Home » Forget Trapped Tigers… Here are 12 Roadside Attractions For Any Theme Park Fan’s Bucket List

Forget Trapped Tigers… Here are 12 Roadside Attractions For Any Theme Park Fan’s Bucket List

As Americans dusted themselves off in the wake of World War II, the 1950s gave way to an era never seen before: one where two working parents, family automobiles, and the GI Bill created something never seen before: a middle class awash with leisure time, extra income, and an interstate highway system begging to be explored.

Mid-century America was defined by families packed into sedans, heading out on the open road. And en route to National Parks or beaches, an entirely new enterprise was invented. Giant balls of twine. Alien oddities. Tourist traps. Sculpted dinosaurs eating Union soldiers… From tourist traps to genuine roadside wonders, stopping by something that sounds unusual is as baked into Americana as baseball and apple pie. And while the “gotta-see-it” trend has indeed opened its fair share of questionable and downright disappointing attractions – including some frustrating and non-AZA-accredited animal parks, perhaps like those seen in Netflix’s 2020 docu-series, Tiger King – don’t let it spoil roadside America for you.

After all, for seventy years, the tradition of must-see one-off attractions has only grown. Today’s “roadside attractions” run the gammut from historic classics to multi-media must-sees born of the 21st century. 

Today, the United States hosts innumerable sights from “world’s largest” icons to spectacular attractions all theme park fans should see. We’ll focus on the latter in our cross-country trip to attractions both classic and contemporary; those that inspired and those that were inspired by the parks we love.

1. Weeki Wachee Springs

Location: Weeki Wachee, Florida

Weeki Wachee Springs is one of those ultra-classic roadside attractions dating back to the 1950s. Located about two hours west of Walt Disney World along Florida’s Gulf Coast, this sensational nature park owes its status as a Florida icon to Oliver Newton Perry who laid claim to the crystal clear, bottomless, spring-fed, 100-foot wide limestone basin. While Perry could’ve simply operated the spring as a nature park (common throughout Florida), he instead decided to add a little pizzazz.

Perry populated this spring with “mermaids” – graceful atheletes who learned to free-dive in the basin, breathing through air-hoses and drinking a non-carbonated grape beverage underwater as onlookers gathered into an 18-seat sunken theater with a window into the underwater world.

ABC purchased the attraction in 1957 and built a 200-seat theater, using their TV leverage to push Weeki Wachee into mid-century pop culture. Today, the Springs and its mermaid shows are maintained as a State Park. We actually took a “deep dive” into this particular attraction in a standalone feature – Roadside Wonders: Weeki Wachee Springs – if you want to learn more about the place that real mermaids call home.

2. Meow Wolf

Location: Santa Fe, New Mexico

Quite the opposite stands Meow Wolf – a leading icon of today’s “roadside attractions.” Meow Wolf is an art collective and entertainment company formed in Santa Fe in 2008. While they’ve been the creators and curators of a number of immersive art exhibits across the region, their biggest move was in 2015 when George R. R. Martin (creator of Game of Thrones) pledged $2.7 million to renovate a vacant Santa Fe bowling alley into a permanent facility for Meow Wolf.

Opened in 2016, that facility and its permanent installation – The House of Eternal Return – took the themed entertainment world by storm. An ultra-immersive, totally-accessible, and wildly-imagined art installation, the House of Eternal Return invites guests into the home of a family who tapped into an extradimensional force known as “The Anomaly,” fracturing their otherwise lovely home with portals through time and space. Guests can step through the fridge, slide through the clothes drier, crawl through the fireplace, and more.

Each portal leads to artistic landscapes from vaguely-Harajuku streetscapes to ancient caverns alight with glowing skeletons; blacklight forests to trailers overtaken by alien plant life. There are treehouses in glowing forests, neon cities, infinite rooms, mid-century laboratories, and more. This fractured, interdimensional playground is layered with stories and narratives you can explore – or not! – as you travel through trippy, otherworldly sights and sounds in an epic adventure of your own making.

Meow Wolf is opening further immersive exhibitions (Las Vegas in 2020, and Denver in 2021). In anticipation of their Denver opening, Meow Wolf oversaw the redesign of a dark ride in Denver’s Elitch Gardens amusement park, creating one of our must-see attractions of 2019.

3. Winchester Mystery House

Location: San Jose, California

The Winchester Mystery House is one of the more peculiar sideshows you’ll find for theme park fans… The home was initially built in 1884 at the bequest of Sarah Winchester whose husband William Winchester (treasurer of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company; manufacturer of Winchester rifles) died just three years earlier. At once, Sarah inherited today’s equivalent of a half-a-billion-dollars from her late husband (and would continue earning the modern equivalent of $26,000 per day from the company as well).

Distraught over the unexpected death of her daughter and husband, Sarah consulted a psychic who (allegedly channeling William) instructed her to built a home to move West and to build a home for all the spirits who’d died as a result of Winchester rifles. Sarah apparently came to believe that only by continuing construction on the home would the spirits remain at peace, and it’s said that construction continued “around the clock, without interruption” on the Queen Anne Style Late Victorian mansion until the day she died in 1922. 

No one can say for sure if the home and truly expanding continuously, 24/7 for 38 years (though Sarah certainly had the money to fund it!), but today, the Winchester Mansion contains 160 rooms which include 47 fireplaces, 40 staircases, six kitchens, and 13 bathrooms. Curiously, Sarah’s push for continuous construction yielded staircases that terminate in solid ceilings, windows built into the floors, doors that open onto multi-story drops, and other oddities – all alongside priceless stained glass, elegant ballrooms, and historic artwork. It’s said that the odd, unsettling, and strange goings-on of the Winchester Mansion were a direct inspiration for the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.

Coolest of all, the Winchester Mystery House is offering 360-degree virtual tour access for $8.99 during the COVID-19 pandemic!

4. Mystery Spot

Location: Santa Cruz, California

For its historic appeal alone, we have to include the Mystery Spot – a good ole-fashioned tourist trap in the redwoods of Santa Cruz. To be clear, Mystery Spot falls within a category of roadside attractions called “gravity hills,” with many scattered around the country. Advertised as a “gravitational anomaly,” the gotta-see-it draw of the mystique alone began drawing the curious when it opened in 1940. Especially in an era before social media, the allure of “Mystery Spots” and “Things” were all it took to draw people off a highway – something today’s Google-friendly culture wouldn’t necessarily grasp.

This 45-minute guided tour through a “circular area of effect about 150 feet in diameter” includes some ultra-classic “anti-gravity” demonstrations and optical illusions, including a chance to visit the Mystery Shack where water appears to flow uphill and balls roll against gravity. Though it’s less than $10 per person to explore, you have to enter the Mystery Spot knowing what you’re getting – a charming throwback to the roadside wonders of yesteryear. 

Today, the Mystery Spot is a California Historic Landmark. For theme park fans, it’s worth seeing not only for its laugh-worthy illusions and picturesque setting, but for the mythos and narrative its founders were able to craft, elevating it from a troust trap to a beloved (if divisive) attraction.

5. Ohio State Reformatory

Location: Mansfield, Ohio

Located about halfway between Cleveland and Columbus stands the Ohio State Reformatory. Equal parts fortress and prison, this gargantuan facility began construction in 1886 and took more than thirty years to build. Though it was ordered closed in 1990, the prison still holds a world record: it contains the largest free-standing cell block in the world with its six-story East Cell Block. Over the course of its sordid history, the Ohio State Reformatory was home to 200 deaths, leading to its recognition as one of the most haunted places in the country.

With that being said, the Mansfield Reformatory’s biggest claim to fame be its history in Hollywood. The spectacular, sprawling grounds and downright incredible interior have made it the set for dozens and dozens of movies, television shows, and music videos. Its most-well known role was in 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption

Now cared for by the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society, the supposedly-haunted facility offers fundraising tours four days a week. Whether you’re into its cinematic connections, the real life and times of the inmates who called it home, or want to stir up some of the spirits within, there’s a tour for you. The Society even offers ghost walks and ghost-hunting classes for kids, and private ghost hunting for more experienced phantom-seekers… 

6. City Museum

Location: St. Louis, Missouri

The City Museum isn’t like any museum you’ve seen before. There are no maps. There are no velvet ropes to stand behind. An unimaginable fusion of art installation, science center, playground, and social experiment, this experience all takes place within and around a former ten story home furnishings factory and warehouse. It opened in 1997 under the eye of founder and artistic director Bob Cassilly. Consisting largely of “repurposed architectural and industrial objects,” this no-holds-barred experience is literally an oddball theme park.

Guests can climb up a massive “Slinky” spiral (actually an old refrigerating coil donated by Anheuser-Busch), climb through carved caves (above), play in a warehouse skatepark, slide down 10-story twisted slide, run in human hamster wheels, and more. In fact, visitors are encouraged to bring kneepads and a flashlight. A limitless, imaginative place, the City Museum has miles of tunnels, slides, climbers, bridges, and castles.  There are secret passages and grand galleries. Playgrounds and ball pits. A circus and a train.

Probably the coolest and most well-known part of the City Museum, though, is its seasonal Rooftop, where guests can sit inside of and climb the interior of a discarded open air Planetarium dome from a nearby science center, ride a rooftop Ferris wheel ten stories over St. Louis, hop through a fountain, and even walk the length of a school bus cantalevered out from the edge of the building.

7. Alcatraz East Crime Museum

Location: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

If you’ve been to Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg, Tennessee, you know that this region at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains may in fact be the tourist attraction capital of the United States. In fact, tourism is quite literally the backbone of the region, all building off of the nearby Dollywood theme park. We’re talking Las Vegas levels of glitz and glam, dinner shows, museums, rides, theaters, Ferris wheels, restaurants, and more. And sure, there are plenty of “stinkers” in Pigeon Forge (when you consider their elevated prices). But there are also some gems!

Among the gems is the Alcatraz East Crime Museum – a legitimately impressive themed entertainment offering. Originally operated in Washington, D.C. as the National Museum of Crime and Punishment, the move to Pigeon Forge brought with it the need to fit in with the area’s other roadside attractions (hence the name and the imposing exterior). But inside, the attraction walks through thematic eras of American history and the respective crimes and brutal punishments of each. It’s engaging (are dare we say, fun?) for the whole family. 

The museum also has some very real memorobilia for the true-crime obsessed, and My Favorite Murder murderinos will probably be speechless seeing O. J. Simpson’s real white Ford Bronco and Ted Bundy’s Volkswagon Beetle and typewriter. Theme park fans will probably appreciate the scenic design, organization, and the optional add-on scavenger hunt that forces you to slow down and experiment with the interactives – which you’ll be glad you did.

8. Musée Mécanique

Location: San Francisco, California

The Musée Mécanique (the “Mechanical Museum”) is a spectacular, open-air, sunlight-filled, free-admission museum located on Pier 45 in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. (For Disney California Adventure fans, it’s within walking distance of the real Boudin Bakery emulated in the park’s Pacific Wharf!). The museum offers hundreds and hundreds of coin-operated games and experiences from historic hand-cranks to music boxes and modern arcade cabinets (even including the legendary “Laffing Sal”, below.)

Filled with the kinds of 20th century penny arcade games you’d expect to find on a real life Main Street, U.S.A., the museum has many rare finds. A large diorama of a traveling carnival with a Ferris wheel and other rides sits in the center of the museum. The museum owns what is believed to be the only steam-powered motorcycle in the world, dating to 1912. If you commit to spending a few dollars inside to bring some of the old-fashioned dioramas and games to life, you’ll find yourself laughing, shocked, surprised, and speechless. The museum even has the Royal Court diorama (featuring puppeted ballroom dancing couples) that was featured in the Panama-Pacific Exposition.

9. Gatorland

Location: Orlando, Florida

Here’s another roadside Floridian classic. Gatorland is a well-known daydrip away from the curated and “magical” Orlando you know into the real, true Central Florida that once was. A full zoological park dedicated to Florida’s oldest residents (no, not retirees), Gatorland is well-known for its meshing of “Old Florida” charm and modern fun. Yes, like the G. W. Zoo featured in Tiger King, this park dedicates itself to the display of a species. But Gatorland is as informational and educative as it is entertaining, with nature trails, aviaries, and attractions.

Like Weeki Wachee, we dedicated an entire in-depth feature to the history of this Floridian original – Roadside Wonders: Gatorland.

10. Colonial Williamsburg

Location: Williamsburg, Virginia

Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia is a historic district brought to life as a living-history museum. The 301-acre region within Williamsburg is part historic project, part tourist attraction, drawing visitors from Virginia’s Historic Triangle (Jamestown, Yorktown, and Williamsburg) and from nearby Washington, D.C. The entire 300-acre district maintains the appearance, trades, and occupations of the 1700s as a living testament to the patriots and livelihoods that created the United States. Colonial Williamsburg (and its shops and restaurants) are open to the public, but tickets are necessary to enter the living history businesses and homesteads staffed by historic interpreters. 

Within Colonial Williamsburg, shepherding, masonry, candlemaking, shoe-making, habberdashery, blacksmithing, and more are retained not just in living history “actors,” but in tradespeople who sincerely study and rise through apprenticeships in an enduring attempt to keep these ways of life going. Guests can tour manors, homesteads, coffee shops, and more all while interacting with interpreters who share stories about the real people who inhabited this real town. While the “accuracy” and “authenticity” of Colonial Williamsburg has been disputed, the immersive attraction is nonetheless the “real world” world-building equivalent of Batuu or Pandora; a living world that must be seen.

And yes, it was also Colonial Williamsburg that inspired MIchael Eisner and a group of Disney executives to pursue their own living history attraction in the region – the never-built Possibilityland: Disney’s America that was frought with controversy and contempt.

11. Otherworld

Location: Columbus, Ohio

Only an hour from the Ohio State Reformatory stands Otherworld – another new-age art installation / immersive exhibition in the style of Meow Wolf. Opened in 2018, this experience is built around a mythos all its own. Located in a once-bustling, now-vacant shopping plaza on the far East side of Columbus, there’s a post-apocolyptic air to Otherworld. After all, its neighbors as far as the eye can see are the remains of now-vacant big-box stores, their logos visible only by way of the sun-bleached paint behind them. It’s the perfect setting for “Otherworld Industries,” a dystopian, quasi-governmental agency exploring dreams.

Of course, guests – as test subjects – are invited into incredible hands-on worlds that range from jubilant to spooky (but still appropriate for all ages). While many of the attraction’s sights are physical sets, there are also vast expanses of world created through projection – and interactive ones at that! – where guests can shatter crystals, send fish scurrying, and surround themselves in 360-degree galaxies. There’s a deeper narrative to uncover, as well, by gathering pieces of an otherworldly code to power up a massive light tower in the center of the dream world.

It’s funny – classic attractions like Mystery Spot, Weeki Wachee Wpeings, and The Thing relied on word-of-mouth and the draw of the unknown for their viral appeal, daring guests to come inside to find out what they contained. Now as yet another example of the next generation of roadside wonders, Otherworld is all about being Instagram-friendly! It’s immersive, interactive, and shareable, working off of the (astute) assumption that even if you see it online, you haven’t really seen it until you’ve seen it with your own eyes.

12. Evermore Park

Location: Pleasant Grove, Utah

Ever since the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2010, the direction of themed entertainment design has pivoted from single attractions to immersive lands that allow guests to occupy a physical world and partake in the snacks and souvenirs it provides. That formula was taken to the next level thanks to the original mythologies of Disney and Universal’s newest generation of lands, like Batuu, where guests’ roles border on LARPing – live action role playing.

And there – at that unique crossover between Batuu, Westworld, and World of Warcraft – stands Evermore. This experimental new generation of “experience park” in Utah invites guests into a “magical village filled with adventures, stories, and games.” It’s a living fantasy hamlet of explorable cottages, apothecaries, gardens, mausoleums, chapels, mills, and taverns encouraging guests to come as they are – be it fairy, elf, knight, or dragon-hunter.

Throughout, guests can participate in axe-throwing and archery, witness musical celebrations by in-universe characters, and interact and explore in a living theater experience. You can join guilds, uncover Evermore’s history, dine on “authentic” village fare… anything you can imagine! Plus, rotating seasonal events open new “portals” into the village, transforming into Lore at Halloween (where an ancient darkness escapes), Aurora (a Dickens-inspired winter festival), and Mythos (a springtime fantasy experience).

Whether you choose to “LARP” yourself is up to you, but Evermore is an infinitely-deepening living theme park for guests of all ages to experience to their own comfort level and depth.

Roadside Wonders

Naturally, we’ve barely scratched the surface of generations and generations of roadside attractions that are scattered throughout the United States. Museums, mystery spots, installations, immersive experiences, and more are spread throughout this country. Both classic and contemporary, the 12 roadside wonders we’ve hinted at here are just the start of a cross-country collection of sights you’ve got to see to believe.

So let us know – which “roadside wonders” did we miss? What tourist attractions, must-see sights, and attention-grabbing experiences shaped your interest in themed entertainment design growing up? Let us know in the comments below!