The train museum dedicated to the legendary railroad engineer has been closed for a month and a half. The gift shop and ice cream parlor are also shut down, and the restaurant known for Southern staples like fried chicken, banana pudding and hot water cornbread is only filling carryout orders. Owner Clark Shaw says business is down 80% at the family-owned stopover, located off Interstate 40 between Nashville and Memphis.
“This has been a living nightmare,” Shaw said.
However, Shaw has hope. He secured a small business loan from the federal government’s coronavirus relief package to keep the place afloat. The restaurant could reopen Friday, and the museum could start hosting visitors in late May. Improvements such as deep-cleaning the restaurant, new lighting, and a fresh paint job for the historic train car stationed next to the museum will make the visitor experience more worthwhile, he said.
“We said to ourselves, ‘OK, how can we use this terrible crisis for good?’” said Shaw, whose father opened Casey Jones Village 55 years ago. “We began to think outside the box a little bit.”
As businesses start to gradually reopen across the state, big-name Tennessee tourist draws like Dollywood, Graceland and the Grand Ole Opry remained closed Wednesday. But destinations both large and small are preparing to start welcoming visitors once again in a state where travelers spent $22 billion in 2018.
Tourism communities in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, including Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, were allowed to start reopening restaurants Monday at limited capacity, with retail to follow under similar restrictions Wednesday.
The cities and Sevier County say they are not actively marketing to visitors to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. State officials have said they are discouraging travelers from out-of-state and have yet to release guidelines for tourist attractions.
Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, for one, hasn’t discussed a timeline for reopening and putting hundreds of furloughed employees back to work. Meanwhile, some smaller attractions are advertising reopenings on Friday, the first day the governor’s stay-at-home order is no longer in place.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park also hasn’t said when it might reopen.
State officials say they hope travelers from Tennessee or out of state visitors will respect established social distancing rules as they return to restaurants and tourist attractions.
“We’re first doing the restaurants well, we’ll do retail well and the Gatlinburg leaders and many more across the state will continue their plans on how to be ready,” Department of Tourist Development Commissioner Mark Ezell said during an online news conference Tuesday.
At Elvis Presley’s Graceland, the Memphis-based attraction centered on the life and career of the late singer and actor, officials said the museum, restaurants and exhibits will remain closed though at least Thursday.
On a normal year, Graceland attracts more than 500,000 visitors from around the world.
A few miles away on Beale Street, the Memphis street dedicated to the blues, restaurants, shops and bars remain closed or operating on a limited basis under guidelines issued in social distancing orders handed down by the city.
In the country music capital of Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry has suspended all events through May 16. That includes shows at the Ryman Auditorium and visitor tours.
The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga remains shuttered. But during its hiatus, the aquarium created Weekday Wonders, a series of free, science based activities available online for children and parents.
Aquarium workers also have spruced up the Lemur Forest exhibit and have delivered Facebook Live events connecting viewers with experts and animals.
In Union City, Discovery Park of America remains closed, but officials at the educational museum that draws about 250,000 visitors a year are working on a tentative opening date.
Discovery Park has avoided staff layoffs and added a trove of online educational content, including photos of artifacts and new lesson plans. Improvements geared toward visitor safety include plastic shields at ticket counters, temperature checks for staff, revamped outdoor seating areas, and more hand sanitizer stations.
President and CEO Scott Williams said outdoor spaces will be limited to 50% occupancy when the museum opens, and the building will still be closed for two days a week for deep cleaning.
“I’m definitely anxious to get us back to where we can welcome guests again,” Williams said.