Now that Country Music Television and The Nashville Network have been sold off, Gaylord Entertainment Co. is considering another radical moverazing much of the Opryland theme park and replacing it with an entertainment-based retail district.
There hasn’t been a final decision about getting rid of the park, where attendance has stagnated. But the possibility of Opryland’s demise is being much discussed at Gaylord and in local business and tourism circles.
Gaylord has been faced with continued anemic gate receipts at its 25-year-old Opryland U.S.A. theme park, and the jury is still out on whether recent changes theresuch as the new Dick Clark American Bandstand show and sexy new rides like the Hangmanhave done anything to improve the outlook. Gaylord won’t release the park’s attendance figures for the year thus far, but numbers have remained flat over the last several years. Last year, attendance actually dropped. This year, sources say another drop is expected as well.
The theme park has become a drain on company earnings. Even though it is only one of Gaylord’s revenue sources, the company is posing the question of whether Opryland is a venture into which it should pour any more resources.
Over the past year, Gaylord’s affairs have been in flux. Dick Evans, the company’s COO, was driven out, and E.W. “Bud” Wendell, president and CEO of Gaylord Entertainment, retired. During the same time period, Gaylord sold its Nashville-based cable TV properties, CMT and TNN, which many viewed as the corporation’s crown jewels.
These changes came about as the company’s founders, the Gaylord family of Oklahoma, took a more active role in selling certain properties and as a new CEO, Terry London, attempted to chart a course that would assure the company’s long-term profitability.
Given this context, it doesn’t seem outlandish at all that Gaylord would consider leveling the theme park.
In fact, many Nashville insiders have made their peace with the prospect of big changes at Opryland. When Gaylord board members convened last week, rumors about the park’s imminent closing were running rampant. However, when Wendell, once the grand old man of Opryland, was asked this week about the park’s possible shut-down, he would only say that Gaylord had been considering a variety of options. “We’ve talked over the years about a lot of different thingsadditions, deletions...normal things a company would do with somewhat flat attendance,” said Wendell, who is no longer on the board of directors. “That’s all I can say.”
Gaylord’s corporate spokesman, Alan Hall, would neither confirm nor deny that there are plans to lock the Opryland gates. “As you know, we have been exploring different opportunities with the park for several years,” he said, “and we have had different people with different companies approach us with ideas they have had.” Hall said Gaylord is “looking at each one and giving each serious consideration and evaluation.”
One thing is certain about Opryland: Whenever the city’s 900-pound gorilla gets the shakes, virtually everyone else in town feels the tremor. Talk of closing Opryland has led tourism officials to pause for a sanity check. One major player in local tourism even said closing the park is “something that could, in the end, have a positive effect, because it would certainly cause us to reevaluate where we’ve been.”
Opryland U.S.A. opened its gates in 1972. The nearby Opryland Hotelthen 600 roomsopened shortly thereafter, followed in short order by the new Grand Ole Opry House. Combining the theme park, the Opry House, and the hotel was a brilliant business strategy. The pedal steel guitars whined, the ferris wheels turned, and the visitorsmost of them working-class and middle-classgladly paid their money.
For many, the construction of the Opryland complex signaled the birth of organized corporate tourism in Nashville, but that blessed event had actually taken place five years earlier in 1967, when the Country Music Hall of Fame opened its doors. That year the Hall of Fame attracted an astonishing 120,000 visitors, serving notice that tourists not only liked to listen to country musicthey wanted to get up close and personal with it too. Expanded in 1977, the Hall of Fame had half a million visitors in 1978. Faced with that success, the purveyors of Barbara Mandrell bathrobes and Elvis ashtrays opened a row of souvenir shops on nearby Demonbreun Street. At the same time, satellite businesses were popping up around the Opryland complex, which had spawned an exurbia all its own.
After that first burst of energy, however, Nashville tourism took well over a decade to shift into second gear. The city’s tourism picture remained virtually unchanged from those early days of the Hall of Fame and Opryland until the early ’90s. In 1978, some 7.7 million visitors came to town. By 1991 the number of visitors had even slipped a littleto 7.5 million.
Some five years ago, however, Nashville was scared out of its doldrums by developments in a third-rate tourist trap, Branson, Mo. There, what appeared to be a pathetic, disorganized collection of theaters and concert venues had sprung up featuring artists who, by and large, were either washed up or of little interest to Nashville’s country music scene. But there were other reasons for Nashville to get off its duff. Chattanooga was constructing a glorious aquarium, an I-Max theater, and a river walk, and Memphis was reviving its Beale Street district.
Meanwhile, Nashville sat idly by. Tourism didn’t even seem to be much of a priority. When the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce decided to mount a marketing campaign for the city, it consciously avoided using the tag “Music City U.S.A.,” even though the entire world associated Nashville with that nickname. The campaign made it clear that the city’s business class wanted to disassociate themselves from the grubby tourist trade.
Then, about five years ago, Gaylord once again took charge and began to reverse the tide of events. Despite the disappointing tourism numbers of the early ’90s, the entertainment giant undertook significant investments downtownthe renovation of the Ryman Auditorium, the construction of Wildhorse Saloon on Second Avenue, and the implementation of a river-taxi program to shuttle tourists back and forth from downtown to the Opryland complex. These projects ignited still more activity downtown, transforming Second Avenue from a string of attorneys’ offices into a dense mix of attractions for tourists and conventioneers. Later, that mix would grow even spicier with the addition of Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood.
We are not alone
Nashville tourism is more exciting, and more complicated, than it was before Gaylord wheeled into downtown. No longer are the locals nonplussed when a German-speaking tourist asks where the action is. Today, the natives know what to dothey direct the outlanders downtown. Five years ago, the average Nashvillian would have been hard-pressed to tell a visitor how to have a fun time in Music City.
A spanking-new Country Music Hall of Fame is to be constructed South of Broadway, in the rapidly emerging SoBro area. The downtown arena has increased the number of performances and events Nashville can host. The East Bank stadium promises to be another plus.
Today, Nashville reports 9.5 million visitors every year. To some degree, that surge in numbers has been sparked by the country music boom. New attractions downtown, and the redefinition of Lower Broadway and Second Avenue as “entertainment destinations,” have also played a part. But even though there’s plenty of success to spread around, Opryland U.S.A. isn’t getting its share.
Initially, the closing of Opryland U.S.A. would be greeted as a portent of doom and gloom. But truth be told, the gloomy predictions might be wrong.
A completely nonscientific analysis suggests that most of Opryland’s visitors are not the out-of-town visitors who are the life’s blood of any city’s tourism industry. Instead, the typical Opryland visitor and his family likely come from the counties surrounding Nashville. Opryland U.S.A. has become a playground for area parents, at least the ones who can afford it. Except for its allure as the home of the Opry, it long ago ceased to hold much interest for tourists.
The closing of Opryland U.S.A. would transform the city’s tourism picture. Some would argue that the sprawling complex has led Nashville’s tourism industry to grow complacent. Certainly, after Opryland ignited the industry, Nashville tourism did not grow as fast as it might have.
If the amusement park were to close, Nashville tourism would no longer be dominated by a 900-pound gorilla; instead, it would simply have a 600-pound chimpanzee as a major player. The other players in Nashville’s tourism industry would be forced to cooperate in order to reach their potential as a major tourism center.
“If we looked at our resources, we could really get a great combination of resources in Nashville,” said an important figure in local tourism. Belle Meade Mansion. The Hermitage. Cheekwood. Travellers Rest. These are some of Nashville’s unexploited tourism bonanzas. And they can’t be duplicated by anyone elsenot even at a Gaylord theme park.
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