So what on earth would prompt me to actually write a personal blog post after about a six-month gap?
I suppose it’s a combination of things. My daughter just started her senior year of high school, which obviously brings some rumination along the lines of how the hell did that much time pass that fast. Plus it’s Labor Day weekend, which has several weighty too-large-for-carryon chunks of personal baggage for me. I won’t go into all that, but something I ran across earlier today seriously picked the lock on my memory-closet.
It was this picture, in the middle of a bunch of other pictures of abandoned amusement parks.
See, when I was a kid growing up around Atlanta through the 70s and early 80s, my family would generally end up going to Panama City Beach for vacation — often around this time of year. I didn’t know it at the time, but I benefited from a unique period in that area’s history. It was in the midst of the first big boom in tourism there, which evidently had started in the early/mid-60s (my parents told me stories of sleeping on its nearly deserted beaches in the 50s, their Chevy parked beside them). But it was before PC Beach became synonymous with MTV-style spring breakers in the 80s and 90s, and before the real estate land-grab of the 2000s which razed almost everything left of the indigenous culture (such as it was) in favor of gigantic condo developments.
I wasn’t much of a beach person even as a kid. I mean, I had fun on the beach — digging for sand crabs, daring waves to knock me down, making sand castles, and getting seriously sunburned. But for me it was all prelude to visiting the amusement parks in the area at night. Especially the “Miracle Strip Amusement Park.”
This picture in particular was of the Abominable Snowman ride, where they basically had a classic Scrambler ride inside a big dome, with the snowman crouched over the door. The snowman dome wasn’t added until I was about 12, but I have vivid memories of waiting what seemed forever to get into the dome to get slung around in the dark with giant speakers pumping Van Halen and a light show timed to the music — and especially the air conditioning inside, which made the wait all the more worthwhile. Few things are so wrapped up with my visceral memories of early adolescence.
My favorite parts of the park were the scary ones, though; and those are the parts that tap into my very early memories of the sort of thing that still scares and thrills me the most. Miracle Strip had two “dark” attractions: one was a Haunted Castle, which had cars on tracks that would take you through jarring, loud haunted-funhouse moments, including a terrifically psychedelic twirling tunnel.
The other was a walk-through attraction called the Old House, complete with a hidden passage behind a fireplace, and a balcony that would drop at an angle suddenly and blow air up from its floor to feel as though you were about to fall to the ground two floors below.
The Old House had a clockwork ghost or two — I recall a few on the very top of it that you could just barely see going in a circle as if in some evil ritual (impossibly high up on what seemed such a huge haunted house to a grade schooler); and there was another that would come out a door about halfway up, onto a balcony, then look out at the crowd to show its hideously frightening skeletal face, only to turn quickly back and go back into the house.
Anyway … these and more wonderful things have been preserved in the sprawling simulacra of the Internet. Thankfully, since the Miracle Strip was closed in 2004 to make room for a real-estate-boom condo orgy that never happened, only to leave the bones of the park to sit there until chunks were sold off over time, or just left to fall apart like the now-venerable Snowman.
The Old House was shuttered and never moved anywhere else, but the creative minds behind it designed and built a very similar attraction in Gatlinburg called the Mysterious Mansion.
There are some great collections online of photos from the wacky stuff I grew up seeing at PC Beach, of which the Miracle Strip (Miracle Strip Flickr Group) was only part. There was also something called Jungle Land that had a realistic volcano you could walk through, with throbbing “lava” red lights and face-sized holes you could look through in the fake-lava-rock walls to see scary stuff like piles of skulls and the depths of the “volcano.”
There are still some relics left (the amazing “Goofy Golf” assembly of grotesqueries is evidently still around, and the volcano is still there as part of a gaudy beach-gift-shop chain).
Whenever I end up on a memory-jag like this, it’s both rewarding and draining. I don’t think we’re built to experience such ease of access to artifacts from our past. Emotional vertigo — that’s how I tend to think of it.
But it was great to learn more about all this stuff, especially that there were particular individuals (especially a guy named Vincent “Val” Valentine, an erstwhile animator for things like the Popeye cartoons, and an apparently legendary designer of “dark” amusement park attractions named Bill Tracy) behind the design of so much of this stuff. I didn’t realize when I was a kid how odd it was that such environmental design virtuosity was right there on the “Redneck Riviera.”