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01-28-11/Friday-----Jason Raley as Jack Sparrow and Legends In Concert dancer Kirsten Glenn for Surge.  Photo By Randall
01-28-11/Friday-----Jason Raley as Jack Sparrow and Legends In Concert dancer Kirsten Glenn for Surge. Photo By Randall

With a better-than-expected 2010 tourist season now just a fading and sunburned memory, Myrtle Beach's purveyors of your leisure time activities and suitors for your discretionary income are gearing up for 2011's expected onslaught of vacationers by adding new major multi-million dollar attractions, and new/revamped theater options - all set to open within weeks of one another. Announcements in early 2010, and construction start-ups by mid-year, confirmed the rumors of Dolly Parton's Pirates Voyage, Pacific Development's SkyWheel (a hi-tech observation Ferris wheel), and WonderWorks (an all-ages interactive science museum), which are all set to open by late spring/early summer. New theaters, new shows, new attractions, and a growing roster of public events, aim to bolster the local tourism economy - and it's that economy upon which much of the Grand Strand relies.

While city fathers drove off the tourism and traffic of lucrative motorcycle rallies, serious money has been pouring into the city of Myrtle Beach, the home of nearly all the new investment, and while the entire Grand Strand should benefit, even before a single ticket is sold, the city is already the big winner - permits, tax revenues and ancillary spending all mean big money for the city's coffers. Estimates put the SkyWheel's cost at $12 million, Dolly Parton's Pirates Voyage at $11 million, and WonderWorks at $15 million. After adding the $6 million spent in 2009-2010 on the 1.1-mile Myrtle Beach Boardwalk and Promenade, a reported $1 million renovation of the former Club Kryptonite, new home of Legends In Concert, and more for a possible showing by the Pat Boone Family Theatre - the nearly $45 million investment seems to imply that developers and show producers think tourism in Myrtle Beach is still a safe bet.

In spite of lingering high unemployment and the struggling national economy, the new investment is here, and the new attractions mean new jobs - hiring is already well under way, with more to come. Coastal Carolina University research economist Rob Salvino said in reports that 2011's hiring should venture into positive territory, a repeat of the modest gains seen also in 2010.

Along with the attraction and theater developer's bets on continued growth, comes an additional big spender - this one in the restaurant trade, the pirate who looked at 40, and kept on going. Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Enterprises will open and manage LandShark Bar & Grill. Sitting directly adjacent to the 187-foot tall oceanfront SkyWheel attraction, the new Buffett-themed eatery will offer indoor/outdoor oceanfront seating, and live entertainment along the north end of the Boardwalk.

Why Myrtle Beach, and why now?

Taylor Damonte of the Brittain Center for Resort Tourism at CCU, keeps his finger on the pulse of resort economies, especially here along the Grand Strand. He says the data points to a combination of factors contributing to a strong tourist season in 2010 and the likelihood of a strong 2011 - weather permitting. "Overall we had a pretty good year," said Damonte, referring to the 2010 numbers. "We had an increase in occupancy over 2009, our tourism-related tax revenues [the 1.5 percent hospitality tax] was up quite dramatically - 11.5-percent in July, 2010. [The summer of 2010] was the best summer on record for tax-revenues," continued Damonte. And it's those tax revenues, in part, that speak to the tourism economy's overall health.

But why the increase?

"Two things increase tourism," said Damonte, "one of them is to improve attractions, and the other is to advertise. My perception is we're doing quite a bit of both. We're marketing much more heavily to Atlanta, Dallas and Chicago, [etc.]. But remember, Myrtle Beach is still primarily a drive-to destination, and therefore weather forecast dependant - and I stress forecast. Many of our visitors decide to come at the last minute and will only do so if the four-to-five day weather forecast looks good."

Mark Kruea has been the Public Information Officer for the City of Myrtle Beach for 12-plus years, with his nose-to-the numbers as well. "While we [initially] feel the effects of a down economy, we historically bounce back more quickly than other places do. Last summer, June, July and August [2010], was a record-breaking tourism summer - above any previous high points. Better than ever," he said, referring particularly to occupancy, spending in hotels, and in restaurants. "The Boardwalk was a bigger hit than we anticipated, and the tourism development fee, that extra penny for out-of-market advertising, really paid off - it helped us recover much more quickly than any of our competing destinations."

Some have speculated our 2010 increases came, in part, as a windfall from the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the resultant exodus of Florida coastal vacationers, who came here instead, but Damonte thinks that's only a small part of the 2010 increase - he says it's about keeping things fresh, and that events, such as the 60-year-old Sun Fun Festival, are just as important as permanent attractions.

Many will argue incessantly about losses or gains from Myrtle Beach's mostly successful effort to run off May motorcycle rallies, and even though the city's helmet law was ruled unconstitutional and repealed, many bikers did not return from the rallys' high attendance marks and have vowed to never come back. Regardless, 2010 and 2011's new growth in attractions and events, such as the many downtown Myrtle Beach open-air street parties, the multitude of outdoor events at The Market Common, the continued success of North Myrtle Beach's Main Street events, and Little River's Blue Crab and Jazz Festivals, all have added to the increase in tourism, but it's the concentration of new money in a relatively short time period, in the midst of harsh economic realities, that is unprecedented.

Still, all is not necessarily rosy. Grand Strand advertising and marketing executives have said many hospitality clients are still struggling, with the golfing and restaurant trades especially vulnerable. While 2010's summer was reported to be better than average for many restaurants, the shoulder seasons [spring, fall and winter] were off. That general sentiment has been repeated by others in the advertising and restaurant trades. The restaurant business, which is notoriously tricky even in the best economic climates, continues to see plenty of volatility, with a steady stream of closings and openings. While there is plenty of evidence to support a mostly flat restaurant business, it doesn't change the fact that plenty of new money is rolling in, and it's not just new attractions that build a tourism economy - but it sure doesn't hurt.

The area has not seen this much concentrated growth in permanent attractions since the failed $400-plus-million Hard Rock Park (later Freestyle Park), which, along with The Market Common, opened in 2008, just as the national economy was tanking and fuel hit record highs - remember $4-a-gallon gas? Both incarnations of the park closed after their initial seasons with the owners filing for bankruptcy. The lifeless former Led Zeppelin-themed roller coaster can still be seen for miles, just west of the Intracoastal Waterway. It sits off in the distance as a sad reminder of what might have been. Undaunted by the park's failure, new investors and new growth means change for one of Myrtle Beach's most venerable attractions, and the busty Smoky Mountain gal with the pretty voice usually knows what she's doing.

Parton and pirates

Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede has been a visitor favorite since first opening its doors 19 years ago in Myrtle Beach, but Parton has said publicly that it was "time for a change" and she concedes it's a "bold move," but opening Pirates Voyage is "the right one." The attraction will require a major overhaul of the former Dixie Stampede facility, located adjacent to the Carolina Opry at U.S. 17 Business and U.S. 17 Bypass in Myrtle Beach. The swashbuckling, audience-interactive adventure and dinner show, features a predictable and familiar cast of seafaring characters including kings, jesters, ships' captains, and male and female pirates. The new attraction replaces Dixie Stampede, which closed its doors for good in December 2010. Pirates Voyage is already taking reservations for summer 2011.

The show promises to offer a Vegas-worthy spectacle. Above two full-sized pirate ships, each seeming to float in the indoor man-made deepwater lagoon, acrobatic pirates and swashbucklers will battle one another in daily shows. Complete with live animals and a "five-course pirate feast," the dinner/show attraction will also feature a new score composed by Parton and musical collaborator Mark Brymer.

Fans of the North vs. South fun of Dixie Stampede may still get their fill at the attraction's Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and Branson, Mo. locations. Pirates Voyage is set to open June 3 with an average admission price of $21 for kids and $41 for adults.

Pirates Voyage, whose home will be on the north end of Myrtle Beach, may become an iconic image for the city - but perhaps not as much as downtown Myrtle Beach's highly anticipated new attraction - and it's a biggie - literally.

Wheel in the sky

St. Louis-based Pacific Development, and partners Koch Development, have begun construction of the SkyWheel adjacent to Plyler Park at 11 Ave. N. and N. Ocean Boulevard, and it's purported to be the largest observation wheel east of the Mississippi River.

It's reported to be very similar in design to the Niagara SkyWheel in Niagara Falls, Canada, built by the same team. The wheel features 42 enclosed gondolas, similar to those of the famed London Eye, England's most popular tourist attraction. The London Eye was built for the 2000 Millennium celebration, and stands at 443-feet, or almost twice the height of its smaller, but still impressive, Myrtle Beach and Niagara Falls cousins.

The SkyWheel will sit upon a 20-foot-tall concrete deck to help protect it from potential hurricane storm surge. The Swiss-built temperature-controlled gondolas will hold six to eight passengers, and are approved for food and even cocktails. The developers hope the 9-to-12 minute sightseeing ride becomes a popular year-round and special occasion attraction. Pacific Development said it chose Myrtle Beach for the SkyWheel because of the new boardwalk. The developers and Margaritaville execs feel the synergy between the well-known Buffett restaurant brand, and the new city landmark could be a downtown winner. Ticket prices have been set at $12 for adults, $8 for children, with discounts for military personnel.

While the SkyWheel will add a dramatic presence to the skyline of the city, it's another attraction that will really turn heads - and it almost didn't happen.

It's a wonder-filled life

The jarring and shocking upside down exterior design of the WonderWorks building was at first too much for the Myrtle Beach Community Appearance Board, which initially denied the attraction's request to build. After a second appeal, the CAB approved the original design, and construction began in early 2010 on what will be the fourth WonderWorks attraction in the U.S.

Located at the site of the former Crab House restaurant, at the southwest corner of Broadway at the Beach, WonderWorks calls itself an "amusement park for the mind." The concept has been likened to a children's museum on steroids, but with a full bar, restaurant, and indoor/outdoor seating, there's plenty to keep adults entertained too.

The first impressions of the property are sure to create wonder. Picture a giant columned southern mansion ripped from the ground, tossed through the air to land upside down, fractured, but still in one piece. It's this peculiar image that will greet those arriving via U.S. 17 Bypass, and to which locals will need to adjust, but it's what's inside that WonderWorks hopes will astonish visitors; A virtual roller coaster, submarine, a hurricane simulator, a NASA Space Shuttle simulator, laser-tag area, and a multitude of interactive displays all of which aim to entertain and educate.

"We're science-driven," said WonderWorks General Manager Robert Stinnett. "We'll have more than 100 hands-on exhibits, which is great from an education standpoint. We're already reaching out to school groups in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course South Carolina. We're [working toward] state accreditation to meet curriculum standards. While the kids will have fun, they'll be learning every minute they're in the building."

Opened in the summer of 2010, the WonderWorks' owned zip-line and rope course, Soar and Explore, has already sent hordes of brave adventurers on a $20 roundtrip. From towers high in the sky, young and old are strapped in and sent on an exhilarating, 1,000-foot zip-line journey across Lake Broadway, and back. The Orlando, Fla.-based developer is already operating WonderWorks attractions in Orlando, Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and Panama City Beach, Fla. Admission will be in the $20 range, but has not been finalized.

With the huge investment comes high hopes for big numbers. "I'm not the expert," said Stinnett, "but the one thing that's never going to change, is that families still take vacations, even if the economy's bad. [Myrtle Beach] is a drive-to destination, and there are a lot of folks within a six-or-seven hour drive from here."

Raising the bar - and the curtains

While rides and adventure-attractions will always be a part of the Myrtle Beach vacation experience, area theaters continue to provide a less strenuous form of entertainment, and 2011 promises new theatrical options. Joining the stalwart Palace Theatre, Carolina Opry, and Alabama Theatre in-house productions are a few new faces ready for the greasepaint.

Three full-time comedy clubs including the 15-year-old Comedy Cabana, the less than one-year-old Stand-Up Carolina, and Uptown, an 80-seat comedy improv theater in the Myrtle Beach Mall, all aim to tickle your funny bone and will happily sell you an adult beverage or two while they're at it. Add in the tribute show Legends in Concert (at the former Club Kryptonite), the Celebration Music Theatre (at the former Legends' Surfside Beach location), and the likely showing of the Pat Boone Family Theater (at the former NASCAR Café), along with Medieval Times, Carolina Opry, Alabama Theater, and Pirates Voyage - and that's a lot of seats to fill it's more than in recent years, but less seats then when the theater boom hit with 15 area theaters, many of which opened in the 1990s, most of which went dark within a few years.

Legends In Concert, the internationally known tribute show, operated out of its Surfside Beach location since 1996, but closed its doors there in October. Calvin Gilmore once owned the south-end theater and staged the original Carolina Opry there before building his theater on the north end of Myrtle Beach. Gilmore's 2011 shows (The Carolina Opry, and Good Vibrations) feature new music, new dance routines, a few new faces, and new comedy, as a part of the production's 25-year anniversary. The longest-running professional theater production along the Grand Strand regularly faces new comers, and does so without flinching.

"We've been through all kinds of theaters opening and closing in this town," said Gilmore, "Fifteen or more. Four or five of the old theaters are now churches. We're nowhere near the number of seats we once had." Gilmore realizes the need to freshen his shows each year, without losing the favorites his audiences come back for. "We're like a recording artist that puts out a new album each year - it's the same artist only with new material. Our audiences like to see familiar faces doing new things. We do add new talent though. Brad Long is a relatively new face - he's an incredible up-and-coming artist. We've got a special guest coming to do a tribute to Michael Jackson in our Good Vibrations show - more than a song or two - a real tribute."

This town is big on tributes - copy cats mean big business.

Before the dust even settled in the old Legends In Concert building in Surfside Beach, the Celebration Music Theatre moved in and is scheduled to open Feb 14. The producers will stage a similar tribute show format, but say they'll also add plays and musicals to its schedule.

When the large freestanding nightclub, Club Kryptonite, at Broadway at the Beach, closed, it presented an opportunity for Legends In Concert to move from its original home.

"It didn't surface in our minds when Kryptonite first closed," said Chris Beattie, regional general manager for Legends In Concert. "But with other [Legends'] upgrades in Las Vegas and Branson it was a natural step for us to upgrade here. We looked around and someone asked me if I'd thought about Kryptonite, and the location was very interesting. We got to thinking about Broadway at the Beach, and all its traffic, and here we are."

The $1 million renovation will follow Myrtle Beach architect Tom Miller's plans, and includes an intimate 600-seat house, with oversized "cushy" seats and "ample legroom," according to Beattie, along with a large stage and pit for the orchestra, and big screens flanking the walls for live-action close-ups.

Tried-and-true favorites will return to Legends for the 2011 season including a young rockabilly 50s-era Elvis. Joining the new faces are performers emulating Little Richard, The Blues Brothers, Dolly Parton, and Michael Jackson.

Alabama Theatre at Barefoot Landing has retooled its "One - The Show" for 2011, and announced a concert series including an Elvis tribute by Eddie Miles, plenty of classic country acts including many of the usual suspects such as Lee Greenwood, Randy Travis, the Oak Ridge Boys, Loretta Lynne, Kenny Rogers, and George Jones - and even culinary maven Paula Deen will present a one-hour cooking show live in May.

Pat and the Parrotheads

Meanwhile, harkening back to the '90s when past-their-prime entertainers, such as The Gatlin Brothers and Rich Little attached themselves to local venues, Branson legend Pat Boone is rumored to be bringing a new variety show to Myrtle Beach at a 500-600-seat theater possibly opening this spring - The Pat Boone Family Theater, at the site of the former NASCAR Café on U.S. 17 Bypass in Myrtle Beach. The Associated Press reported in December that Liquid Metal Holdings, the entertainment company behind the theater, has confirmed the theater will open May 1, and Kruea, from the City of Myrtle Beach, has said "they've talked with us and seem serious about coming to town."

Those new to the Grand Strand may not remember the height of the theater boom in the mid 1990s, when Fantasy Harbour (just west of the Intracoastal Waterway off U.S. 501) added several new large theaters, all of which closed before the new millennium except Medieval Times. Even with names such as The Gatlin Brothers, Crook & Chase, Ronnie Milsap, and others, the fickle crowds wouldn't support the theater district, which is now home to two community churches and the ashes of the bankrupt Hard Rock Park/Freestyle Music Park, also now dark. Only Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament, which opened in 1995, remains a solid performer.

Along with the theater boom, came the addition of theme restaurants along the Strand. Part attraction, part restaurant, Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Café at Broadway at the Beach are two of the original theme restaurants in Myrtle Beach, but Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, also at Broadway at the Beach, is the most recent (2004), and more Buffett money is coming - lots more. Margaritaville Holdings LLC announced last year future plans for a major Buffett branded hotel resort for somewhere in town. The corporation opened a $50 million Margaritaville Beach Hotel in Pensacola, Fla., despite the tourism-crippling Gulf oil spill.

While Parrotheads will have to wait for a local hotel bearing their beloved leader's stamp, they're already salivating in anticipation of the LandShark Bar & Grill, already under construction on the Myrtle Beach oceanfront. The new oceanfront pub and eatery will sit adjacent to the SkyWheel and should both benefit from, and add to, growing downtown Myrtle Beach traffic.

It may be sheer coincidence that these new local attractions are all set to open this spring and summer. Or it may be a sign that the fitness of the Grand Strand's tourism industry, if based upon new money and new-to-us attractions and events, has received the tourism doctor's clean bill of health.