Travel

Discover the Wild and Wacky Southern Theme Parks That Were

Back when hillbillies and underwater clowns were all we needed for a good time

photo: The Meadows Center

Aquarena Springs Aquamaids.

The South has never been interested in hiding its crazy. In fact, we’re known to “parade it on the front porch and give it a cocktail,” as the saying goes. Our theme parks have been no different—for decades, entrepreneurs have tried to turn a profit off of the South’s love of all things eccentric by building tributes to them in the form of tourist attractions. And no surprise, it seems the wackiest, tackiest of them—from showcases of swimming pigs to hillbilly shootouts—made for the fondest memories. Reminisce about those good old days by taking a look back at some of the region’s defunct-yet-darling attractions. 


Dog Land
Chiefland, Florida

Located off of U.S. Highway 19/98, Dog Land didn’t have glitzy thrill rides or snazzy shows to lure in tourists, but it did offer one thing Southerners love more than all the rollercoasters in the world: dogs. Opened in 1960, the attraction’s sole goal was to display all of the official dog breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club at that time. At its height, Dog Land exhibited more than a hundred breeds, each provided with its own “house,” where he or she could huddle inside on rainy days or bask on the sun porch. Almost as prominent as the “Dog Land” sign scrawled in cartoon script, a state-of-the-art Kentucky Fried Chicken added to the gift shop in 1965 beckoned hungry travelers with its red-and-white-striped roof. The owners had big dreams for Dog Land that included a greyhound racing track and a Dog Hall of Fame, but they were never realized—the construction of Interstate 75 likely drew tourists away from back country roads, according to floridaattractionshistory.com. You can still revisit those halcyon dog days—Will Shetterly, one of the owners’ sons, wrote a book titled Dogland to forever preserve the park’s memory. 

Ken Breslauer Roadside Florida ArchiveS


Ghost Town in the Sky
Maggie Valley, North Carolina 

The bewildering and sometimes farcical history of Ghost Town in the Sky sounds like a work of fiction. The once-popular Wild West theme park debuted in 1961 and attracted 400,000 visitors at its peak with exhilarating shootouts in the street and can-can performances at the Silver Dollar Saloon. Accessible only by a steep railway or chairlift, Ghost Town’s guests could explore several old-time Western towns and get their thrill fix on a variety of coasters once atop the Maggie Valley mountain. But a series of unlucky accidents in the park’s latter-days left some calling the place cursed. For one, mechanical malfunctions plagued Ghost Town. In 2002, one such glitch left passengers stranded on the chairlift for two hours in the rain, and the owner closed down the park, leading to a series of re-openings and re-closings. In 2010, a mudslide caused by the park’s unstable retaining walls destroyed nearby homes and buried a road. And then in 2013, an actor was injured in a fake gun fight by a real bullet, the Charlotte Observer reported. After numerous attempts to revamp the park, today Ghost Town in the Sky truly lives up to its name. 


Dogpatch USA
Marble Falls, Arkansas

Back in the 1960s, hillbillies were all the rage thanks to TV shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies and The Real McCoys. Dogpatch USA, which opened in 1968, traded on this popularity by bringing the characters of the Li’l Abner comic strip to life with such subtle attractions as Rotten Ralphie’s Rick-O-Shay Rifle Range and Earthquake McGoon’s Brain Rattler. But the crown jewel of this bumpkin wonderland was the trout pond where visitors could spend the whole day reeling in fish from the overstocked pool. Chefs would even cook up a catch right there at the park if guests didn’t want to haul their loot all the way home. Just a few years later, Dogpatch USA struggled to find its financial footing as slapstick hillbilly humor lost its appeal and the oil crisis hit Americans hard. The park ultimately closed in 1993, and when the whole 141-acre spread was placed on eBay for $1 million, there wasn’t a single bidder. 

Courtesy of Susan Johnson and Family


Aquarena Springs
San Marcos, Texas

This underwater utopia, which began as a modest glass bottom boat attraction in 1946, capitalized on the natural beauty of San Marcos to eventually blossom into one of the most beloved theme parks in Texas. Centered around Spring Lake, the park’s visitors could view underwater shows from a submarine theater—a flashy feature even by today’s standards. While the twirling aquamaids and bumbling antics of Glurpo the clown were charming, Ralph the Swimming Pig became the real crowd-pleaser. Debuting in the 1950s, the uber-popular porky performer kicked off each show with his legendary “swine dive” before piggy paddling over to a trainer holding a bottle of milk. In its heyday, Aquarena Springs drew about 350,000 visitors annually, but just like Dogpatch USA, the struggles of the 1970s caused attendance to sink. With the rise of big competitors like Six Flags and SeaWorld, Shamu and rollercoasters usurped Ralph. In 1994, Southwest Texas State University purchased the land and gradually transitioned it into a nature center to preserve the aquatic ecosystem. Although you won’t spot Glurpo or Ralph, you can still coast the crystal clear spring waters in a glass bottom boat today. 

photo: The Meadows Center

Ralph’s “swine dive” at Aquarena Springs.


Hard Rock Park
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina 

Hard Rock Park certainly took its “live fast die young” rock and roll roots to heart. Opening just before the economic plunge of 2008, the park only welcomed visitors through its gates for six months before it shuttered. But while it wasn’t here for a long time, it was here for a good time. The amusement park was designed to be the ultimate tribute to rock and roll legends, and it earned raves from the (albeit few) visitors who made it there, the Huffington Post reported. Each section paid homage to music greats from around the world, from the Beatles in the British Invasion section to the Eagles in the Cool Country zone. Even the features that might raise some eyebrows today were adored, such as the cow statue dressed suspiciously like Elvis that sprayed people with its udders and the Nights in White Satin ride, which simulated an acid trip. Unfortunately, marketing failures and the recession created the perfect storm for a premature death. 


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