Tour De Force or Farce?

An insider's guide to the beach's newest attractions

for Weekly SurgeJune 30, 2011 

OK, so it's Independence Day weekend, which means patriotic pride, fireworks and backyard cookouts, but for the Grand Strand it also means something else.

Tourists.

And gobs of 'em.

The Fourth of July holiday typically brings an onslaught of visitors to our 60-mile stretch of sandy beaches, and rather than fight the inevitable tide, we've decided to ride the wave instead.

In other words, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

After all, it is our beach, right?

We figured why not take a Fourth of July staycation right here and act like a tourist for a day (or week) and explore some of the area's new attractions that were recently unveiled, from that new, gigantic it's-not-a-Ferris-Wheel-but-it-sure-does-look-like-a-Ferris-Wheel near the oceanfront, to that upside down mansion-looking thingy at Broadway at the Beach, to a few new professional theater offerings.

We bet you've been wondering about these experiences if you've been too busy caught up in the daily grind to check them out, so we did the leg work for you, personally attending each attraction, finding out what each is all about, looking for locals-only tips, sniffing out touristy rip-offs, and reporting our crack research right here, right now.

So grab your fanny-packs and let's get started.

BEATLEMANIA NOW

What it is: "Beatlemania Now," presented at 5 p.m. each Wednesday - Sunday throughout the summer at Carolina Opry, is a carefully orchestrated trip through the 1960s with the soundtrack consisting of 30 hits from The Beatles, staged through a live theatrical performance from look-a-like sound-a-like tribute artists. Is it The Beatles? Of course not. Is it as close to The Beatles as you're likely to ever see? Probably.

Our experience: As a self-described Beatles devote, I'm probably harder to please than a casual fan. I've seen every bad Beatles movie and heard every wonderful Beatles song ever recorded countless times, including rare BBC performances and bootlegs. In my head I can hear every guitar note, piano riff, horn part, string arrangement, lyric and glorious harmony. So who could deliver a live Beatles tribute up to my expectations? No one, but the guys of "Beatlemania Now" come close.

For starters this faux fab four look remarkably like their Beatles' counterparts - especially from a distance. Additionally, it's obvious these four performers, who have staged the show at big and small cities around the country, have studied the nuance of their Beatles' characters with very good Liverpudlian accents, gestures, and wise-cracking personalities. A half-dozen YouTube videos will give you an idea of what to expect and are located at www.beatlemanianow.com

The musicianship is also top-notch with each playing his own parts, in a faithful rendition of the original and switch between vintage guitars, bass and piano. Only the Ringo Starr character stays put behind the drums.

The show's sets are simple, but effective. The backdrop is a large screen filled with black-and-white commercials and newsreel footage from the 1960s, along with clips from "The Ed Sullivan Show." This large-screen media diversion allows the performers time to change costumes, wigs, beards, etc. as we follow The Beatles from the early clean-shaven mop top days, straight through to the drug-influenced flower power period and to the bitter end at the band's final Abbey Road rooftop concert.

With the lights down and the theater nearly black, a 1963 clip of Ed Sullivan introduces The Beatles on video, but the first downbeat is from the live band. With black suits, white dress shirts, ties, and perfect mop tops, the band launches into "She Loves You." Some 70-minutes later we've taken a trip from The Beatles innocent era through "Let It Be," where the audience stands and sings "Hey Jude" along with the band. In between we're given four costume changes and 30 Beatles' classics including "Yesterday," "Revolution," "I am the Walrus," "Penny Lane," "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," "Here Comes The Sun," and nearly two dozen more.

While the band plays live, they're also playing with pre-recorded tracks filling in the orchestrations that are so essential to The Beatles' sound, and they did so without any errors. This is not a cover band playing interpretations of The Beatles - this production does its best to recreate note-for-note the original recordings. It would be easy to nitpick about little vocal imperfections where one or another didn't quite capture the vocal style perfectly, or a high note wasn't quite there, but none of these minor infractions detract from the whole of the show. These four men were doing things the actual Beatles never dared to do live, and they do it well.

This is clearly a nostalgic trip for baby boomers, but amateur anthropologists of all ages will enjoy the time capsule, which looks at 1962 to 1970, and is a reminder that The Beatles created all their music in that short time span. To have had the impact on pop culture and virtually all rock and pop music to follow, and as the best selling band in the history of popular music, make The Beatles worthy of a tribute.

Sticker Shock: Children (ages 3-16) $17, Students (17 and older w/ student I.D.) $23, Adults $34.95.

Locals Discount: Occasionally. Catch a hospitality industry special, or some other locals' appreciation night and you'll save significantly. As of press time no information was available about future upcoming locals' events, but they do happen periodically.

Fanny-pack factor: Moderate. The afternoon I saw the show was coincidentally one of the aforementioned hospitality nights, so the theater, about 60 percent full, had a fair numbers of locals mixed in with vacationers.

Contact info: 8901 N. Kings Highway, Myrtle Beach. Phone 913-2222, online www.thecarolinaopry.com/beatlemania.

BODIES REVEALED

What it is: Actual human bodies, dissected and preserved, on display at Broadway at the Beach. Definitely not your usual summer tourist attraction, and probably not for the squeamish or those with a low gross-out factor, but it's a memorable experience.

The exhibit's goal is to give the average person something that usually only somebody in the medical profession - or the county coroner - gets to see -- a three-dimensional look at the human body, its systems, organs and how they work together.

The bodies are real, donated specimens preserved through what is known as the Polymer Preservation Process, using liquid silicone rubber to permanently preserve human tissue. The end result is a specimen that doesn't decompose and can be displayed almost indefinitely.

This is the first Bodies Revealed exhibit in South Carolina. The exhibit is produced by Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions, and other editions of it are on display in Michigan and Ohio.

Our experience: I got to Bodies Revealed shortly after lunchtime on a recent Friday, was able to quickly get a ticket and enter. The exhibit hall is across from Margaritaville at Broadway at the Beach, not hard to find at all, but it is a little disconcerting to hear Jimmy Buffett singing "The Volcano Song" in the background as you walk in. The attendant also gives you a warning you certainly won't hear at any other attraction this summer: "Please don't touch the bodies!"

The exhibit features 14 full body specimens and 200 organs displayed in a series of galleries, starting with the muscles and skeleton and going all the way through the reproductive and nervous system. Each system is introduced first by one of the full bodies, and then features several display cases full of smaller specimens. Many of the preserved bodies are displayed in action - kicking soccer balls, in a track runner's starting position, swinging golf clubs.

The crowd wasn't large, but there was a steady flow of customers in and out of the exhibit while I was there. The set-up is large enough - in the space where the Hunley exhibit used to be - so people don't run into each other, and you can pretty much take as long as you want at each display. The exhibits have extremely detailed labels, and if you're one of the more obsessive exhibit-goers like me who wants to read nearly everything, the set up is perfect. There's also an audio tour available for those who prefer it, but I didn't try it out.

If you're not concerned about your own health before walking into Bodies Revealed, you will be by the time you leave. The displays feature examples of both diseased and healthy organs. A display of cancerous lungs stands next to a plastic case where visitors can dump their cigarettes - at least a dozen packs had been thrown away.

The walls feature a variety of fun facts, as well as huge projections of various kinds of cells and tissues that from a distance resemble funky modern art.

It occurred to me that Bodies Revealed would be a huge draw for school groups if it were going to be open during the school year. Students of all ages studying the human body, biology and anatomy couldn't get a much better live tutorial. However, the exhibit is only slated to run through Sept. 5.

Locals discount: Download a coupon from www.bodiesmyrtlebeach.com for a $4 discount.

Sticker shock: Ticket prices are reasonable, not much different than you'd pay at a museum. Adults (13-59) $14; children (4-12) $10, seniors (60-plus) and students with ID ($12); Military (with ID) $10; children 3 and younger free.

Fanny-pack factor: The crowd was a mix of tourist families - some who obviously had paid the money just to get in out of the heat - and several local couples and families. Kids seemed to be immune to any "gross out" reflex, while the bodies obviously freaked out a few of the adults. Several families got into interesting involved discussions around the displays - not often you hear tourist parents having a serious discussion about blood vessels with their teenaged son. One kid was especially fascinated by lungs. Several kindergarteners had to be pulled down off the bases of the displays and kept from trying to "touch" the bodies, which are out in the open and not behind any barriers. Best moment was the little girl who stood in front of one of the figures and kept saying "Why do you keep LOOKING at me? Momma, he's STARING at me!"

You might be a little surprised, but shouldn't be, to discover that Bodies Revealed also has a souvenir shop. Favorites include packages of gummy "brains" for a couple of bucks and T-shirts that will run you $16 and feature fun slogans such as "I (HUMAN HEART FIGURE) BODIES."

Contact info: Broadway at the Beach, 1138 Celebrity Circle, Unit 323, Myrtle Beach, (866) 468-7630 or www.bodiesmyrtlebeach.com.

Christina Knauss, for Weekly Surge

LEGENDS IN CONCERT

What it is: Legends in Concert is a celebrity tribute show that has been a fixture on the theater scene along the Grand Strand since 1996. Visitors see a two-hour show that includes tribute performances to everyone from Little Richard and Madonna to Michael Jackson, ABBA, and country stars such as Alan Jackson and Tim McGraw. Each show features an appearance by perennial tribute favorite Elvis Presley

What makes the show different this summer is a new venue, which debuted in March. The show moved from its former location in Surfside Beach to the building that formerly housed first the All Star Café and then Club Kryptonite, just off U.S. 17 Bypass adjacent to Planet Hollywood at Broadway at the Beach.

Legends officials picked the new venue because its central location would draw in more visitors. More than $2 million in renovations converted the cavernous old club building into a 600-seat theater with a projected stage surrounded by seating on three sides, state-of-the-art lighting, and side-stage monitors so visitors get a close-up treatment no matter where they're sitting. The building also has a spacious lobby, snack bar and souvenir stand.

Legends is run by On Stage Entertainment, which also staffs Legends shows at permanent venues in Branson, Mo. and Las Vegas, as well as traveling shows that perform on cruise ships and in other venues.

Our experience: I'd seen the Legends show easily more than a dozen times in the old theater, both for fun and on assignments, so I pretty much knew what to expect entertainment-wise. The new theater was a pleasant surprise, however. It's clean, elegant, and easy to move around inside.

The venue has plenty of parking, immediately surrounding the building and also in lots near Planet Hollywood.

The crowd on a recent evening was large but not a sell-out. Staffers at the ticket booth kept everyone moving quickly, and it only took a few minutes to pick up my tickets and be escorted to a seat toward the back by one of the theater's very pleasant staff of ushers, who bring a smile to your face because they obviously have as much fun watching the show as the audience does.

The old Legends theater was more intimate and very comfortable, but this new venue offers wider aisles, higher ceilings and seats that are very comfortable and also offer a great view of the stage from every angle.

The lineup on this evening featured tribute artists paying homage to Alan Jackson, Madonna, Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. All of the acts were equally good and brought back plenty of memories.Other stars sometimes come in for limited performances and the schedule sometimes changes, but the show quality doesn't change. In 15 years of seeing Legends shows I've never been disappointed. It's worth checking ahead of time, though, if there's an artist you especially want to see.

One of the best things about this show is that tribute artists are supported by an outstanding band made up of local players, and a cast of dancers whose choreography compliments each routine and never interferes with the tribute act itself. This night's dancers moved seamlessly through a dizzying series of costume changes ranging from cowboy gear for Alan Jackson to bell bottoms for part of the Madonna segment. Male dancers were especially fun during Madonna's "Material Girl," where they perfectly replicated the men's role in her famous video for the song, a send-up of Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds are A Girl's Best Friend' from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."

Schedule: 8 p.m. Monday, 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Sunday. (There will only be a 6 p.m. show on Monday, July 4. )

Locals discount: No.

Sticker shock: Ticket prices depend on location: VIP booth $52.95 adult and child; VIP $42.95 adult and child, preferred seats $37.95 adults, $19.95 child, and regular, $37.95 adult, $14.95 child.

Fanny-pack factor: Crowd on a recent Friday night looked to be mostly tourists, with a scattering of locals. Mostly adults and teenagers were at the show. A few dozen elementary and middle school kids were in the audience, and especially seemed to have a good time during the Michael Jackson segment, shouting "We love you Michael!" along with many adults in between the songs. No matter their ages, everybody got into this show at one point or another, and it's fun to see people who seem otherwise tired or in a bad mood to suddenly start tapping their feet or singing when they hear a particular old favorite.

Contact: Legends in Concert, 2925 Hollywood Drive, Myrtle Beach. Call 238-7827 or visit www.legendsinconcert.com.

Christina Knauss, for Weekly Surge

PIRATES VOYAGE

What it is: Dolly Parton's brand new audience interactive dinner show in the former Dixie Stampede location. The show cost around $11 million to produce and is plugged as "The Most Breathtaking Dinner Show Ever" on billboards around the Grand Strand, promising "Fun, Feast & Adventure" as its tagline.

Does it live up to those promises?

This dinner and show format is set up to immerse audiences into the pirate's life, playing on the local lore and legend of pirates that once roamed our coastline. Along with interacting with wenches and pirates in Pirates Village before the show, audiences dine on a five course feast while enjoying a large scale production including acrobatics, aerial and aquatic acts, live animals, pirate competition, and a new musical score by Parton.

The stage area, otherwise known as Buccaneer Bay, is designed to wow audiences set amidst a lagoon. Along with the rear ends of two galleons blocking each side of the pool, a stage designed as a ship deck sits in the middle of the large water tank between them, acting as the prime arena for the action. While "on shore," faux sandy beaches run the length of each side of the stage, with painted palm trees adding to the maritime feel of the arena.

Along with a large cast of characters, Parton makes two appearances in the show via large projection screens that lower in front of the galleons, first welcoming guests, and the second time to croon a tune.

Our experience: Since Pirates Voyage is situated next to the Carolina Opry, the two share a large parking lot which makes parking a breeze and allows us a few minutes to take in the new exterior. Redone to look like a pirate's haven, complete with Jolly Roger flags waving and red tattered sail, the newly renovated exterior craftily creates an illusion of pirate grandeur.

At the doors, we were greeted by actors in full pirate garb and directed inside with a festive "aargh, matey," one of the many pirate lingo phrases we heard throughout the evening. While lines weren't long, they weren't fast either as families and couples continuously spilled into the entrance. Once tickets were in hand, we were escorted to a green screen backdrop and asked to smile for the camera. We flash our cheesiest smile, and after the photo is taken, were immediately asked to "walk the plank" into Pirates Village.

This holding area offers a pre-show before the show. Along with the gift shop loaded with the usual souvenir T-shirts, treasure maps, faux swords and collectibles, a crew of wenches and pirates stroll around with instruments singing and performing for guests. While waiting for the show, guests can part with some cash and chow down on a snack or sip on a pirate-themed rum drink; kids can pay to get their face painted like a pirate or make a souvenir sand treasure.

Once it's time for the show, us "landlubbers," as we are called repeatedly throughout the night, were herded into Buccaneer Bay to be seated and packed in like sardines. Five rows that run the length of the theater comprise both sides of the stage, indicating "it's a pirate's life for you" and which crew you'll be cheering for throughout the night.

While the cast performs, taking you through the treasure seeking storyline, we're served by our crew mate a delicious pirate's feast of soup, bread, half a roasted chicken, BBQ pork rib, fried shrimp, a small corn cob, mashed potatoes, and an apple turnover - all with charming pirate-themed names of course- along the option of sweet tea or Pepsi.

The show is highly entertaining and keeps you thoroughly amused thanks to its lively atmosphere, musical productions, and impressive stunts by the talented cast of performers. Appearances by a bevy of acrobatic mermaids during Parton's song are mesmerizing, and the acts featuring three adorable sea lions and diving dogs are also endearing. Although all the little extras may have you reaching for your wallet, the dinner and show are certainly engaging and worth seeing.

Sticker Shock: Adults, ages 12 and up, range from $45.77-$51.22, while children ages 3-11 run $23.97-$29.42, and children younger than the age of three are free, but must sit it an accompanying adult's lap and share their meal. As for the extras, the souvenir photos cost $20, kid's activities in Pirates Village run from $5-$20, snacks range from $3-5, non-alcoholic drinks are $4.50, and alcoholic drinks run $5-$9.

Locals Discount: No.

Fanny-pack factor: A few locals intermixed with a mass of tourists. The show is definitely a draw for families who happily chattered away about other area attractions while sporting charred skin and flip-flops.

Contact info: 8901-B U.S. 17 Business, Myrtle Beach. For more information or tickets, call 497-9700, or visit www.piratesvoyage.com.

Rebecca Robertson, for Weekly Surge

SkyWheel

What it is: This is the highlight of Myrtle Beach's new boardwalk and promenade. An observation wheel that stands 200 feet tall, it towers over the beach and Ocean Boulevard. The giant wheel and its 42 fully-enclosed gondolas were designed by the Swiss - a country of people who really know all things round...clocks, cakes, watches, Ferris Wheels. It is the largest wheel east of the Mississippi River and a cornerstone landmark in a town trying to build a new identity. At night, the wheel is lit with more than a million LED lights, creating a spectacular centerpiece for the city.

Our experience: First off, let me say, parking in Myrtle Beach must have become a racket operated by the mafia. SkyWheel doesn't have a dedicated parking lot. Obviously, they're hoping for the hordes of pedestrians to become hypnotized and drawn in by the spinning wheel. Good luck with that in the off-season. After jumping from one outrageously priced, full parking lot to another - governed by attendants that I'm guessing had to undergo classes on indifference, I finally found a meter, a mere six blocks away...hey, at least the wheel was big enough to serve as a guide.

Once I got to the actual site, the line was managed efficiently and I only leaked a small bucket of sweat while watching large screen TVs displaying facts about Myrtle Beach. Standing directly below the structure, it is awe-inspiring - all shiny and new.

Inside the gondola is refreshing - an air-conditioned, UV protected, glass-walled booth with bench seats and an emergency button, in case you needed or wanted to go back to the platform - before passing go and collecting your 200 feet. But curiously, the oversized phone booths were missing "Oh Shit" handgrips that would have come in handy as you slowly lift up over the boulevard and leisurely dive down towards the beach. At first, all you see are the dirty rooftops of fifty-year-old buildings. Then you ascend - up to were seagulls and pelicans literally pass - up to were you are eye-to-eye with the pilots in the banner planes and the para-sailors - up to were the views turn into living postcards filled with a string of high-rise hotels, the beachgoers and the button-sized umbrellas, Pier 14 stretching out over the white-capped waves.

Not to get nitpicky, but the attendant loading the gondolas informed me I would go around three full revolutions but I disembarked after a mere two. Even with the abbreviated rotations, it is a remarkable 12 minutes...the first time you do it. The second time would probably be a bit of a yawn and you'd ask yourself, "is this worth a dollar a minute?" Granted I went during the day and the view at night with the city lights in full effect would probably be another extraordinary occurrence, maybe worth the cash.

The new boardwalk and park are clean and airy - a step in leaving behind the past boulevard that had become equal parts ratty and gaudy, neglected and aged. The SkyWheel is attached to a gift shop and a bar and grill, Jimmy Buffet's Landshark. This is the centrifuge - the inspiration axis that will attempt to spin Myrtle Beach in a new direction - away from the seedy neon of The Redneck Riviera, towards the bright morning of a whole new form of tourist trap.

The brochure touts no less than three taglines - "There's a New Star in the Sky," "Get Closer to Heaven," and "Elevate Your Perspective." I think they could simplify it to, "Come Ride Our Really Big Ferris Wheel, Because it is an Awesome Ferris Wheel."

Sticker Shock: Adults are $12; children 11 and younger, $8. Seniors and military personnel, $8. There is also a VIP Gondola with leather bucket seats and a glass bottom. The VIP experience also earns you a longer ride, a T-shirt and VIP lanyards for all riders - at the low, low price of $50 per person. I'm not an expert on Ferris Wheel ticket prices but on closer inspection, The SkyWheel in Niagara Falls is $10 for adults and $7 for children...c'mon people - it's two bucks cheaper and that's one of the most impressive waterfalls in the world. Granted, Niagara's SkyWheel is only 175 feet, but we're talking about the "Honeymoon Capital of the World." Or maybe the 25-foot growth spurt and the monetary conversion rate make all the difference.

Locals Discount: A Locals Discount is not posted at the ticket booth or in the brochure but after asking, I was told customers with a local I.D. get the $8 rate. (See, you should always ask).

Fanny-Pack Factor: Downtown was packed with visitors donning their Myrtle Beach shirts and lobster-red, sun-burnt faces...revealing their tourist status. The SkyWheel seemed to be a draw for vacationing families and couples, young and old. It seemed to be almost completely a tourist affair as they loaded into the spinning buckets. Although, I watched the VIP gondola pass empty, the entire time I was there.

Contact Info: 1110 N. Ocean Boulevard, Myrtle Beach. For all the specifics and ticket info visit www.skywheelusa.com

Derrick Bracey, for Weekly Surge

SUPERSTARZ LIVE

What it is: This theater in Surfside Beach was once the home of Legends in Concert (see above) known for its celebrity impersonations. Legends has left the building but SuperStarz has swooped in to fill in the almost-celebrity void. SuperStarz is performed 100 percent live - that means all the music is actually played by the house band and the vocals are unaided by supporting tracks. Not only do they have to look and act like the celebrities...they actually have to match the sound of the originators.

Our experience: Parking wasn't a problem. The audience, a small flock of us, was ushered leisurely through the theater doors to unassigned seats. It is a standard theater layout that is big enough to fit almost 1,000 but small enough to seem intimate. The crowd appeared to be 80 percent senior citizens, 19 percent families - and me.

There should be a sign above the stage that reads, "Abandon all reality, thee who enter here," but there's not. The room went dark and the band took the stage, the predictable ballyhoo of lights. A prerecorded announcer welcomed Tina Turner to the stage and at first you deny the resemblance - the movements, the banter between songs, the vibrato of the voice. By the time you get to the, "rolling, rolling on a river," you give in and sing along with almost-Tina. She even does a rousing performance of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together".

Dolly Parton was up next and the room wasn't quite as lively but her performance is just as true to Dolly's full form. The most puzzling of the celebrities at the show, Charlie Daniels, finished out the first set. Really, Charlie Daniels? Devil be damned...he wasn't bad. He was a quality fiddle-player and I defy you to say that you don't know every word to "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."

There was a quick intermission followed by The Bluegrass Brothers - two of the carry-overs from Legends. They were the local Blues Brothers tribute for 15 years trolling U.S. 17 in their blues-mobile. Because of licensing agreements, they had to convert their act from blues to bluegrass and I was expecting a train-wreck...but it works in this format. Being the veterans, they controlled the room, mixing popular songs into their new style with a large dose of country comedy. I'm not a big fan of Blue-collar Comedy, but they have an amicable connection with the crowd.

The headliner was of course, Elvis. Presley is the staple...the glue...the mortar...the rhinestone-studded, deco posh that holds any tribute show together. And again I'm thinking...predictable. And again, I'm almost wrong. Yes, there is a medley of standards, but right in the middle of his set, he throws down on a gritty version of "Polk Salad Annie" - complete with the half-laughed/full-snickered vocals and the quirky pelvic thrusts that I thought only came from amphetamines, barbiturates and fried bananas.

There were dancers throughout the show - not a stage full of choreographed crowds but four girls keeping it lively. There were large screens on the side of the stage, mixing video of the actual performers with a live feed of the imitators to blur the edge of reality...silly, but it added to the ambiance.

The verdict - I went in a virgin to celebrity tributes...the closest I've ever come in the past was a drag show with an Elton John theme and let me tell you...completely different. Plus, these tribute artists don't lip-sync. The band is versatile with a complete sound. The performers are family-friendly and engaging - they roam the audience during the show and stay for a meet-and-greet after. The theater is aged but by no means decrepit. The featured lineup could use some updating, however, and I was told by the tour manager that a tribute to a hugely popular female artist is coming soon.

Sticker Shock: Adults are $34; children 3 to 16, $10. The concessions are dirt cheap. You can get a drink and popcorn for less than $5.

Locals Discount: Locals can get up to four tickets, per show, for $22 - if they sign up for the Fan Club. It's not posted at the ticket booth but it's on the Web site.

Fanny-Pack Factor: Right now, it's definitely a targeted demographic. There were visiting seniors and families alike buzzing about how great the performers are - all the way to their cars. The acts do regularly change their set-lists to keep it interesting for locals.

Contact Info: Celebration Music Theatre , 301 U.S. 17 South, Surfside Beach. For more information or tickets call 839-6750 or visit www.celebrationmb.com

Derrick Bracey, for Weekly Surge

WONDER WORKS

What it is: This spectacularly odd upside down structure at Broadway at the Beach in Myrtle Beach is one of four in a chain of virtual reality arcades / science museums, with the Myrtle Beach location its most recent. At a reported cost of around $15 million this Disneyesque attraction is clearly geared toward kids, but has enough wow-factor to keep teens and adults entertained as well - the full bar on its outdoor deck overlooking Lake Broadway doesn't hurt, either. It's concept is that of a "top secret research laboratory" sucked up by the Bermuda Triangle, and tossed to Myrtle Beach, with all of its experiments "intact and functional," according to the marketing jargon.

Our experience: As fun as it is to look at from a distance, the real mind-bending happens when you're standing at the entrance looking up at a structure your brain tells you cannot be, yet it is. I've described WonderWorks exterior to friends this way: "Picture that someone or something took a white marble, three-story, antebellum Southern mansion, ripped it from the ground and threw it some distance, where it crashed through another building (made to resemble a crab house, which by the way is the restaurant it replaced), and though badly damaged, it rests at an angle, teetering, upside down, daring you to explore what's inside.

Attention to detail is part of the fun, from the upside down FED-EX boxes, telephone poles and palm trees 200-feet overhead, to the faux painting that accurately details structural damage, to the loud non-stop creaking emanating from hidden speakers, giving you the very real sensation that the whole thing is about ready to crash down around you. It really is just a little spooky - on purpose.

I visited on a recent Tuesday, and Wonder Works was packed with families, as I'd expected. An employee gave me a head's up that they're less busy (crowded) on weekends, which is what I'd recommend as a few of the best attractions inside had lines that moved along, but may have required a 10 - 15 minute wait. In the off-season, WonderWorks is sure to be a locals family-favorite. Other interactive displays, of which there are more than 100, were immediately available despite the chaotic ambience of the interior. The 4-to-14 year old crowd was giddy with excitement, expending lots of energy, as every second inside the visitor is bombarded with some pretty cool, never before seen (by me anyway) displays and rides, all designed to entertain and educate.

There are dozens of touch screen quizzes and science displays, a giant working model of Google Earth, which was a big hit, an Extreme 360 Bike, which allows the strapped-in rider to swing back and forth and make a full 360-degree peddle-powered loop if so desired. Several virtual reality pods, where the rider is inside a motion simulator, offer various themes such as roller coasters, submarines and space launches. A game of Mind Ball allows two players to use their brain waves, literally, to move a small ping-pong-sized ball into their opponent's goal.

Space Shuttle flight simulators, a small laser-tag arena (at additional cost), a ropes course and displays geared toward a variety of age groups, have just about everyone covered. You'll make the mandatory exit through the gift shop, and then to The Works Eatery, where a variety of pizzas, burgers, sandwiches, kid's meals, and drinks are available. Just outside a large deck sits partially under the shadow of the building and features full food and bar service with live entertainment each Tuesday throughout the summer as precursor to the fireworks display over Lake Broadway at 10 p.m.

Just outside and adjacent to WonderWorks, the popular Soar & Explore Ziplines, which are WonderWorks owned and managed, send harnessed riders back and forth across Lake Broadway hanging from an angled cable. The Zipline and an outdoor ropes course are proving to be equally popular attractions, and are priced separately.

Sticker Shock: Children (4-12) and seniors (55-plus) $14.99; Adults $22.99. Combo packages, which include laser tag and/or Zipline rides are also available between $17.99 and $39.99 Group discounts, school groups and birthday parties also priced separately.

Locals Discount: Yes, $2.50 per child, senior or adult ticket.

Fanny-pack factor: High. While I couldn't tell for sure, it's likely that the overwhelming majority of mid-week summer visitors are vacationing tourists, though off-season school groups are a large part of the WonderWorks market.

Contact info: 1313 Celebrity Circle, Myrtle Beach. Phone 626-9962, online www.wonderworksonline.

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