Wednesday, July 15, 2009

STONE MOUNTAIN, GEORGIA: A Lesson in Themepark Hospitality

Written by Meg Dempsey
Photographed by Ellen McGlynn

“Stone Mountain WHERE???” Unless you live in the state of Georgia, you may never have heard of this incredible site or the theme park that has grown up around it. However, for families looking for an alternative to the long lines, lousy food and surly employees found at the average amusement park, it is the ideal destination.

The namesake of the town is indeed a huge stone mountain whose carvings of Confederate War-era heroes covers an area equal to almost three acres. This “Mount Rushmore of the South” boasts the largest relief sculpture in the world, but that is just the beginning of the sights, sounds and TASTES that await visitors to “The Rock.”

A one-day Adventure Pass includes a ride in a cable-guided gondola to the top of Stone Mountain, where the whole family can romp safely around rocks and craters resembling the surface of the moon (and up almost as high). After a short ride back down, the fun really begins. The most popular attraction is the “Sky Hike,” an obstacle course through the trees where participants are secured by a harness and cable as they wind their way around three stories of rope, wood, and steel in every possible configuration. Be sure to wear closed-toed shoes if you plan to partake. We sent up one seven and one nine year-old by themselves and were very pleased with the helpful guides, who made sure the youngsters were comfortable with the ever-increasing difficulty of the course. Although even little ones (45 inches and above) can enjoy the sky hike, there is also a smaller, grounded course with a zip line for young children. In the same area are two rock-climbing walls that were popular with children, teens and adults alike. We were traveling with four children, ages seven to ten, and all gave these attractions a big “thumbs up.”

Having worked up an appetite, we decided to stop for lunch. Dreading the usual theme-park fare, we were pleasantly surprised by the dining options available. We settled on Miss Katie’s Sideboard, a full-service restaurant serving traditional Southern dishes in an equally traditional setting. Great attention has been given to the décor, which was reminiscent of a large Depression-era country kitchen. Lots of baskets, washboards, and gingham; even a bathtub suspended from the ceiling. Imagine John-boy Walton’s dining room on steroids. We were greeted by our charming waitress, Angelica, with a complimentary plate of fried appetizers, including Vidalia onions, cinnamon-spiked sweet potatoes, and, of all things, pickles! The combination of salty, sweet and sour tastes did its job of whetting our appetites and kept the kids occupied while we placed our orders.

Angelica returned, living up to the restaurant’s moniker, “Home of the Hand-Tossed Roll.” Toting a basket of fresh-from-the-oven rolls, she yelled, “Catch!” as she tossed a piping hot roll to each of us, delighting everyone in our party! Not just a gimmick to entertain, the rolls were delicious. We had to stop ourselves from eating too many of these slightly sweet treasures. We didn’t have to wait long for our entrees to arrive. They included chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, pot roast, and barbeque ribs. The food was tasty and the portions were generous. Northerners should be prepared for very smoky- tasting ribs. We sampled them throughout this region, and extra smoke seems to be the preferred method of preparation. The pot roast was tender, the fried chicken crisp, and the dumplings were a comfortable taste of home. By this time we were stuffed, but managed to share a peach cobbler for the table. Overall, the meals were definitely the best ever eaten by us at a theme park.

We continued our day with a visit to The Great Barn, a four-story structure loaded with flying foam balls, slides and interactive games. Once again, everyone, from toddlers through adults can enjoy this attraction. Thousands of foam balls, launched from stationary air guns and other devices, are scooped up and deposited into various contraptions. Points are accumulated and tallied through the bar-encoded wristband each visitor receives upon entering the Barn. There are no prizes awarded to those with the most points, only the thrill of victory and your name in lights. This was more than enough to send us scrambling in every direction--up, down and across for more than an hour. While the kids showed no signs of slowing down, this adult was exhausted!

Next, we slowed down with a visit to the Antebellum Plantation. This site is made up of actual pre-Civil War buildings relocated from various places around the state of Georgia. Adults will appreciate the historical artifacts and kids will love the costumed guides and petting barnyard, complete with friendly sheep and goats. We thoroughly enjoyed the self-guided tour which allowed us to linger around the more interesting areas (the barnyard and the privies, according to the children in our group). Also included in the price of admission is the Scenic Railroad, a five mile excursion around the mountain in a 1940’s train; an 18 hole mini-golf course; a backyard circus (where kids are the stars of the show); a 4-D movie and many other attractions, which we did not have time to enjoy. The park closes at 8:00pm to prepare for the Lasershow Spectacular. After dark, the natural hillside amphitheater remains open for what is billed as the largest laser light show in the world. The combination of lights, lasers and fireworks set to popular music and patriotic tunes is the perfect end to a wonderful day.

Our family would highly recommend a visit to Stone Mountain, Georgia. Although it contains more attractions than anyone could possibly see in a day, the frenetic pace and ear-piercing noise found at many amusement parks is, thankfully, absent. At least half the attractions involve active participation rather than passive “riding.” The many employees at Stone Mountain were, without exception, the friendliest and most helpful that we have ever encountered. Perhaps most important to some families in these tough economic times, is the reasonable price of the all-inclusive tickets.

Do yourself a favor and stay at the beautiful Marriott Stone Mountain Inn. Just steps away from the park entrance, the Family Escape package offers incredibly spacious accommodations, a delicious breakfast buffet, relaxing outdoor pool, passes to the park, and VIP lawn space for the laser show. Their elegant dining room also offers a delicious Southern-style dinner buffet at a reasonable price until 9pm, complete with a full array of fabulous desserts including fresh Georgia peach cobbler and red velvet cake. Stone Mountain will definitely keep Georgia on our minds!

Visit to plan your trip today.

Published just this summer, you can now enjoy the vintage artistry of Stone Mountain Park through Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series.  Written by Tim Hollis, this book helps answer all of those little nagging questions left lingering in your mind about the history of this unusual place.

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