Monday, July 20, 2009

Real-life theme towns

The typical story behind the great American theme town goes something like this:

Small, out-of-the-way community tires of watching its young people move away to the big city and travelers bypass them for destinations elsewhere. City leaders meet over drinks and talk over alternatives. Recent traveler to Disneyland/Six Flags/Knott’s Berry Farm – after the third whisky sour – has a revelation.

We’ll turn our town into a Bavarian/Western/Slovakian/Maori village!

It’s no mean trick, of course, redoing a town to make the Golden Arches look like a Swiss chalet. The result is predictable – an artificial town that looks nothing like anything that has ever actually existed elsewhere or ever will.

Still and all, the transformation often has at least part of the desired effect – folks who otherwise would go elsewhere for their entertainment stop in for a day or two and leave some of their money behind. Whether the reincarnation keeps the youngsters from going off to the big city is another issue altogether.

The secret to enjoying the theme town is to accept it for what it is – a residential and retail Disneyland with no admission fee. While it’s true that many folks who call these places home take the whole thing all too seriously, it doesn’t mean you have to. Wink, smile and enjoy.

While I by no means recommend making any such town the main purpose of a family road trip, if you’re going to be near one of the following theme towns, stop in. The West’s top three theme towns, unscientifically selected based mostly on the fact that I’ve actually visited them, are: Solvang, California; Leavenworth, Washington; and Deadwood, South Dakota.

The first thing that recommends Solvang as a worthy stop is its location near California’s central coast north of Santa Barbara and south of San Luis Obispo. The weather is exceptional nearly all the time, it’s smack dab in the middle of one of California’s major wine regions, and great golf courses abound.

The main drawback is that an outlet mall has superimposed itself on the town. On further consideration, however, it may be completely fitting that two of America’s tackier creations – the outlet mall and the theme town – can be found living symbiotically.

Solvang, the brochures will tell you, is the “Danish Capital of America.” In fairness, it’s actually a charming little town, particularly if you like the taste of almond-flavored pastries and appreciate pseudo-Scandinavian architecture. Smorgasbord is another local favorite, despite the fact that its roots are from Sweden. Remember to wink and smile.

Solvang does have a legitimate Danish-American past. The town is less pretentious than, say, Carmel (a snooty place that became a theme town – California chic – in spite of itself). The restaurant selection is surprisingly varied. And the nearby public River Course at Alisal is one of California’s great golf bargains.

No, this is not the home of the famous federal prison (that’s in Kansas). Leavenworth is a former pioneer and gold rush town that found itself on the brink of extinction 40 years ago until city leaders struck on the idea of turning their village on the eastern slope of the Cascades into a Bavarian theme town.

The town’s own web site is shockingly candid: …the “entire community rallied to create the illusion of Bavaria in the middle of Washington state.” One must remember that the Sound of Music came out in 1965 and much of the world had a highly romanticized view of Bavaria as a result.

The Bavarian section of Leavenworth is relatively small – a three- or four-block-wide strip running parallel to U.S. Highway 2. There’s a string of stores selling tchotchkes of various origin and restaurants featuring schnitzel and sausage.

Much to our delight, my wife, Kathleen, and I discovered a very good restaurant called CafĂ© Mozart (Bach was playing over the speaker system) on the town’s main drag. We made it a point to eat there twice.

Situated about 30 minutes into the mountains from Wenatchee and just over the mountains from Seattle, Leavenworth is a lovely place worth a day or two, particularly if you plan your visit around the summer theater season (July through the Labor Day weekend) or one of the many seasonal festivals.

I confess that I became infatuated with Deadwood after watching an HBO television series of the same name. Founded as a byproduct of the Black Hills gold rush of the 1870s, it is best known as the place where Wild Bill Hickok was gunned down.

If the HBO series is any true indication, the original Deadwood was a seedy and dangerous place. It is no longer either, so long as your comfort level extends to Harley bikers, halter tops and cheesy casinos.

Being less than an hour from Sturgis, it’s hardly surprising to find Harleys parked on every street. The biker crowd is friendly and harmless, mixing well with others attracted to Deadwood’s slot machines and buffets. The people-watching here exceeds that of most international airports.

Summer brings a series of special events, from blues festivals to rodeos and car rallies (we caught the Neville Brothers one warm July evening). Betting in the 80 or so gambling halls has a $100 limit, so you’re unlikely to lose the deed to the house. Main Street includes the typical collection of bars, restaurants, trinket stores and the like.

Of course, you can step into the very bar where Wild Bill Hickok met his fate or sleep in any number of 19th-century hotels. When you’re done with Deadwood, Mount Rushmore is an hour away in one direction and Spearfish Canyon is 15 minutes away in the other. Devil’s Tower is a couple of hours away.

The Sturgis motorcycle rally is usually the second week of August, so unless you’ve got a Hog in the garage, you might choose another time to visit.

1 comment:

  1. The Sound of Music took place in Austria, not in Bavaria which is a part of Germany. Cafe Mozart is also odd since he too was Austrian.