Opryland USA

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Opryland USA
Oprylandlogo1.jpg
Opryland USA logo in the 1970s & 1980s
Slogan"Home of American Music"
"America's Musical Showpark"
"Great Shows! Great Rides! Great Times!"
LocationNashville, Tennessee, United States
Coordinates36°12′30″N 86°41′43″W / 36.20833°N 86.69528°W / 36.20833; -86.69528Coordinates: 36°12′30″N 86°41′43″W / 36.20833°N 86.69528°W / 36.20833; -86.69528
OwnerGaylord Entertainment Company
OpenedJune 30, 1972
ClosedDecember 31, 1997
Area120 acres (0.49 km2)
Rides
Total27
Roller coasters6
Water rides3
 
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Opryland USA
Oprylandlogo1.jpg
Opryland USA logo in the 1970s & 1980s
Slogan"Home of American Music"
"America's Musical Showpark"
"Great Shows! Great Rides! Great Times!"
LocationNashville, Tennessee, United States
Coordinates36°12′30″N 86°41′43″W / 36.20833°N 86.69528°W / 36.20833; -86.69528Coordinates: 36°12′30″N 86°41′43″W / 36.20833°N 86.69528°W / 36.20833; -86.69528
OwnerGaylord Entertainment Company
OpenedJune 30, 1972
ClosedDecember 31, 1997
Area120 acres (0.49 km2)
Rides
Total27
Roller coasters6
Water rides3

Opryland USA (later called Opryland Themepark and colloquially referred to simply as Opryland) was an amusement park located in suburban Nashville, Tennessee. It operated seasonally (generally March to October) from 1972 to 1997, and for a special Christmas-themed engagement every December from 1993 to 1997. During the late 1980s, nearly 2.5 million people visited the park annually. Billed as the "Home of American Music," Opryland USA featured a large number of musical shows along with typical amusement park rides such as roller coasters, carousels, and the like.

History[edit]

1970s[edit]

The genesis for a theme park in Nashville was the desire for a new, permanent, larger and more modern home for the long-running Grand Ole Opry radio program. The Ryman Auditorium, its home since 1943, was beginning to suffer from disrepair as the downtown neighborhood around it was falling victim to increasing urban decay. Despite these shortcomings, the show's popularity was increasing and its weekly crowds were outgrowing the 3,000-seat venue. Organizers were seeking to build a new air-conditioned venue with a greater capacity and ample parking in a then-rural area of town, providing visitors a safer and more enjoyable experience.[1]

WSM, Inc. (a subsidiary of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company, later NLT Corporation), the operator of WSM-AM-FM-TV and the Opry, settled on a tract of land (Rudy's Farm) owned by a local sausage manufacturer in the Pennington Bend area of Nashville. The new Opry venue was to be the centerpiece of a grand entertainment complex at that location, which would come to include the theme park and a large hotel/convention center.

The theme park opened to the public on June 30, 1972,[2] well ahead of the Grand Ole Opry House, which debuted nearly two years later, on March 16, 1974. The park was named for WSM disc jockey Grant Turner's early morning show, "Opryland USA", itself a nod to the stars of the Grand Ole Opry. However, despite the obvious connection to country music, the park's overall theme was American music in general; there were jazz, gospel, bluegrass, pop, and rock and roll-themed attractions and shows in addition to country. Major thrill rides at the park's opening included the "Timber Topper" (later renamed "Rock 'n Roller Coaster") and "Flume Zoom" (later renamed "Dulcimer Splash").

In the fourth season in 1975, Opryland expanded for the first time. The "State Fair" area was constructed on land formerly occupied by the park's buffalo exhibit. The new expansion featured a large selection of carnival games, as well as the Wabash Cannonball roller coaster, Country Bumpkin Bump Cars, and Tennessee Waltz swings. However, shortly before opening for the season, the park fell victim to a large flood of the Cumberland River that covered most of the park and was as deep as sixteen feet in some locations. The park's opening was delayed by a month and several animals in the petting zoo were killed by the floodwaters.

Opryland became extremely successful during the mid-1970s, and by the 1977 season the park was drawing nearly 2 million guests annually, the preponderance of which were from Tennessee and adjoining states. The park also drew upon the continued appeal of the Opry show itself to Southern and Midwestern country music fans elsewhere, who often brought their families for a several-days' vacation in Nashville. The nearest theme parks comparable to Opryland were four to six hours away, in places such as Cincinnati (Kings Island), St. Louis (Six Flags over Mid-America), and Atlanta (Six Flags Over Georgia). Attendance continued to climb into the 1980s.

In 1977, Opryland Hotel (now called Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center), a large resort-style hotel, was built next door to the park, and has expanded several times to become the largest hotel in the world not attached to a casino.[3][4][5]

In 1979, Opryland added the Roy Acuff Theater, named after the beloved traditional country singer and pillar of the Opry, next door to the Grand Ole Opry House in the Plaza area. It was primarily used for the theme park's premier musical production. Because the theater was placed outside the park gates, tickets to the theme park were not required to attend shows at the Acuff. However, shows at this venue usually required a separately purchased ticket. This also allowed the general public to attend shows at the Acuff without having to pay for park admission, like the Opry itself.

Ownership change[edit]

In 1982, NLT was absorbed by Texas-based insurer American General (now part of the American International Group). American General, not at all interested in operating a theme park or broadcasting interests, attempted to sell all of NLT's entertainment assets including WSM-AM-FM-TV, the theme park, Opryland Hotel, and the Grand Ole Opry as one, approaching companies such as MCA, The Marriott Corporation and Anheuser-Busch. While many of the companies showed interest in one aspect of Opryland, such as the theme park alone or the radio station, none was willing to buy the entire complex. American General began to feel that the only way to sell Opryland would be to split it up into separate entities.

Suddenly, the Gaylord Broadcasting Company of Oklahoma City stepped in and purchased the entire Opryland property in 1982. It also bought the WSM radio stations, and it would have bought WSM-TV (now WSMV) as well, had the company not already been at the television ownership limit at the time. After the purchase, the company's name was changed to Gaylord Entertainment Company. Ed Gaylord, the then-controlling figure of Gaylord Entertainment, was a huge fan of the Opry and weighed in on the decision to purchase Opryland.

Also included in Gaylord's acquisition of the Opryland assets was WSM's fledgling cable network, The Nashville Network (TNN) and its production arm, Opryland Productions. TNN became a television network dedicated entirely to country music. For years, its offices and production facilities were located on-site at Opryland, and a nightly variety show (originally Nashville Now, later Music City Tonight and Prime Time Country) was taped at the Gaslight Theatre inside the park itself. The theme park was often featured on the network as a concert venue for country music stars.

1980s - 1990s[edit]

Opryland USA logo used from the late-1980s through the 1990s.
As a nod to its predecessor, the mandolin mark was incorporated into the original Opry Mills logo.

In 1982, Opryland expanded for the second and final time. The new area, entitled "Grizzly Country", was built on the extreme north end of the park to house the Grizzly River Rampage, a whitewater rapids ride.

In 1984, Opryland added a third roller coaster, "The Screamin' Delta Demon" (an Intamin bobsled-style ride), in the New Orleans area of the park. This project also included adding a second (albeit subtle) park gate adjacent to the parking lot.

In the mid-1980s, "Trickets" (three-day admission tickets for one price) were introduced and large numbers of season passes were sold to residents of the Nashville area.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, two new competitors to Opryland would emerge: Kentucky Kingdom in Louisville, Kentucky, and Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee (which had recently been converted and expanded from its previous incarnation as "Silver Dollar City"). These two parks grew into regional destinations, contributing in part to a decline in Opryland attendance. Partially in response to the competition, and to entice out-of-town guests to come, package deals including rooms at the hotel, tickets to Opryland, and admission to the Grand Ole Opry were developed and marketed throughout the region.

Annual changes were made to the park to continue to attract local Nashvillians as well as out-of-town visitors. Large attractions such as the General Jackson Showboat, new roller coasters, and water rides were installed on a biennial basis until 1989, with the opening of the "Chaos" roller coaster. The next (and final) large attraction to open would be "The Hangman" roller coaster in 1995.

The park also attracted top country music stars to perform nightly concerts at the park's premier venue, the Chevrolet-Geo Celebrity Theater, built in 1992. Initially included in park admission during the first two seasons, Opryland began upcharging for the concerts in 1994. In 1994, Opryland added two venues (Theatre by the Lake and the Roy Acuff Theatre) to its concert series, billing it as "Nashville On Stage". As part of this, the Geo Theatre and Theatre by the Lake venues were expanded. In 1994, the Geo was primarily occupied by the group Alabama for 104 shows. The Oak Ridge Boys and Tanya Tucker were the other two acts that filled in the rest of the Geo's dates. Theatre by the Lake hosted either George Jones or Tammy Wynette. The conventional concert series moved to the Acuff. During the day, the Acuff also hosted a live version of "Hee Haw" based on the long-running TV series. After lackluster sales, the multi-venue series scaled back after 1994 and reverted to only the Chevy-Geo Theater by 1997.

During the summer of 1993, the popular Mark Goodson game show Family Feud traveled to Opryland and taped several weeks of episodes that opened the show's sixth season with Ray Combs as host. These syndicated episodes began airing in September and featured some of country music's brightest stars including Porter Wagoner, Boxcar Willie, Charley Pride, Brenda Lee, the Mandrells, and the Statler Brothers, as well as at least one week of regular Nashville families playing against each other. As of 2012, it remains the only time in the history of the long-running series that episodes have been taped outside of its home studio.

Also, beginning in the early 1990s and continuing through its final season, as a nod to TNN's NASCAR coverage, as well as Opryland's official designation with NASCAR, the annual "TNN Salute to Motorsports" event would take place over a weeklong period. This included numerous motorsports exhibits as well as meet-and-greets with racing personalities.

In 1994, Gaylord Entertainment invested heavily in the renaissance of the entertainment district in downtown Nashville. The company converted an old Second Avenue building into the Wildhorse Saloon, renovated and reopened the Ryman Auditorium as a premier concert and theatre venue, and began to provide water taxi service along the Cumberland River between the docks adjacent to the amusement park and a dock downtown. As part of this, the amusement park's official name was changed to "Opryland Themepark". The "Opryland USA" name was then designated as the destination's name, to encompass all of Gaylord Entertainment's Nashville properties.

In September 1995 and September 1996, 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. Following those events (as well as 1997), 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.

In 1996, a third park gate was added near "Chaos", which allowed pedestrian traffic between Opryland Hotel and Opryland Themepark for the very first time. Previously, hotel guests wishing to visit the amusement park would be shuttled between the two on buses.

Shuttering and demolition[edit]

Rumors began to surface during the summer of 1997 that Gaylord was considering selling or demolishing the theme park. The decision to close the park and replace it with a shopping mall named Opry Mills was made public that November, about a week after the end of the park's regular season.[6]

The 1997 "Christmas in the Park" season was billed as a "last chance" for Nashvillians to see Opryland, though only a small portion of the park was open for the season, and many of the larger attractions were already being dismantled. The park closed permanently on December 31, 1997.

From the beginning, Opryland was severely handicapped by its location. The park was located on a roughly-triangular tract of land with the Cumberland River on one side, Briley Parkway on another, and the Opryland Hotel on the third. This meant that not only was the site subject to occasional flooding, but also that the park could not expand to include new attractions as consumer preferences changed. Opryland was forced to remove older attractions in order to add new ones, as was the case with the Raft Ride in 1986 for the Old Mill Scream, and the Tin Lizzies in 1994 for The Hangman. By 1993, the amusement park had reached 200 acres (0.81 km2) in size and had nowhere else to grow. In 1993, Gaylord Entertainment embarked on the largest-ever construction project in Nashville's history at the time: the Delta. This project, which opened in 1996, added an enormous new atrium, over 1,000 guestrooms, and a new convention complex to Opryland Hotel. The Delta, however, utilized all of the available land contiguous to Opryland Themepark, completely preventing any further expansions.

In addition, Nashville's climate made year-round operations almost impossible; seasons were largely limited to weekends in the late fall and early spring and daily in the summer. Seasonal workers became hard to find, and Gaylord found itself with a labor shortage. Attendance plateaued throughout the 1990s. By 1997, Gaylord management, in a move toward refocusing on its core hospitality businesses, decided that the Opryland property would no longer make a rate of return equal to that desired for its properties and was unlikely ever to return to doing so. Management decided the amusement park should be replaced by a property which made year-round usage of the site.

All five roller coasters and many other large attractions were sold to Premier Parks and moved to a field formerly occupied by the Old Indiana Fun Park near Indianapolis, Indiana, where the company had planned to build a new theme park. Those plans were soon scrapped when Premier Parks purchased Six Flags. The pieces of Opryland's attractions sat rusting in the Indiana field until 2002, when the site was sold. Some of the flat rides were sold for scrap metal, while the fate of many of the larger attractions remains unknown, although at least two of Opryland's former coasters (The Hangman and Rock n' Roller Coaster) found new life at Six Flags parks around the United States under different names. One of the Wabash Cannonball's cars appeared at a park in Europe as part of a Halloween display.

The themepark site was cleared and paved into a parking lot for Opry Mills and the Grand Ole Opry House by July 1999, while construction of the mall took place primarily on the site of the themepark's parking lot.

Post-demolition[edit]

Ruins of the old "Grizzly River Rampage" (October 2007).

Opry Mills opened May 12, 2000, under the ownership of Mills Corporation (later acquired by Simon Property Group). Gaylord Entertainment initially had a minority stake in the new shopping center, but later divested it. When the arrangements for the future of the Opryland property were made public in 1997, Gaylord announced its intentions to construct a new entry plaza for the Grand Ole Opry House with shops and restaurants, as well as a public marina and entertainment complex at Cumberland Landing (the General Jackson's port). However, these plans were abandoned as Gaylord focused less on entertainment and more on its hospitality assets.

The long low concrete levee wall which once separated the park's New Orleans, Riverside and State Fair areas from the Cumberland River is still a part of the mall grounds, and visitors who enter the mall property from the McGavock Pike entrance can still view remnants of the graded railroad embankment which once supported the tracks of the park's short-line railroad.

The Southern Living Cumberland River Cottage became a training center for hotel employees (Gaylord University), and was moved intact to the former location of Chaos until being torn down in 2010. The large administration building that briefly sat outside the park gates became the offices of the General Jackson and Music City Queen riverboats, and was moved intact to a location near the Cumberland Landing docks.

Much of the Opry Plaza area remained untouched and open for business. The Grand Ole Opry House, Roy Acuff Theater (later renamed BellSouth Acuff Theater), and the Grand Ole Opry Museum remained in constant use throughout and after demolition of the park. The buildings that once housed the Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl museums eventually became the administrative offices of WSM radio. The Gaslight Theater became home to Gaylord Opryland's annual ICE! exhibit, and was utilized as a rental facility for television production, banquets, and other events. It was the only building left standing that once occupied the gated theme park.

Though much of the hardware had been removed, the course of the Grizzly River Rampage water ride was visible along the path between Opry Mills and Gaylord Opryland for fourteen years after the ride entertained its final guests. In the fall of 2011, Gaylord Entertainment built a new events center designed mainly to hold the hotel's yearly "ICE!" exhibit nearby, clearing the old Grizzly River Rampage site in the process. By November 2011, all recognizable remnants of the theme park were gone.

In 2004, The Tennessean newspaper published a statement by Gaylord Entertainment claiming that current company executives had found no evidence that previous management ever had a business plan for Opryland, let alone any strategic analysis that led to closing it, and that no compelling reasons had been found for the park's closure. Most of the Opryland-era executives left Gaylord Entertainment early in the decade when it was refocused into a more hospitality-oriented company. In 2012, Gaylord CEO Colin Reed called the closing of Opryland "a bad idea," and said he spent much of his first year at Gaylord fielding complaints about it (he arrived at the company in 2001, more than three years after the park was demolished).[7][8]

On January 19, 2012, Gaylord Entertainment announced plans to open a new theme park in Nashville near Opryland's former location. Plans call for a park that can be used nearly year-round, as a water park in the summer and snow park in the winter. It was planned to be a joint venture with Dolly Parton and Herschend Family Entertainment (owners/operators of Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee) and was expected to open in 2014,[9] but Dollywood and Herschend backed out of the plans later that year, citing Gaylord's decision to sell the rights to operate its hotel chain to Marriott International as a reason for exiting.[10]

As the company transitioned into a real estate investment trust in 2012, Gaylord Entertainment was renamed Ryman Hospitality Properties.

2010 Tennessee floods[edit]

The Opryland site was flooded in early May 2010, after two days of torrential downpours in the Nashville area caused the Cumberland River to overflow its banks.

The flood itself did not destroy any buildings on Gaylord's property, but every building on site was severely damaged by the floodwater. Buildings that were demolished—rather than repaired—after the flood include the Roy Acuff Theater, Gaslight Theater, the Gaylord University building, the WSM administration buildings (former Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff museums), and the former Opryland Hospitality Center.

Gaylord Opryland, the Grand Ole Opry House, and the General Jackson were closed for several months and all reopened in late 2010. The Grand Ole Opry Museum has remained closed, though the building was restored following the flood. Opry Mills became entangled in a legal battle over flood insurance payout, stalling its flood repairs for several months, and fully reopened on March 29, 2012.

As of 2012, the Grand Ole Opry House, Roy Acuff's former home, and the Grand Ole Opry Museum are the only theme park-era structures remaining on the property. The Cumberland Landing building was relocated from the gates of the theme park to the riverbank upon demolition of the park. It was vacated following the flood, but remains standing.

Notable rides[edit]

View from the Skyride circa 1975. The "Tin Lizzie" old-timey car ride is visible. "The Hangman" roller coaster was built on this site in 1995.
RideYear builtYear demolishedDescription
The Hangman19951997A Vekoma suspended looping coaster

Was the last new ride for the park.

Wabash Cannonball19751997Arrow Dynamics corkscrew coaster
Rock 'n Roller Coaster19721997An Arrow Dynamics runaway mine train coaster, originally called "Timber Topper"
Chaos19891997An Enclosed Vekoma Illusion roller coaster
Screamin' Delta Demon19841997An Intamin bobsled coaster
Grizzly River Rampage19821997An Intamin river rapids raft ride
Old Mill Scream19871997A Shoot the chutes boat ride
Dulcimer Splash19721997A Log Flume ride. Originally named "Flume Zoom"
Tin Lizzies19721995An antique car ride. Removed for "The Hangman"
Barnstormer19781997A 100-foot-tall spinning airplane ride
Opryland Railroad19721997A 3 ft (914 mm) narrow gauge[11] train ride that went around the park
Skyride19721997Von Roll type 101 sky ride
Little Deuce Coupe19721997A dome-enclosed Calypso ride. Originally open-air and called "Disc Jockey"
Tennessee Waltz19751997A Wave Swinger ride
Little Rock 'n Roller Coaster19721997A kiddie coaster. Originally named "Little Timber Topper"
Raft Ride19721986Simulated ride on wooden rafts. Removed for "Old Mill Scream". First attraction removed from Opryland.
Skycoaster19951997Suspended swinging ride, an upcharge attraction. Originally constructed in State Fair Area, moved in 1997 to Lakeside Area

See also[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]