Embraced on three sides by Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, can be as much fun in winter as it is in summer. Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort and Amusement Park, only three miles from downtown, offers skiing, snowboarding, snow tubing and year-round ice skating. By contrast, the national park presents serene winter landscapes that you can reach by car or on foot. And when you’re ready to come in from the cold (the average December high is 50 degrees), you can visit an acclaimed aquarium, a vaudeville-type theater and a range of shops and galleries. There’s also Smoky Mountain Winterfest, a holiday event that lights up Gatlinburg with tens of thousands of glittering lights.
Entertainment abounds in and around downtown, much of it on the Parkway, the main thoroughfare. The Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre offers original shows that are a mix of comedy, music and dance. Ride 400 feet to the top of the Space Needle observation tower for a 360-degree view; down below there’s an arcade and laser tag fun. On New Year’s Eve, the Space Needle serves up great fireworks and a ball drop.
In other seasonal events, November 10 brings the Gatlinburg Winter Magic Kickoff and Chili Cookoff. Chili cooks compete in a town that’s virtually blanketed in energy-efficient LED bulbs. The lighted displays depict snowmen, snowflakes and toy soldiers, as well as 40-foot swans beside illuminated archways, a cupid hovering over a “Smoky Mountain Romance” sign, and animated teddy bears dancing, painting and working in woodshops. December 3 is this year’s date for the Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade. The 1½-hour procession, which draws as many as 80,000 people, has dozens of floats, marching bands, helium balloons, decorated cars and, of course, Santa.
Ripley Entertainment wins the prize for the most town attractions, including the namesake Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. But the scene-stealer in Ripley’s repertoire is the Aquarium of the Smokies, the state’s second most popular attraction (after Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s theme park in neighboring Pigeon Forge). Videos and hands-on displays, such as the one about the surprising horseshoe crab—did you know this aquatic creature bleeds blue?—keep visits interesting. “I defy you not to learn something here,” says the aquarium’s director of marketing, Karl Thomas.
The soothingly dim and cool interiors are sure to lower your blood pressure. To subtly keep crowds moving forward and headed in one direction, the aquarium uses “glide paths” (moving sidewalks). Temporarily misplaced kids (called “jellyfish” by employees) are reunited with parents faster than you can say SpongeBob SquarePants.
Shark Lagoon, a serpentine acrylic tunnel that allows more than 100 sharks to swim above and around guests, is a favorite. Karl’s believe-it-or-not claim: “I’ve actually ‘burped’ a shark.” When new sharks arrive, he explains, air gulped in transit must be eliminated using a Heimlich-type maneuver.
The Penguin Playhouse is the latest aquarium addition. Here, tuxedo-clad African blackfooted penguins swim expertly (as fast as 12 mph) through a clear tunnel running beneath guests’ feet, passing from indoor to outdoor habitats. Visitors can crawl through another tunnel to view the birds “nose to beak.”
If you’re looking for holiday gifts, meander through the Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community, an eight-mile trail of shops and galleries about three miles east of downtown. You’ll find glass-blowing, broom-making, pottery, painting and more. The community holds an annual holiday show at the Gatlinburg Convention Center (this year, November 23–December 5).
Another good source of gifts is the recently opened Carousel Gardens, a two-story gallery selling work by about 50 of the same AandC artisans. One caveat: Expect wall-to-wall crowds around Thanksgiving and during the holidays.
Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort and Amusement Park: 1001 Parkway #2; 865.436.5423; www.obergatlinburg.com
The Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre: 461 Parkway; 865.436.4039; sweetfannyadams.com
Space Needle: 115 Historic Nature Trail; 865.436.4629; gatlinburgspaceneedle.com
Gatlinburg Winter Magic Kickoff and Chili Cookoff: eventsgatlinburg.com
Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade: attractions-gatlinburg.com
Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum: 88 River Rd.; 865.436.5096; ripleysgatlinburg.com
Aquarium of the Smokies: ripleysaquariumofthesmokies.com
Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community: Hwy. 321N; 800.568.4748; gatlinburgcrafts.com
Carousel Gardens: 458 Parkway; 865.430.7334; shopsatcarouselgardens.com