I, BSquare, have always been fascinated by the subject of lost theme parks. I find it quite powerful to see something that was intricately constructed to surprise and delight fall into disrepair and decay. I saw what had become of Disney’s River Country waterpark, which I enjoyed as a child, and the sight almost brought me to tears. This is the first in an on-and-off series about lost parks, one that is taking far more in the way of research than I had anticipated. But I just had to tell you all about my very favorite theme park in the whole world. No, it isn’t the Magic Kingdom, and no it isn’t Disney World. It’s both of those and none of those. I want to tell you about Magic World.
Magic World was a mom-and-pop theme park operation (something you just don’t see anymore) that operated on the Parkway in Pigeon Forge TN from the mid-seventies until it’s last death rattle in 1994. In the intervening years, Magic World managed to pull off (with varying degrees of success) an astounding hillbilly version of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, even going so far as to ape specific attractions. The thing about Magic World was that no matter how ridiculously expensive or complex an attraction was Magic World would STILL try to imitate it, often to hilarious results.
Of course all this irony was totally lost on my 9-year old mind, and since to that time I had never actually BEEN to Disney, Magic World was, to me, the most fantastic place in the Universe. Yes, I was a deprived child. So hop into my theme park time machine and travel with me back to 1979, as I attempt to shake the cobwebs out of my memory and take you on a trip to Magic World.
The first thing you would notice on a trip to Magic World would be the volcano. It was a huge plaster-of-paris and concrete monstrosity, and it towered a good 100 feet above the entrance. Even better, it was honeycombed with secret passages, and you HAD to walk through it to enter the park. Not very spectacular to those who are used to the CAD-aided theme park designs of today. Indeed, the whole thing appeared to be designed by accident…but nothing either before or since has triggered my youthful sense of wonder quite like standing at the mouth of that “cave”, looking up at that volcano (which may as well have been 1000 feet tall) and seeing the electric blue waterfall tumbling into the lagoon below. They must have dyed the water, because that was by far the bluest water I have ever seen in my life.
But the volcanic wonder didn’t stop there. The inside of the volcano was heavily themed, as was the entire park. As guests wandered around the inside of the cave, they were greeted with red lights, deeprumbling noises coming from speakers badly disguised as rocks, and even heating elements (!!!) in order to simulate the tectonic forces deep within the Earth. It was cheap and cheesy, but it was also wonderful and even a little bit educational.There were even cave people waiting to greet you. The whole idea of entering a theme park through what was essentially a walkthrough attraction s still strikes me as brilliant, and it REALLY took you from your everyday workaday world into another…*ahem*…Magic World. If only a larger theme park would latch onto this idea and put some real money behind it.
Upon exiting the “Center of the Earth” guests emerged into a theme park setting that can only be described as “schizophrenic”. High castle walls, reminiscent of those in Fantasyland, screened the area from the outside, and the area itself was loaded with “rockfalls” and dinosaurs. Yes, I said dinosaurs…cheap, plaster dinosaurs, much like the ones that loom over I-4 at Plant City’s Dinosaur World. There was no real reason for them to be there, but what with all the crazy-quilt themeing of this park, they somehow fit right in…even if they WERE standing right net to a medeival castle.
Following the dinosaurs brought you to Magic World’s first major attraction, and one of my favorites thanks to my youthful pre-Jurassic Park dinosaur fetish. This was the Dragon Train ride. Now, many are the theme parks that have a train running around their perimeter, but Magic World took it, like everything they did, three steps into the bizarre, God bless ’em. The strangeness began with the design of the train cars…not content with regular carraiges, the Dragon Train was made up of cars that appeared to be some strange combination of the design aesthetics of Jules Verne and the Flintstones. The cars appeared to be crudely fashioned out of stone, and then held together with huge riveted metal bands. As a finishing touch, each car had a fins and a crest, like a finned reptile or a 56 Chevy. The level of detail here, while seemingly random, was nevertheless utterly astounding.
The ride itself started innocently enough, taking guests into a wooded area where static dinosaur figures peeped through the brush…it was almost relaxing. But then your train would enter a tunnel, and all pretense of normality was swept away by an area I came to know as “The Dino Ditch”. Your train was suddenly menaced by a dazzling array of dayglo dinosaurs, aliens, indescribable squid-creatures, and giant orange bats. It was as if the designers decided to include anything and everything that might feasibly fit into a “Lost World” type setting…then included a ton more stuff, painted it all with gallons and gallons of blacklight reactive paint, and called it a day. In addition to the aforementioned orange bats, a pink Allosaur peeked at you from behind a rock formation, as some sort of alien thing hung over the track and waved it’s tentacles at you. Meanwhile a set of glowing eyes blinked at you from the back of a dark crevasse, and a bright blue alligator rose out of a “swamp” and opened it’s mouth, exposing double rows of glowing yellow teeth. The net effect was complete sensory overload, and it REALLY bent my youthful brain around. I imagine this attraction was quite popular among the hippie crowd.
The next big attraction at Magic World was the Haunted Castle, and what an attraction it was. Here is where you finally got an idea of the basic theme of the park, which seemed to be “Make it as much like Disney as possible, and don’t spend any money if you can help it.” Hence, the Haunted Castle, which is NOTHING AT ALL like a haunted mansion. Really.
Okay, it was sort of exactly like the Haunted Mansion…with a decidedly hillbilly twist. I shall explain. The ride began almost exactly like the one at Disney. Guests were broken up into groups and herded into a small, darkened room. Just like at Disney, there was a spiel, then just like at Disney, the ceiling of the room went transparent, revealing…two large, white furred ape-things…Yetis, maybe?…hurling boulders down upon the heads of the guests. Okay, what really happened was the Yetis sort of swayed back and forth with their rocks while really odd grunting sounds played over the PA system. Without a doubt, the strangest preshow I have ever seen.
Guests were then led into another queue, which ended at a small train, the kind you would see in a kiddie ride section of a fair or park. The thing had been painted black, and this is what replaced the Disney Omnimovers, There was even a scary engineer. The ride began ,and you could sit back rand enjoy what was basically a scary castle version of the Dragon Train…i.e., complete sensory overload. Everywhere you looked, something lurked…and many of the aforementioned lurking things was ripped whole cloth from the Haunted Mansion…look, over there, it’s a corpse trying to escape from a coffin…and over there, a ghostly organist in a top hat and tails(although unlike the one at Disney, this guy wasn’t transparent.) And what’s that on that seance table…why,it’sacrystal ball with a head floating inside, saying…something. Wow, what an original idea. But my very favorite gag came at the end, when guests passed under what looked for all the world like a squawking, flapping, neon green Pterodactyl. Wait, what? What was HE doing there? Perhaps he slipped in through a hole in the cave wall. The world may never know.
The next marquee attraction at Magic world was the Arabian Adventure ride. Sort of a hillbilly-fied cross between Pirates of the Caribbean and Peter Pan’s Flight, the Arabian Adventure placed guests on a “flying” carpet that was anchored to the ceiling via an overhead track. Although the ride was suspended from above, there was very little flying and a whole lot of roaming about on “street” level. The ride was filled with some of the most politically incorrect stereotypes ever to be seen in a theme park attraction. Sinister arabs lurked in the shadows, while big nosed salesmen hawked their wares. In one memorable scene, it appeared that Magic World was trying to recreate the POTC “bride auction” segment. In this version, Ali Baba and his men have roped some women together and are marching them out into the street. It was at the same time more primitive and much more vicious than the Disney version, as the women are being kidnapped at knife point. More primitive because the “animatronic” figures appeared to be repurposed cave people figures from the “Volcano Walk”, which I have already described. At the end of the ride, your carpet finally began to “fly”,making a creaky, clanky ascent to the ceiling of the show building, to be met at the exit by a guy floating on a “cloud” that was suspiciously falling to fluffy spun-fiberglass pieces. Good God I loved that ride.
I loved so much about Magic World. I loved the “Flying Saucer” attraction, which was magic world’s version of Disney’s Circlevision 360 attraction, although this version feature only three screens. You could call it “Semicirclevision 180”. It was actually quite effective for all it’s faults, which began with the concrete and fiberglass “saucer”,and continued with out of sync screeens and a suspicious helicopter shadow that appeared to dog your “saucer” through every dive and turn. It was also fun to hear the narrator, an “alien” with a heavily vocoded voice that sounded a bit like Ned from Southset of Park, describe all the local points of interest. I particularly liked it every time he said “Gat-lin-burg.” Dunno why. I also have a clear memory of the safety spiel, which included the timeless advice “If you should feel motion sickness, simply close your eyes and the sickness will go away.” If only that worked for everything bad in life.
There were other, lesser attractions as well. There was the “Confederate Critters” show, a blatant ripoff of the Country Bear Jamboree, in which Chuck-E-Cheese level animated animals (I hesitate to call the “animatronic” clicked and whirred their way through a generic aet of country and bluegrass music from inside a giant fiberglass tree stump. This attraction was notable mainly for the pair of HUGE Confederate flags flying in front of it, something that simply would not tolerated today. back then,however, no one thought to complain, as PC was still years away. Then there was the “Earth Auger”, advertised to be a drilling machine that took riders to the “Center of the Earth”, but which but really just succeeded in making many many riders ill with its rotating drums and up-and-down motion. You couldn’t close your eyes and make THIS sickness go away.
My memory gets a bit cloudy at this point. I remember a magic show that featured a cartoon walkaround version of Merlin YEARS before IOA brought the character to the forefront. I also remember a photo op that consisted of a giant gorilla head and hand for you to be “grabbed” by, something that was aped whole hog by Universal Studios Florida many years later. So, in a way, Magic World was years ahead of it’s time.
It’s all gone now. Well, not ALL gone…the volcano still stands today, as do many of the dinosaur figures, as part of a mini-golf attraction. But the park itself is long, long dead, killed by rising costs, a fickle public, and oh yes, a double-barreled juggernaut across the street called “Dollywood”. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. All the intervening years have not dimmed my love for the place, even though, granted, much of its inspiration appeared to be coming from the bottom of a jug marked with three “X”‘s. It reminds me of a time when I was happy, and had no worries other than exactly how I was going to get my parents tobuy me a new GI Joe or Hot Wheels toy. For that,and for opening my eyes and paving the way to bigger (not necessarily better) things, Magic World will always hold a place in my heart, a cheesy, dayglo, garishly decorated place. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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Well, that’s it for the first column. Do you have any lost theme park stories? Post them in the forum,,and I’ll pick some for a future column. Any suggestions or criticism will also be appreciated. I’m a big boy, I can take it.