Every year, the family vacation gets a little more modern. Disney World tracks you with electronic MagicBands. Cruise ships give you tablets. And it's guaranteed your beach house will have Wi-Fi.
Remember when summer vacations were simpler (not to mention sweatier)? These are a few of our favorite old-fashioned, kitschy summer vacation ideas.
If the United States has a capital of camp, it's got to be Florida. One of the best roadside attractions surviving from the 1940s is Weeki Wachee Springs, a deep, clear spring an hour north of Tampa. Here, live mermaids perform in an underwater theater, breathing from concealed air hoses. For $13, visitors get to see the mermaids, take a riverboat cruise, watch an animal show and enjoy the Buccaneer Bay water park. In Oldsmar, you can watch the Tampa Bay Water Ski Show Team perform free shows weekly. The team does pyramids, barefoot, ski jumps and more.
In Miami, visit the Coral Castle, a strange and enormous structure built single-handedly over 28 years by a man named Edward Leedskalnin. He supposedly built the castle in honor of his ex-fiancee (who never came to see it). Then head to Jungle Island, a Miami animal park that opened in 1936. Meet macaws, monkeys and "the world's only trained cassowary," and then enjoy the private beach at Parrot Cove. And finally, you'll find the most quintessentially Florida roadside attraction in Orlando: Gatorland, home of alligator wrestling.
When the top-rated restaurant in town is called Smoky Mountain Shakes-N-Dawgs, that tips you off that Gatlinburg, Tennessee is not a fancy place. Gatlinburg, known as the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is one of the best family vacation spots for kitsch. It's a lively hodgepodge of souvenir shops, arcades, putt-putt courses, restaurants and stage shows. Take a glass elevator to the top of the 400-foot Space Needle. Race go-karts at Cooter's Place, an homage to "The Dukes of Hazzard." Or marvel at the 20,000 pairs occupying the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum.
Nearby Pigeon Forge, Tennessee is best known for Dollywood, the enormous theme park built by Dolly Parton (which includes a replica of the one-room cabin where Parton grew up with her 10 siblings). But Pigeon Forge has many other unique and odd roadside attractions. The Sable Equestrian Theatre combines sand art with "extraordinary displays of European horsemanship." The Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Show combines down-home cooking with musical comedy. And the Elvis Museum displays the King's cars, stage suits and jewelry. Once you're all kitsched out, refresh yourself by hiking or camping in the beautiful Smokies.
Tombstone is one of the best family vacation spots for anyone who ever secretly wanted to be a cowboy (or an outlaw). Tombstone is a silver-mining boom town where in 1881, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the Cowboys squared off in the gunfight at the OK Corral. Today, tourists can tour a mine, fire real six-shooters, watch gunfight re-enactments or ride in a stage coach. Fans of mid-century kitsch should stay at the Shady Dell in nearby Bisbee, where beautifully restored vintage trailers can be rented for the night.
About 70 miles away from Tombstone, near Tucson, you'll find one of the most fascinating Cold War-era roadside attractions: the Titan Missile Museum. Now a National Historic Landmark, it's the last preserved, decommissioned launch silo for the Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile. Visit the underground control center and see a simulated launch. Then drive east on Interstate 10 to visit the king of kitschy roadside attractions: The Thing? It's a collection of odd collectibles and souvenirs, crowned by the mysterious Thing. We won't tell you what it is — you'll have to go see for yourself.