Long a favorite wintertime ski destination for church youth groups, the Smoky Mountain community of Gatlinburg is blessed with an abundance of ways to entertain visitors of any age, whether a family-based vacation or faith-based retreat.
In some ways, modern-day Gatlinburg’s streetscape is changing, scarcely resembling historic images of the mountain hamlet that has been welcoming national park visitors for nearly 75 years. Every year seems to bring new reasons to visit, yet there are still plenty of familiar – and fun – favorites such as the Space Needle, the Arrowmont School for Crafts, the ever-popular chair lift, and the tram ride to mountaintop ski resort, Ober Gatlinburg, co-existing with newer faces like Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies and Ole Smoky Moonshine.
Bound on both ends by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg’s downtown is best experienced on foot. Running right through the center of town, The Parkway (aka “the strip,” and “the main drag”) is a two-lane corridor with its landmarks measure by traffic lights – a total of ten from one end to the other. Experiencing this collection of shopping, dining and entertainment as part of a leisurely stroll is the ideal way to tackle it. At the north end of the Parkway, Highway 321 forks off, leading visitors to more of the same enroute to The Glades, where more than 100 artisans and craftsmen maintain galleries that are tucked away along a scenic country lane. Back downtown, another fork leads to River Road (which runs adjacent to the Parkway) where a leisurely sidewalk stroll along the Little Pigeon River is a favorite tourist activity. Access to parking, more hotels and attractions like Ripley’s Aquarium, The Haunted Mansion and Christ in the Smokies can be found here.
If tired feet slow you down or inclement weather tries to dampen the fun, you can now hop aboard the Gatlinburg Trolleys for just two dollars a day. This includes unlimited access to the red, blue, purple and yellow routes. The All Day Trolley Pass is sold at Gatlinburg Welcome Centers as well as City Hall and the Mass Transit Center adjacent to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. You can also take individual routes and the average fee ranges from fifty cents to two dollars. Exact change is required.
Group & Family-Friendly Fare
A family trip or group getaway can be affordably enhanced with the inclusion of any or all of these:
- Arrowmont School for Crafts – Perhaps no other entity embodies Gatlinburg’s history than Arrowmont, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2012. An internationally recognized visual art education center, Arrowmont provides creative experiences year-round with weekend, one- and two-week workshops from March through November. The School also serves as a cultural center in the community offering adult and children’s community classes; an active juried, themed and invitational exhibition schedule; and annual art conferences and seminars. Students work and learn in professionally equipped studios on a 14-acre residential campus. Workshops and classes are offered in ceramics, fiber, metals/jewelry, painting, drawing, photography, warm glass, woodturning, woodworking, mixed media, books and paper. The public is welcome year-round to visit the campus and view artwork by local, national and international artists in the School’s five galleries, which offer a full schedule of changing exhibitions.
- Sweet Fanny Adams Musical Revue – Gatlinburg’s only musical theater revue has been a fixture in the city’s attraction mix since 1977 and continues to pack in the crowds for 1890’s ragtime comedy. Billing itself at as the “OLDEST purveyor of professional, live-on-stage, original musical comedies, outrageous humor and hilarious fun in the Smokies,” Sweet Fanny Adams promises its audiences “a lasting memory of comic mayhem, side splitting laughs, outrageous comedy and hilarious fun for all.”
Religious groups can also take advantage of new classes for student and professional groups. These classes have been designed to be a fun way of educating participants about the behind the scenes creation of live theatre. Upon completion of one of the classes, participants will be able to take the concepts of improv, clowning or vaudeville and apply them to business and social settings. Classes are free for groups who have tickets to the same evening’s performance. Otherwise, group rates are available and a season schedule can be found online at www.sweetfannyadams.com.
- Christ in the Smokies – Formerly known as Christus Gardens and one of Gatlinburg’s longest-running and most beloved attractions has been renovated, renamed and reopened and features life-sized scenes from the life of Christ. Dramatic lighting, music and special effects enhance the experience. A newly-expanded gift shop features inspirational merchandise and visitors can view a page from the original 1620 King James Bible as well as antique coins and a sculpture of Christ.
- Ripley’s Attractions – There are eight Ripley’s attractions in downtown Gatlinburg, the newest of which is Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. Known for its penguin population, the Aquarium also sports such unique areas and experiences as Shark Lagoon (home of a twelve-foot shark), Stingray Bay (they can be petted), a Tropical Rainforest and a Coral Reef among others, the Aquarium features classes for grades K-12.
The Aquarium rounds out a family of attractions that includes Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Records Museum, Moving Theatre, Marvelous Mirror Maze, Haunted Adventure, and two miniature golf courses, all of which are group friendly. Package deals are available on any combination of the attractions or each can be visited individually.
With so many attractions along the town’s main corridor vying for visitor attention and dollars, it’s important not to overlook other areas of town that are equally tourist-friendly and offer their own brand of fascinating finds.
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Established just prior to The Great Depression and dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Smokies remain the country’s lone free national park. More than 9,000,000 people visit the park’s 500,000+ acres for hiking, fishing, camping, photography, sightseeing and more.
- Ober Gatlinburg – Ober Gatlinburg is Tennessee’s only ski resort. Located high atop Mt. Harrison, its eight ski slopes are at 3,000 feet and well-maintained with natural and man-made snow. There are slopes for all skill levels, beginners to advanced. Ski, snowboard or grab some air in the 10-lane, 400-foot tubing park. There’s also an indoor ice-skating rink, as well as the Wildlife Encounter. Here, in addition to the ever popular black bears, there are animals native to the Great Smoky Mountains such as river otters, opossums, raccoons, turtles, snakes and flying squirrels. Even if you don’t ski or board, the view is worth the ride up so hop on the Ober Gatlinburg tramway from downtown and head up for a meal at the Ober Gatlinburg restaurant. Tram/dining packages are available.
- The Glades – Located along an historic eight-mile loop just off Highway 321 north of downtown, The Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community, or The Glades, is the largest group of independent artisans in North America. Designated a Tennessee Heritage Arts & Crafts Trail and established in 1937, more than 120 artisans whittle, paint, sew, cast, weave and carve original collectibles. Here you will find gifts ranging from candles, baskets, quilts, brooms, pottery, jewelry, dolls, ceramics, scrimshaw, leather, stained glass, wearable fashions, fine photography, art, oils and watercolors. Also on-site you will find lodging, restaurants, cafés, tea room, soda fountain and candy shops.
Hotels and motels are plentiful downtown, offering walk-out-the-door-and-stroll convenience. In outlying areas are inns, lodges, condominiums and cabins, many which are large enough to accommodate small groups.
– by Melinda Hughey