At last it’s summer, time for that quintessentially American ritual, the family car trip. Whatever the ultimate destination, what really makes getting there half the fun are the stops along the way. To help keep everybody happy—in the front and backseats—PEOPLE’S intrepid correspondents report on some of the nation’s more memorable tourist attractions.
We love Lucy
Past Atlantic City’s garish gambling halls, on Monopoly-famous Atlantic Avenue, looms 90-ton Lucy—the only elephant that has been designated a National Historic Landmark. Six stories high, with windowpane eyes facing the ocean off Margate City, N.J., the 117-year-old pachyderm still elicits the same gasps of disbelief from passersby that preservationist Josephine Harron, 74, says she experienced decades ago. “She’s one of a kind,” Harron enthuses. “She’s a survivor.”
Indeed, Lucy’s still doing precisely what Philadelphia developer James Lafferty intended in 1881 when he conceived the novelty building as advertising for South Atlantic City. Fashioned after circus impresario P.T. Barnum’s Jumbo and built at a cost of $38,000, Lucy quickly became one of the area’s biggest tourist attractions. Such notables as financier Jacob Astor, President Woodrow Wilson and automaker Henry Ford, anxious to see Lucy, stayed at the Elephant Hotel next door.
Over the years, Lucy also served as a doctor’s house and a tavern. But by 1960, years of neglect forced Margate City to close Lucy to the public. Only Harron and the Save Lucy Committee, which restored her to become the museum she is today, spared Lucy from the wrecking ball. Good thing, too. Says Sharon Widomski, 51, an administrative assistant from Baltimore: “It’s one of those things that’s almost too fun to miss.”
Elvis lives, and Bill Beeny’s museum has the proof
Millions of Elvis devotees flock to Memphis each year to mourn the King at Graceland. But if you’re a true believer, you might instead head out on Interstate 70 to the Elvis Is Alive Museum in Wright City, Mo. (pop. 1,250). Don’t get all shook up that the one-story museum—with its 16-foot plywood Elvis and 3,500-plus pictures—isn’t exactly Las Vegas. And don’t expect many genuine Elvis artifacts. But as proprietor Bill Beeny, 71, wearing white, bejeweled bell-bottoms, boasts, “There’s no other museum that purports Elvis is alive.”
Beeny, no worshiper of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll when he opened his ’50s-themed cafe a few years after what he terms “Elvis’s so-called death,” says extensive research convinced him that the FBI had helped Elvis (now 63, but “still very handsome,” says Beeny) to disappear. You can watch the hour-long video The Elvis Files or buy a $9.95 booklet, DNA Proves That Elvis Is Alive. Some visitors say their only disappointment is that the mannequin on display in a satin-lined open coffin doesn’t much resemble the King. Replies Beeny: “Neither did the individual in the casket at the funeral.”
Toto, I have a feeling we’re back in Kansas again
Planning a whirlwind trip to Kansas? Most everybody knows that was young Dorothy’s state of mind when she unforgettably repeated, “There’s no place like home; there’s no place like home,” in The Wizard of Oz. Until recently, fans longing to hit the Yellow Brick Road had nowhere to turn, since neither Oz author L. Frank Baum nor the magicmakers of the 1939 MGM classic film bothered to mention a real-life town. But that didn’t stop Max Zimmerman from staking a claim for his hometown of Liberal. Zimmerman, 66, a part-time insurance salesman, dreamed up a scheme to convert the Seward County Historical Society’s turn-of-the-century farmhouse into a replica of Dorothy’s residence—pretwister, that is. “We got a lot of cooperation from MGM,” says Zimmerman of Dorothy’s House, which boasts, in Toto, five rooms—and 15 guides with gingham pinafores and red shoes.
Build a bat, and they will come
Fearing downtown Louisville would fall behind in the standings of American cities a few years back, Jack Hillerich and local boosters pitched the idea of building a gargantuan Louisville Slugger on Main Street. President of Hillerich & Bradsby—which turns out 2.5 million bats a year—and grandson to the originator of the Louisville Slugger, Hillerich, 57, eagerly stepped up to the plate. Since the advent of aluminum bats, “I’d been struggling with the identity of the Louisville Slugger,” he says. “I didn’t want to see all that nostalgia pass away.”
Not only did Hillerich agree to build the world’s tallest bat—a 120-foot replica of Babe Ruth’s 1920s model—but he also created a museum dedicated to “the heart of the game.” Having the 68,000-pound steel bat leaning against his building as if a Bunyanesque ballplayer had casually laid it there “just caught my imagination,” says Hillerich.
Visitors to the factory-museum learn how grandpa “Bud” Hillerich, then 17 and a furnituremaker, made his first bat in 1884 after seeing his favorite ballplayer, Pete Browning of the Louisville Eclipse, break his bat one day. Fans can also watch baseball’s greatest hits on video and see the Louisville Sluggers used by the likes of Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Mickey Mantle.
At last, a chance to meet the Beetles
Think you’ve got bug problems? Drivers on Highway 115 outside Colorado Springs encounter a spectacle that could spook anyone into reaching for the cell phone to call an exterminator. But that 10-foot-tall, 16-foot-long West Indian Hercules beetle is just there to advertise the May Natural History Museum of the Tropics, a breathtaking display of some 7,000 rare and exotic insects. (Don’t worry; they’re dead.)
Within a windowless exhibit space the size of two semitrailers, more than 40,000 annual visitors gaze at 8-inch tarantulas, 17-inch-tall stick insects and even black Peruvian elephant beetles, which sport trunklike horns. “As soon as you mention insects, people think of mosquitoes and flies,” says curator John May, 81, who opened the museum in 1947. “It’s hard to explain to folks that this is really worth seeing.”
May’s father, James, started collecting tropical insects when the British Army sent him to Africa at the turn of the century to fight in the Boer War. And his grandfather gathered specimens along the upper Amazon River for the British Museum. By the time young John was in his early teens, the family was living in Canada, and he helped his father take the collection on the road to provincial fairs and then to exhibitions in almost every U.S. state. Eventually, the family chose Colorado—where the low humidity makes for excellent bug storage—as a home for the 100,000-specimen collection. (Less than 10 percent is displayed at a time.) Intrigued travelers who pull over can also enjoy the mountain view from any of nearly 500 campsites the Mays rent on their ranch surrounding the museum. Just watch out for the ants.
It’s not the heat, it’s the immensity
Just how hot is it in Death Valley? So hot you can fry an egg on the surface of Interstate 15. So hot that sweat evaporates within seconds. So hot that…wait a second. Wanna know exactly how hot it is in Death Valley? Check the 134-foot steel-and-concrete illuminated thermometer in tiny Baker, Calif. (pop. 500). And if you’re not headed for downtown Baker, don’t worry; this $750,000 East Mojave Desert landmark, built in 1991 to boost tourism, can be seen from five miles away.
The kids can’t get enough of this kid
Paris has the Mona Lisa. Rome has the Pietà. But where can you find art that’s really, well, useful? Go west, young aficionado, to Riverfront Park in Spokane, Wash., home of possibly the only garbage-eating goat sculpture. Paula Turnbull, a Catholic nun in her 70s, says she created the life-size steel quadruped as “a recycling statement” for the 1974 World’s Fair. Spokane’s children have embraced the goat for less lofty reasons. “It sucks the trash out of their hands and into its mouth and goes shhh! and the kids go, oooh!” says Dale Larsen, an official at the park, where workers clear out the refuse each day from a shed hidden behind the sculpture. “They just think it’s neat.”