One of the top ten best roller coasters in the country.
Gorgeous Smoky Mountain views.
Award winning aquarium.
What a list! (And that’s just a portion of the good times!)
Where can you find ALL OF THIS in one location?
Just a short (less than three hours) drive from Travelers Rest in the beautiful mountain towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Last week one of my daughters headed into her own adventure – college life! On the drive back home I tried to soothe our family’s sadness by stopping at one of the friendliest, funnest, familiest tourist spots I know in the mountains of Tennessee. (Yes, I just made up two words. What? I’m not the one going to college!)
Listen, there is NO actual way we could see and do everything this region has to offer. It’s truly a spot with something for everyone. You could visit a month and stay only on trails and see mainly bears. You could stay a week and visit only arcades and go-kart tracks. You could spend days at Dollywood and Splash Country alone. You could lose yourself in outlet shopping and small shops and have your name carved into a hundred wooden objects.
What we did on this particular adventure was to cram an awful lot of go-karting and amusement parking and arcade playing into a couple days. I was traveling with an entourage of teenagers, after all.
We’ll share everything we discovered this go-round and I’m sure, like all of us, we’ll be lured back to the siren calls of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg for more future adventures!
You can’t drive the main road into Pigeon Forge without noticing all of the eye-catching buildings. Wonderworks looks like an upside down mansion, the Titanic is, you know, a colossal ship, and there’s a wax museum with King Kong careening off a skyscraper. Along that strip, you’ll also see a gigantic camera with hands grasping it. That’s Beyond the Lens and it was our first stop.
You enter directly through the camera lens into a world filled with virtual reality games, a 4 story curved screen that simulates flying across America, a myriad of hilarious IG worthy photo set ups, an oversized Space Invaders game, a grown up size ball pit and so much more!
This ranked high as a favorite for my three teens. And although we saw younger children in there and I think there’s plenty of fun to be had for them too, I do think this spot is better for tweens and teens and adults. It might be a little overwhelming for younger kids – who will enjoy the lights and sounds but may not be able to hang with all the directions for the various games. Plus, let’s be honest – we all want to play giant Pac-Man longer than a four-year-old will want to!
It’s a bonanza for your IG feed – pretend to be stepped on by a giant hiking boot, get trapped in bottle, be a Barbie in her box, sleep in a bed on the wall, walk on the moon. We couldn’t resist the wall of mug shot options. (I don’t even want to confess how many photos we took at Beyond the Lens!)
The real star of Beyond the Lens might just be the virtual reality.
Who doesn’t want to try that? There are about six or more opportunities to try virtual reality – walking on a ledge across city buildings, creating your own roller coaster, Beat Saver, riding in a jeep in Jurassic Park – luckily my kids didn’t record me on this one because I was pushing my hands out to fight the dinosaurs at every turn. (I did, however, capture my seventeen year old son fighting his way through the virtual dinosaur park and that’s golden!)
You know you’re walking into a playground but it’s a good time anyway. We visited during the week so it really wasn’t crowded at all – which was nice for the virtual reality choices since those can have longer lines. (And for the giant connect four – and the giant Pac-Man and the giant Space Invaders – my son’s favorite.) I personally loved the quick escape rooms and some giant game that I think was called Wall Buster where we feverishly pitched giant balls against a screen and watched things explode.
For an additional price, once you’re at Beyond the Lens, they also offer a Fly Ride – it’s one of those classic roller coaster type experiences. These usually make me a little queasy but this one didn’t. (It also helped that I used my anti-nausea roller that I picked up at Plant Life before I left!) In fact, it was actually pretty lovely. Mostly we were flying over gorgeous spots in the United States – Grand Canyon and Badlands and whale watching and Niagara Falls and Yellowstone and of course there was the extra element – water spritzed at you as you were white water rafting – but it was actually so much fun. Think of it more as a flight experience than a roller coaster.
It’s hard to decide if this one should go under restaurants or entertainment because it’s definitely both.
Think of it like a Grown Up Chuck E Cheese, but also – way better!
We started our night out by playing a few rounds of bowling. But not traditional bowling. They called it duckpin bowling and maybe you guys know that term, but I did not. It’s almost like miniature bowling and it’s a lot of fun – you get three turns and I’d say it’s a bit harder than regular bowling. If you scored over 100 points you earned a little rubber duck. Let’s just say – only one of us earned a duck that night. (And it was not me.)
We dined on cheesy pizza that was served to us after we tapped our scoreboard – quite convenient! Lots of great food options – loaded nachos, pulled pork sandwiches, Kobe burgers and much more.
But the reason I let this one stick in the entertainment category is because we were definitely more there for the games than the food that night.
Were the colors and the flashing lights and the games a wee bit overwhelming? At first, sure. But you know what, we adjusted quickly. After a round or two of Grown Up Hungry Hungry Hippo, we were all in. (Of course, I made a bee line to try out my favorites – you’ll know what they are by this article’s end.) Together we acquired a LOT of tickets. (Instead of tickets like the old days, these just show up as a balance on your card.) Thanks to a generous stranger handing my son a card with a balance of nearly 20,000 tickets, he walked out of there with an actual Nerf gun.
It’s really a super fun way to spend an afternoon or an evening. Games for all ages, a couple virtual reality options, games best played solo and games best played with a buddy and games for non-video game fans like myself. They even had a small ax throwing game – at which I did horribly while my thirteen year mercilessly beat me game after game.
A great option here is that you can purchase your tickets either by paying a set amount on a rechargeable card or buying a card that lasts a certain amount of time. If you love the prizes, you’ll have to choose the rechargeable card because the timed car doesn’t allow you to gain tickets. I’d pick the timed card, personally, because I don’t mind not winning any prizes but I love knowing I have a set amount of time to play anything I want. (Skee-ball, Hungry Hungry Hippos and basketball. On repeat. Until my arm was actually aching.)
It would be an interesting excursion just to spend days comparing and contrasting go-kart tracks in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Do we know why go-karting is so popular? Until this trip, I honestly had only gone once or twice in my life.
Turns out, I like speed. My personal plan in a go-kart is to never take my foot off the gas pedal. You can imagine that had mixed results. Speed might also be the answer as to why go-karting is such fun!
We visited three go-kart locations, all in Pigeon Forge and all conveniently located quite near our hotel.
This is the track where there’s an alien out front. (I don’t make the rules.) At Lazer Port – you have four options for entertainment: laser tag, arcade, go-kart racing and black light mini golf. (Of course the arcade is indoors, but so are the mini golf and the laser tag. So you can do this one rain or shine. In a town like Pigeon Forge, it’s good to know your options for rainy days.) When you purchase your tickets for any of the three non-arcade options, you receive a $5 arcade card. Of course, you can spend $5 in a hurry. And if you’re like me – all of your dollars are going to about three spots in an arcade – air hockey, skee-ball and whatever you call the basketball games. I’m almost good at that basketball one. (Side note: until this trip I called skee-ball, skeet-ball. My sons took great pleasure in correcting me. They were right. I was wrong. Additional Side note: Yes, I have googled how much it would cost to own my own skee-ball game.)
The Lazer Port track claims to be the longest one in Pigeon Forge – and at first I wondered how that could be true but it’s a corkscrew track that earns its title. The ride was a satisfyingly long one – which is great. And on the ride down you crest the hill and pick up quite a lot of speed. (Especially if you follow Lacey’s Go-kart Driving Guidelines, not that you should.) The funny thing is, you pick up so much speed and then the employee tells you to slow down, but y’all – that was the track’s fault entirely. I even applied the brake on the way down – but I do feel the need – the need for speed.
This go-kart stop didn’t mess around. It was all go-karts and go-karts only. You have three tracks from which to choose – The Tennessee Twister, The Coaster or The Slick Track. (They also offer a junior track for your younger racers!)
Since we’d already raced up and down a corkscrew track, we opted to try the other two tracks at Speed Zone Fun Park. The team here was extra friendly and helpful and that never goes unnoticed, especially when you’re traveling with kids.
The track that gave you rollercoaster vibes was a lot of fun and felt as if you were traveling on a longer stretch of drive – less rapid turns and more opportunity to pass. It was a little bumpy for my grown up self because some of the ride was across wooden slats. This one was probably my daughter’s favorite ride. There’s video evidence of this, but when you’re riding along on the kart, you feel as if you’re going really fast. As my son’s video proved, it doesn’t look that fast to anyone watching, but it sure does feel fast!
The slick track – which is exactly as it sounds – was especially exciting to me. It’s a very simple track – one oval. The end. But you get to go around that oval for what feels like a satisfyingly long time and that slick track allows some real fun slipping and sliding around the curves.
We worked our way up from what seemed the most “calm” go-karts to what seemed the most extreme. (Hence, the name.)
And yes, these karts lived up to their name. Xtreme Racing Center has a different feel right from the entrance. There’s a qualifying lap, a much longer course, larger go-karts and a crew that truly seemed to be having fun at work. (Which was contagious!)
Were they faster? YES!
Did I like them best of all? OF COURSE! (See previously mentioned desire for acceleration.)
This course would not be for everyone in the family – unless you wanted to take the younger kids on the double karts. (Drivers here need to be older than 11, but passengers do not!) They say they’re the fastest track in Pigeon Forge. We tried three and for us, it was certainly true!
You can save time – and money – by purchasing a bracelet at any of these three go-kart locations and using your rides at all three spots. Most of the tracks offer go-karts as either singles or doubles so every family member can join the fun. My thirteen year old was able to ride all the go-karts by himself this year and that was a huge highlight for him. All three go-kart tracks open around 10 am and stay open until late – some of them even midnight. This is a great activity to fit in any time of day!
If you want pancakes or funnel cakes or chicken or burgers or some sort of meat on a stick, you’ve come to the right town. Of course, you can also find sushi and smoothies and salads too.
We tried just a few spots this trip, because we also took full advantage of that no cost hotel breakfast, which had fresh waffles, fruit and a hot foods bar every morning. (If you’re staying in a hotel with kids, always opt for the one with breakfast included. They usually keep fruit and hot drinks out for guests throughout the day too. An apple and a cup of tea or hot cocoa makes a pretty good (and free) afternoon snack in between adventures.)
Who doesn’t find Guy Fieri entertaining? (Did you know his middle name is Ramsey?)
We couldn’t resist a stop at Chicken Guy – his fast food restaurant right on the Main Street of Gatlinburg. We headed there after the aquarium and it was a very short walk. (Once you’ve paid for aquarium parking, you want to make the most of it.)
The restaurant was clean and bright and had a tall table facing the sidewalk for optimum people watching. (My kids don’t seem to enjoy this hobby as much as I do – is that another sign that I’m getting old? Whatever.) The friendly crew took our order and we tried chicken tenders. You can’t eat here without trying those – crispy and tasty.
Of course, the star of the Chicken Guy show would be the sauces – too many to count. (Nah. There’s 22. I can count that high.) I think we tried three and my son ranked the Special Sauce as his hands down favorite but I think I’d have to go with the Garlic Parmesan. I definitely wanted to order more chicken to try more sauces – next time!
The fried pickles were a definite favorite but all four of us were big fans of the milkshakes! We each ordered a different flavor and we swapped tastes and each one was delicious. I’m just now seeing that they served Mac & Cheese and I’m not sure how we missed that!
Before we hit the road on any adventure from TR, we almost always take a poll from y’all and ask you what you suggest. Lil’ Black Bear Cafe was a TR suggestion so we didn’t want to miss that.
Inviting and kind from the get go, we loved this little gem of a stop. It’s off the beaten path (which is a good thing sometimes) but not far away from the action at all, Lil’ Black Bear Cafe is charming and unique. It feels all kinds of local and that’s what we loved best.
If you’ve got a large group, you might want to order your meal to go, or plan on eating outside at their picnic tables. But if you can fit inside (there’s only about four tables) it’s a great place to enjoy your meal.
With lots of options and the sort of menu that’s serving breakfast all the time, everyone is sure to find something yummy to order. Our table had a little of it all – from grits to a burger (on thick delicious toast) to a salad and to a hearty BLT. They’re only open for breakfast and lunch so don’t sleep on this one.
We’ve always found kindness breeds kindness and this restaurant sparked some serious happy. The cook greeted us as we entered and checked on us twice. We also noticed him stop his cooking to celebrate a couple kids finishing their drawings and to offer to hang their art on the wall. (Which they did!) Two tables down, a stranger offered his Dollywood tickets to a couple getting married the next day. What a delightful part of our trip!
Even if you don’t care for roller coasters (raising my hand), it’s hard not to love Dollywood. It’s the only amusement park I’ve ever been to that seems to have taken shaded walkways and families into account as they planned.
Every food station has free water and if you can’t appreciate the rides and the shows, surely you can just admire the legend that is Dolly Parton herself. (Listen to this podcast some time – it’s fascinating.)
Dollywood has a little of everything – water rides (my favorites), a sweet carousel, an actual coal-fired train, ridiculously fast roller coasters (and a new one being built for next year), the tastiest cinnamon bread that you should NOT leave without buying, an eagle sanctuary and a bird of prey show that’s really impressive, and an entire host of rides that are sure to thrill you and your kids. Sometimes Dolly’s tour bus is available to walk though – it’s so interesting – and there’s a Dolly museum that’s worth your time too. (And a reprieve from the heat if you head to the park during the summer.)
It’s a clean park. The staff is very friendly and helpful. (One worker was chatting with us about the movies being filmed the week before we were there and told us several funny stories about meeting Jimmy Fallon!) If it rains, you get free tickets for another day.
Honestly, it’s hard to beat Dollywood. If you can afford it, season tickets are the best option. This way you don’t have to feel the pressure to see it all, ride it all, eat it all when you visit. You can pace yourself and you can leave when you’re ready instead of when you’re so tired you can’t walk any longer. They offer generous discounts for military families and have a handful of other cost-saving options.
Pretty sure a top notch aquarium is not what you think of first when you think of the mountains of Tennessee.
But a top notch aquarium is exactly what you get when you visit Gatlinburg and Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.
This aquarium is just as close as the Atlanta one and we love it so much. It’s for sure a family favorite – from the time the kids were little to this trip, when they’re all quite big. (We visited years ago, when the college freshman was …. not a college freshman. You can see our experience here! We’ve been long time fans for sure.)
Parking is simple in a lot directly behind the aquarium – you do have to pay but it’s convenient and that’s hard to beat in the small streets of Gatlinburg.
While you can wander the aquarium in any old direction you want, the path is actually laid out perfectly to see it all. It’s very intuitive and takes you slowly through so many tanks and experiences. The highlight for most folks is the tunnel tank – you can walk or stand on a moving floor to glide you through the tanks over your head. You almost feel underwater with the sharks (who still creep me out a bit) and the giant sea turtles and SO many fish with such varied colors and shapes. It’s pretty magical, whether you’re a grown up or a kid. (Once upon a time, my youngest son and I took a field trip to Ripley’s where we slept in that tunnel. Was it comfy? Eh, not entirely. Was it ultra cool? Absolutely.)
You see some pretty wild stuff in this aquarium – it’s hard to believe it except you’re staring at it with your own eyes. I’m talking about little sea dragons that look evolutionary, crabs that look prehistoric, sharks with SO many teeth, glowing jelly fish you get to actually touch – if you want, penguins who look so dapper and ready for prom and stingrays so flat you almost miss them entirely.
That sort of wonder never grows old.
Ripley’s aquarium is a perfect way to get educated and to be entertained and everyone just has fun simultaneously – the teacher in me loves that.
My kids and I had the most fun living this article out together – arcades and adventures and go-karting is our kind of work!
Be sure you’re following us on Instagram, we’re sharing even more photos and reels from our adventure there!