They were once the sole hallmark of Hollywood, and its travel calling card. But state film credits have brought movie sets (and a thriving tour industry around movie settings) to the rest of the country—from North Carolina beach towns where Nicholas Sparks romances have been translated to the big screen to Jurassic-style Hawaiian forests in which you aren’t really going to see a dinosaur but feel like at any moment you just might.
No, you don’t need to run a tour to “Game of Thrones” sites in Ireland or Croatia or Lord of the Rings in New Zealand to fill a tour bus—or 20.
The Arkansas House and Senate have just passed legislation creating what could be the country’s newest tour group theme: the True Grit Trail on Highway 22 between Dardanelle and Fort Smith.
This trail recognizes the famous novel by author Charles Portis and two movies based on it. House Bill 1628, approved unanimously by both state houses, would lead to signage along the route. According to a New York Times travel story on the trail, there’s still an old brewery that would have been standing where it did in the movie. You’ll also find plenty of tamale stops (another film theme) as you travel through the modest mountains of eastern Oklahoma just as John Wayne as marshal in the original film (Jeff Bridges in the remake) did.
The Shawshank Trail is another worth putting on the tour radar this year. The 25th anniversary of filming the Shawshank Redemption is bringing special events including actor meet-ups and film site tours (Aug. 16-18) to the already popular driving tour of 16 filming sites with large red-and-white Shawshank Trail sites marking the way.
Based on a Stephen King story, the film traces the tale of banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), sentenced to life for murdering his wife and her lover—a crime he didn’t commit—as he befriends prisoner Red (Morgan Freeman), runs a money-laundering operation for the warden and manages a daring escape to Mexico after 19 years in prison.
A special deal for a motorcoach group of 20 or more offers behind-the-scenes tours, step-on-guide service, a themed meal (Cellblock Chicken, Red’s Pardon Potatoes, Brooks’ Beans, Prison Pie and more served on metal prison trays), plus lodging (not in the prison). Visitors usually start with the spooky Gothic-looking prison nicknamed “Dracula’s Castle.”
Built in 1886, the Ohio State Reformatory was closed in 1990 due to inhumane conditions and later listed on the National Register of Historic Places. More famously, its East Cell Block is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s largest free-standing steel cell block: six terrifying tiers.
Now there are ghost tours and others that include the parole board room, Andy’s cell, warden’s office, sinister solitary confinement “hole” and Andy’s escape tunnel in a 500-yard sewage pipe that he secretly dug for years and through which he crawled to freedom.
Another popular stop on the Shawshank Trail is the historic 1886 Bissman Building seen in the movie as the Brewer Hotel where Red and fellow inmate Brooks (actor James Whitmore) stay after they are paroled from Shawshank. Fifth-generation owner of the structure Ben Bissman is usually there to show visitors around the facility and talk about being an extra in the film, a role for which he had to cut off his long ponytail.
More buzzworthy sites
The award-winning Green Book has brought renewed attention to the actual Green Book, the niche travel guide published from 1936-1966 by New York postman Victor Green that identified motels and restaurants where African Americans were welcome.
To bring that experience to life, South Carolina’s African American Heritage Commission debuted a contemporary Green Book of South Carolina, revamped as a mobile travel guide that includes more than 300 African American cultural sites across the state. Likewise, a tour of Houmas House Plantation and Gardens, just north of New Orleans – where portions of Green Book were filmed – gives special insight into the cultural background of the film’s narrative.
New Orleans is always worth a trip for the multiple movies filmed there, but a half-century after Easy Rider hit theater screens, people still talk about the iconic New Orleans cemetery scene in which Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper share drugs with two hookers. There are several other French Quarter movie scenes, offering plenty of tour stops for fun. But it’s hard to beat guided tours of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, said to be the burial spot of legendary Voodoo queen Marie Laveau. Although she died in 1881, tradition says that Laveau can still grant favors from beyond the grave if believers leave offerings and scrawl three X’s on her tomb, causing massive cleanup headaches for local preservationists.
Actor Nicolas Cage actually had the nine-foot pyramid built for his final resting place as close to Marie Laveau as he could get in the Big Easy’s oldest cemetery. The Latin inscription on his grave means “Everything From One.”
The most timeless movie site in the U.S. is arguably Mackinac Island’s storied and group-friendly Grand Hotel, the filming site (like much of the rest of Mackinac island) of the cult romance, Somewhere in Time, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. The film’s popularity has brought some 17,000 guests to the Grand Hotel for just its annual “Somewhere in Time” weekend held in late October, featuring lectures of the norms of 1912 (the era in which the film is set), a reenactment with actors of movie scenes with guest participation and costume promenades by the many people who dress in vintage garb for the weekend.
One timeless draw is the fact that the entire island is an authentic set; all visitors live the era amid the many Victorian mansions on bluffs as they get around by horse and carriage since cars have been banned since the early 1900s. Grand Hotel historian Bob Tagatz says guests ask about the film at the concierge desk daily and that it’s one of the most brought-up topics for discussion among guests.