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Echoes Of Laughter – Episode# 8 – Havin’ A Hand Slappin’, Foot Stompin’ Good Time At Opryland USA
Sep 2, 2013
It has been referred to as the “Home of American Music”, “America’s Musical Showpark” and promised “Great Shows, Great Rides and Great Times”. The park originally opened with 120 acres of rides and attractions. It opened on June 30, 1972 and remained open until December 31, 1997. At the parks peak in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s the park enjoyed the attendance over 2 million guests annually. Welcome to Opryland USA.
Opryland USA, which was usually referred to as Opryland was born due to the popularity of its namesake The Grand Ole’ Opry and the move of the Opry from its long time location at the Ryman Auditorium to its current location at the Grand Ole Opry House. But before we tell the story of the park, we’ll tell the story of The Grand Ole Opry itself…
Stepping back it in time we go back to the Roarin’ 20’s, 1925 to be exact. The Grand Ole Opry started out as the WSM Barn Dance. What was WSM you may ask? WSM was an AM radio station owned by the National Life & Accident Insurance Company. The radio studio was housed on the fifth floor of their building in downtown Nashville, Tennessee. In October of 1925 the station began a program featuring “Dr. Humphrey Bate and his string quartet of old-time musicians”. A couple of weeks after the program aired WSM hired what would become their long-time program director and announcer George D. “Judge” Hay. Hay wasted no time, after coming on board he quickly recruited the seasoned 77 year old fiddler Uncle Jimmy Thompson and then on November 28, 1925 and re-launched the WSM Barn Dance, and although the phrase would not actually be mentioned on air for another 2 years, that date is credited for being the official birth date of The Grand Ole Opry.
During the 1930’s the popularity of the program led to many artists, who would later become country music legends, performing on the Opry as well as the length of the Saturday night show being extended to 4 hours. Being broadcast at that time at 50,000 watts, the show became a staple in homes in 30 states eventually becoming a national show when it was picked up by NBC Radio in 1939. All the time this was happening, the live audience of the show grew quickly leading the show to being moved from its original studio to larger and larger venues to accommodate the audience size. Eventually the audience grew to such a size that measures were taken to control attendance by charging a 25 cent admission charge. That, having little effect to dissuade attendance, led to the show being moved to the Ryman Auditorium. It was during the Ryman years that music legends such as Hank Williams (who was eventually banned in 1952 due to his alcohol problems), Patsy Cline, Roy Acuff, The Carter Family, Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Minnie Pearl and many others came to be frequent performers on the Grand Ole Opry Stage.
The Opry’s growing attendance numbers due to its popularity along with deterioration issues with the Ryman Auditorium led to the decision to find a new home for the show. It was decided by WSM, Inc., the operator of the Opry that it would be relocated nine miles east of downtown Nashville, on a tract of land that was owned by a sausage manufacturer (Rudy’s Farm) in the Pennington Bend area of Nashville, it was also decided to build a theme park and hotel/convention center with the new Grand Ole Opry House becoming the crown jewel of the grand entertainment complex. Ironically, the theme park would open on June 30, 1972 prior to the Grand Ole Opry House debuting there on March 16, 1974.
The park would receive its original name from WSM disk jockey, Grant Turner’s early morning show, Opryland USA, with its own name honoring the stars of the Grand Ole Opry.
Although the Grand Ole Opry had always dedicated itself to mostly featuring traditional, conservative Country Music (with only a couple of exceptions); Opryland USA’s overall theme was more of a generalized blend of American Music consisting of bluegrass, gospel, jazz, pop and rock and roll with the theme carrying through not only to the rides but the shows as well. As a matter of fact the Rock N’ Roller Coaster was a opening day attraction.
WSM’s bet paid off in a big way as the entire complex proved extremely popular and spurred its first expansion in 1975. In a move that would fit right in with culture of the park the “State Fair” area was created featuring carnival games, the Wabash Cannonball roller coaster, the Tennessee Waltz swing ride and the Country Bumpkin Bumper Cars. As would become the norm because of the parks limited size, the park would have to remove an attraction in order to add a new one. In this case it was the park’s buffalo exhibit that would disappear in favor of the new attractions. But the Wabash Cannonball roller coaster would prove to be one of the favorite rides at the park until it’s closure 22 years later.
In a setback for the park for its 1975 season, not too long before the park was set to open the Cumberland River experienced a large flood that inundated most of the park with some areas submerged by up to 16 feet of water. Fortunately, the park was able to recover from the flood quickly with the opening day being delayed only for one month, but on a sadder note several of the animals from the petting zoo did not survive the ordeal.
Attendance continued to grow throughout the 1970’s and into the 1980’s partly due to the parks location and its ability to draw guests throughout Tennessee and several surrounding states being that there were no other comparable parks within a reasonable driving distance. Most other parks such as St. Louis’s Six Flags over Mid-America, Charlotte’s Carowinds, Atlanta’s Six Flags over Georgia and the northern King’s Island in Cincinnati were a 4 to 6 hour or more drive making them impractical for a day trip.
As park attendance grew and attractions grew, it ushered in the need for a hotel in order to keep guests onsite for more than a day. In 1977 the Opryland Hotel, a large resort hotel, was built next to the park. Then in 1979 the Roy Acuff Theater next door to the Grand Ole Opry House in the plaza area and was the primary venue for the theme parks premier musical events and productions. In a shrewd business move the theater was actually built outside the park’s perimeter and while because of this you did not need theme park tickets to attend events, productions held there usually did require separate tickets from park admission and in most cases drew day guest’s from the parks to the events as well as the general public, thereby increasing the park’s revenue.
In 1982, things changed for the Opryland complex in an abet, “Grand” way. The parent company of WSM, Inc., (National Life and Accident Insurance Company, later NLT Corporation) was absorbed by American General from Texas. Unlike it’s predecessor, who had benefitted from the advertising value and name recognition of owning and supporting the Grand Ole Opry, American General had no experience with or running an entertainment business and furthermore had no interest in running a theme park nor the broadcast business.
It almost immediately set about the task of finding a buyer for all of NLT’s former entertainment assets and approached some of the larger entertainment and hospitality corporations such as MCA, Anheuser-Busch and the Marriott Corporations about the possibility of selling them all as a “package” deal. While some potential buyers were interested in individual parts like the theme park, the hotel, or the Grand Ole Opry itself; no one company was interested in buying them all at once. After a time, American General began considering that the only way they would be able to divest themselves of these properties would be to split them up into different entities.
As fate would have it, just about that time Gaylord Broadcasting Company of Oklahoma City stepped in and bought nearly all of them lock, stock and barrel. The Opryland Complex, the WSM radios stations and it would have bought the WSM-TV station as well had they had not been at their limit of television stations that they were allowed to own by the government. After the purchase was complete, the name was changed to Gaylord Entertainments Company. In fact, Ed Gaylord, who was then heading the media empire was instrumental in Opryland’s acquisition. Mr. Gaylord, as it turned out was a huge fan of the Opry and spearheaded the effort to purchase it and keep it intact.
As an added bonus, the acquisition also included then fledgling WSM cable network, TNN (The Nashville Network) and its production division Opryland Productions. TNN has since gone on to become a television network dedicated entirely to Country Music. For a number of years TNN’s offices and production facilities continued to be located on-site in Opryland as well as one of its shows, Nashville Now (then later Music City Tonight) was filmed in the Gaslight Theater within the park itself and the park was often used as a backdrop for numerous concerts and performances of popular country music stars.
With Gaylord now owning and backing the park and the enthusiastic leader of the parent company as a fan, the future looked bright for Opryland USA…and for a while at least it would be, but the clouds were beginning to gather.
With the purchase of the park now behind them, 1982 would bring more expansion to the park but with growth would come more growing pains due to the limitations of space. Future expansion from this point would mean that for every new addition to the park, something would have to go.
In 1984, a third roller coaster arrived in the New Orleans area of the park. It was named “ The Screamin’ Delta Demon”. A second, yet more subtle park gate was also added adjacent to the parking lot as well for the 1984 season.
As the 1980’s pressed on, the park would face an issue that it never really had to deal with before…competition. As I had mentioned earlier the park had faired well during the 1970’s and early 1980’s because, while other attractions did exist in Tennessee and it’s surrounding states, there we’re no direct competitors that equal to Opryland USA using te same model. But that was about to change with the opening of kentucky Kingdom in Louisville, Kentucky and the former Silver Dollar City in Pigeon Forge, Tenessee rebranded and improved to become Dollywood, a partnership between the Herschend Brothers and singer, songwriter and actress Dolly Parton. Now with two other parks within driving distance and both competing for Opryland’s guest’s the park stepped up it’s game by committing to making annual changes to retain it’s local and out-of-town guests and adding major attractions such as the General Jackson Showboat (which still continues to operate to this day near Opry Mills), they also added new roller coasters and water rides until the end of the decade with the opening of the “Chaos” roller coaster.
In 1992 the Chevy-Geo Celebrity Theater opened and for two seasons the performances here were included with the regular park admission. Then in 1994 and 1995 the park began up-charging guests for the concerts held in the theater. Then in a short-lived attempt to capitalize on the success and revenue of the Chevy-Geo Celebrity Theater, Opryland added two more venues; Theater By The Lake and The Roy Acuff Theater each, receiving renovations and expansions, and added them to the concert series and billing it as Nashville On Stage. However, it turned out to be “too much of a good thing by creating more supply than there was demand for the live entertainment” and due to the lackluster sales the multi-venue concert series was moved back to the Chevy-Geo Celebrity Theater serving as the single concert venue inside the park.
Many other things were promoted to bring visitors to the park such as the taping of several weeks of the popular Mark Goodson Game Show “Family Feud” featuring some of the biggest stars in country music at the time including, just to name a couple, the Mandrell’s and the Statler Brothers. Also in reference to TNN’s coverage of NASCAR and Opryland’s designation with NASCAR the annual “TNN Salute to Motorsports” would take place one weekend a year at the park starting in the early 1990’s and continuing until the parks final closing.
Large events were held in the late years of the park, for example the Grizzly River Rampage was used as a course for the NationsBank Whitewater Championships, which (in 1995 alone) served as a qualifier for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. After the events were completed, the course was drained and a temporary Halloween attraction—"Quarantine", tied into the storyline of the neighboring indoor roller coaster "Chaos"—was constructed in its bed and would run during the halloween season from1995 through 1997.
In 1995, in what would come to be the final large attraction would open at the park, The Hangman roller coaster was opened. Also starting in 1994, Gaylord began investing heavily in the rejuvenation of the downtown Nashville entertainment district. The company renovated an old and dilapidated Second Avenue building into what became the Wildhorse Saloon and was also behind the major rennovation and reopening of the Ryman Auditorium. With the investment made in the downtown entertainment district they began to offer a water taxi service between the downtown district and the theme park and solidified the connection between the two areas by renaming the theme park as Opryland Theme Park and using the existing name of Opryland USA as the figurehead name for all of Gaylord Entertainment’s Nashville properties.
Now with all of the investment going into the area and a new coaster for the park you would think that would signal good things for the future of the park but short-sighted planning and baseless decisions would soon signal the beginning of the end for Opryland theme park. For a moment, we’re going to step back in time to 1993. At the time the theme park had grown to 200 acres in size. Let’s put that in perspective. For those of us who are familiar with Disney’s theme parks let’s compare Opryland Theme Park’s 200 acres to Walt Disney’s Magic Kindom Park coming in at approxamately 142 acres or Disney’s Hollywood Studios Theme Park at 154 acres. Granted EPCOT is over 100 acres larger at 300 acres but I think you get the picture. Opryland at the time was not a small theme park by any means and still needed room to grow. However, that was not to be. A project that would put the final nails in the preverbial coffin for the theme park was to be called “The Delta” and it would be started in 1993 and would open in 1996. The project was huge, in fact it was the largest construction project up to that point in Nashville’s history. It would add a massive new atrium, 1,000+ guest rooms and a new convention center to the Opryland hotel. It would also come to occupy almost every single square foot of land that would have allowed the theme park to grow and evolve.
Coming back to late 1995, the Gaylord company management at the time had turned a scutinizing eye towards the theme park, and perhaps a bit of predjudice. Nashville’s climate while pleasant throughout the majority of the year, prrevented the park from operating during the winter except for a short run during the Christmas season. The park was also only able to open on weekends during the spring and fall. But the park was open daily during the summer season. According to reports, it was shown that attendance to the parks did somewhat plateau throughout the 1990’s. However, the actual number of visitors to the park made the park profitable, but obviously not profitqable enough for the executives running the company at the time. In 1997 Gaylord management decided that a move back towards it’s core hospitality business was in it’s best interest and in keeping with this directive, it was decided that the Opryland Theme Park property would no longer make a return on investment equal to what was desired for it’s properties and was unlike to do so in the future. Which in light of the consuption of property from the construction of The Delta, seemed to be a self –fufilling prophesy. Either way, one thing was clear, Opryland Theme Park’s journey was coming to an end.
In 1996, a third park gate was finally added near the "Chaos" roller coaster, which allowed pedestrian traffic between Opryland Hotel and Opryland Themepark for the first time in the parks history. Previously, hotel guests wishing to visit the amusement park would have to take a shuttle running back and forth between the hotel and the entrance of the park.
At the end of 1997 the "Christmas in the Park" season was promoted as "one last chance" for the residents of Nashville to see Opryland Theme Park, but guest arrived to find that only a very small portion of the park was open for the season, many of the larger attractions were already being dismantled. Then abruptly on December 31, 1997 the gates were locked and Opryland USA began to fade from reality into history.
As it so often happens in the wake of closing an amusement park, efforts were made to sell off the larger rides and attractions to other parks to recoup as much revenue as possible from the dying park and in some cases they succeeded in others, deals went bad leaving some dismantled rides to either sit in outdoor storage and deteriorate or being sold off for scrap… an end not befitting the memories, laughter and fun times that they had generated for so many years before.
The park site was cleared and paved over and relegated to serving as the parking lot for Opry Mills and the Grand Ole Opry House while construction of the mall took place on the site of the Theme Park’s parking lot.
Opry Mills opened in May of 2000. But for a time some vestiges of the park remained, as a few still do today for those who know where to look. A long, short concrete levee wall that once separated the State Fair, The New Orleans and the Riverside areas is still visible and from the McGavock Street entrance you can still see the remains of the embankment which once supported the rails for Opryland’s railroad.
The administration building that was located however briefly outside the gates of the park was moved near the Cumberland landing docks and serves as offices for the General Jackson and the Music City Queen riverboats.
Quite a bit of the Opry plaza area remains intact and for that matter open for business. The Roy Acuff Theater, The Grand Ole Opry Museum, and of course The Grand Ole Opry House herself have remained in regular use before, during, and after the demolition of the park. It should be noted as well that the Grand Ole Opry show also returns yearly for a limited seasonal run at it’s original home at the Ryman Auditorium. The buildings that once housed Roy Acuff’s and Minnie Pearls Museum became administrative offices for WSM radio and as for the Gaslight Theater it is still the only building that is still standing from inside the gates of the them park and has been used for Gaylord’s annual ICE! exhibit for a time, as a rental facility for television production, and for various other events.
Though all of the rides had long since gone, the man-made channel for Grizzly River Rampage remained as a visible reminder of the park for fourteen years until Gaylord, in clearing the area for a new events center razed the course…and with that the last recognizable feature of Opryland Theme Park was gone.
While many people have called for the park to be rebuilt, it was not to be. The time of Opryland Park had pasted. For it is now, like so many other parks ever to remain destined to operate only in the memory of those who can’t forget the fun they had in Opryland, USA.
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