If you grew up in middle Tennessee, or if you had kids grow up here, you probably remember the country music theme park known as Opryland USA. It was an overpriced, overcrowded amusement park, featuring corny country music venues and gift shops, long lines, short thrill rides, and some really impressive stage productions, all in the backyard of the Grand Ole Opry house next door to the Gaylord Opryland Hotel. It was a family oriented place, which translates to "you'll be driven crazy by hundreds of children you can't legally snatch up and smack on the butt". And by god, we loved it.
I can see some of my friends rolling their eyes at the very thought of confessing affection for the place. We used to trade horror stories about the insufferable heat, humidity, and crowds encountered there. But now, looking back, all of that seems insignificant. Like a lot of other people in the southeast, I miss Opryland and wish it was still operating next to the Cumberland River.
It's not that I miss standing in line in ride the Flume Zoom or the Grizzly River Rampage. And I could happily go another twenty or thirty years without being stung by a yellow jacket while waiting for kids to finish playing in the ball cage or the inflatable hill climb attraction. But, we've got a little person hanging around with us from time to time now, and finding things to do in a "family atmosphere" isn't as easy as one might think.
Today I was charged with keeping my wife's eight year-old niece entertained, and knew she wouldn't be too keen to spend another day puttering around in our garden, or watching me take photographs of bluebirds and hummingbirds in the backyard. No, the kid's summer is almost over, and she's itching to do something different, something she hasn't done before. That's when I remembered Opryland.
Now, I knew when I picked her up this morning that I couldn't haul her to the suburbs of Nashville to visit an amusement park, even though the official sign advertising Opryland still stands on the side of westbound I-24. No, I couldn't take her to Opryland. But I could take her to visit the shopping mall that replaced the park.
You see, even though millions of us visited Opryland USA annually, the people who ran the place determined that they could make more money by closing the theme park and replacing it with yet another mall. And so they did. Opryland USA closed in 1997, and no one around here could believe it. How could a place that popular and that much of a cash cow be dismantled in favor of a shopping mall?
But the mall is sort of nice, if you're into malls. There are a some great anchor stores, the biggest and best of which is probably the Pro Bass Shop, a retail paradise for hunters and fishermen. Coincidentally, that's the store for which I had been given a $50 gift card a few weeks ago. It's a forty minute drive from our house to that mall, but I figured it had enough attractions to keep an eight year-old busy for a little while.
I had no idea.
As soon as we entered the Opry Mills Mall, my niece's eyes widened. And as she walked past store after store, each more intriguing than the last, she announced, "I LOVE THIS PLACE!"
And she did have a large time. She insisted we ride a carousel together thirty seconds after eating a couple of slices of greasy food court pizza, and as it turns out this particular carousel has a twirly-wheel thing a couple of people can sit and spin around in as the merry-go-'round goes merrily around. And it also turns out that this eight year-old loves to spin around at warp speed, because even my best efforts to slow our centrifugal force were met with a fierce determination to spin us even faster. For a moment or two I was quite certain I was about to become a spinning fountain of pizza and soda... but mercifully, the ride ended before anything THAT memorable happened. (word to the wise: if you're ever on a spinning twirly-wheel thing on a carousel, don't look up...)
But here's the thing. Even though the kid had a ball, and even though she got to see mounted bears, deer, sheep, mountain lions, elk, and moose in the Pro Bass Shop, and even though she got to watch fish as large as herself in their aquarium, and even though she climbed in and out of at least eight different pontoon boats, amazed at how cool BOATS are (she's never been in a boat on the water), and even though I believe she personally touched every item for sale in every store, I couldn't help but think of how much fun she would have had at that old overpriced, overcrowded, hot as hell in July country music amusement park that used to sit on that very site.
Maybe I just being nostalgic, or sentimental. Maybe if Opryland USA was still drawing massive crowds next to the Cumberland River outside of Nashville I wouldn't be so enamored with the thought of spending an entire day there. I don't know. But I do know my kids had some great memories at that place, and I'm pretty sure this little girl would have loved to experience some of the things they still remember.
And the best thing about the old theme park? The carousel didn't have one of those Vomit Comet twirly-wheel things.