Tourism strong 19 months after deadly Pigeon Forge fire

PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — Tourism continues growing since fires burned the outskirts of this popular motorcoach destination in eastern Tennessee in fall 2016, sparing attractions but razing the homes of many of the area’s workers.

The area around Gatlinburg, six miles up U.S. Highway 321 from Pigeon Forge, was harder hit, although its major attractions along its main street, the Parkway, were not damaged either.

The fire claimed 12 lives, another died of a heart attack and another in a vehicle fleeing the blaze, and 191 were injured. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam called the fire “the worst in a century in Tennessee.”

More than 2,460 structures were damaged or destroyed, according to coverage of the fire in local newspapers.

Since Bus & Motorcoach News last checked in on the region a year ago (see the July 1, 2017, issue), new attractions have opened and more are on the way as the area, a gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, continues to deliver on its promise of adding something new each year — bolstering a destination known as the home of Dollywood theme park and myriad other features, from food to shows, rides, shopping, music and museums.

The area’s attractions and friendliness make it a popular destination for motorcoach tours and charters.

“Our supplier partners that we have here are all experienced in working with the motorcoach groups and they just bend over backwards with Southern hospitality,” said Kay Poole, sales manager for the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism and a certified travel industry specialist.

“The tour operators love it here, they love working with our suppliers in town and they know that we are excited to have their groups come visit,” Poole said.

Ed Tonahill, group tour director for Crown Coach Corp. in Memphis, concurs.

“I’d have to say they and Branson (Mo.) are probably the two friendliest destinations out there,” Tonahill said. “They just like to see people come and enjoy their area and it is a beautiful scenic area,” especially during the fall colors that typically peak around mid-October.

Friendliness, fun and beauty sell, and visitors have returned in droves since the fires. Amusement, lodging and restaurant gross revenues were up a combined 12 percent in the first quarter of 2018 from the same period last year, according to Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism figures. And that follows a record 2017 in terms of gross revenue for the city.

“We show no residual effects from the fires of 2016,” Poole said. “In fact, everything is just booming here. Pigeon Forge has a lot of new things coming in.”

They include a new Tru by Hilton opening in July, which follows the opening of a Home 2 Suites by Hilton last year, Poole said. They’re part of a new, 174-acre entertainment and retail development called The Mountain Mile & Tower Shops that’s under construction.

It will include a new thrill ride, the 200-foot-tall “Mountain Monster,” with three rides from the tower overlooking the Smoky Mountains.

A new attraction that opened in March is Pigeon Forge Snow, a 35,000-square-foot indoor snow-tubing facility offering 15 lanes of tubing on real snow, Poole said. The attraction says it’s the first indoor snow facility in the U.S. offering real snow year-round — in a comfortable, climate-controlled environment.

Also new: a high-diving hillbillies show and competitive long-jumping canines in the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Feud performance. A $3 million renovation to the Hatfield and McCoy theater added a 24-foot-deep Olympic diving pool into which hillbilly divers from the Hatfield and McCoy clans take the plunge in the new water scene of the dinner feud.

“The hillbilly performers spring from diving boards that are high above the stage to see which family can win the diving competition,” a tourism department release states. “The water scene also incorporates a new rain curtain that pours water on the performers to add the dramatic effect of a ‘feuding storm’ in the theater.”

Also, athletic dogs leap across the new pool to retrieve a toy or stick, adding an additional twist to the show, which includes comedy, music, clogging, singing and acrobatics.

The tourism department also touts new 2018 attractions that include:

  • iLuminate, DRUMLine and speed painter Dan Dunn at Dollywood’s Summer Celebration, and TobyMac and Crowder at the park’s annual Rock the Smokies event on Aug. 25
  • Crave Golf Club, a $7 million sweet-themed golf destination featuring a 36-hole multilevel facility spanning 18,500 square feet plus a candy shop and gourmet milkshake bar
  • What’s billed as the world’s largest replica of the RMS Titanic on display at the Titanic Museum Attraction and built from 56,000 LEGO bricks — a 25-foot-long project conceived and constructed by Brynjar Karl Birgisson, a 10-year-old autistic boy
  • The new Lumberjack Feud Show featuring world-class athleticism and high-energy competition along with audience participation, and a 104-room Margaritaville Island Inn

A Fairfield by Marriott hotel is opening next year, Poole said.

Pigeon Forge and neighboring Gatlinburg and Sevierville get a lot of visitors on their way to and from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which last year was again the most visited national park, with 11.34 million visitors who spent about $923 million in gateway communities, she said. The visitation was up about 0.2 percent from 2016, again setting a new record.

Pigeon Forge has about 6,000 permanent residents, but gets more than 9 million visitors a year, Poole said.

Also helping fuel tourism has been the 232,000-square-foot LeConte Event Center that opened in 2013 and attracts religious conferences, trade shows and competitions.

“So we are getting visitors that had never been here before that are coming to the LeConte Center and also to Cal Ripken Baseball Experience, which is located here in Pigeon Forge” and attracts youth teams from throughout the country, Poole said. “Those two venues have brought in countless incremental business to Pigeon Forge and our area.”

The Ripken Experience, built on a ridge above Pigeon Forge in 2016, includes six replicas of professional ballparks, each with unique dimensions and characteristics.

Crown Coach’s Tonahill said Pigeon Forge is attractive for clients of the 11-coach company and within a day’s drive.

“I love Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg and Sevierville, I mean it is a welcoming area, the people are friendly and it’s a good destination for tourists,” he said.

“You’ve got all the attractions. You’ve got Dollywood and the water park there for youth, you’ve got the shows, and you’ve got what used to be Dixie Stampede. There’s a Motown show there, there’s Smoky Mountain Opry, there’s Dolly Parton’s story about the Smoky Mountains, Hatfields and McCoys, you’ve got the Titanic, you’ve got WonderWorks — I mean I can go down the list,” Tonahill said.

“It’s always neat, they always have good shows; their shows are always first-class,” he said.

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