They imported the people from Hawaii.
They imported the tame deer from “all over the world.”
The porpoises? They lived in Mississippi.
Children, I’m going to tell you a tale and I wouldn’t blame you a bit if, at the end, you called me a damned liar. I might even agree with you.
But truth, they say, is stranger than fiction. For 12 years, from 1972 to 1984, in the heart of Pigeon Forge, there existed a Polynesian-themed attraction called Porpoise Island.
Believe me, I know.
Just hang on. This is gonna get weird.
Located on what is now The Island – currently, no porpoises to be seen – the attraction offered a myriad of animal shows and native Hawaiians 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 as well as a sea lion show. There was an exotic deer ranch featuring tame deer from around the world.
And honestly, when the park closed, they should have let those suckers loose in the mountains. If we can have patches of kudzu overtaking large swaths of East Tennessee, we could deal with bandit tribes of exotic deer running around as well.
There was also, in possibly the strangest sequence of words I will ever have to write, 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 pet the porpoises, but hell, 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.
“What’s that sound? It’s getting closer.”
“The porpoises are calling you!”
Aloha, y’all: Why Porpoise Island was a thing in Sevier County, Tenn.
So we’ve established what Porpoise Island was, but we have a bigger question begging.
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.
What else did they love?
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. And it was part of America that most of the people who travelled to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge would never get to see.
Certainly by the time the park opened in 1972, some of the shine had worn off the Tiki bar popularity. But someone with money to invest must have thought East Tennessee was primed for a Polynesian renaissance.
So, in the great Sevier County tradition of throwing whatever idea you’ve got against the wall and seeing if the tourist will pay good money for it, somebody said “Aloha, y’all,” which, by the way, would have been a significantly better catchphrase than “The porpoises are calling you.”
What happened to Porpoise Island?
So why’d it fail?
Duh. 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. The animals – and their trainers and caregivers – had to be brought in from warmer climates and taken care of.
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 perhaps 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, and I’ve never heard anyone mention it in casual conversation or fit of nostalgia.
Maybe the locals assume it was a mass hallucination or a fever dream brought on by a batch of bad moonshine. Maybe they figure East Tennessee’s Polynesian paradise is better off forgotten.