Remember When, Lost Smoky Mountain Attractions – Porpoise Island

Vintage Poirpose Island Attraction, Pigeon Forge, TN.

Vintage Poirpose Island Attraction, Pigeon Forge, TN.

Remember When, Lost Smoky Mountain Attractions – Porpoise Island. Pigeon Forge, TN is widely known as a national vacation destination offering something for everyone from theaters and attractions to amusements parks and shopping with world-renowned views of the Smokies in the background. There have been some very memorable attractions come and go over the years. This is one of them in our series Remember When, Lost Smoky Mountain Attractions.

The porpoises are calling you!”

But did you think they would be calling from the Great Smoky Mountains?

Most people didn’t. Opening in the summer of 1972, a new Polynesian – style

Porpoise Island duck slide in Pigeon Forge, TN.

Porpoise Island duck slide in Pigeon Forge, TN.

attraction called Porpoise Island stuck a toe in the ever-expanding pool of growing tourism choices in Pigeon Forge, TN.  It was certainly a novel idea – mixing the tropical feeling of the Hawaiian Islands with the earthy down home goodness of the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. No one really knew if it would work although one of the principle investors did have similar attractions in Hawaii itself, Bermuda, England and other locations. However, tourism in the Smokies isn’t always like tourism in other places. A last-century investment of $500,000 was a pretty substantial one equaling over $3,000,000 in today’s dollars. Sea-swimming creatures and Polynesian grass-skirt style in the Great Smoky Mountains did offer an interesting contrast to be sure.

The 20-acre attraction was located at the north end of Pigeon Forge (on highway 441) on what is now called “The Island.” It is so-named because it is a natural land section in the middle of the Little Pigeon River which runs parallel to the Pigeon Forge parkway. It’s not the Pacific but it can get pretty cranky after spring rains.

Porpoise Island Polynesian hula dancers in Pigeon Forge.

Porpoise Island Polynesian hula dancers in Pigeon Forge.

Porpoise Island included hula dancers in grass skirts (of course!), laurel head wreaths, a sea lion show, a bird show called the “Island Whiz Kids,” a deer ranch and live Hawaiian stage show but the main stars were of course the porpoises. Overall, there were 20 different performances a day. The porpoises performed in a 100’ x 36’ salt water facility. Guests were also allowed to pet the porpoises. Visitors were greeted at the main building with a warm hula dance comprised of male and female dancers in traditional Polynesian wear and with instruments. Hawaiian culture is known for their friendliness and hospitality so maybe Porpoise Island was a perfect fit to the cordial nature of the Smokies and its people.

The attraction would be open 7 days a week through Labor Day. What many may not know was what a massive undertaking it was to set up and breakdown each season. Keep in mind, young ones out there, while there was electricity plus coast to coast/international airline travel in 1972, there were no cell phones, internet or computers on a wide scale – no immediate contact (just time zone challenged landline phone calls and “snail” mail) between all the necessary parties for expediting paperwork, permits, airline tickets, etc. The safety of the animals was paramount so each season the porpoises were flown in for the performing/summer season then would return to Mississippi after the Labor Day closing for much needed vacations in a warmer clime. Animal care specialists attended to and traveled with the porpoises.

Another interesting fact about Porpoise Island is that to staff an attraction of hospitable Hawaiians, you should hire hospitable Hawaiians. The human performers were flown in each season as well. Music student groups from the Kamehameha School in Honolulu auditioned for Don Jacobs, president of Porpoise Island. Ten groups were chosen to dance, sing and play the musical instruments included in the Pigeon Forge Show. The Kamehameha School is “dedicated to higher education for children of Hawaiian ancestry.” As an interesting aside, the Kamehameha School is a private charitable educational trust endowed by the will of Hawaiian princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop (1831-1884), the great-granddaughter and last direct descendant of King Kamehameha I.

During her lifetime, Princess Pauahi witnessed the rapid decline of the Hawaiian population. The princess knew that education would be key to the survival of her people, so in an enduring act of aloha, she left them a precious gift upon her passing — 375,000 acres of ancestral land. She instructed the trustees of her estate to use “the rest, residue and remainder of my estate” to educate her people. Today, her endowment supports Kamehameha School system that still serves thousands of Hawaiian learners.

What a great legacy to pass on to her own people!

From a former Porpoise Island Hawaiian performer:Reading some of the comments about Porpoise Island brought back a flood of great memories. I was one of the male performers with the Hawaiian group there between 1975 and 1977. While there, we met some great people and found “Southern” hospitality much like the “Aloha Spirit” here in the islands. Even as we have all grown since those high school days (we were all students), busy in our various professions, we maintain very close ties with one another. Thank you for allowing us to experience such a special time in a beautiful place. Aloha from Hawaii!” Russell, 05/17/2008 We few, we happy few, we band of Porpoise Island brothers...  

And what a very special connection to a small town in Tennessee!

Porpoise Island bridged smoky Mountain and Polynesian cultures that continue to impact lives today!

Porpoise Island bridged smoky Mountain and Polynesian cultures that continue to impact lives today!

But back to the show…unique to Porpoise Island was that it was the first Pigeon Forge attraction to use “electronic media” aka “television commercials” to promote their business. “The porpoises are calling you!” was the well-known local television ad inviting people from their hotel rooms to the park. Think that TV ad thing has caught on just fine. These were some innovative, visionary folks!

Porpoise Island was an anomaly in the mountains of Tennessee but it had a pretty great run. Opening in 1972, Porpoise Island closed for good after the end of the 1984 summer season. Since 1984, several different endeavors attempted to move onto the Porpoise Island property. The Island conglomeration of restaurants, the Wheel (Ferris wheel), shops, moonshine taster, spa, fountains (and more) currently there has been the most successful since Porpoise Island. Porpoise Island left lasting impressions on those visitors lucky enough to have attended the attraction as well as many of the young people who were able to experience what happened when the warmth of the Hawaiian Islands met the warmth of the Smoky Mountains.

Send us your Remember When Smoky Mountain memories to contact us and we just might post them in our recurring Remember When series. Photos can be sent to our Instagram @heysmokies. Don’t miss the next installment of Remember When Lost Smoky Mountains, follow HeySmokies.com today on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

For more memories check out the folks at Roadside America’s collection of Porpoise Island Vague Recollections.

HeySmokies.com is happy to welcome our contributor Christina Wolfenbarger. Christina is a writer, historian and librarian. We hope you enjoy her Smoky Mountain memories as much as we do!

Big thanks to the Pigeon Forge Library for their assistance and archive access!

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