Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Tweetsie Railroad Review

As a Boone native, I grew up going to Tweetsie. It was a real joy when we first took our own kids 5 years ago, like seeing the magic all over again. Since I've been many times, I've got the insider's view on the place. So I have included not only a full tour but also my "pro tips", noted in bold, just for you Stir Crazy families!

 Below is the view when you walk up to the main entrance to Tweetsie Railroad, one of the first theme parks in America. Usually one of the Tweetsie photographers is there, ready to take a family photo that you can view and opt to purchase from their photo booth at the end. The ticket lines are never long, especially if you're purchasing a season pass, which includes one Thomas the train and Ghost Train Admission. It pays for itself in three visits, much like our local Museum of Life and Science. 

PRO TIP: With your Tweetsie ticket stub, you get a 20% discount at the High Gravity adventures climbing wall next door (blog review on that coming soon.) Also if you arrive to Tweetsie after 3pm, you get free admission for the following day, just keep your receipt. This can be a great option for families that want to break up their visit and have a couple days in the High Country. And the least busy time to visit no matter the month? Sunday mornings.

First thing you'll see is the majestic Tweetsie train chugging down the tracks. Yep, it's the real deal - an authentic steam engine, complete with conductor, clanging wheels and bells, and it couldn't be more exciting the first time you see it. Honestly, I love when I first see it each time I come, even after all these years. I recommend riding the train first opportunity you can, because it's simply hard to resist (unless the cars are already full, then wait until they return). 

PRO TIP: The best car is the green #3 (or if they change them up, whatever car is the center/middle one), and sit on the right hand side (next to the embankment). That gives you the least amount of tinder flying back through the open windows and gives you the best seat for the Wild West show you'll see along the 3 mile long train trip.

(video courtesy Tweetsie Railroad's FB page)

As the train takes off, people are happy to wave and you get great views of the performance venues and later "Dead Man's Gulch" and some "graveyards" and "Indian settlements". The cowboys and law men are assigned one per car to remind people to keep hands in the car and they happily introduce themselves to everyone, quite a friendly bunch.

Interesting trivia: Why is it called Tweetsie? The #190 engine is the only remaining narrow gauge engine from the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad, which traveled from Johnson City TN to Boone. When ET&WNC stopped running in 1950, many were interested in purchasing this engine, including Gene Autry, famous Hollywood Cowboy. Instead it was purchased for the intent of a theme park by local entrepreneur Grover Robbins and the rest is history. The ET&WNC train was called Tweetsie by locals due to the high "tweet, tweet" sound it would make on its journeys through the mountains, and the nickname stuck. There is another engine Tweetsie employs, #12 that is also historic, having been used by United States Army Transportation Corps in Alaska during World War II (More background info at Tweetsie's Wikipedia page.)

On the ride there are two stops along the way, the first where on this particular day we met female cowgirls on real horses, and you get to see some fun stuntwork (beware, this video below is a spoiler). The routine is new this year and the wireless mics and sound system have greatly been improved so I highly recommend a return trip if you've been before. They do mix up the jokes and situations so it's never really the same ride twice. 

PRO TIP: A word of warning to all families, especially those of younger kiddos - there are pop guns with blanks used in the scenes they act out, and if your child is sensitive or not prepared it could be scary. In that situation I recommend bringing earplugs or avoiding that altogether by coming during the Thomas the Tank Engine Days where the train show is much more mellow with no guns used. But hurry, they recommend making reservations for Thomas as they schedule those train rides - it's in June!

After the stopover where there is a "hold up" the train continues on to the main act at Fort Boone, where at our visit there was a Civil War soldier who had gone mad and shooting at both the local Indian natives and our cowboys alike. There was some stunt choreography like fights and sliding down flag poles, and funny moments. One might notice that the whole Cowboy/Indian conflict is a bit outdated and politically incorrect, and no native actors from what I can tell play the Indians. However, in the modern version it is the Indians that are smart and good, not like ugly stereotypes from the past. They and the soldier do not return to Main Street for photo ops (as they stay there for the next train of guests to stop). 

Once you get back to Main Street, there's snack bars for food and a lot of shopping to be had. PRO TIP: There are also many "Indian" crafts and toys available in the gift shops, along with toy guns, so you might want to skip the main store on Main Street where the totum poles are and instead go into the smaller one right next to the "jail" that has more simple stuffed toys and trains. There is another train gift shop with Thomas items over by the blacksmith and BBQ. Below is a wall of toy guns... if you're into that. ;) 

Map of Tweetsie - click to enlarge, printable version here

At the end of Main Street past the funnel cakes, If you bear far left you'll go to the Hacienda's tents but unless something is happening (like a special event) you won't need to go there. 

Next you turn back around to face the hill and cross the tracks to walk up the hill. To your left, marked by the teepee is the Tweetsie Junction area. The pavilion is where you'll see musical acts and cloggers throughout the summer. There are more horse and wagon statues there to play with like on Main Street. You can also grab some BBQ or peruse craftsman stores, like a blacksmith who can personalize horseshoes, a signmaker, and an old timey photographer complete with costumes you and your family can wear so you look like you stepped right out of the Old West. I still have a picture I took with me and some girlfriends back in middle school! 

Also, If you wish to take a bus to the top of the mountain instead of the chairlift, at the back of this area is where you'll find the bus stop. 

Next to the bus stop is the Tweetsie Saloon, where the can can girls perform. They're so much fun to watch and have brand new lights this year for the stage as part of their massive investments throughout the park. There's also a snack bar with ice cream, pretzels and cotton candy, so if you want to relax there between shows, it's nice and quiet. They even play old timey black and white cowboy movies on the screen onstage. 

PRO TIP: While the Tweetsie brochures mention that nursing mothers (wishing to do so in private) may use the First Aid Station in the Depot building on Main Street, I personally have nursed my babies in a quiet corner in the saloon (and other locations) and have never felt out of place. Also, diaper changing facilities are located in all restrooms except those at the Tweetsie Palace and the Ticket Office. 

As you continue on that level you have another food option, the place that has the most food choices, including healthy options, Feed & Seed. They also allow you to bring your own picnic lunch and eat anywhere in the park. You'll also find bathrooms next to it and the yummy Fudge Shop! (You can see how lovely the park looks in the fall photos below.)

Next I recommend you continue up the hill, bypassing the entrance to the chairlifts for now. On your right you'll see this sign on a fence for Middle Fork Baptist Church - it's because behind it is a real graveyard for a nearby small church. According to surveys of the graveyard done in 2006, gravestones are as recent as 2004 and date back as far as 1853. You can see the graveyard from the Ferris Wheel. I have heard that when funerals occur they stop all the rides, but have never witnessed this or anyone paying respects myself and the graveyard is off limits to the general public understandably. It certainly is not something you expect in the middle of an amusement park! 

Once you pass under the go-kart bridge you're in the Country Fair area. There's a lot of fun rides - a Merry Go Round, Tilt-A-Whirl, Planes and Helicopters, and Ferris Wheel. You'll also see some carnival games, like where your ball needs to land in a certain hole to win a bear, or your dart needs to bust a specific balloon, that sort of thing. When I was a teenager I had a challenge with my friend to see how many times in a row we could do the Tilt-A-Whirl and we got to 8 before we had to stop - this area is totally a blast for all ages. My favorite is the Ferris Wheel. It sits at the edge of the mountain so when you spin around it really feels a lot higher and stomach churning scarier!

PRO TIP: If you want to know how many rides your kids are allowed to attend because of height restrictions before you go, check out the limits that are all listed in the rides section of Tweetsie's website. That way you can avoid disappointment!

Don't you love these Can Can Girls on the Tilt-A-Whirl?

video from the ferris wheel

view of the County Fair and beyond from the ferris wheel

view of airplane rides and real graveyard I mentioned earlier

Then on the left side of the County Fair you'll find the arcade with an old fashioned shooting gallery and lots of coin operated games and prizes you can win. Next to that is the entrance to the go-karts AKA "turnpike cruisers". You have to be a good height to drive by yourself, probably most 10 year olds would be able to. But shorter kids can ride next to an adult, who can let them steer. It's not very fast and the drive isn't far, but the rails keep you safe and the bumping about is a blast. This is definitely one of my kids favorite parts of Tweetsie. Behind the arcade building are the "big kid" AKA real-deal fair rides, the Tweetsie Tornado, Freefall, and Round-Up. I personally haven't been on any yet as my daredevil daughter isn't tall enough but they look awesome!

View from the go-kart

inside the arcade

shooting gallery

free fall ride

Once we finish here we usually eat a picnic lunch then go back down the hill to the chairlift. You can see many people park and leave their strollers at the entrance to the chairlift because first of all, you can't take anything but you and your bags on the chairlift (obviously). Also the top part of Tweetsie isn't that big, and holding littles is usually fine for that distance. Additionally, part of it (the petting zoo) is steep and bumpy and not the easiest with a stroller. However, if you really want to take your stroller, you can, you'll just need to go back down by the Palace Saloon and catch the bus. Be sure to look as you're preparing to board for the funhouse mirrors in the back of chairlift line queue - they just don't make them anymore and kids love them. 

(image courtesy Tweetsie Railroad's instagram)

The chairlift itself is smooth and easy, and not too high. PRO TIP: However, I have seen kids be very worried unexpectedly by the experience so each parent will need to judge if their kiddo is ready. There are workers at the top and bottom to make sure people are entering, exiting, and riding safely. I happen to think the chairlift is one of the best parts of Tweetsie. You get great views and it's just a calm opportunity to enjoy the breeze on a busy day. It's also one of those things the average person doesn't get a chance to ride all the time, and unless you're a skier, many people can go their whole lives without being on one. So sit back and relax on it!

Just for information - this is the gap between the bars that raise and lower. It's not a huge gap, but just wanted to include it for the more conservative riders. 

Be sure to smile at the top for the Tweetsie photographer - those are always fun shots!

Once you arrive, there's a neat little playground that kids love to spend time on.

The next attraction is on your left - the Mouse Mine! It's a tiny train you board with a mystery awaiting you halfway. As you're waiting in line, there's a penny press for those of you who are collectors. The ride is fun and a little fast, and then you arrive inside a cave, where the most day-glo bright singing mice under black lights that you've ever seen greet you with an animatronic number that is super goofy and lovable. This has always been so silly and fun for my family and has been around for as long as I've been coming to Tweetsie, a can't miss. I took a video of it but honestly don't want to ruin it for you, so this picture will have to do!

Next to the mouse mine you'll find refreshments on both sides and another gift shop, as well as face painting. PRO TIP: If you want to shop anywhere just ask about the service where they'll hold your package for you at the main gift store, no matter where you buy it so that you don't have to carry it around all day. 

After that is the Miner's Mountain Theater, which has alternating shows of Hopper & Porter's musical Celebration and Miner's Mountain Magic. We watched both on our visit, and the kids love the interactive aspect to them. Plus it's a nice place to relax or get out of unexpected rain.

Following that are two rides, one is airplanes, another is boats. Both have a height limit, so they're great for little kids, but by age 6-7 most kids are too tall. However, if you want to do another ride, there is the Tweetsie twister on the other side which is fast and fun for bigger people!

In between the kid rides and the adult ride is the Gold Mine, which along with the arcade is one of the few places that has additional (albiet optional) costs outside of the ticket price. For newbies its fun, although of course you're not guaranteed to find anything of value, but kids love getting sandy and wet. I would say depending on your kids ages to be prepared with a change of clothes. PRO TIP: if you choose to do it, I would recommend buying some gems and shiny rocks and whatnot in the gift shop or ahead of time to sneak into the silt for your kiddos to sift out and be dazzled by. Only you and I will know!

View of the main part of the top of Miner's mountain.
The big red building in the middle has covered picnic tables.

At the far end over the Mouse Mine bridge you'll find the petting zoo (AKA Deer Park Zoo) which is one of my other favorite parts! You are only allowed to feed them the seed they sell, which is very cheap and comes in ice cream cones. There are a lot of adorable animals, from potbellied pigs...

To deer...

to miniature horses...

Baby goats are roaming freely on the path with people, so of course this is adorable. Every time I have to peel my daughter away from them.

Even ostriches! And so many more.

If you're tired and would like to catch the bus, the pickup and drop off is right there at the entrance to the petting zoo. There's also a paved pedestrian trail which I've heard is nice, and is outlined on their map but I've never personally walked it. I will say it does seem long so be sure you're up to it! Otherwise, it's back downhill on the chairlift!

view from the chairlift with Mouse Mine tracks below

View of the bus road and in the distance the paved pedestrian trail

View of the county fair rides from chairlift

View of the lower portion, Tweetsie Junction and Main Street, from the chairlift 

birds eye chairlift view of the next door High Gravity Adventures - blog on that soon!

One thing people love about Tweetsie are all the special events, from Thomas's visit to K9s in flight and bands, it's fun to combine a visit with a show or memory making when they see their favorite character in real life. In the past we've had fun at a Scooby Doo day and another time meeting Spongebob. This year Dora and Diego are visiting Tweetsie!

As far as Thomas - I'm happy to say he is a life sized train that the tweetsie engine pushes down the track and it goes the full loop like the train normally runs. In past years there has also been a place with Thomas crafts and a meet and greet with Sir Topham Hat. (And as I mentioned before the show on the train is not scary since many more littles are riding than normal.)

K9's in Flight

The Ghost Train is one of Tweetsie's biggest attractions every October and it is fun. Advance tickets are required and new for this year you specifically buy tickets for the date and time of your ghost train ride in order for them to manage crowds. They have used this approach at Raleigh's Pullen Park Holiday Express with great success. The Ghost Train event admission includes: all the nighttime events in the park including a ride on the Ghost Train, Trick-or-Treating for the kids, Haunted House, Tweetsie Palace Spooktacular, the rides in the Creepy Carnival, and the attractions in "The Boneyard” section, featuring the Black Hole, 3-D maze, and the “Freaky Forest." The chairlift, Miner’s Mountain and Turnpike Cruisers will not be open during Ghost Train. PRO TIP: it is definitely scary - I am a scaredy cat and it was too much for me when it was brand new and I was in middle school. I recommend before making plans that you ask other families and read reviews to determine if your kids can handle the spooky evenings. Tweetsie itself says, "Some children are scared just because of the darkness. There are loud explosions on the Ghost Train ride. We don’t recommend the Haunted House, the Freaky Forest, or the Ghost Train for children under age 8." But if you love Halloween and all things scary, be sure to make the Tweetsie Ghost Train part of your Autumn plans, during a High Country visit to watch the leaves change colors as they fall and the seasons turn. It's also a perfect time of year to camp, I highly recommend it. 

I have grown up loving Tweetsie - it's a theme park built for families with youngsters, and it's endearing in it's old fashioned charm. The experience is more than worth the ticket price, and it's a must see for your High Country experience. 

For more information on visiting the Boone area, and other attractions that are perfect to pair with Tweetsie like Grandfather Mountain, the quaint downtowns of Boone and Blowing Rock, Linville Falls, Ziplining, and more check out High Country Host or Explore Boone. I'll keep blogging about my favorite places in Western North Carolina as well, so you'll be up to date on family friendly fun in the mountains. 

Head to the mountains this summer and visit Tweetsie, you'll make memories to last a lifetime!

Tweetsie Railroad
300 Tweetsie Railroad Lane
Blowing Rock, NC 28605

When: 2016 season is April through October but days and hours vary, see schedule for details

Cost: $28 for children 3-12, $44 for 13 and up, 2 and under free. For Golden Rail season passes and special event prices, as well as more information and to buy tickets online, check out the ticket site.

What we love: My personal favorites are the train ride, ferris wheel, the chairlift, and the petting zoo. My kids love the Turnpike Cruisers and special events. I also really appreciate all the investments they made in the park since last season, the place really sparkles and all the shows are fresh. The perks that come with being a Golden Rail season pass holder (my parents and my kids, since they visit so often, are all season pass holders) are great, like free parking during fireworks and Thomas and Ghost Train tickets. I also think the price is really reasonable considering all that is included. Oh and when they were little I loved that 2 and under was free!

What we would change: Free wifi would be nice, but it is supposed to be old fashioned fun, so in a way, perhaps it's encouraging us to connect as families? :) 

(FTC disclosure: I was given two tickets for myself and my husband to use at Tweetsie so that I could review the park. No positive review was asked for or promised, and the opinions are my own. I'm already a fan and members of my family are season pass holders, but that's beside the point!)

1 comment:

Manuela Espinosa said...

I have been going to Tweetsie for the past 11 years and well, earlier when I was a child and I could not have given this a more accurate or better review. You managed to explain just why we have been season pass holders for the past 11 years and now I get to continue with my 4 year old daughter!

Thank you for explaining and sharing the magic that this place offers!


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