Sky-high hopes: Maggie Valley’s theme park destination looks to the future with an eye on the past
After they opened Joey’s Pancake House in 1966, Brenda O’Keefe and her late husband would calculate how much pancake batter they’d need based on the number of cars they saw at local hotels on their way to work.
Brenda and Joey O’Keefe ended up mixing a lot of batter. As they drove U.S. 19 through Maggie Valley, most mornings along the town’s main drag revealed full parking lots and no-vacancy signs. Year after year, families flocked in to visit Ghost Town in the Sky. Business owners here were living the good life, sharing in the economic success of the western theme park’s four-decade reign as one of the Southeast’s top family destinations.
“It was incredible,” O’Keefe said. “I can remember, on great big days, when there were 10,000 people at Ghost Town. And, even on average days, there were about 5,000.”
Thanks to a strong local following and stellar reputation as an eatery, Joey’s Pancake House remained a hopping enterprise. But that’s at odds with what many in Maggie Valley experienced. Business owners watched the balloon deflate as Ghost Town declined, then burst when the theme park closed permanently in 2003.
“The economy dropped 50 to 60 percent, and nothing has brought that back,” O’Keefe said. “That was the impact.”
The interim years
Down the road at Maggie Mountaineer Crafts, visitors can find homemade fudge, hand-painted saws and stuffed black bears. This is a craft and gift shop that has stayed true to its 50-year-old roots, a place serving up slices of whimsical Appalachia to satisfy the cravings of many who visit Maggie Valley.
In a plush office filled with collectible historical items at the back of the store, owner Brad Pendley sorts through Ghost Town memorabilia. His father, Austin Pendley, once served as general manager for the theme park.
Pendley doesn’t underestimate the importance of Ghost Town’s reopening, but he also believes the town made a comeback after the theme park closed.
“Ghost Town won’t make or break Maggie because we’ve already done without it,” he said. “But if Ghost Town does do well, it’s really going to help us out.”
After the theme park closed, the town launched into a rocky metamorphosis, painfully — and sometimes divisively — transforming itself from tourist destination to resort community.
Second-home owners moved in at an ever-greater pace, vacationers took advantage of the many cabins for rent and the well heeled settled in at Maggie Valley Country Club, which undertook costly renovations and added upscale condominiums. It’s now known as the Maggie Valley Club.
“We had to regroup after Ghost Town left,” Pendley said. “Maggie really came back with a renewed spirit, that we could make it without Ghost Town. Now Ghost Town has been hyped up so much that if it doesn’t succeed, it’ll hurt us more than if it had never come.”
Pendley and others, however, believe that a successful Ghost Town could fill one big hole marring the fabric of a newly rebuilt Maggie Valley – the theme park can serve as the missing family attraction and get parents, grandparents and kids to visit here again.
“That’s been the biggest complaint,” Pendley said: ‘“What can our children do?’”
Manager Joyce Patel of the 21-room Scottish Inn agreed. During her 15 years at the hotel, located along U.S. 19, she’s seen occupancy remain stable on weekends but decline during the week. That happened because families quit coming to Maggie Valley, she said.
“There’s not much to do around here for the kids,” Patel said. “We’re hoping the parents and kids come back this year.”
Multigenerational travel is the buzz in tourism circles, and the prospect that Maggie Valley could soon enjoy the sight of cars packed with parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, or better yet, grandparents, parents and children, clearly delights Lynn Collins.
Now executive director of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce, Collins is no stranger to the economic magic of a successful theme park. She once worked at Ghost Town in marketing and public relations. Collins hopes that the renewal of Ghost Town will help Maggie Valley succeed in becoming a complete, year-round destination.
“We don’t have many gaps,” she said.
As winter sports become more popular in Western North Carolina, Maggie Valley has positioned itself to benefit with the addition of snow tubing and a snowmobile park to its traditional mainstay, Cataloochee Ski Resort.
Nature-based tourism is also important to Maggie Valley’s economic base, Collins said, with hikers and waterfall-lookers now joined by throngs of people eager to see elk, recently reintroduced to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The chamber leader also pointed to the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds and Wheels Through Time Museum, which has exhibits of motorcycles and motorcycle memorabilia, as underpinning the post-Ghost Town Maggie Valley.
Add Ghost Town to that mix, Collins said, and the once bleak economic future of Maggie Valley suddenly looks bright indeed.
Saving Ghost Town
At least four possible buyers for Ghost Town surfaced in the years after the park closed. Finally, in late 2005, three investors announced they were buying the park and 250 acres.
Al Harper, owner of American Heritage Railways, which operates the Bryson City-headquartered Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, teamed up with Hank Woodburn, owner of nine amusement attractions in four states, and Pete Hairston, an independent venture capitalist. The men formed two corporations to oversee the deal: American Heritage Entertainment and Ghost Town Partners.