wall and to see if tourists will pay good money for it, somebody said “Aloha, y’all.” Which, by the way, would have been a much better catchphrase than “The porpoises are calling you.”

petting zoo at the porpoise island attraction in pigeon forge
Porpoise Island had an exotic deer ranch (photos from an old Porpoise Island brochure, shared with permission from OldGatlinburg.net

What happened to Porpoise Island? 

So why did Porpoise Island fail? Likely because this was an insanely expensive, labor-intensive endeavor that must have been a logistical nightmare. In the off-season, the porpoises – and for the love of all that is holy why couldn’t it have been Dolphin Island? – were housed in Mississippi. Each season the Polynesian performers had to be selected, brought to Sevier County and housed. In addition, the animals – and their trainers and caregivers – had to be brought in from warmer climates and housed. The paperwork alone had to be a nightmare.

Also, the porpoises were only onsite until Labor Day, when Porpoise Island closed for the season. All of this was for roughly three months’ worth of profit. This was surely the single most insane business model ever designed. Porpoise Island is now a mostly forgotten cultural relic. I arrived in East Tennessee a mere five or six years after the park went to the great luau in the sky. Yet I’ve never heard anyone mention it in casual conversation or a fit of nostalgia. Maybe the locals assume it was a mass hallucination or a fever dream brought on by a batch of bad ‘shine. Or possibly they figure East Tennessee’s Polynesian paradise is better off forgotten. 

a duck playing a drum next to a dolphin jumping at porpoise island
Porpoise Island had about 20 shows a day (photos from an old Porpoise Island brochure, shared with permission from OldGatlinburg.net

Which attraction took its place?

Today, The Island in Pigeon Forge is located at 131 The Island Drive, right off the Parkway. It’s about 4 miles from the Dollywood theme park. Although you won’t find any dolphins at The Island today, you will find a variety of shops, restaurants and a handful of rides, like The Great Smoky Mountain Wheel.

Do you remember Porpoise Island? Let us know in the comments below.

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at editor@thesmokies.com.

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19 thoughts on “Remembering Porpoise Island, a dolphin-themed park in Pigeon Forge”

  1. My parents took me to Porpoise Island when I was a kid and the pictures you have on this post had brought back a flood of happy childhood memories for me. I miss this place and those days. Thank you.

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  2. I was a performer from Hawaii at Porpoise Island. I was 15. An entire summer learning things such as self care, budgeting, independence. Made so many memories and Im still connected to friends I made while there. The opportunity to be there was a great part of shaping my life. Thank you to the person(s) who thought this up. It gave a lot of us a chance to open our eyes to the world to what would become a Hawaiian culture that is internationally magnetic. A chance at a great beginning of our future.

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  3. I have fond memories of going there with my grandparents, but, wow…that was a heck of a crazy concept, lol!

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  4. When MayCay Beeler and I co-hosted “PM Magazine” at WATE-TV, Channel 6 in Knoxville back in the early 80’s, we did a story on the dolphins at Porpoise Island.
    The story is now part of a modern-day nostalgia show, returning to visit the lost attractions of Pigeon Forge on “The New Knoxville’s PM Magazine,” soon to be aired on YouTube TV.
    We also did stories on the Great American High Divers at Magic World…. “The Mountain Man” Roger Dillard from the old Silver Dollar City…. and Rudolph Delmonte, the human rubber band man at Tommy Bartlett’s Water Circus.
    All three stories are also part of the nostalgia show.

    Reply
  5. We went to Porpoise Island when I was a around 9 or 10 and I loved it! My favorite part was petting the dolphins and watching the “hula” dancers. This story brought back so many great memories

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  6. I have a picture of me with Paola pang Ching . Not sure if I spelled it right. It was 1978. My family loved that placed . I have great memories!

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  7. I worked at Porpoise Island in 1978. It was an amazing time! There was a in one of the apartments who cooked lunch for us every day and that’s where we would go for lunch. I was officially a “Deer Ranch Boy“ but did everything from morning rounds checking on the animals to putting bumper stickers on cars in the parking lot… much to the chagrin of the car owners who had been visiting for the day lolll.

    There was also a lady named Dovie who worked in the snack booth between the deer ranch and dolphin pool… She was a sweet lady who found me a log cabin (San plumbing) to stay in for the summer.

    #BestSummerEver

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  8. We went to Porpoise Island a few times. My family loved it. Those are great memories and those were great, great times

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  9. I remember going with parents and my best middle school friend, we were in 7th grade. I was boy crazy and had a huge crush on one of the guy dancers in the show and he knew it too, he came out to parking lot and I was able to get a picture with him. I still have picture, I cant believe that place wasnt just a figment of my imagination. One of my favorite childhood memories.

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  10. I worked there the summer of 77 in the gift shop.part of my job was every 15 minutes getting on the intercom and saying “Aloha and welcome to Porpoise Island.” The Hawaiians were all nice and fun to hang out with.

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  11. I recently went thru some old pics that my parents have. Found pics of this place from 73-74. I vaguely remember it as I was 2. I do remember sitting in the rented stroller watching the show.

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  12. Spent a lot of time there as a kid and loved it! My grandpa did all the landscaping for Porpoise Island. I helped him plant 🌱 flower seeds in his greenhouse there. A lot of my friends in high school had summer jobs there. Loved the hula show and the porpoise show!

    Reply
  13. I grew up going to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg frequently, and I do not remember Porpoise Island at all. I do fondly remember Ghost Town in Maggie Valley. I also remember the attraction that had the ski show. There was a large grandstand, a man-made lake, and boats pulling skiers who would perform wild stunts on skis. I had to look it up to see that it was called Tommy Bartlett’s Water Circus. As far as I know, the metal canopy of the old grandstand can still be seen.

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  14. Loved Porpoise Island. Went there all through the 70’s. I was in the Marine Corps over seas when I got word it was shutting down. Saddest news I got back then.

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  15. We thoroughly enjoyed Porpoise Island.Everything was so beautiful and the shows were great,allowing audience participation, which was so funny.We also miss Ghost Town in the Sky.We always went there every year,and the whole family enjoyed it ,so much.I really wish those types of entertainment were still there, but I guess what we think just didn’t matter.Out with the old,in with the new.

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  16. My wife and me were there in 1974 on our honeymoon. We enjoyed that place and was sad when it closed. We still have pictures of that place. The whole area has changed.

    Reply

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