Courtesy Ober Gatlinburg
Published March 22, 2017
After a man-made fire devastated the Great Smoky Mountains region last November, resulting in 14 deaths and over 1,000 damaged or destroyed structures, many people watching the repetitive news clips of burning trees and homes wondered if there was anything left to visit.
But today, little evidence remains of the disaster, and the national park is growing back more vivid and beautiful than ever. When visitors drive along the winding stretch between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, known as The Spur, they will see vibrant lime-green grass covering the adjacent slopes, which erosion experts planted using hydroseeding. With so much underbrush cleared by the fire, many locals expect to see wildflowers this spring that have not appeared in the area for a long time.
“The outpouring of support and donations has been incredible,” said Ami Johns, senior sales manager at the Courtyard by Marriott, who recalls seeing volunteers from California to Alaska flood into the hotel. “When I asked how long they wanted to stay, many of them said, ‘as long as needed.’”
With residential areas primarily affected by the fire, all the beloved attractions and shops in downtown Gatlinburg still await visitors with open doors. This year, the 232,000-square-foot LeConte Event Center in Pigeon Forge will continue hosting some of the country’s largest religious conferences. Located next to the river walk, this state-of-the-art facility features stunning woodwork and mountain themes to give attendees the impression of relaxing in nature, even while indoors.
Last October, the beautiful Courtyard by Marriott opened in Pigeon Forge, quickly becoming a favorite hotel choice for travelers from around the world. The indoor pool has retractable glass walls with views of the mountains and river; guests can also enjoy three fire pits and an on-site Starbucks. In Gatlinburg, the Park Vista hotel is perched on a big hill overlooking the lights in the city. It is one of the few hotels where every room has a view, and visitors can access the national park from the foot of the hotel driveway.
As the region continues to rebuild and inspire travelers with breathtaking attractions, groups should be sure to stop by the following highlights.
Dolly Parton’s Lumberjack Adventure
At Dolly Parton’s Lumberjack Adventure, Parton’s latest attraction in Pigeon Forge, groups can enjoy a dazzling dinner show with song, dance and aerial acrobatics. The theater was formerly the home of Lumberjack Feud, and Parton personally oversaw a $25 million renovation to the building, lining the walls in barn wood and enhancing the set with a retractable floor above a pool.
The rustic-style auditorium provides an intimate setting with close views of the stage and seats up to 750 guests. When the show reopened in 2016 as “Lumberjack Adventure,” Parton brought in seasoned performers from around the world and crafted a story that highlights regional history and culture.
Currently in its 23rd season, the Comedy Barn sees more repeat business than most attractions in town, with a focus on clean family fun.
“We sell memories more than theater,” said Debbie Newsom, director of public relations. “We want people to remember having a good time with each other.”
In addition to music, tap dancing and comedy, guests can enjoy acts from trained parrots, pigs, cats and dogs handled by animal experts Anthony and Alena King, who have appeared on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and Animal Planet’s “Pet Star.”
Other shows offered by Fee Hedrick Family Entertainment include the “Smoky Mountain Opry”; the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Show; and “Magic Beyond Belief,” featuring Darren Romeo.
Alcatraz East Crime Museum
In the brand-new Alcatraz East Crime Museum, groups of all ages will be riveted as they explore the history of crime and punishment around the world, from torture during the Dark Ages to the Salem Witch Trials and the lawless Wild West. The museum features numerous interactive displays, visitors can engage in a Western shoot-out or try their hand at cracking a bank safe combination.
Other exhibits cover crime lords like Al Capone, who was one of the first inmates at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, as well as serial killers, gang culture and mass shootings.
Groups of 15 or more receive a discounted rate; teachers, military personnel and law enforcement officers enter free of charge.
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