TLP: When You're Miles From Where Anyone Can Hear You
Not your typical "it's-tough-for-small-business" story. Even in the narrowest niches, things are hard in this economy.
For more than five decades, the fiberglass dinosaurs of Prehistoric Forest have loomed goofily over the entrance to this Lake Erie tourist town. Now they are facing extinction.The resorts, amusement parks and water parks will be there. So will the hotels and chain restaurants. And years from now, you won't remember shit about them. But who's going to forget that crazy-ass place along the two-lane road they stopped to see Labor Day weekend that year when everything was all fucked up anyway?
Len and Denise Tieman, who have owned the roadside attraction since 1995, feel they have had a good run. They intend to close Prehistoric Forest on Sept. 12, after one last Labor Day rush, and retire. So far, they haven't found anyone eager to carry on the tradition.
Mom-and-Pop roadside attractions are struggling for their meager share of the tourist dollar. They suffer from a weak economy, changes in travel habits and kids unlikely to be wowed by stationary dinos and miniature golf after watching "Avatar" in 3-D or slashing their siblings with Wii swords.
"We just lose them one by one," laments Brian Butko, a Pittsburgh historian who writes about roadside attractions, whose golden age was in the 1950s and 1960s.
Prairie Dog Town, near Oakley, Kan., is for sale, with an asking price of $450,000, says its owner, Larry Farmer, who also wants to retire. It comes with 37 billboards, 400 prairie dogs and—for anyone not sufficiently excited by burrowing rodents—a live, six-legged cow. Deer Forest in Coloma, Mich., is also on the market. The owner, John S. Modica, says he would throw in the llamas and pot-bellied pigs. Dinosaur World, near Beaver Lake in Arkansas, closed five years ago.
"Some of the classic tourist stops have disappeared," says Doug Kirby, publisher of roadsideamerica.com. Snake farms are in a rut, and mermaid springs are evaporating. When owners decide to retire, there often is no one willing to take over. Even so, Mr. Kirby's website still lists more than 9,000 attractions and "oddities," including the world's largest hairball in Garden City, Kan., and the Cockroach Hall of Fame in Plano, Texas.
Today's tourists are more likely to zoom directly to a resort than meander on back roads. "People are much more looking to get where they're going rather than stop to look at the world's largest ball of twine," says Jim Futrell of the National Amusement Park Historical Association.
That's what I thought.