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Tim’s Turn - July 2017


Cadillac Ranch is one of the classic pieces of “Americana” in Amarillo, Texas. (CREDIT: Tim O’Brien)

From Roadside Distraction to Real-life Attraction

“See the USA in YOUR Chevrolet” was the iconic mantra during the 1950s encouraging families to take to the road in their Chevys. My dad didn’t need much urging, and we often hit the road. What wonderful memories those family outings are.

Many were planned adventures, and we would head off to a specific destination, but on other occasions Dad would load us up, drive around awhile, and on the way home we’d stop by the orange-roofed Howard Johnson’s for an order of clam strips. My, how they piled those little things high on a plate! 

On many occasions, we took longer trips. I remember stopping off somewhere in Florida to see the world’s largest alligator (stuffed, of course, to my chagrin). Another time, I remember pulling up under a huge sombrero at South of the Border in South Carolina for ice cream and to visit Pedro.

But are those iconic family road trips still popular today? They sure are with me.

I try to get in a couple major car trips a year, during which time I search out the most popular whimsical attractions. I found a lot of them along Route 66, including the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, where 10 Cadillac cars are half buried out in the middle of a pasture. I’ve also driven several hundred miles out of the way to see a water tower in the shape of a peach, an ice cream stand that claims to be the tallest, and the one and only International Car Forest of the Last Church in Goldfield, Nevada.

Of course, and thankfully so, this species of destinations isn’t for everyone. But for those of us who have a passion for the odd, unique, whimsical, and the genre known as Americana, these are wonderful stops along the highway of life. 

During the years, many of these roadside attractions have grown up to be “real” attractions. Rebel Railroad, built in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, in 1961, was purchased by the Cleveland Browns in 1970 and renamed Goldrush Junction; in 1977, the Herschend family bought it and renamed it Silver Dollar City. Today, we know this park as Dollywood. The train that started it all still exists.

Another Herschend property, the original Silver Dollar City, got its start as an offshoot of the family’s Marvel Cave tours in Branson, Missouri. Holiday World started off as Santa Claus Land, a popular family destination in Santa Claus, Indiana, offering a North Pole-themed toy shop and a live Santa during the summer months. And, while it has remained known as the Tweetsie Railroad since its start in 1957, that attraction in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, has grown from a single train ride to a large family amusement park. 

Knott’s Berry Farm, the Cedar Fair park in Buena Park, California, grew from a single berry stand in 1934, where Walter Knott peddled the boysenberries he grew. Before long, Cordelia Knott saw the opportunity and started a small restaurant at the berry stand selling fresh boysenberry pies and, later, added full chicken dinners. The crowds were so large and the wait time became so long for Cordelia’s delicacies, Walter started adding (revenue-producing) things for people to do while they waited, including Ghost Town, which he opened in 1940. The berry farm was the destination for many family road trips throughout Southern California. 

I realize that most, if not all popular roadside attractions of today will not evolve into full-scale amusement or theme parks. However, thinking along those lines, wouldn’t it be cool to see what a half-buried Cadillac Ranch roller coaster would look like?

Tim O’Brien is a veteran outdoor entertainment journalist and is a longtime Funworld contributor. He has authored many books chronicling the industry’s attractions and personalities, and is the only journalist in the IAAPA Hall of Fame.