Here we are now, entertain us.
• Nirvana •
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — There's something inherently rock 'n' roll about an amusement park that greets its visitors with a famous lyric by a famous guy who famously offed himself with a shotgun. It's edgy, weird, in-your-face. You're not at Uncle Walt's spread anymore, that's for sure.
That said, when Kurt Cobain wrote Smells Like Teen Spirit, there was a fairly good chance he wasn't imagining his angsty anthem as a way to sell roller coasters. So though the welcoming quotation is edgy, weird, in-your-face — it also feels a little wrong, like buying a Ramones T-shirt at Hot Topic or cranking the Sex Pistols in a Dodge Caravan.
Therein lies the ultimate battle for Hard Rock Park, a $400-million slam-dance of thrill rides, stunt shows and tiki busts that look like Elvis. After all, how do you base a careful, family-friendly theme park on an art form that's all about careless, family-skewering rebellion?
The 55-acre vacation park, which features more than 50 rides and attractions, sprawls out just a few miles from the beach in this resort town. Its grand opening is next weekend, with kickoff concerts by the Eagles and the Moody Blues, both of which have namesake rides here. The Eagles Life in the Fast Lane coaster is a runaway mine car with two lift hills and the titular tune blasting in your ear. It's head-snapping — but in a good way. As for the Moody Blues Nights in White Satin: The Trip, think Mr. Toad's on peyote. Oh, in 3-D.
Imagined by young, hip executives with ties to Universal Studios, SeaWorld and Canada's Wonderland — and sponsored by such moneybags as Pepsi, Peavey speakers and, appropriately, Zippo lighters — Hard Rock Park strives to be both cool and commercial, nostalgic for Dad and his vinyl collection, current for Junior and his iPod.
But therein lies another quandary: How do you entertain the grownups with bawdy bang-your-head humor (an arcade game called Whac a Boyband; a '50s-style Great Meals diner whose neon sign blinks "eat me") without offending wee ones who just wanna spin and twirl and eat gobs of candy?
"We grew up in the '60s and '70s," says 40-year-old CEO Steven Goodwin, who recently helped develop the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, England. "We're all about the double entendres."
Indeed. In the British Invasion land, one of several "environs" at the park, there is a ride called the Magic Mushroom, a twirly, fluorescent adventure based on the effects of hallucinogenic fungi. In the men's room near the Cool Country land, the urinals are topped with faces that seemingly peer down at your naughty bits. I repeat: This ain't Epcot.
That said, for all its theoretical issues, Hard Rock Park is ideally suited for these sensory-overloaded times. (The Hard Rock name is basically a licensing agreement, by the way.) The park is packed with details, tons of details, a gloriously hyper procession of look-at-this! that never quits. Look down and you're walking not just on a wide walkway, but a walkway shaped like a Gibson guitar, with water jets shooting out of the instrument's bridge. Parents notice the design; kids notice the chance to get wet.
Look up, and the golden gates of Rock & Roll Heaven are enshrouded in wisps of cloud. A "Free Air Guitars" stand is on your left; the biker-appropriate Whammy Bar (with the King's original hog behind the phalanx of booze) is on your right. Beverage and snack stands are made out of roadie cases. The Carnaby Street Cafe features go-go dancers in cages.
The food is way better than it has to be, from the tender pulled pork at the Rockabilly BBQ to the perfectly battered bombs at the Cod Piece Fish-n-Chips to the coconut shrimp at the Taste of Paradise Grill. Oh, and for folks who get a little nervous on the tall rides, there's liquid courage everywhere, from Bud Light to Yuengling.
A musical menu
The details aren't just visual and edible, but auditory, as well. The sound system might be the park's most impressive asset, as the music is perfectly, puckishly synched. You'll be hearing the Beatles' original Let It Be one minute. Then, as soon as you step into Reggae River Falls, a Bob Marley-inspired water park, you'll hear a steel-drum take, the two versions merging at the same point in the song.
You can call it sleight of hand, an overblown architectural plan that wisely distracts from the main setback. There's ultimately nothing rock 'n' roll about the world's first rock 'n' roll theme park.
Or you can just let go and realize that the park is a painstakingly realized joy, a smart, shameless dissemination of pop culture memories.
The park's centerpiece is Led Zeppelin: The Ride, a looping, corkscrewing steel beauty that devilishly merges the raw hubba-hubba power of Page, Plant & Co. with the latest roller-coaster technology. The boys in the band actually took part in the ride's development. "Those guys are creative geniuses," Goodwin says. "To them, this is just another extension of their music." (For more on the Led Zep loop-de-loop, which I rode four ferocious times, see the story at far right.)
Goodwin says there was great participation from several rock legends. For instance, in the Lost in the '70s land, Arlo Guthrie helped open Alice's Restaurant, where "you can get anything you want." But not everyone was so cooperative. A Pink Floyd attraction was scrapped, and the remaining Beatles would allegedly only participate if the entire park was devoted to them.
But about 65 percent of the ideas dreamed up by Goodwin and chief creative officer Jon Binkowski several years ago came to fruition. Other cool attractions include a moon-bounce for adults called the Punk Pit, a tall, speedy coaster called Slippery When Wet in which spectators shoot water cannons at riders, plus kiddie thrills including the Shake Rattle 'n' Rollercoaster.
The final note
There's imagination everywhere. That includes the park's simmering sex appeal, as both the Malibu Beach Party show (a wet, skin-friendly spoof on Beach Blanket Bingo) and the Roadies Stunt Show (if Cirque du Soleil planned Ozzfest) are stacked with model-beautiful, or at least porn-perfect, actors, each one loyal to the task of making everyone feel like a rock star (well, within reason).
Okay, so there's no real connection between the Led Zeppelin coaster and, say, the first life-changing time you heard Side A of Houses of the Holy. But the Hard Rock Park creators love music, and they love amusement parks. And as you leave this new, wild joint, another famous rock quote bids you adieu. And darn if it doesn't get you right in your rock 'n' roll heart.
And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.
• The Beatles •
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467.
His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.