An array of theme parks that sparked visions and captured headlines, but mostly never opened
Blue Collar Country promised country fair-style rides, restaurants, hotels and entertainment in the style of Blue Collar headliners (from left) Bill Engvall, Larry the Cable Guy and Jeff Foxworthy.
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
“The best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray” — unless the mouse’s name is Mickey and a big theme park is built around him.
Through the years, Alabama has attempted theme parks, too — “best laid plans” — emulating Central Florida’s success. Here are a few amusement center concepts Walt Disney World never lost sleep over.
A February 11, 2015 Florence press conference rocked the Shoals. Construction of DreamVision Soundscape, a 1,400-acre music mecca would break ground in late 2015. Late 2015 arrived on schedule. DreamVision did not.
“Muscle Shoals is a fitting site for the world’s most ambitious, musically themed destination park and resort,” said DreamVision’s Co. CEO Rick Silankas, all but promising to make Muscle Shoals the next Orlando. The announcement came as news to Muscle Shoals’ Mayor David Bradford.
“We didn’t even know where it was to be,” Bradford says, recalling the press conference. “They talked about land negotiations underway. I don’t know where they are talking about or when a groundbreaking will take place. This is like no other project I’ve ever dealt with.”
DreamVision Soundscape’s major component, according to company execs, was to move the Alabama Music Hall of Fame to the new park. But according to AL.com, the Alabama Music Hall of Fame was never contacted about such a move. The Alabama Department of Tourism knew nothing about the $3.5 billion dollar theme park either.
Tuscumbia Mayor Billy Shoemaker saw red flags from the beginning. “They talked about millions of visitors,” he recalls, when interviewed eight months after the big announcement. “We don’t have the infrastructure in place. We don’t have roads, sewer, utilities, any of that ready, and it can’t be ready overnight.”
The plan included artist renditions of high tech, midway-type rides; concerts; restaurants; eye-popping, jaw-dropping venues, and entertainment technology. But no specifics of anything pertaining to DreamVision Soundscape were released — at least not to Alabamians. Not then, not now.
“I don’t know a darn thing about it,” says Sheffield Mayor Ian Sanford. “I am not in the loop. I have not spoken to any of them since the February press conference, and I don’t think any other Shoals mayor or city official has either.”
But Sanford believes intentions were good. “Why would they go to all of the trouble in holding a major press conference down here?” He adds, “These people were not the type who just sat around one night thinking, ‘Let’s pretend we’re building a theme park in Alabama.’ They would not go to the trouble if something was not planned.”
Shoemaker noted that during February, DreamVision acted as if they were on the fast tract. “But we had nothing in place for what they proposed, to happen,” he recalls. “We needed a head start. They may have been on the fast track but we were not.”
But DreamVision was not on the fast track either, or from what anyone can tell, any track. After the initial announcement, the project went dark. No news, updates, nothing, until a September 24, 2015 emailed press release.
With a headline reading “Park Plans Still Ongoing,” the company said Provident Global Capital, DreamVision Co.’s partner, had created a new corporate division, PGC Entertainment, to manage DreamVison Parks.
“We remain excited about the projects that DreamVison has started, and we look forward to continuing to work with them,” Bryan Robinson, CEO of Provident Global Capital, said in the letter. “The new structuring will manage proposed sites in Alabama and Fort Worth, Texas.”
DreamVision and PGC would not return calls or answer email requests for interviews.
Meanwhile, Shoals residents have taken an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude. “I don’t think about it,” says Sanford. “It is not on my mind. There is just too much we don’t know. If it happens it happens. If it doesn’t it doesn’t.”
Alabama Motorsports Park, a Dale Earnhardt Jr. Speedway
Alabama Motorsports Park, A Dale Earnhardt Jr. Speedway, was supported by about 30 key investors, and that’s about it. Even Dale Earnhardt Jr. abandoned it.
But in September 2006, Gulf Coast Entertainment LLC announced plans for a $640 million raceway-themed complex. The 2,300-acre project included a speedway, road course, drag strip, dirt track and 75,000-seat arena. It would reside in the South Alabama cities of Prichard and Saraland.
“They had a good idea,” recalls Saraland City Councilman Newton Cromer, looking back at the racetrack that never was. “They did their due diligence. It was well thought out. But I don’t think they convinced investors to come forward.”
Alabama Motorsports Park was a project of delays, missed goals and setbacks, one after another. Cromer adds, “They could not deliver. With them, everything was always coming but never here.”
Originally, Baldwin County’s Foley Beach Express and Loxley were also in the running for site location. Both bowed out, largely due to public opposition. Dale Earnhardt Jr. divested himself from the project in August 2009. “None of us ever really knew why Earnhardt left,” recalls Cromer. “One can assume he was not satisfied with the progress.”
Saraland ended its contract with Gulf Coast Entertainment in March, 2011, partly because of public backlash from local residents concerned with noise and traffic, and mainly because the city wanted a more prudent use of its money. “We gave them a year to produce, to bring in retail businesses as they promised,” says Cromer. “We saw nothing and we terminated our incentives agreements.”
In addition to Earnhardt’s departure, Saraland’s pullout and area residents’ opposition, environmental groups vigorously opposed the park’s site. Motorsports Park sputtered and never saw the finish line. Originally set to open in 2009, no spade of dirt was ever turned.
Blue Collar Country Entertainment Complex
A $200 million, 520-acre theme park under the influence of Larry the Cable Guy. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
And in 2012, Blue Collar Country Entertainment Complex, a resort of entertainment venues, country fair rides, hotels and restaurants was announced for Foley. Game on! Or in the words of Larry the Cable Guy, “Git R done.” They didn’t.
Other big names associated with the Baldwin County project included Jeff Foxworthy and Bill Engvall, popular Blue Collar TV comedians, and singer Tony Orlando. Country was cool, and Foley was destined for a Grand Ole Opry with roller coasters, or so it seemed.
But all was not well at Six Flags Over Bubba. Little if any work was being done. Other investors, including the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, were not pleased with progress. The grand opening, planned for summer 2015, came and went. Blue Collar’s Big Three — Larry the Cable Guy, Foxworthy and Engvall — left too. Foley’s newspaper, The Onlooker, reported in March 2015 that the trio had broken all ties with the Blue Collar Park concept, citing, “waning interest.”
In May 2015, Blue Collar Destinations, parent company of the proposed park, relinquished control to the Poarch Indians. Tim Martin, president of the tribe’s Creek Indian Enterprises Development Authority, says plans are in the works for other venues and attractions and a new name.
Developer Joe C. Mitchell predicted annual visitors to Southland USA could be 50 million. He was off by about 50 million. The actual number was zero.
But in August, 1986, the intersection of Alabama 59 and Baldwin County 6 in the Foley/Gulf Shores area, was Deep South ground zero. Southland USA would encompass 332 acres with a 60-acre theme park; a $3 million, 6,000-seat entertainment pavilion; a $3 million campground; amusement rides, and a hotel and condominium complex.
The theme park would replicate Southern states, with condensed models of Southern state capitols. Venues would be accessible by the park’s vast transportation system, The Oklahoma Trails Monorail. There would be a hotel called The Texas T, condominium units titled Louisiana Entertainment Mall and a luxury spa referred to as the Kentucky Comfort Hotel.
But in reality, the hotel, mall, spa,and condominiums could all be called, It Never Happened.
Mitchell planned to finance the first two phases of the development by limited partnerships. He promised to have 35 partners in place. He had their names, he said, but had not filed disclosure with the Alabama Securities Commission. Southland USA never secured loans it hoped for.
The goal was to be ready in time for an October 11, 1987, Willie Nelson concert that never happened either.
The only thing Southland USA ever actually built was a billboard touting “future home of Southland USA.”
Space City USA
In the early 1960s, Huntsville reached for the stars in a futuristic venture considered out of this world. By 1971 it was lost in space.
While real-life space flight took wing all around it, the Rocket City’s extraterrestrial theme park failed to launch. About the only thing the $5 million ($40 million today) development had in common with space was the black hole investor dollars flew into.
The idea was bold: A sci-fi universe of 850 acres, 24 rides and attractions, treating 14,000 guests per hour to infinity and beyond. The park plan featured a “time machine,” fanning out into venues. Attractions included the Land of Oz, the Old South, a moon colony, jet car rides, planetary restaurants and strategically placed gift shops.
Construction began in early 1964 on Alabama Highway 20 near Madison. Moon-struck children and Sputnik era adults eagerly sponged news of Huntsville’s planetary Disneyland. Local investors joined the space race.
No one knows exactly why it flopped.
According to a March 18, 2012 Huntsville Times account by reporter Deborah Storey, of the $2 million set for project costs, only about $500,000 was actually spent. The remaining $1.5 million vanished like a supernova. Other accusations included poor money management, with funds squandered on endless travel and out-of-town business meetings.
The 1965 grand opening was bumped two years to 1967, which some project leaders blamed on “weather delays.” Apparently back then, 730 consecutive days of rain were not uncommon. But inclement weather was not a problem in 1967, when Space City USA’s remnants were auctioned.
The park never opened. In 1971, Rocket City’s quest for tomorrow filed for bankruptcy. The Huntsville Times called it “an amusement park scheme which fell flat on its face and took some $2 million in capital with it.” Nothing remains.
VisionLand was the vision of Larry Langford, whose resume includes terms as mayor of Fairfield and also of Birmingham, as well as a term in federal prison after 2009 corruption convictions.
Working with a coalition of 11 cities, Langford formed the West Jefferson Amusement and Public Park Authority, borrowed $65 million, and in 1998, opened VisionLand. In 2002 it was sold for $6 million — losing $59 million in public funds.
Bessemer’s park debuted with four major features: Celebration City, a theme park; Steel Waters, aqua-based rides and splash-park features; Marvel City, a children’s area, and Main Street, shopping and dining.
But throughout its history, the park struggled to define its brand, secure an identity and shake off bad publicity. It made national headlines when a near riot broke out, with teen fights erupting site-wide on a summer day in June. In 2002, the vision filed for bankruptcy.
In 2002, VisionLand sold to Southland Entertainment Group. In 2003, the name changed to Visionland — with big ideas and a lowercase “l.”
In 2006, Visionland was renamed Alabama Adventure. It was sold to Adrenaline Family Entertainment in 2008, which in turn sold it to General Attractions LLC in 2012, which sold it to the Koch Family Parks in 2014. Today it is the Alabama Splash Adventure.
Despite its trials and tribulations, VisionLand – Visionland – Alabama Adventure – Alabama Splash Adventure is the only park in our list currently operating.
At press time it is closed for the season, but reopens in 2016. Be there early. Lines form long for theme parks that actually exist.
Emmett Burnett is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Satsuma.