The Attraction in Pigeon Forge You Never Knew Existed: Porpoise Island

Porpoise Island

Porpoise Island had 20 shows daily (photo from an old Porpoise Island Brochure, courtesy of OldGatlinburg.net) 

Category: , ,
12 Comments

Disclosure: This site is sponsored by ads and affiliate programs. We may earn money from the companies mentioned in this post. As an Amazon, Tripster and CJ Affiliate we may earn from qualifying purchases.

They imported the people from Hawaii. 

They imported tame deer from “all over the world.”

The porpoises? They lived in Mississippi, of course. 

Children, I’m going to tell you a tale and I wouldn’t blame you a bit if in the end, you called me a danged liar. Indeed, I might even agree with you. But the 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.  

Porpoise Island
Visitors to Porpoise Island were greeted with authentic island greetings (photo from an old Porpoise Island Brochure, courtesy of OldGatlinburg.net

I know. 

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. 

Read Also: Top 5 attractions that no longer exist in the Smokies

Deer Farm
Porpoise Island had an exotic deer ranch (photo from an old Porpoise Island Brochure, courtesy of OldGatlinburg.net

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.

“EEE-eee-EEE-eee”

“What’s that sound? It’s getting closer.”

“EEE –EEE-EEEE-EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE”

“The porpoises are calling you!”

Seal at Porpoise Island
Porpoise Island had a show featuring exotic birds and their barnyard friends (left) and a sea lion show (right) (photo from an old Porpoise Island Brochure, courtesy of OldGatlinburg.net

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.

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. 

Read More: There’s a real ‘ghost town in the sky’ on top of a mountain in Maggie Valley, NC 

But what else did they love? 

Tiki-culture. 

Brochure
Front and back photo sections of the original Porpoise Island Brochure (courtesy of OldGatlinburg.net

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 of the people who traveled 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.”

Porpoise Island
Porpoise Island had about 20 shows a day (photos from an old Porpoise Island Brochure, courtesy of OldGatlinburg.net

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. And in addition, 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. 

Read More: A look back at Ogle’s Waterpark and the attraction that took its place

Certainly, 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 in a fit of nostalgia. 

Maybe the locals assume it was a mass hallucination or a fever dream brought on by a batch of bad moonshine. Or possibly they figure East Tennessee’s Polynesian paradise is better off forgotten. 

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at [email protected] for questions or comments.

Things to do

Best theme parks in the Smokies
Best Shows and Theaters in the smokies
Best attractions in the Smokies
Best tours in the Smokies
Best mini golf in the Smokies
Best ATV and side by side rentals in the Smokies
Best go karts in the Smokies
Best ziplining in the Smokies
Best zoos and farms in the Smokies
Best rafting in the Smokies
Previous

The 5 Best Kept Secret Waterfall Spots in the Smoky Mountains

The Man Who Discovered Dolly Parton: The Bizarre Story of Cas Walker

Next

12 thoughts on “The Attraction in Pigeon Forge You Never Knew Existed: Porpoise Island”

  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.

  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.

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

  4. I remember this place and magic world and go rush junction with western gun fight and stuff

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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!

  8. 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

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

  10. 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.

Leave a Comment