Tourism Tuesdays December 8, 2015

  • Beyond being a dream job:’ Bill Tunnell steps down at battleship
  • Why Alabama’s emerging craft beer scene is worth traveling for
  • Christmas Afloat to return this year after being on hiatus since 2011
  • ‘Poseidon’s Playground’ expands for divers off Orange Beach
  • Revived Lyric Theatre sets opening date, initial lineup of shows
  • Governor’s Mansion open for Candlelight Tours
  • Welcome Center Holiday Open House
  • Bellingrath Gardens & Home celebrates 20 Years of Magic Christmas in Lights
  • Scott & Zelda’s 25th Christmas Open House
  • Alabama Tourism Department (ATD) upcoming events



‘Beyond being a dream job:’ Bill Tunnell steps down at battleship

By Lawrence Specker,, Dec. 4

“It goes beyond being a dream job,” says Bill Tunnell. “I never dreamed of having this job.”

But all good things come to an end, and after 19 years as executive director of USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, Tunnell is stepping down. The USS Alabama Battleship Commission announced in late November that it had selected U.S. Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Janet Cobb as Tunnell’s successor.

That in itself promises to be a historic development, and not just because Cobb will become only the eighth person to direct the 50-year-old park. Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department, observed that Cobb will be a southern counterpart to Deborah Barnhart, who has led the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville for five years. Among Barnhart’s extensive education and business credits, she’s also a former Navy captain.

“I think it’s fascinating,” said Sentell. “The CEOs of two of Alabama’s most important destinations are women who’ve had successful careers in the military returning to their hometowns.”

Tunnell said he has known for a while that this year would be his last, in part because of an obvious conjunction: He turned 70 a couple of weeks ago, and the park’s 50th anniversary year is winding down.  In conjunction with that anniversary, Sentell’s department named the park as the state’s top tourism attraction this year.

“What a great time for a transition,” Tunnell said. With new plans brewing as the park prepares for its next 50 years, he said, “it would be a great time for somebody to come in.”

Tunnell said he notified the Commission of his intentions in March, and in August it put out a call that brought in “150 well-qualified applications from 22 states.” That field was narrowed down to five finalists, and in the end it was Cobb, a resident of Point Clear who had served on the Battleship Commission for two years, who was picked.

“I’ve known her for 20 years,” said Tunnell. “I couldn’t be happier that she’s the choice.”

Tunnell said that Cobb was currently on active duty and will report to Battleship Memorial Park on Dec. 14. A U.S. Army Reserve bio lists her as the commanding general of the 81st Regional Support Command and indicates she has some familiarity with big ships: “As battalion commander, MG Cobb and the 1184th Transportation Terminal

Battalion operated the Port of Ash Shuaybah, Kuwait from 14 November 2002 through 19 May 2003. The battalion discharged 105 vessels and 90,152 pieces of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps cargo throughout the period of combat operations for Operation Iraq Freedom I.”

According to the same document, Cobb’s decorations include “the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal (2 OLC), Army Commendation Medal (4 OLC), Joint Service Achievement Medal and the Army Achievement Medal.” 

In civilian life, Cobb also has a law degree and is a licensed Realtor. Tunnell said he thinks Cobb’s real estate experience in Gulf Shores will help give her some insight into the tourism industry. Col. Patrick Downing, head of the Battleship Commission, said he thinks her mix of military and business experience makes her a superior candidate.

With the transition looming, not to mention the busy Christmas week, Tunnell has some time to look back on a very eventful tenure. His relationship with the USS Alabama goes all the way back to his high school days, when he and other Alabama schoolkids were called on to donate change to the effort to save the ship from the scrapyard; their pennies and nickels helped bring it to Mobile. He still carries a card his participation earned him.

“We didn’t even know there was a Battleship Alabama,” before that, he said, because the vessel had been decommissioned in the ’40s. “I remember the enthusiasm,” he said.

Tunnell moved to Mobile shortly before Hurricane Frederic hit in 1979, working in the hotel and convention industry until 1991, when he became marketing and PR director for Battleship Memorial Park. Soon after, crews set up on the ship to film the movie “Under Siege.” He still remembers Steven Seagal and Tommy Lee Jones as really nice guys, Gary Busey as a little unpredictable.

When he became executive director of the park in 1997, major challenges were in store. Maintenance issues for the battleship and the submarine USS Drum were becoming critical. Over the next six years, a massive campaign would see $15 million spent. Among numerous other improvements, old oil was cleaned from the ship’s bilges, millions went to repair corrosion at the waterline and protect against further damage, and the Drum was moved from the water to a station on land.

With that effort winding down, and a couple million dollars of debt on the books, then came the one-two punch of Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The surge from the latter knocked the battleship eight degrees off level, thoroughly wrecked the park’s Aircraft Pavilion and caused a four-month shutdown, with attendant loss of revenue. The self-sustaining park’s debt climbed to $3 million.

But the news never was all bad, and over the years world events often turned people’s thoughts in a patriotic direction. The 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan” provided a big boost. “It revived the enthusiasm for the people who won World War II,” Tunnell said. And in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the number of visitors increased again.

The park is debt-free now, Tunnell said, and he takes only a modest part of the credit. He said the Alabama is shipshape thanks to a hardworking team that runs the park, the fundraising and leadership of the Commission, the support of visitors and, of course, the contributions of the “greatest generation” itself.

New plans are brewing, Tunnell said. In a sense, the park’s mission is twofold: To keep a focus on World War II, but also to keep current, recognizing all branches of the service and honoring their contributions in more recent conflicts.

Downing said “the mission is never accomplished,” and not just because of the “continuous and never-ending maintenance.”

The Aircraft Pavilion is jam-packed. Likely in the next year, Downing said, the Commission will launch a capital campaign to pay for an addition. Park officials are eager to add not just more display space, but classroom space.

“We believe in education of the young and old,” said Tunnell. “And everything in between.”

“We just hate to lose Bill,” said Downing. “He’s been a mainstay.”

“I can’t think of any other type of management job that would prepare you” for the multifaceted mission of directing the park, said Sentell. “I thought he was a great selection 20 years ago when he was chosen, and he has done a stellar job.”

That job isn’t finished just yet. On a recent cold and windy morning the park bustled with work: Among other things, the gift-shop restrooms were getting a major renovation and a team was “firing” some of the 40mm anti-aircraft guns using propane to produce a flash and bang. That’ll be part of future “Living History” enactments, Tunnell said.

As Tunnell led a visitor through the ship, his command of the vessel was easy to see: His obvious pleasure in the fact that the administrative offices are on board in the rooms once used by admirals; his concern over the nagging problem of the ship’s teak deck, in need of a wildly expensive overhaul after years of patching; and his reminisces about how the park landscape and the Mobile skyline have changed over the years.

“I’m retiring, but I have no intention of quitting work,” he said. Retirement ultimately will mean more time at home in Gulf Shores, more time with his wife Cynthia (who hasn’t retired just yet), more time for golf. But he’ll be at the park at least into January, he said, helping as needed and gradually wrapping up loose ends. Maybe he’ll find time sort through 50 years of files. “I will phase myself out of daily operations,” he said.

Looking back at the Alabama, he said it isn’t necessarily the ship’s distinctive profile that makes it a landmark.

“It’s not the object itself,” he said. “It’s the heart and soul of all those people who’ve attached themselves to that ship.”

To read this article online, go to:


Governor’s Mansion open for Candlelight Tours

Gov. Bentley will open the Governor’s Mansion for candlelight tours on the first three Monday nights in December from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. 

Designers from across the state have volunteered their time to decorate the Governor’s Mansion and the neighboring Hill House for the candlelight tours.  “The Governor’s Mansion belongs to the people of Alabama and I want to share it with them during this wonderful season,” said Bentley. 

Tickets for the tours are available free of charge at the gift shop prior to the tours each day.  The gift shop is located at 30 Finley Avenue across the street from the side entrance of the mansion.

The designers working on decorating the mansion include Jerry Thrash with Capitol’s Rosemont Gardens in Montgomery, Millie Radney with The Arrangement in Birmingham, Cathy Wayman with C. Wayman Floral & Events in Auburn, Evan G. Cooper with Evan & Company in Montgomery and Crystal Strickland with Southern Posies in Montgomery

Choirs scheduled to perform include the Forest Avenue Academic Magnet Elementary School Choir from Montgomery on Dec. 14 and Mobile’s Singing Children Choir on Dec. 21.

The Governor’s Mansion is a 1907 Colonial Revival house located at 1142 South Perry Street in Montgomery and has served as the official residence for governors of Alabama since 1951.  The neighboring Farley-Hill House became part of the Governor’s Mansion complex in 2003 and will also be open for the candlelight tours.

The mansion will be open for candlelight tours from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 14 and 21.   More information is available about the Governor’s Mansion Candlelight Tours by going online at

Why Alabama’s emerging craft beer scene is worth traveling for

By Olivia Briggs,, Dec. 1

We live in the golden age of craft beer. With more than 3,000 breweries in the U.S. alone, we expect to find good local beers wherever we go. And for some, it even factors into planning a vacation. While much of our country’s best craft beer can be found in Northeast and Western states, Alabama—a relatively new player—is quickly catching up with the country’s demand for craft beer and evolving into one of the next great destinations for it.

On a recent trip to the Alabama Gulf Coast, I was surprised to learn about all of the beer that the state is brewing up. I happened to visit during the annual Oyster Cook-off and Craft Beer Festival, which is held every November at The Hangout, a popular beachfront venue in Gulf Shores. The weekend brings together brewers and chefs, both local and nationwide—and for anyone ready to drink local beer, it’s a time to sample some of Alabama’s finest.

The craft beer boom in Alabama was slower to take off due to laws on beer production and consumption. Until 2008, craft beer makers were prohibited from selling beer over 6 percent ABV. (It’s now 13.9 percent.) On-site tap rooms weren’t permitted until 2010, either. In 2013, the state approved selling 22 ounce beers and also lifted a ban on home brewing. These changes have had a tremendous economic impact on Alabama—they’ve created hundreds of new jobs and brought a surge of craft beer tourism to the state.

Some local brewers see Alabama’s late entry into the industry as an advantage. For them, it’s presented an opportunity to ask questions and share ideas with national frontrunners, which has helped them perfect their beer in a shorter time.

The rise of craft beer has influenced many year-round festivals that celebrate local food, music, and, of course, craft beer in Alabama. Here are some of the state’s best:

Today there are roughly 30 craft breweries in Alabama, and that number is steadily growing. Below are some of Alabama’s most noteworthy:

While most of Alabama’s beer is sold locally, the state is getting national recognition for its innovative collections. Earlier this year, two of Alabama’s beers were featured in Men’s Journal‘s list of 101 Best Beers: Straight to Ale‘s bourbon barrel-aged ale, Unobtanium; and Good People Brewing‘s Snake Handler, a Double IPA.

It’s only the beginning for Alabama. Local breweries are hoping to tap into out-of-state markets and make a larger impact in the national craft beer scene.

To read this article online, go to:

Christmas Afloat to return this year after being on hiatus since 2011

By Mark Hughes Cobb, The Tuscaloosa News, Nov. 17

Christmas Afloat, the Tuscaloosa lighted boat parade that went missing in the wake of the April 2011 tornadoes, will return for 2015, beginning at 5 p.m. Dec. 19 on the Black Warrior River. It had been a holiday staple since 1990, but so many watercraft were destroyed in 2011, the event took a hiatus, said Christmas Afloat chairman Ken DeWitt.

“… We are slowly but surely returning to our former numbers. So this marks another return to our city’s great holiday traditions,” DeWitt said.

The parade route will start at the Riverview boat landing, just upriver from Woolsey Finnell Bridge (the one on McFarland Boulevard), and proceed down the river along the north bank. The flotilla will turn around near the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater, site of Holidays on the River ice skating and other events, then return upriver closer to the south shore.

It’s a project of The Pirates of the Warrior, a not-for-profit recreational boat club based in Cottondale, on Holt Lake.

The club takes part in community events including an annual river cleanup. Boat owners will decorate craft — cruisers, houseboats and pontoon boats — at their own expense.

Those wishing to know about the parade, may visit the event Facebook page,contact DeWitt at, or 205-310-4454, or Ed Cook at, or 205-331-1365. Those wishing to donate as sponsors can make checks payable to Tuscaloosa Christmas Afloat, (a 501c3 entity under IRS guidelines), c/o Ed Cook, 11770 Recreation Area Road, Cottondale, AL 35453. 

To read this article online, go to:


‘Poseidon’s Playground’ expands for divers off Orange Beach

By Brian Kelly,, Dec. 2

The Alabama Gulf Coast Reef and Restoration Foundation added to its fanciful diving destination, “Poseidon’s Playground,” on Tuesday at noon.

Located three miles off of Perdido Pass in Orange Beach, Ala., the undersea attraction was established just a year ago with the deployment of three statues of Greek mythological figures — Poseidon, Apollo and Venus.

Tuesday’s action took place in about 38 feet of water. Divers were on hand along with the media to watch a pyramid, rocket, and a steel structure placed by a crane. Vince Lucido, president of the Reef and Restoration Foundation, was present to supervise things.

The Playground is the brainchild of local scuba instructor Lila Harris, who wanted to establish something closer to shore that’s accessible for younger divers and beginners.

“It’s the beginning of a long-term project,” Lucido told last year. “We hope to add more to it as people become more aware of what we’re doing out there. It will have different types of statues that have gotten really popular all over the world with people just putting statues, art, sculptures, things like that underwater. It makes a great photo op.”

As with the sinking of The LuLu, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources permitted the use of the reef zone through its Marine Resources Division. 

To read this article online, go to:


Revived Lyric Theatre sets opening date, initial lineup of shows

By Brent Godwin, Birmingham Business Journal, Dec. 1

The historic Lyric Theatre will reopen Jan. 14 in downtown Birmingham.

The Lyric, located at 1800 Third Ave. N., has been undergoing an $11 million restoration over the last few years after a major fundraising effort.

Birmingham Landmarks Inc., which owns the theater, announced “3 Nights of Moderne Vaudeville” will be the first new event held in the 101-year-old vaudeville theatre.

Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. for performances at 7:30 p.m. Local artists Dolores Hydock, Sharrif Simmons, and Bobby Horton will host vaudeville acts Three on a String and The Birmingham Sunlights on all three nights.

Several prominent Birmingham companies are sponsoring the “Live at the Lyric” season, including Regions Bank, Books-A-Million, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, Stewart Perry Construction, HealthSouth,, WBRC Fox 6 News and B-Metro.

As we’ve previously reported
, the restoration of the Lyric has been a catalyst for the surrounding Theater District, including Gray Construction’s new Southeast headquarters in the former Booker T. Washington building. That project should be complete in 2016 and just recently scored tech firm Atlas RFID as a tenant.

The Lyric Theatre opened in 1914 and has hosted stars such as the Marx Brothers, Will Rogers and Milton Berle, among others.

To read this article online, go to:



Welcome Center Holiday Open House

Welcome Centers around the state are always helpful, friendly and welcoming to guests from around the world.  Our talented Welcome Center staffs also work with the communities where they are located.  During December they have a Holiday Open House to celebrate the holidays with food and fun. 

See the Alabama Tourism Department (ATD) upcoming events below for each center’s open house date.


Bellingrath Gardens & Home celebrates 20 Years of Magic Christmas in Lights

It’s one of the nation’s best holiday light shows, and it’s in south Alabama.  Bellingrath Gardens and Home in Theodore is celebrating the 20th anniversary of Magic Christmas in Lights in 2015. The dazzling nighttime display features more than 1,100 set pieces, 3 million lights and 15 scenes, set out in a walking tour throughout the 65-acre Garden estate.

Opening Night was Fri., Nov. 27, and it started off with a bang.  There was a special fireworks show on the Great Lawn to kick off 20 Years of Magic.

Magic Christmas in Lights has become a must-see tradition for visitors from the Gulf Coast region and beyond. Attendance has doubled since 2000, rising from 35,309 that year to 73,260 in 2014.

Many guests do not realize that Magic Christmas in Lights is a made-in-Alabama attraction.  Each year, the set pieces for the holiday lights are designed and handmade on site by members of Bellingrath’s staff.  Two of our employees work full-time all year on the light display.

The 20 Years of Magic season has several enhancements, including new water lilies on Mirror Lake; animated snowflakes on the Great Lawn; and blue track lights to create the effect of flowing waves in the Underwater Garden.

“This year’s show will be more magical than ever,” said Dr. Bill Barrick, Executive Director of Bellingrath Gardens and Home.  “Magic Christmas in Lights is a perfect way for families to celebrate the holiday season.”

In 2014, Magic Christmas in Lights was ranked sixth in USA Today’s list of “10 Best Public Light Displays in America,” which was compiled with readers’ online votes.

Click here for the link:

Magic Christmas in Lights, which runs from 5 to 9 p.m. daily through Jan. 2, 2016, also includes nightly choral performances on the South Terrace of the Bellingrath Home, which will be open for tours and decorated in full holiday finery. (The Gardens will be closed on Christmas and New Year’s Days.)

The Gift Shop will be fully stocked for the season, and guests may also have their photos taken with Santa Claus in the Magnolia Café.  The Magic Christmas in Lights Party Tent is available for holiday parties.

Discounts include Military Mondays, a 20 percent discount off regular Gardens admission for active duty military and their families on Nov. 30, Dec. 7 and Dec. 14; and Value Wednesdays, 20 percent off of regular Gardens admission on Dec. 2, Dec. 9 and Dec. 16.

Visitors are encouraged to take part in our “#MyMagicMoment2015” selfie contest on Instagram and to tag Bellingrath on Facebook and on Twitter (@Bellingrath2932).  The winners will be selected by online vote.  The selfie contest ends on December 10.

The Saturday before Christmas, Dec. 19, will be especially magical: Guests will enjoy a visit from the Coca-Cola Caravan in the parking lot.

For details about Magic Christmas in Lights, or to order tickets, visit:

For more information, visit: or call 251.973.2217.


Scott & Zelda’s 25th Christmas Open House

On Sat., Dec. 12, the Fitzgerald Museum of Montgomery will host its annual “Christmas Open House.”  This will be the event’s 25th Anniversary, and the museum has made special arrangements to mark the occasion.

For the first time since its inception, Santa Claus will visit the museum. Families with little children are encouraged to come and let Santa hear their children’s Christmas wishes. Photo opportunities with Santa will be available, and Santa will distribute candy canes as party favors.

Christmas cookies, coffee, hot chocolate, and the Christmas beverage staple Coca-Cola will all be available free of charge though the museum will accept donations.

All museum galleries will be open for the Christmas Open House. Of particular note, the museum has a new gallery of Zelda’s letters to her friend Oscar Kalman in the years following Fitzgerald’s death (12/21/1940).

The event, which is free of charge, will be from 9 a.m. until noon at 919 Felder Avenue.

For more information call 334.264.4222.


Alabama Tourism Department (ATD) upcoming events

Dec 8                           Holiday Open House – Lanett & Sumter Welcome Centers

Dec 9                           Holiday Open House – DeKalb Welcome Center

Dec 10                         Holiday Open House – Ardmore Welcome Center

Dec 14                         Governor’s Mansion Candlelight Tour – Montgomery

Dec 15                         Holiday Open House – Grand Bay Welcome Center

Dec 17                         Holiday Open House – Baldwin Welcome Center

Dec 21                         Governor’s Mansion Candlelight Tour – Montgomery



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