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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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.
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.”
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.
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.