Thursday, October 13, 2011

Still Rock and Roll to Me: My Personal Look Back at Hard Rock Park

In 2007, the Hard Rock Cafe company announced that they were expanding their business to include a theme park that would tie in with their restaurants, hotels, and casinos. Now, being a life-long Hard Rock fan who has been to 20 plus locations (some multiple times) as well as a park enthusiast, I checked updates on the park's progress every day for a year. Finally, in 2008, we had a nicely themed park at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina that was partially located on the property of the former Waccamow mall. The historical Pavilion park had closed around this time, so it was good to have another park to go to. (I'll pretend that the seedy Family Kingdom doesn't exist.) Broadway at the Beach, Magi-Quest, and similar attractions are nice, but a major park for the beach was a much-needed additional anchor for families who had no intention on spending their trip at Hooters or Dick's Last Resort.
I watched as a small park backed behind a major name rose from a great conceptual idea to a very impressive living attraction with some very revolutionary innovations for the theme park industry. However, little advertising among other things lead to bankruptcy. A certain other park name followed the next year with a new owner. I dare speak it's name, so we'll talk about it later. First, let's look back at my favorite things to do at Hard Rock Park and then the path to its demise as witnessed from my point of view.

Way Down Inside...Woman!...Yo-ou Neeeeed Me!”

These howling vocals were the last things riders heard before plummeting down the first lift hill on Led Zeppelin: The Ride. With a double loop, a B&M loop, and many twisting banks, Hard Rock Park's feature coaster blared music at riders' ears as they shot out from earth through a giant zeppelin hanger. With Zoso symbols marking the building and a statue of the old hermit guarding the coaster's entrance, you knew you were in for something special. Maybe the remaining members of the band sprinkled some magic it on it when they bashed a guitar into a support beam at the coaster's christening. Whatever the reason, one would think that a license like this would give the park some credibility instantly.
Zeppelin was located in a section of the park called Rock and Roll Heaven. Now, across the bay a little ways was another ride in an area known as British Invasion. Unlike Zeppelin, here was a concept that was completely foreign to all who dared to enter its taxi-theme queue.
Maximum RPM was the very first coaster to have a ferris wheel lift hill. Riders sitting in vehicles designed as British cars (you know, the ones with the steering wheel on the wrong side) before entering an elevated platform that was connected to a giant wheel. The wheel would moved upward to the top layer of track, secure the flooring of the lift with the track, and New Wave British music would blast out from your car radio as you braved the rest of the ride. So much for a chain lift, right? Unfortunately, this being a radical new concept at the time, the ride was subject to frequent break downs with the foreign lift. Fortunately, (or unfortunately, depending how you look at it) the wait included guest interaction in the form of British karaoke. When has a ride done that since?
In the Cool Country section, a mine train coaster was the big draw. “A mine train?,” you're probably asking yourself. “Really? How was that innovative?” Well, it was, believe it or not, but in small ways. Originally, called “Midnight Rider,” the park cut a deal with The Eagles (oh, I'm sorry...just “Eagles”) for the coaster's theming. It was known as “Life in the Fast Lane” upon opening. It was the first mine ride I know, since Rock N' Roller Coaster at the former Opryland, that had an on-ride soundtrack. It played Eagles concert videos for those in line, but these were on plasma screens. Keep in mind, that was a big deal back in 2008. It also included fire effects at the end of the ride and also while waiting in line. For a family coaster, it did a good job of building up the tension and getting faster and more intense, instead of the traditional method of one giant lift hill with a few more dips.

The World of Betwixt and Between

Other areas of the park had a mixture of family rides and kiddie attractions. The coasters were very adult-oriented, so it makes sense that there would be something for everyone. Well, that doesn't necessarily mean everyone would like it. There was the traditional carousel, swing ride, and others, but the very youngest of kids kind of got screwed over a bit.
See, the park had a kid's area themed to a national park. This included a suspended swinging coaster with water cannons (think Roller Soaker at Hershey Park). There was also a smaller kiddie coaster made by Vekoma. It was obvious, however, that the theming here was a bit minimal compared to the treatment that the major rides had. Reggae River Falls was a typical water play area. It had the bucket that soaks kids, you know the one. It wasn't that big, though. In the park's later days, it seemed to be compensating for this the best it could. Some noticed a cheap carny coaster at the end of the park that looked like it would have been installed had HRP not gone under. It was like the execs were saying “We need something else for kids! Anything! Just get it now!” In time, the park did add the Banana Splits characters, but not much was fixed.
Older kids must have had more fun, I'd imagine. There was a main street of buildings that, from far away, looked like giant faces with piercings. This was a facade for The Punk Pit, a giant bounce house. Pinball Wizard, although nicely themed to The Who's Tommy, was pretty much a basic mall arcade, but it had a really cool wall where guest's could leave their mark. Plus, there was Magic Mushroom Garden. I remember this being the attraction I was most curious about before the park opened. Dubbed as “The World's Largest Blacklight Poster,” the ride was a typical spinner, but covered with psychedelic shrooms. I would not doubt that some guests lit one up before riding.
It was not uncommon for local musicians to randomly play at the park, and there were some major entertainment acts as well. A country show, a stunt show, an ice show, and a fire-eater were the major draws for families. Upon opening day, the Eagles and the Moody Blues played, and Bowling for Soup would perform soon after. The nighttime entertainment consisted of a fireworks show set on the lagoon that was perfectly in sync to Queen's “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Sort of like “Illuminations” if you take away the theme about world peace and replace it with a lot of attitude.

What Is Real And What Is An Illusion

Well, I guess I can't hold it in anymore. It's time I talk about my absolute favorite addition to the park. The Moody Blues: Nights In White Satin: The Trip was what some say, the greatest dark ride ever. Now, I disagree, but I think it was certainly one of the best. Definitely the best from Sally Corp, a company known mostly because of their excellent animatronic work. This would be the first and only Sally ride, however, to have no animatronics whatsoever.
After entering through what could be a larger than life album cover, you would enter what was once a mall building, putting on 3-D glasses would reveal images on the walls. If you were up for it, it was possible to take a route through the line that extended through a rotating tunnel, also with 3-D effects.
As far as the ride itself, it's sort of hard to explain. You see, there were 3-D effects, but there were also sets and objects like a traditional dark ride. The on-ride speakers played the “Nights in White Satin” song which began with the opening violin solo cut out in order to synch up properly with the effects. Upon entering the first room, when the first lyric (“Nights in white satin, never reaching the end”) would arise, white satin drapes would eerily blow in the wind giving riders a peak at large medieval suits of armor behind them. Sally said they didn't quite know what the lyrics meant, so interpretations such as this one were all their own. A field of stars, a black forest, and a very impressive crowd of floating candles that seem to follow you around were some of the effects that were pulled off so well that it's so hard to describe them. I can say that when the song found its way to the instrumental that plays before the ending poem begins, the ride vehicle would face a screen that would create the illusion of movement. A simulation within a dark ride like Darkastle at Busch Gardens. Upon exiting this one of a kind attraction, guests of all ages were lead into a gift shop that specialized in incense and hippie memorabilia. Pretty fitting, if you ask me.

The Devil's in the Details

Now, one more thing I want to point out about the park's nature was the constant detailing that abounded at every turn. One could not just walk down a path without seeing something out of the ordinary. Some of my favorite examples included a bike rack with a sign that read, “Free Air Guitars,” a statue of liberty holding a lighter, parodies of famous paintings such as “The Creation” and Norman Rockwell's work, a club that warned its patrons of “No Drugs or Nuclear Weapons,” and even famous quotes on the electrical boxes. Props from Hard Rock Cafe's, including the one from my native Cleveland, were all over the place. The bus from Magical Mystery Tour of all things could be found in the British Invasion plaza. I got a kick out of an amphitheater themed to a Stonehenge-like structure, built with British phone booths, called Phonehenge. Ha!
My point here is that, despite some flaws, the park had so many little details that it made guests want to stay all day just to find them all. The park's snarky, borderline-adult sense of humor was one I've never seen in any other park. It smartly assumed that the patrons were familiar with all the musicals acts it was referencing. Oh, and the mascots of the park, the Heavy Metal Bears, had the greatest names ever: Heavy Dad, Maiden Mom, Glam Girl, and....wait for it...Speed Boy!

The Times They Are A-Changin'

Well, after only one year of operation, Hard Rock Park filed for the dreaded Chapter 11. An outside company bought it without the use of the Hard Rock license. They didn't want to keep the expensive contracts with the highlighted bands either. So what was to become of the little park that almost could? A cold, rainy morning bore the announcement of the new management taking over. A small presentation was held in the parking lot where the owner showed off the title of the park's new children's area, Kid's in America. The faces of the children presenting this thing were less than thrilled to say the very least. Actually, the management themselves didn't seem too thrilled.
When the park named was announced, I don't think I saw one positive message on the online boards. “Freestyle Music Park? What were they thinking?!” It was like the execs couldn't make up their minds, so they just combined their ideas for the name into one big name that became very hard to roll off the tongue.
Before the park opened up for the season, nearly all the unique theming that made the park special was stripped away. Magic Mushroom Garden became Fairy Glen. A snack stand known as Cod Piece Fish-n-Chips had to be re-named as did all of the coasters. Any imagery of the slightest that the park deemed to be “adult” was given the axe. That lighter Lady Liberty was holding is a good example. The Heavy Metal Graveyard, a very detailed and complexly put together art exhibit themed to my favorite music genre (which deserved a bigger attraction, methinks), became a bland patch of pots. Oh, and the pots had faces on them.
Freestyle used the least amount of scenery and artwork to replace the old themes to the point where the park began to look like a stripped down version of a local fair. The Trip dark ride just sat there after opening, still eager to open its doors. It was replaced soon after by Monsters of Rock, a ride that used no elements of the former, and consisted mostly of large cardboard cutouts. I do give them props, however, for conceptualizing, designing, and building a ride with scenery, music, and minimal 2-D animation in only two months. That is quite a record for any park attraction, but considering what was once in its place, this was like replacing the Haunted Mansion with Coney Island's Spook-A-Rama.
Led Zeppelin had its giant blimp painted pink with some giant gears thrown over that. The artwork on the building's exterior became collages of classic album cover art. The Time Machine, at the coaster was now called, allowed guests to seat themselves in a car that would play a selection of songs from a particular decade of their choice. Hey, that sounds pretty cool, right? It's a unique concept. It could work. Sadly, it was the only ride where the term “music” readily applied.
I remember taking this transition a bit too personally. Maybe it was because I followed the progress of the park so closely for so long. The main reason, I think, is because I hate to see what happened to me happen to someone else. When Cedar Fair bought my beloved Geauga Lake, the amount of show elements ripped out was so obvious that entire attractions began to look like landfills. Three years later, they swindled my home area again by demolishing the entire thing, nevermind that it had been around since the late 1800's. Hard Rock Park faced a similar fate. It may have only lasted one season, but just imagine what could have been if all its problems had some new management strategies and funding.
Freestyle, too, only operated for one season. Hard Rock Park had spent too much money on attractions people would like. Freestyle didn't spend enough money to spruce up what became an empty-looking park. For the next few years since, we've heard so many rumors about those gates opening back up again, and every time our hopes get fainter.
From what we hear now, a former owner has partnered up with two other businessmen to try to re-open and start over. Real estate seems to be in their favor, and a judge gave the OK, so who knows? Maybe this new rumor will come true. But if it does, will this be another mistake or will Myrtle Beach finally get the anchor park that they have needed for so long? At any rate, we can always remember the good times Hard Rock Park gave us before it rocked its way into oblivion several years ago.


ParkImpressions said...

Wow. Great article, Aaron, really well done. I sadly never had the chance to visit the park, and now I really wish I had. I can only hope that the park will be able to rebound soon, and to its pre-Freestyle Music Park glory.

Reesie Cup said...

Same here, thank you. Due to the lack of photos in this article, I hope to do a before and after follow up, hopefully in the next week sometime.

Reesie Cup said...

Thanks for the very nice Tweet, btw.

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