I knew nothing about Pigeon Forge apart from the fact that it offered some motel deals on a night when it was too cold to sleep in our car. The town sits on the outskirts of the Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, so I expected a faux-rustic-type place like West Yellowstone or Springdale Utah.
As we drove in, I noticed a big sign for “Dixie Stampede Dinner & Show” right across the street. The front desk at the motel gave us a voucher for the dinner, but there wasn’t a performance that night.
I checked out the reviews online and discovered that we were missing an extravaganza with live horses and Texas longhorns and buffalo! It looked better than Medieval Times.
But then I noticed something weirder.
Tripadvisor showed no less than eight dinner theaters in town. Wait a second… where exactly were we?
It turns out that Pigeon Forge is home to Dollywood, the theme park resort owned by beloved country music singer Dolly Parton. With that major tourist attraction came a bunch of minor ones hoping to capitalize on vacationing families.
For instance, there are no less than 15 go-kart establishments in town. And mirror mazes? They’ve got at least 7 of those.
Many places were closed for the winter, but we picked an indoor activity from the motel’s coupon book and drove down the main Parkway.
I didn’t take any photos, so instead I’m turning this post into a gimmick of its own and giving you a tour using Google Street View.
First off, let’s observe the gold standard mark of any tourist town, a wax museum. This one is the Hollywood Wax Museum, a low-budget version of Madame Tussaud’s. (Fortunately, Google protected the identity of one of the fake Mount Rushmore heads.)
And here’s Wonderworks, the upside-down house that’s supposedly full of sciencey stuff.
Alcatraz East on the left is some kind of “crime museum”, with artifacts such as the White Ford Bronco from OJ Simpson’s slow-speed police chase.
Probably the cream of the educational crop is the Titanic Museum, which is hosted inside a half-scale replica of the Titanic complete with iceberg.
Or you can go even further back in time to the Jurassic Period on a janky jungle boat ride with a whopping 2-star average review.
Need to stock up on Christmas decorations out of season? Head to the Christmas Place! This looks particularly appealing all lit up at night, and even has its own Chistmas-themed hotel.
If that’s not religious enough for you, here’s another one of those dinner theaters, this one biblically themed.
The Three Bears General Stores may look normal from the outside, until you discover that it has not three but five live Asian black bears in the back, which you can pay a couple bucks to feed.
Not to be outdone, this souvenir store tries to lure you in with “Live Sharks”. I think that’s also the name of the store, as in “I’m going to head to Live Sharks to pick up some keychains.”
We pulled into what I thought was our destination, because it looked like a giant castle.
But it turned out it was the wrong giant castle! There are two of them on the same street!
This one was the Castle of Chaos, a 3D horror video game / ride. A couple monsters were on a smoke break outside.
Finally, we found the castle that holds MagiQuest.
We received our “Ancient Book of Wisdom” quest booklets and plastic wands and spent the next 90 minutes running between three different “lands”: Forest, Village, and Dungeon. Each quest sent us in search of specific items that we could interact with using a flick of our wands. As we completed the quests, we earned runes that let us cast spells so we could open secret doors and progress further in the game.
I was surprised by how fun it was, even if the game technology wasn’t the most polished. We weren’t the only adults playing without kids, either.
At one point, we got stuck so we headed to the teenager dressed as a wizard who was running the game. “Do you give hints?” we asked him.
“Why yes!” he said grandiosely. “What is it you seek?”
“This says to cast six times at the star, but we’ve found a lot of stars and none of them work.”
The boy-wizard swept his robed arm out. “Your goal may be closer than you think…”
Our eyes followed his gesture. Far above our heads, over the open atrium, hung a giant star. It sparkled and chimed as we cast our wands at it. Quest complete!
We also ducked and dodged through one of those spy-laser-rooms and played blacklight-pirate-mini-golf hole-in-one style. Nash beat me in both events. But the place closed for the night before we had a chance to brave the world’s largest mirror maze.
I still felt giddy as we drove back to the motel in the darkness.
“What would it be like to live in a world where everything was a gimmick?” Nash asked.
I looked around us at all the lights competing for attention, each attraction somehow cornier than the last. For a single night, it was glorious, but I could already feel how it might grate on the nerves.
“Well, I imagine it would look a lot like this.”