Outside the lines

Theme amusement parks are big business here in the Southeast. First, consider Six Flags Over Georgia: Situated right outside metro Atlanta, this colossal allotment of family-fun acreage successfully exploits Looney Tunes characters and features roller coasters of smile-draining intensity with names like The Ninja. Next, we have Paramount’s Carowinds, in Charlotte (more of the same) and finally Pigeon Forge’s Dollywood. (What exactly is the theme there? Big hair, maybe.)

But if your pockets aren’t deep enough to pony up a $35 (that’s per person!) admission fee for these Disneyworld wannabes, a look in our own back yard reveals some smaller, more old-timey amusement parks that are well worth checking out.

Heading due west on I-40, a mere half-hour’s drive from Asheville will bring you to Maggie Valley, home of this region’s landed summer gentry. Lined with lush golf greens and funky recreational establishments like the Stompin’ Ground Dance Hall, the four-lane blacktop winds you through town and spits you out at the flag-ringed parking lot of Ghost Town in the Sky.

Ghost Town, the only Old West theme park on the Eastern seaboard, opened for business in 1961 and consistently lures 200,000 tourists every year to its mile-high playground. It’s a bona fide mini-incarnation of the shoot-’em-up frontier days — complete with dramatizations of gunfights and bank robberies, old Parisian cancan extravaganzas and Cherokee powwows.

After purchasing the more-realistically priced adult ticket ($19.99), it becomes startlingly apparent that the only way to get to Ghost Town is Straight Up! Ride the two-seater sky cars, strung together by a continuously moving pulley, or take the rail incline, a rather robust mountain choo-choo. (Management also provides a shuttle van for acrophobics.)

Any way you go, the view that unfolds during the peaceful 10-minute trip is breathtaking. Ascending heavenward to the 3,500-foot summit, you immediately notice that the temperature has dropped at least 10 degrees. Big plus.

It all started one soggy South Carolina summer 40 years ago, when R.B. Coburn took his family to Maggie Valley to escape the Piedmont’s brutal heat. When his friends showed him a lonesome, craggy pinnacle that was up for sale, he bought the 250 acres on spec. At first, he thought he might install a chairlift up to a vantage point, as in other local tourist traps — but instead, he sliced off the round bald of the mountain and carved out an impressive version of his boyhood cowboy fantasies.

The 80-year-old Coburn — still the hands-on proprietor — strolls the grounds daily, chatting up visitors and employees like an elfin godfather. Today, Ghost Town’s uncomplicated charm lies precisely in its unpretentiousness and bygone-days simplicity.

“People are more relaxed here than at super parks like Disney,” remarks Operations Director Dan Marchesoni.

“And they feel much safer with their kids,” he adds.

After exhausting Ghost Town’s faux saloons and gut-dropping coasters, an 11-mile, curve-hugging drive deeper into the Smokies brings you to another roadside attraction — Santa’s Land Fun Park and Petting Zoo, located just outside the Cherokee Indian Reservation.

On the approach to Santa’s Land, multitudinous roadside billboards announcing this peculiar establishment provide a sure cure for driving complacency. Santa’s face, incongruously leering around every hairpin turn, borders on the absurd. A Christmas theme park that’s open only in the summer? Oy vey!

A bizarre hodgepodge of entrepreneurial hunches tossed cheekily together, Santa’s Land must survive by virtue of location alone, because vacationers have flocked here, unbidden, since 1965. Typical carnival rides are interspersed between some pretty odd exhibits — the wackiest, of course, being the jolly old guy himself. The focal point of this park’s motif is perched atop a Christmas throne surrounded by reindeer, primed (and paid) to listen to every child’s wish list an outrageous six months in advance. Female employees, garbed in red and green felt costumes, masquerade as Santa’s helpers. (I noticed no male elves on my trip.)

Visitors may also commune with domestic wildlife in the petting zoo or view, from a safe distance, a caged black bear and cougar. And the dimly lit gift shop — crammed with every sort of chachka known to man — is a Christmas-lover’s dream. Here fudge, plastic igloos and Frosty the Snowman T-shirts are the order of the day.

Back in town, rounding out this wholesome trilogy of family-fun centers, rests the granddaddy of the old-timers — Asheville’s ONLY (as it is billed) amusement park. The 70-year-old Recreation Park, adjacent to the WNC Nature Center on Gashes Creek Road, is truly a thing out of time. Like a fly caught in amber, this permanent county fair serves as a sweet memory of a slower-paced society.

“Coming to the park is a homecoming for a lot of families,” says Linda Smith, owner of the amusement-ride company TNS Enterprises. “People that came here as children now bring their children and grandchildren. We have free park admission, free picnic grounds, free parking. You only pay for the [individual] rides or to swim in the Olympic-sized pool.”

A merry-go-round with horses, a hard-working Ferris wheel and a just-like-you-remember-it Tilt-a-Whirl all take you tripping (or rather, spinning and jerking) down memory lane. And a gaming arcade, sans special effects, completes the old-fashioned merriment.

But ironically, this treasured Asheville institution may soon become a memory itself.

“Interest died when the county stopped promoting our business this year,” complained Smith on a WLOS news segment last week.

The reason? It seems that the Nature Center has been secretly eyeing Rec Park’s perfectly terraced real estate in anticipation of its own ever-expanding programs.

So enjoy the park while you can, because the sweet tinkling of carousel melodies may soon give way to the old Joni Mitchell refrain, “They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot.”

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