Happily, none of the attractions I wrote about below were damaged by the recent wildfires. My understanding is that downtown Gatlinburg will reopen for business very soon. Please make plans to visit soon to support the business owners and the local economy. I know I will never take it all for granted again.
It’s been a couple of months since I let you know that I would be visiting all of the Ripley’s attractions in Gatlinburg and reviewing them here. That’s because there are EIGHT separate attractions, and we needed to pick a time that we could visit them all. Originally we had intended to go up for the day (Gatlinburg is less than an hour away from us) but we ended up planning a weekend trip–just me, John, and the “little” kids (not really so little, but that’s what we call them here!).
We left Knoxville on Thursday evening and couldn’t even make it all the way to Gatlinburg without stopping to eat. We picked Joe’s Crab Shack.
We all love seafood, so this was a good decision.
We made it to the hotel with barely enough time to enjoy the pool for half an hour, but since the pool is the main point of staying at the Glenstone Lodge (a family favorite from when the big kids were small, but where the little ones had never been) we stayed until they turned off the lights!
The next morning we got up early and headed to the Pancake Pantry, a Gatlinburg tradition. Once we were fortified, we headed out for our Ripley’s adventure.
We started with the Aquarium, because that’s where we had to pick up our tickets. (I received free tickets for my family in exchange for my honest review of the attractions.) Okay, you ask yourself, why is there an aquarium in Gatlinburg? There’s no ocean there. Is this an aquarium highlighting things like salamanders and crawdads?
But that’s one of the things that’s really neat about Ripley’s–they always find a way to link their attractions to the locale, and I will be showing you several examples of that in this review. Here’s how they frame Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies:
I don’t know about you, but I thought that was pretty clever.
I have a lot of pictures to share with you. The Aquarium is a good-sized attraction and took us a couple of hours to go through.
Every exhibit is accompanied by an informative sign like the one above. What was fun for me was having William announce what the creature was before reading the sign, and being right about 99% of the time.
Y’all, I could not stop taking pictures of the jellyfish. I think they are magical.
It’s probably a good thing that Lorelei kept stealing my phone to make You Tube videos. I couldn’t stop taking pictures.
In addition to all the interesting species, we also got to take a peek into the way the Aquarium operates:
There are also interactive opportunities. Below you will see Lorelei petting a horseshoe crab and William getting his dead skin eaten by some kind of fish (NOT piranhas, although they had those too!).
These things are scarier than piranhas to me though:
Apparently they actually EAT spider crabs in Japan. I know it would amount to a lot of meat, but those things seriously give me nightmares.
The Aquarium is very kid-friendly, with play activities, interactive opportunities like I’ve already shown you, and entertainment (like these mermaids):
At 14, William was not as interested in the kids’ activities, but he was fascinated by this prehistoric specimen, which he of course already knew EVERYTHING about:
But the highlight of the Aquarium for all of us, and I think for pretty much anyone who visits, is Shark Lagoon.
In addition to looking down on the sharks from above, visitors have the opportunity to get closer they ever though possible by going THROUGH the lagoon in a transparent tube, being moved along via conveyor belt.
If it’s not obvious, we loved the Aquarium. It’s expensive, but it’s worth it, and I recommend it to anyone who is visiting Gatlinburg.
Now, that would have been enough fun for anyone, but remember we were still getting started at that point with seven attractions left to visit! We made it out through the gift shop relatively unscathed and then started heading to our next destination, which we picked because according to the map we’d been given, it was the next one we would come to as we walked along the main road. That was the Mirror Maze, which was pretty much exactly like the one in Baltimore, which I already told you about here.
Our next stop was the Guinness Book of World Records Museum, a place that has been in Gatlinburg for as long as I remember, and which I’m assuming Ripley’s acquired at some point as its most likely competitor!
Here again a lot of effort was expended to showcase records that would be of particular interest to local folks:
Aside from the local exhibits, I was most impressed with the Space area, which included a neat video about the moon landings.
The exhibit below reminded me of my grandmother and the many, many afghans she made for us:
There were some fun interactive displays also, like these:
And of course we all loved this:
This is just a small sampling of what was available, much of which will be familiar to regular readers of the Guinness Book of World Records–tallest man, fattest man. et cetera. I think we spent about an hour here.
Our last stop of the day was the Ripley’s Odditiorium. I remember this when it was called the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. Or I should say that’s what its predecessor–a much less impressive affair–was called, before it burned in a fire some years ago. It’s a Gatlinburg attraction I remember from my childhood, although we never went there.
I’m going to get my complaints out of the way at the beginning: it was crowded and hot, especially the first part, which is a balcony over an area that is open to the street and hence is not climate-controlled. I much preferred the set up of the Baltimore Odditorium, but there were plenty of new curiosities to see here.
We were welcomed by a holographic version of Mr. Ripley himself, inviting us to come along with him on his adventures. I thought that was pretty cool!
I learned in my last Odditorium experience that I could expect to see authentic artifacts and I was not disappointed. This actual piece of the Berlin Wall was a thrill:
There was a dark and creepy area that showcased instruments of torture and other creepy things:
There was a very interesting prison display, that managed to insert some local color:
We met an old friend from our last Odditorium visit:
And here are just a few more interesting sites. I wish I had more pictures, but I had to fight with Lorelei for the camera all day, as she is an avid filmmaker and needed footage, 😉 and by this time my battery was running low as well!
The above portrait of Eminem is made of M & M’s, by the way!
Luckily at this point we were right by the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. We’ve tried most restaurants in Gatlinburg by now, and frankly most of them aren’t very good now that all the ones I remember from 20 years ago have closed up shop. But we hadn’t been to Bubba Gump, and we did enjoy it. After that, exhausted by our long day and the searing heat, we trudged back to the hotel and spent the rest of the evening enjoying the pool and the air conditioning.
Day Two of our Gatlinburg-Ripley’s adventure began with a buffet breakfast at the hotel and one last quick swim before checking out. We drove down to the main road and found a centrally-located garage and then made our way to our first destination: Ripley’s Haunted Adventure.
See that guy in the bottom picture? He leans out of there and heckles passersby! I had never been there–frankly, I’m not big on seeking out scares because life is frightening enough already–but I was a little bit excited about this.
See Lorelei’s sweet little smile? It was about to get wiped right off her face.
After we passed by that lovely sight, we headed for this cage-like elevator that you have to board to get up to the top of the attraction. Along the walls we read the set up for the whole thing which I won’t explain except to say that it was another way of anchoring the attraction to the area.
We were in the elevator with two middle-school aged boys. When we debarked, our guide gave us such a speech about how scary this was going to be and the need to decide RIGHT NOW if it was going to be too scary that the boys left! He then told us to grab hold of the shirt of the person in front of us and no matter what happened not to let go and not to run.
You may notice the absence of pictures in this part of my story. That’s because it was too dark to take pictures, nor did I have a free hand. The first couple of rooms we were in were very well done. This isn’t like a warehouse with people jumping out and screaming at you (not that there weren’t people jumping out and screaming too of course!). It’s well-decorated, well-done, with a theme running through it. But it wasn’t long at all until Lorelei was sobbing, and then we made a wrong turn and were in a completely pitch-black area, and when our guide asked us if we wanted to leave we were all thrilled to say YES!
Well, John wasn’t thrilled. And although William was walking through with his eyes closed, he was hoping we would finish and that someone else would tell him what happened! But Lorelei and I were VERY glad to be out of there. I guess if a scary house scares you that much, it’s a good one, right?
Happily, this was right next door:
They were showing the same two movies that we had already seen in Baltimore, and the motion makes both William and me sick, but it was just what was needed to calm Lorelei’s nerves. So William and I sat on a bench outside and waited while John and Lorelei watched the movies.
The last two attractions were outdoors, and the weather was looking a bit foreboding:
Still, we didn’t have anything else to do, and I wanted to be able to finish my review, so we retrieved our car and drove toward Pigeon Forge, stopping here:
This is another place I’d never been. For years there was another golf place here, Jolly Golf, with a dinosaur theme, and before that there was Mystery Hill, which is somewhere I did visit as a small child and have never forgotten.
Did you know that mini-golf was invented in the Southeast? So that makes this the most appropriate attraction of our weekend, even though the connection between Davy Crockett and the decor of the course (at least the course we chose–there were two) escapes me!
It certainly gave off plenty of that hillbilly vibe that visitors to East Tennessee seem to crave.
Anyway, we had fun. Lorelei was the first to get a hole in one!
William was a bit sulky at first, but as he proved surprisingly good he began to perk up a little bit.
Toward the end of our game it–you guessed it!–began to pour down rain! We intrepid golfers did not let that stop us from finishing, however!
We had one more attraction left to see at this point: Ripley’s Old MacDonald’s Farm Mini-Golf. But y’all, we were golfed-out, and hungry, and ready to stop having fun, honestly. We went to a favorite restaurant in Pigeon Forge (Fusion Cafe), and then went home to collapse.
But the awesome thing is that our tickets are good for one year from the date of issue. And our final destination is in Sevierville, not Gatlinburg–right next to Joe’s Crab Shack. 🙂 And also by the Tanger Outlets, if that’s your idea of fun (it isn’t mine). Anyway, we will head back out there in a few weeks and I will update you then.
So what are you waiting for? You can go right here to read more about all the attractions. My readers will save $3 off Adult and $2 off Child Admission to all of Ripley’s Attractions in Tennessee. You’ll need to make your purchase online and enter the following promo code when you check out: USFAMILYGUIDE Click here for more information about this offer and about U.S. Family Guide.
Please consider a donation to the fund Dolly Parton has set up to support families who lost their homes. Over 700 structures have been reported destroyed so far.
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