There are plans in the works to add a rollercoaster to Nashville’s skyline. Aside from the obvious questions—“Why?” and “WHY?” and of course “We’ve got everything else, so why not?”—I want to know where they’re going to put it, how much it will cost to ride, how long it will be before the lines diminish enough that I can go for a spin on my lunch break—or rather before since I wouldn’t want to risk losing my lunch—and of course, why? If you want to be strapped into a vehicle scaling the heights at high speeds surrounded by dozens of other screaming people I suggest driving down 840 in the early afternoon when everybody’s rushing back to work after their lunch break. Admittedly the planned structure does look kind of cool, at least if you think taking Seattle’s Space Needle and wrapping a high-speed roller coaster around its exterior is a cool thing, but whoever’s behind the plan might have forgotten that Nashville used to have roller coasters. Nashville used to have its own amusement park called Opryland. It died a slow painful death and was dismantled. It’s now a mall. I went to the Opry Mills mall once several years ago—I went to the Tower Records, which was in its own death throes at the time. It was, well, a mall, albeit bigger than any of Nashville’s other now defunct malls. It had a merry-go-round inside it which seemed like a sad reminder of the amusement park that used to occupy that space. As I walked around the outside of the mall I found an even sadder reminder: Opryland’s old entrance gates, where people in bright shirts and straw hats used to smile and take your money, were still intact. The mall builders tore down everything else but left the gates, like the legs of Ozymandias, still standing. I remembered how the ticket sellers would also stamp the back of your hand as you entered. I felt like it was a stamp of approval, and I liked it that after we went home in the evening, after I’d gone to sleep, I could wake up the next morning and the faded traces of that stamp would still be on my hand.
Yes, there was something pretty goofy about an amusement park built around a country music theme. Then again theme parks are kind of goofy anyway. You pay for the privilege of wandering around an enclosed fantasy world where you’re subjected to sensory overload and nickeled and dimed at every turn. At least Opryland’s tribute to local music history wasn’t as much of a stretch as the multiple iterations of Six Flags. Disney, on the other hand, has a huge and expansive universe to draw on for its theme park themes, and not all of its rides are based on movies. Some of its movies are based on rides.
I understand Opryland went under because it was a huge money pit. In fact it’s amazing it hung on for a quarter of a century, from 1972 to 1997, especially since at most it was open only seven months of the year, from March to October, and for the first month usually operated only on weekends. From November to April it was shuttered and empty, except for an ugly incident when a caretaker went crazy and tried to kill his wife and son before he froze to death in the petting zoo, but that’s another story.
Every spring commercials for Opryland would pop up on TV and that was one of my favorite signs that the cold dark Tennessee winter would soon be at its end, that summer was coming, and coming rapidly. It didn’t matter that we usually only went to Opryland once each summer. It was something to look forward to. It may not have been the happiest place on Earth—I’m not sure any theme park really is in spite of some of them claiming that title—but it was a lot of fun, even from the beginning. The scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation where Clark parks at the very back of the completely empty parking lot, with the idea that they’ll be able to get out easily, doesn’t make me laugh. It stirs a little nostalgia in me, not because my father did that, but because the Opryland parking lot was patrolled by little trams that carried people to the entrance. I loved riding the trams with their hard plastic seats. They were like a ride before the rides, and at night when we were headed home they carried little globe lights that could be seen floating along in the dark.
As I got older it seems like I went to Opryland more often, or maybe the trips were just more enjoyable because I was no longer tied to my parents and could go off with my friends. Early one summer my friend John had me convinced that he and my friend Jeff had been given season passes and that they’d be going daily, or at least several times a week, and that I’d need a season pass too if I wanted to spend any time with them. My parents called his bluff. They refused to buy me a season pass without seeing his first and his entire plan—to pressure his parents into buying him a season pass because I had one—unraveled. Even now I think it was a pretty clever plan. John’s a successful lawyer now.
Opryland’s country music theme meant it had a lot of stages and even a couple of theaters where shows were put on, like a revue of the history of American music, which made the place vaguely educational. This meant that it was at the very least an outlet, if not a jumping off point, for aspiring performers. But for me the real attraction was the rides. To get across the park there was the train and the Skyride, which took you up in a four-person car over the park. There was The Barnstormer, another plane ride that went around in a circle but you could look down from a hundred feet up at the lake where The Raft Ride—faux wooden rafts—slowly carried people around the water. Sometime in the late 1970’s Opryland upgraded its country music theme slightly and added Doo Wah Diddy City. I guess they figured nostalgia for ‘50’s rock’n’roll would be safe, and the Disc Jockey Ride—sort of like Disney’s Mad Tea Cup ride, but with wooden half-barrels—was renamed The Little Deuce Coupe. It was also enclosed under a dome and riders were subjected to a psychedelic light show. It was fantastic. And there was an amazing antique carousel on the shore of the lake that had been rescued from a defunct theme park in Germany. There were also the Tin Lizzies, Model T’s that you drove around a track. You didn’t even need a license. My favorite ride was The Tennessee Waltz—spinning swings.
There were also the roller coasters. When I was seven or eight I really, really, really wanted to ride The Wabash Cannonball, the park’s central massive coaster that flipped riders upside down which, at the time, was a big deal even though it’s a standard feature of coasters now. My parents convinced me to work my way up to it, starting out on the kiddie coaster, which jerked around about three feet off the ground, and then I rode The Timber Topper, the park’s second-biggest coaster that would be renamed The Rock’N’Roller Coaster. And that’s when I realized I really, really, really didn’t like roller coasters. While everyone around me was screaming and throwing their hands in the air like a bunch of mid-afternoon commuters going down 840 I was holding on and hoping for it to be over. I wouldn’t get on another roller coaster again until I was in college, the last time I would go to Opryland. The roller coaster was called Chaos and was completely enclosed, taking riders through a series of 3-D screens. Except they hadn’t gotten the 3-D glasses yet so it took us through a series of very blurry screens. It was terrifying but I kind of enjoyed it.
And yet I didn’t go and try the other roller coasters. Looking back now it feels like a missed opportunity. As I’ve gotten older I’ve been more inclined to push my own limits, to try things that once terrified me, like seeing horror films or eating tomatoes. I haven’t been to an amusement park since the last time I went to Opryland but I think I’d like to have another go at roller coasters, to see if maybe this time I’ll get a thrill out of a thrill ride. Nashville’s skyline rollercoaster is still a few years away and whether it’ll even be built is still uncertain at this point, but if it is I’ll take a ride. Why not?