Gatlinburg, Tennessee: Old-Fashioned Family Fun

Lisa Fritscher December 15, 2010 No Comments

Downtown Gatlinburg Tennessee

Downtown Gatlinburg from the Gatlinburg Space Needle

I grew up outside Orlando, Florida, best known for its theme parks, amusement parks and family attractions. I never thought that I could find a town that was more of a tourist trap than Orlando. Over Christmas 2009, we decided to take an RV tour of the Southeast. One of our stops was Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a city that was decidedly more of a tourist trap than Orlando. But it was honestly the most fun tourist trap I could have imagined!

Getting Your Bearings

Downtown Gatlinburg Tennessee

Gatlinburg is easily walkable

Getting your bearings in Gatlinburg is surprisingly easy. There’s one main road through town and all of the traffic lights are numbered. So instead of trying to watch for street signs and entrances, you just have to look for the number that matches the attraction you want to visit. The road does split into two at one end, which can be a little confusing the first few times, but it’s pretty easy to remember what’s located at each end. Street parking can be a bit tough to obtain, but reasonably priced public parking lots are found every few blocks. Gatlinburg is also highly walkable, so if you are staying in town, you may want to just leave the car at your hotel. We stayed in an RV park nearby, so we drove in each day and parked in a public garage near the middle of the main road.

Deciding What to Do

Gatlinburg Space Needle

The Gatlinburg Space Needle is just one of dozens of attractions

The biggest challenge we found in Gatlinburg was deciding what to do with the two days that we had. There are literally dozens of attractions, shops and restaurants packed into several blocks. Every time we turned around, there was a highly themed mini-golf course, an arcade, a museum, a virtual reality experience or a wood carver shop drawing our attention.

Fortunately, I was a woman on a mission. I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that the very first thing I wanted to do in Gatlinburg was the Skylift. My parents went to Gatlinburg a number of years ago. My mom had been raised in a very conservative household where she was not allowed to do anything that my grandmother considered “dangerous.” Grandma’s threshold for danger was pretty low, so Mom’s childhood lacked the street fairs and carnival rides that most of us experienced. When my parents went to Gatlinburg, Mom said the Skylift was something her mother would have absolutely forbidden. So of course, it was the first thing they did. I had seen the photo and heard the story so many times that I absolutely had to check it out for myself.

Skylift Crockett Mountain

The Skylift goes straight up Crockett Mountain

The Skylift is pretty cool. It’s like a ski resort chair lift that travels 1,800 feet up the side of Crockett Mountain. Since there’s no snow, the chair lift will return you to the bottom when you are ready to leave. There’s a small gift shop and some great views at the top. Since I’m somewhat afraid of heights, though, I’m glad I didn’t know until we were most of the way back down that the “safety bar” doesn’t latch! For this reason, you might want to have smaller children sit with an adult rather than on their own.

Quilt Shopping

The next order of business was to buy a quilt. My parents had bought me a quilt in the Appalachians several years before, and it was one of my most treasured items. However, having gone through multiple moves, a brief stint when I lived in a tent, Hurricane Katrina and years of RV living, my quilt had gradually fallen apart. It was shortly before Christmas, so Dad offered to buy me a replacement. We had visited a lot of stores during that trip through the Southeast, but nothing had ever seemed right. I found my quilt in Gatlinburg, at the Maple Tree shop. The design was perfect, the price was right, and best of all, the quilt was machine washable. I have never once regretted my decision. The shop was pretty neat to look around, and the sales staff was both helpful and very patient. I actually found the design I wanted in one location, but they didn’t have the right size in stock. So we bought the quilt from that shop, and picked it up at the other. It was all wrapped up and ready for us when we arrived.

Hollywood Wax Museum

Gatlinburg Hollywood Wax Museum

For a brief moment, I was Rose in Titanic

The Hollywood Wax Museum would be at the top of my list when visiting Gatlinburg with kids. As kids at heart, Dad and I had a wonderful time. Every other wax museum that I’ve been to has had the wax figures behind a railing. Visitors could walk along the railing, take photos and appreciate the artistry. This was the only wax museum I’ve seen that was truly interactive!

In each spot, the characters were arranged in a scene with one person missing. Guests were welcome to step up and become part of the scene, creating fantastic photo opportunities. Some of the spots even had props or small costume pieces to help flesh out the illusion.

Who hasn’t wanted to step onto the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, board the Black Pearl with Captain Jack Sparrow or join Leonardo DiCaprio on the bow of the Titanic? There were several points where we had to wait for a group in front of us to finish their photos, but there was never a long line.

What We Learned

Gatlinburg Miniature Golf Course

One of several elaborately themed minigolf courses

We just scratched the surface of all that Gatlinburg has to offer. I plan to return when we have several days to spare. Beyond deciding what to do, the biggest challenge is staying within budget. Each attraction is separately priced and, while each is reasonable, they can add up quickly. Add in fun foods and arcade games, and Gatlinburg can be expensive. Make a plan and set a budget in advance, and give the kids a few dollars to spend as they see fit. Doing what we did, and just showing up without knowing what to expect, is probably the least cost-effective way of seeing Gatlinburg. But it sure was fun!

avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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