This Free Southeastern US Theme Park Has A Little Bit Of Fun For Everyone

Tennessee has successfully solidified its position as one of the must-visit states in all of America, welcoming 141 million visitors and generating $29 billion in tourism spending in 2022 alone. While the majority of visitors still find themselves gravitating toward Nashville, an increasing number of people are keen on exploring many of the Volunteer State's lesser-known cities, chief among which is Pigeon Forge. Located in East Tennessee and nestled roughly 9 miles away from the Great Smoky Mountains, Pigeon Forge draws over 10 million tourists annually thanks to its idyllic surroundings and a treasure trove of local attractions. 

A standout among the city's highlights is The Island, an amusement park that's open 365 days a year. The best part is it's free and open to all. The Island in Pigeon Forge is a family-friendly destination that guarantees a fun time for adults and kids alike. Its centerpiece happens to be the 200-foot Great Smoky Mountain Wheel, which boasts a breathtaking panoramic view of the neighboring national park. Visitors with a hankering for an adrenaline rush can delight in the thrilling carnival rides and partake in escape games, while those seeking a more laidback time can explore museums, watch fountain shows, or even relax in the spa. 

You can also shop 'til you drop from the dozens of specialty stores and dine at a medley of unique eateries located throughout the park's sprawling 23 acres. Spoiler alert: One of the must-try dining spots is owned by the one and only celebrity chef Paula Deen.

Making the most of your day at The Island

Families can kick off their visit to The Island by getting their blood pumping at the Sky Trail Explorer Ropes Course, which offers three stories of obstacles of varying difficulties, including two zip lines and a simulated free fall. Younger kids can enjoy the miniature ropes course, Sky Tykes, or the 32-foot ThunderDome, which has three trampolines inside. Next, take a quick rest at the rocking chairs situated around The Island Show Fountain, which dazzles guests with choreographed water and light displays every 30 minutes.

You can get your fill of scrumptious food at Paula Deen's Family Kitchen, where you can enjoy classic Southern dishes, or perhaps at Mellow Mushroom, for hand-tossed pizzas. Then, grab dessert at Sweet, a 2500-square-foot candy store packed with every sweet treat imaginable. For more group activities, try finding your way out of Gatlin's Mirror Maze or The Escape Game. But if hair-raising experiences are more up your alley, hop aboard the 65-foot Tree Fall Drop Tower or the Dance Party 360, a pendulum swing that takes you on a 360-degree spin.

By sunset, make sure to head to the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel, which has climate-controlled passenger cabins to guarantee a comfortable ride as you take in the idyllic landscape surrounding Pigeon Forge. Explore retail shops before heading home to pick up unique items you won't find elsewhere, including special seasonings and sauces from Pepper Palace, various jerky flavors from The Beef Jerky Experience, and souvenirs from the Hand-Blown Glass Gift Gallery.

Planning your visit

While The Island in Pigeon Forge is open every day, the park has a lineup of events throughout the year that you may wish to align with your trip. Fall is a good time to visit if you want to enjoy some spooky Halloween events and see the park adorned with autumn-themed decor. It transforms into a winter wonderland with the onset of the colder months, and each year, it holds a Winterfest Show around November, where kids can interact with Santa and guests can enjoy a special fountain show with LED Christmas trees. If you want to welcome the new year with a bang, The Island also pitches a yearly NYE bash, complete with live bands and an incredible fireworks display that commences at midnight. 

As for accommodation, you can either stay at the Margaritaville Island Hotel or Margaritaville Island Inn, both of which are inspired by Jimmy Buffett's iconic song. The Inn is the more affordable option, with room prices starting at $159, while the Hotel has suites beginning at $333. Either option has cabins that can accommodate your entire family, as well as amenities like a spa, outdoor pool, and a gym.

It's also worth noting that while The Island offers free admission and parking, rides and activities require separate passes, with tickets starting at $5.99. But for unlimited fun, you can purchase a $39.99 wristband that grants you limitless access to all outdoor rides for 48 hours.