Ghost Town in the Sky drew around 2,500 people over Memorial Day weekend, despite the daunting challenges of getting the theme park up and running while grappling with Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
All eyes had been on the park to see if it would open for the season on May 22 as owners predicted, and if so, how many visitors it would rake in.
The Old West theme park opened to mixed reviews from visitors. Those interviewed with young children were delighted by the gunfights playing out in the mock western town and pleased by the line-up of rides, many of which are well suited to young children.
“It was great. We love it,” said Melinda Turner who brought her 9-year-old son and his friend to the park from Cumberland Gap, Tenn. “We love the gun shows especially.”
Families with older children and single couples said they were disappointed by the limited ride offerings, however. The park’s two main thrill rides — a roller coaster and a drop tower — weren’t working for opening weekend. Both hit glitches when being inspected the N.C. Elevator and Amusement Device Bureau in the run-up to opening day.
“We thought it was cool, but if there are going to be rides down, they should give us a discount,” said Jennifer Conley from Ohio, who was visiting without children. “We thought there would be a little more to do up there.”
Conley and her partner heard about the park on a whim, while eating lunch at Sagebrush in Waynesville, and decided to check it out. She said she probably wouldn’t come back.
“Of course, everyone wants the roller coaster to be open,” said Dorene Pauley, owner of Travelowe’s motel. “A lot stems on that roller coaster. They need to get it open.”
The park is now entering its third year without the roller coaster, which has undergone an extensive rehabilitation including brand-new train cars. Park owners say the key ride will be open soon.
Pauley said calls have been rolling in to their motel all week from visitors with questions about the park, most wanting to know if the roller coaster is open yet. Once it does, visitation will take off, attracting roller coaster enthusiasts from all over the country, said Pauley’s husband, Scott.
The Pauleys said tourism in Maggie depends on Ghost Town. When Ghost Town reopened under new ownership in 2007 after a five-year hiatus, it brought a 30 percent increase in business to their hotel, especially among families. Visitors love Ghost Town, they said, witnessed by the children donning cowboy hats, vests and gun belts while re-enacting gunfights in the motel parking lot after visiting the park during the day.
Whether the Old West theme of Ghost Town resonates with today’s youth has been questioned by critics of the park, but that wasn’t the case for Seth Rogers, 9, visiting from Tennessee. Rogers said he has watched Westerns and loved the gunfights, but admitted the chairlift clinging to the side of the mountain was his favorite part of the trip.
Rhonda Chism, who was on an annual vacation in Maggie with her kids and grandkids from south Georgia over Memorial Day, came back to Ghost Town for the second year in a row only to find the coaster still wasn’t working.
“We were disappointed they didn’t have everything going,” Chism said.
Chism said the gun fights and musical performances were very good, however, a theme echoed by several visitors. Several visitors also commented on how well they were treated by the friendly staff.
“Everyone was really, really, really nice, very accommodating,” said Tina Justus, who was visiting with her toddler and pre-schooler from Washington, D.C. The family was staying in Asheville, but ventured to Maggie for the day after Justus found Ghost Town on-line when hunting for kid-friendly attractions in the area.
“It was good for our age kids, but if they were much older they would have been disappointed,” Justus said.
Some visitors opted not to buy a ticket after learning the coaster wasn’t open, including Judy and Keith Parker of Greenville, S.C. The Parkers have a second-home in Maggie and opted to come back another day “once everything is working.”
“We are kind of holding off until then,” Judy said.
The cost of the ticket, with or without a functioning roller coaster, gave pause to one family visiting from Atlanta.
“It’s kind of high,” 13-year-old Nick Farmer said as his family stood in the parking lot discussing whether to go up. The family, who was staying in Cherokee for the week, picked up a brochure and said they might return later in the week.
“We are kind of limited on funds,” said Nick’s mom, Christi Farmer. “It will depend on what else we find that is comparable.”
The park operated at a loss last year, falling behind on its $9.5 million mortgage and racking up a backlog of $2.5 million in unpaid bills. The new owners inherited a host of problems lurking below the surface at the aging park, tapping their financial resources. The recession made loans impossible to get and put a dent in visitation, forcing the park to seeking bankruptcy protection while reorganizing.
The park will be submitting a business plan to the bankruptcy court this summer showing how it plans to get back in the black.
The park hopes to have the roller coaster and drop tower open by this coming weekend, pending the outcome of a second round of inspections this week.
The park had waited until the last minute to call for an inspection by the state. Inspectors were at the park all last week certifying rides up until opening day, including the chairlift that carries visitors to the mountain-top amusement park. The park ramped up its staff just days before the park was slated to open, with some workers reporting for work for the first time just two days before opening day.
The park was seeking a $200,000 loan from the town of Maggie Valley to help cover opening costs, but did not garner enough support among town leaders to pass.
The business community has rallied to help Ghost Town, with several business owners putting up money as investors. Others have offered in-kind services.
Maggie Valley Restaurant, Legends Sports Grill, Smackers Sports Grill and Joey’s Pancake House provided food for the employees over the week leading up to the park opening.
Free landscaping work was provided by Sheppard Landscaping Services and Caldwell Trucking and Excavating. Maggie Valley Excavating made parking lot repairs, filled potholes and cleaned streets for free. Brad Kuykendall provided gravel for roads in the theme town in exchange for a stack of tickets that Kuykendall will donate to the Broyhill Children’s Home.
“We are amazed how the town is really coming together and embracing Ghost Town’s continuing efforts and commitment to tourism and working with us to grow Maggie Valley into a southeast family vacation destination,” said Steve Shiver, President and CEO of Ghost Town. “With their support, we will be able to make it happen.”