Holding a youth group’s attention has always been challenging, but in today’s constant barrage of social media updates, a trip that’s lame can get viral on Facebook or Snapchat quickly. Thankfully, all the favorite Southern destinations are way ahead of the game, rolling out attractions to make sure younger guests stay engaged, entertained and sending smiling selfies only to their friends.
Here are some Southern destinations that are sure to be a hit with youth groups.
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Surrounded by more than 500,000 acres of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is among the most visited national parks in the nation, Pigeon Forge is often used as a base for exploring the Smoky Mountains. It’s also packed with attractions of its own that will appeal to younger visitors.
“Dollywood is a major magnet and is appealing for youth groups in a big, big way; it has one of the best collections of rides at any amusement park,” said Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism spokesman Tom Adkinson. This spring, the park is launching a new ride that is sure to top thrill-seekers’ bucket lists: the $22 million Lightning Rod, which will be the world’s fastest wooden roller coaster.
Pigeon Forge is also home to one of the world’s only WonderWorks — an interactive entertainment center designed to make science fun for children — as well as a number of go-kart tracks and miniature golf courses. “For a youth group, they can be an absolute treat,” said Adkinson. “They take up time, the ticket price is modest, and we have quite a lot of them.” Firehouse Golf, Lost Treasure Golf and The Track are ideal for youth groups.
One of the most popular activities in Pigeon Forge with the youth market is the Outdoor Gravity Park, home to an activity museum and an 11-foot-tall inflated plastic ball in which visitors sit while they are pushed off the side of a hill; the result is a rollicking roll that’s ideal for the Snapchat generation to capture and share on their smartphones.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers 150 hiking trails, including a quick, quarter-mile hike up to the highest point in Tennessee, Clingmans Dome. “When you get up to the observation tower, there’s quite a sense of accomplishment,” said Adkinson.
At the end of a river delta on a bay protected by barrier beaches, Mobile has the perfect location to get out on the crystal-clear Gulf of Mexico or boat up the backwaters for an entirely different kind of adventure.
To orient groups before heading out on the water, make the first stop the $62 million GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico, which opened in September. The five-story, 90-exhibit facility brings the Gulf Coast’s maritime history to life through interactive exhibits especially fitting for youth groups, including virtual opportunities to scuba dive in the Gulf of Mexico, drive tugboats through hurricane-force winds and captain a pirate ship cruising between the shore and the Caribbean.
Stacy Hamilton, vice president of marketing and communications for Visit Mobile, recommends that after the museum, groups take a pontoon boat from Five Rivers Delta Safari out on the delta for live encounters with turtles and alligators. Each boat holds up to 40 guests, and the operator can pick up groups at the convention center downtown. Before the tour, “walk around the historic downtown,” she said. “There’s so many sights and buildings, and kids like to be able to walk on the sidewalks and see the square and explore on their own.”
In the evening, depending on the time of year, youth groups can rent a trolley for a tour of the historic district with refreshments and punch, or catch a concert at the Saenger Theatre of Mobile. The CVB can assist with trolley rentals, and Hamilton also advises that duck boat tours, which combine land- and sea-based driving tours in the same vehicle, will be launching in Mobile later this year, although the start date has yet to be determined.