Tourism Tuesdays July 23, 2019

The table is being set for Alabama Restaurant Week 2019

Op-Ed: The Clotilda is the only American slave ship ever found. It needs to be preserved.

Director says tourism can flourish around Lake Martin

Family travel guide to Gulf Shores

Rocking on with Brittany Howard

The Park at OWA continues to thrive with new planned dark ride

Tourism industry can help in 2020 census next April

John Emerald Distillery wins medals in National Spirit Competitions

How to get the most out of your Rocket Center visit

2019 Alabama Governor’s Conference on Tourism

Alabama Welcome Center Retreat 2019

“Partner Pointer” for the tourism industry website


The table is being set for Alabama Restaurant Week 2019
This year, the more-than-weeklong event will be held Aug. 16- 25.

With close to 150 participating restaurants last year, Alabama Restaurant Week 2019 looks to be bigger and better than ever before. This year more delicious food, flavor and fun will be spotlighted. Plan on being a part of the locally owned and operated restaurants who participate.

Participating restaurants will receive in-store promotional items and be listed on the website along with their meal offerings. Late entries will only receive website listing. Participating restaurants set meal prices at $10, $20, $30 and $40 for dinner and $10 and $15 for lunch. In all cases, the price is per person and does not include tax and tip. Restaurants have the choice of offering one or more meals at the preset prices.

There is no cost for restaurants to participate in this statewide promotion. For more details and sign-up information, please see or contact Courtney Austin at 334-242-4674 or

Op-Ed: The Clotilda is the only American slave ship ever found. It needs to be preserved.
From the article by Ben Raines on

The wreck of the Clotilda, the last ship to transport enslaved Africans to the United States, sits entombed in mud at the bottom of the Mobile River in Alabama. It is the only ship from the American slave trade ever found. In fact, out of more than 20,000 vessels that participated in the global slave trade, only 13, counting the Clotilda, have been found.

I found the Clotilda in April 2018 with a team from the University of Southern Mississippi, though the discovery was not announced publicly until this May. The ship is an artifact of international historical significance. But I worry that my home state of Alabama — which owns the wreck and will control what happens to it going forward — could squander the opportunities presented by the ship, either because of financial challenges or a failure to understand its importance. We cannot let that happen. Protecting and preserving it should be an immediate national priority. If our divided and dysfunctional Congress is too crippled to act, then the private sector must rally around to save the Clotilda.

The discovery of the Clotilda presents a one-of-a-kind opportunity to bring to life the nation’s slave-era history. It can also help highlight the story of Africatown, the only community in the nation founded and ruled by African-born slaves, where many of the Clotilda captives lived out their days and where their descendants reside.

The Africatown story is one of exceptional resilience. The 110 captives on the Clotilda were kidnapped by the king of Dahomey, who ruled what is modern-day Benin in West Africa and ran a brisk business selling his fellow Africans into bondage. These Africans, captured from various tribes by the Dahomean army, were sold and brought to Alabama by Timothy Meaher, a plantation and steamboat owner in Mobile. Meaher had bet a Northerner on his steamer that he could sneak Africans into the country as slaves, even though it had been illegal to import slaves to the United States since 1808. He sent the Clotilda to Africa in 1860 with $9,000 in gold (about $185,000 in today’s dollars) and orders to bring back slaves. Meaher was by no means the only person illegally importing slaves. Several other slave ships did the same in the year before the Clotilda’s voyage. Their captains were hailed as heroes in newspapers around the South.

When the Clotilda arrived in Mobile, Meaher and his compatriots burned and sank the ship to cover up the crime. They split the group of men, women and children among their various plantations. Ultimately, the captives were freed five years after they were enslaved, thanks to the end of the Civil War. A group of them asked Meaher to pay for passage back to Africa. After he refused, they appealed to the U.S. government, again to no avail. Ultimately, some members of the group bought a small piece of land north of Mobile from Meaher and created a community called African Town, later Africatown. They spoke their native tongue, farmed using traditional African methods and ran their own school. That school is still educating students in Africatown today.

The existence of the Clotilda is proof that a story told around dinner tables in Africatown for 150 years is true. Here in Mobile, people routinely dismissed Africatown’s Clotilda-based origin story as myth, something the community made up. When I decided to look for the Clotilda two years ago, it was because no one else was doing so and it seemed a mystery in need of solving. The elation and international attention that greeted the discovery prove the ship has already become a cultural touchstone. Now it falls to us to protect it.

Here in Alabama, there have been calls to leave the ship in place underwater along the remote and swampy shores of the Mobile River where it was burned to the waterline and sunk in 1860 — a sort of Pearl Harbor-inspired memorial. Others have suggested putting what’s left of the ship — which includes the hold where the captives spent their seven-week journey, naked and chained in filth — in a struggling maritime museum in Mobile next to a Carnival cruise ship terminal. A Civil War reenactor told me the ship should be blown up and crushed to dust, disappeared in the same fashion as his beloved Confederate monuments across the South (though not in Alabama, where an 88-foot tall monument to Confederate soldiers still dominates the grounds of the state Capitol).

The obvious answer seems to be to free the Clotilda from its cocoon of mud and put it on display in a museum in Africatown, which is what the residents of Africatown support. Of course, some Clotilda artifacts should also find their way to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, to tell the story on a national level. But the ship should remain in Africatown.

“We want it dug up and placed on display in the community,” said Pastor Christopher Williams Sr. of Yorktown Missionary Baptist Church, one of Africatown’s largest congregations. “This history is important not only in the black man’s heart, but in hearts all over the world. Everyone wants to hear Africatown’s story.”

Fortuitously, Africatown, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, received about $4 million out of BP oil spill settlement money to build a museum and welcome center a few months before the Clotilda was found, providing a perfect home for the ship. It is located adjacent to the cemetery where many of the Clotilda captives are buried. The ship would serve as a much-needed source of economic revitalization for Africatown and could instantly become part of the Alabama Civil Rights Trail, which highlights critical places in the African American story, such as the 16th Street Baptist Church and the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Raising the ship and restoring it for display will be painstaking work and probably cost tens of millions of dollars. Alabama doesn’t have the money for such a task. State agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Management, perpetually rank last among all states in funding dollars. Even with the best intentions, it will be nearly impossible to find adequate support or money in Montgomery — a former capital of the Confederacy — to preserve this relic of the slavery era.

But we needn’t rely on Alabama alone to preserve the ship. It’s time to ask the nation to take on the task and finance the effort to wrest it from the river mud. I believe many around the country and the world will support this mission when they understand what it represents for Africatown and our shared history.

The saga of the Clotilda and its enslaved passengers, from the illicit journey on the eve of the Civil War to the creation of the nation’s first community founded and governed by Africans, cuts to the heart of the American story. It is a tale of tragedy and survival, one that highlights our close and living connection to America’s slavery past. Alabama has too often been on the wrong side of this history. Now, it falls to the rest of the nation to ensure that Alabama does not miss this moment to preserve the Clotilda and this chapter of American history.

For the complete article please see

Director says tourism can flourish around Lake Martin
From the article by Jimmy Wigfield on

Rhonda Saunders is no longer a tourist because she has moved to the Alexander City area but she always wants to think like one, and that may be the best way for tourism to flourish around Lake Martin.

“My approach to tourism is to view it from the outside in, to walk a mile in the tourists’ shoes,” said Saunders, the newly hired executive director of the Lake Martin Tourism Association.

“We need to focus on the tourists, to see what they’re interested in, see why they’re coming and track it. What brought them here?”

Saunders already knows some truths about the potential of tourism to become the main supplier of businesses, jobs and revenue in the area around the lake and convert Alexander City from a manufacturing-based economy.

“It’s a tourism treasure,” she said.

The lake has attractions in sports-, youth- and outdoors-related activities, including fishing tournaments, arts and crafts, historic sites and music, especially the fabled tie of country music legend Hank Williams Sr. to Kowaliga.

“We need to take greater advantage of the Hank Williams connection to our area,” Saunders said. “Hank Williams Sr. is to country music what Elvis was to rock and roll.”

Saunders, a native of the Jackson, Mississippi, area, earned bachelor’s degrees from Ole Miss in journalism and public relations and from Mississippi University for Women in speech pathology and elementary education. She worked with the Mississippi Division of Tourism, now known as Visit Mississippi, for 15½ years and talked about her goals and vision for tourism in the Alexander City-Lake Martin area in this question-and-answer session with The Alex City Outlook.

ACO: Can Alexander City prosper without making tourism the biggest facet of the local economy?

RS: Tourism is forward thinking and it’s a terrific way to combine the past and the future. I think economic development and tourism go hand-in-hand. I know I’ve seen tourism work in other small towns throughout the Southeast. Tourism is big business. The beach is seasonal but we’ve got more than seasonality here. It could be year ’round.

USA Today did a survey of the best historical small towns and two of them are in Mississippi: Clarksdale and Natchez. Clarksdale’s population is a little more than 15,000, about the same as Alexander City. It is an agricultural-based community but the Crossroads is there. Eric Clapton sang about the Crossroads. Bob Dylan sang about the Crossroads. The Crossroads is where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar.

International tourists want that blues experience. Industry comes and goes but tourism keeps these places alive.

ACO: Does tourism need to be the No. 1 draw for this area, the No. 1 source of revenue?

RS: I think it’ll be a primary source of revenue but it will take time. When people come and visit and have a great experience, sometimes they relocate. Tourism is an economic driver.

ACO: Have you found a negative attitude toward change?

RS: No. It’s not about coming in and changing the Alexander City we know. It’s about appreciating the unique tourism offerings Alexander City and Lake Martin can give to travelers.

ACO: How big does tourism have to be to move the needle on Alex City’s $32,000 median household income?

RS: I can’t answer that at this time. What I can say is tourists spent $15.5 billion in Alabama last year and 227 million people visited our state. There was $954 million in revenue generated by travel tourism activities in Alabama last year; that’s state and local tax revenue. Without that, each household in the state would have had to pay an additional $507 in taxes.

Tourism in Alabama helped fund 198,890 jobs last year. Tourism strengthens the local economy. Every $116,120 in travel-related expenditures created one job in Alabama last year. There were an estimated 133,984 Alabama jobs directly attributable to the travel industry in 2018. In central Alabama, there was $3.874 million in travel-related expenditures last year, second only to the Gulf Coast ($6.16 million). And $56.9 million of Alabama’s 4% state lodging tax goes to the general fund.

But this didn’t happen overnight. Alabama tourism revenue was $6.8 billion in 2003 and last year it got to $15.5 billion. We need to get our share of that.

ACO: Is Lake Martin and Alex City an untapped tourist destination?

RS: We’ve got to try to develop more tourism offerings but we’ve got to build on what we have first. I’ve been many places in this world and the support is here. The city council is 100% behind tourism development and the residents are passionate and proud of this area. We can all be ambassadors for this area.

There are probably many things that are untapped. Lake Martin is a beautiful backdrop and you have niche markets — there are sports activities and fishing tournaments; those are forms of tourism. There is arts and crafts, antiques and the water. There are historic sites and I’m excited about the revitalization of downtown. There’s walking and biking. Millennials like outdoor activities.

We can host meetings and conventions and corporate retreats. We’re going to establish a website and a digital marketing plan. We’re going to link to search engines and to sites such as TripAdvisor.

There are other things. Canadian snowbirds — it’s a thriving market. There is no reason we can’t tap into that market here when they want a place to stay for the winter. I think the (Martin) dam is fascinating. That’s a history and science lesson in one. I think that would make a great museum. It was built in the 1920s without computers.

And what about stargazing? People are looking for black skies with minimal ambient light and I bet it is great at Lake Martin at night.

ACO: Can you elaborate on the research you want to do?

RS: There is something going on here almost every weekend but are the people local or are they driving in? Are they staying overnight? I don’t know what the figures are yet but from walking into four local hotels during Jazz Fest, when I was being interviewed, it seemed we had more day trippers. None of them were sold out.

We need to see how big our footprint is. Usually the radius is 200 to 250 miles. Then you know how to plan. So the first thing we have to do is invest in research.

There is a branding meeting next week involving Main Street (Alexander City) and other entities and the purpose is to devise a consistent brand. What that means is, what is our story and how are we going to tell it? We need to tell it in a way that is authentic and draws tourists in. That’s finding our identity. What is our identity now?

ACO: How can the area convert day trippers to overnighters?

RS: I like two-day special events. We want them to eat here and worship here and experience the breathtaking beauty of the area, the hospitality of the area. And we want them to stay overnight.

ACO: How feasible is it at some point to try and bring in an amusement park, such as the one at OWA in Foley, or an outlet mall?

RS: We do have to dream big. It can be considered in the future as the economic development drivers bring in new businesses. The possibilities are endless. The potential is great here. We need the support of all residents.

For the complete article please see

Family travel guide to Gulf Shores
From the article by Cortney Fries on

Neighboring cities Gulf Shores and Orange Beach in Alabama combine as a hidden gem family beach vacation destination. Located at the southernmost tip of Alabama, right by Pensacola, Florida, you’ll find gorgeous, white sand beaches, plenty of family-friendly fun, a laid-back atmosphere and an extra dose of Southern hospitality. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are often less crowded and more budget-friendly than other beach destinations but are definitely not short on special memory-making opportunities.

Gulf Shores Main Public Beach
A visit to Gulf Shores is all about the beach, and this big, wide, uncrowded public beach does not disappoint. The sand is so soft that it literally squeaks when you walk. The waters are warm and blue, and the waves are ever-so gentle. There are restrooms and changing areas and tons of great restaurants in walking distance.

Sand Castle University
Ever wanted to up the ante on your sandcastle creations? Then Sand Castle 101 is just the ticket for your family! This castle building class takes place on the beach. The instructor brings everything, including awesome tips for erecting Instagram-worthy palaces with windows, stairs, bridges and more. My family of four had so much fun constructing in the sun. Plus, photos and a time-lapse video of your experience are included in the cost of class.

Orange Beach Cat Boat Tours
Cat boats are the quintessential way to get around on the waters of Orange Beach. These zippy little boats feel like you’re gliding on the water and allow your family to get up-close views of dolphins and other marine life on 1.5-hour guided tours.

Mermaid Cruise
Have a mermaid lover or a seashell seeker in your family? You’ll all adore this ride on a pontoon boat to a quiet, little island where mermaids need your help finding magical seashells.

Caribe Marina
Water sports galore are at your family’s fingertips at Caribe Marina. Jet skis, kayaks, dolphin cruises, deep-sea fishing, and more are available and easy to reserve at this friendly marina. My family had such a blast racing through the waves on jet skis.

Orange Beach Helicopters
What better way to see Orange Beach and Perdido Key than from above! Kind, experienced helicopter pilots whisk you up and around the area for a short, yet awe-inspiring excursion. We relished seeing the shore at sunset with pods of dolphins swimming below.

The Wharf Orange Beach
This shopping and dining destination is home to a huge Ferris wheel that offers your family sweeping views of the Gulf. There’s also plenty to see and do, like zip line, mini golf and many live events.

The Track
If go-karts, blaster boats, and arcades are your thing, then head on down to The Track, where you can find family-friendly thrills.  This small fun park with kiddie rides is right next to Lulu’s, one of the best restaurants around with plenty for the kids to do.

Lucy Buffett, sister to “Cheeseburger in Paradise” singer Jimmy Buffett, knows how to make a restaurant experience fun for everyone. While there might be a wait for a table, there are picnic benches in the sand, where parents can relax with a cold drink while children play. The coastal cuisine is fabulous with a to-die-for smoked tuna dip and famous seafood gumbo. We greatly appreciated the allergy menus — so much easier than guessing or asking a million questions.

The Hangout
True to its name, this is the place you want to hang out in Gulf Shores. This huge restaurant has tons of outdoor space for fun in the fresh air and hosts live music nightly. There’s a giant sandpit for the kids to run and jump in, family-friendly foam parties and games. Inside the lively restaurant, there’s music pumping and napkins flying from the ceiling in celebration. It’s definitely a place to live it up.

Southern Grind
We visited both locations of this specialty coffee house because it is a true Southern gem. Not only are the coffee specialties great, but the food is also fresh and delicious, and the eclectic coastal decor makes you want to bring back some of the home goods for your own house.

Matt’s Homemade Alabama Ice Cream
Even with two locations in the area, you’re likely to find a line at Matt’s Ice Cream because the treats are sweet, creamy and definitely worth savoring. They promise to have at least 40 flavors on hand, as well as floats, shakes, sundaes and splits. Our family happily licked it up and would return in a heartbeat.

The Gulf
The Gulf is a casual, chic waterfront dining destination. Sink your toes into the sand and enjoy the gorgeous Gulf of Mexico views while sipping cocktails and tasting fresh seafood dishes. The kids can play while you relax under the palm trees and enjoy the ambiance. Seasonal menu items are self-serve from shipping container walk-up windows.

Picnic Beach
This shabby chic, healthy, quick-service restaurant is just down the street from the Gulf Shores Main Public Beach. BBQ, salads and smoothies top the menu. Dine at a picnic table then play games like Connect Four.

Caribe Resort
We opted to stay in a luxury condo from Wyndham Vacation Rentals because it’s always nice to spread out, cook your own meals and have the kids in separate bedrooms. Caribe Resort is awesome for families because they have indoor and outdoor pools with water slides and a lazy river, hot tubs, on-site restaurants, a putting green, sport courts and games like bocce ball, ping pong and bags. Our condo was spacious and modern with beautiful views of the water. Located right next to the marina, it is a convenient home base with numerous amenities.

Gulf State Park
Hike, fish, bike, swim, paddle and explore the 28 miles of trails in this beautiful nature preserve. With nine ecosystems, there is plenty to do! Plus, the park recently underwent a major revitalization. You can even camp here or stay overnight in the lodge.

Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo
The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo is known as The Little Zoo That Could on the Animal Planet documentary of the same name because the zoo director evacuated all the zoo’s animals to her home during Hurricane Ivan in 2004. This non-profit zoological park is home to over 600 animals in its 7.5-acre oasis. It’s a great place to stroll and experience hands-on animal encounters.

Naval Air Museum
You’ll find the world’s largest aviation museum in nearby Pensacola, Florida. Admission is free. See 150 aircraft from the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard and have 37-acres to explore outdoors. There are flight simulators, virtual reality and a Kitty Hawk play area.

Did you know you can literally straddle Florida and Alabama just down the road from Orange Beach? Flora-Bama is one of the country’s most famous beach bars. Across the street, there are a few family-friendly restaurants where you can listen to live music, eat some fresh seafood and enjoy an adult milkshake. Bushwackers are a popular drink, similar to chocolaty pina coladas. Cheers!

For the complete article please see

Rocking on with Brittany Howard
From the article by Matt Hendrickson on

Growing up in Athens, Alabama, Brittany Howard spent hours in front of the piano at her grandmother’s house. Her older sister, Jaime, would always sit next to her. Blind from retinal cancer, Jaime was a creative dynamo, teaching Brittany how to write poetry, play the piano, and write songs. The first lyrics they wrote together were for a blues number about a potato. “I don’t think we ever scored that one,” Howard says, laughing. And Jaime encouraged Brittany to trust her intuition. “She always said, ‘If it doesn’t feel good, then that means you’re not playing it right.’” Jaime died at thirteen after the cancer returned, and instead of playing piano, Brittany, four years younger, would spend hours alone in her room or outside, running around the Alabama woods with her dog to escape the sadness that had swallowed her family.

Jaime’s passing has loomed over Howard, the leader of the group Alabama Shakes, throughout her career. The blistering “On Your Way,” from the band’s 2012 debut, Boys & Girls, is fueled by her grief, with Howard howling the lyric “Why wasn’t it me?” So it would be easy to assume that Jaime, Howard’s dazzling upcoming solo debut, is filled with tributes to her sister. Except it isn’t. Rather, the songs are mostly about her own awakening.

While Howard has sprinkled autobiographical elements in many of her songs, the details have remained vague, easily transferable to one’s own interpretation. On Jaime, though, Howard is at her most honest and vulnerable. The child of a black father and a white mother, she grapples with identity and racism in “Goat Head.” “He Loves Me” addresses her struggles with organized religion, while the intimate “Georgia” is a coy love song to another woman. Howard’s sexuality hasn’t exactly been a secret, but it wasn’t something she openly talked about before. “It’s about not being able to tell somebody you love them without feeling like an outcast,” she says of the song. “I wanted to write a rich early-nineties R&B song that was from one woman to another. There isn’t one right now.”

Howard says she’s constantly writing down ideas for songs, whether a turn of phrase or a snippet of a piano or guitar part. Her lyrical candor is matched by the adventurousness of Jaime’s sound, an extension of the wilder, psychedelic atmospherics on the Shakes’ sophomore album, Sound & Color, peppered with Prince-esque falsetto-driven funk, electronic blips and bleeps, and sheets of guitar. “It was all pretty purposeful,” Howard says. “I was going for the guitar in your face. It’s a little offensive, but hang in there. That which causes discomfort provides a remedy.”

Since the Shakes have been on hiatus (Howard says there aren’t any concrete plans yet to work on their third record), Howard took long road trips with her partner of two years, Jesse Lafser, scouting the western United States for a place to live. A longtime resident of Nashville, Howard had grown weary of the city’s up-in-all-your-business music scene and the daily grind of traffic and crowding. “I’m a country girl,” she says. “I need space.” While driving across lands flat and wide, Howard says, they encountered “great surprises and terrible experiences” all in one day. “We had firecrackers thrown at us on the side of the road one afternoon, but then later were welcomed with open arms at this tiny bar,” she says. “We pulled away from there thinking, ‘This must have been what it was like on the chitlin circuit—you never know when you’re safe.’ It helped to inform the record. I found out a lot about myself.”

After considering places such as Bend, Oregon, and Bozeman, Montana—“Shout-out to Bozeman, but it was just too cold,” Howard says with a laugh—the couple eventually settled in New Mexico, where Howard can walk to the Rio Grande and fish, something she and Jaime did with their dad as kids. Turning 30 last fall stoked the fearlessness Howard shows on Jaime; the milestone, she says, helped her develop a swagger and propelled her into something richer and more aware. “It’s a new beginning, a blossoming, if you will. I’m tired of people guessing who I am, making up who I am. Like I’m just this throwback Aretha Franklin–like soul singer, which I can do, but there’s so much more to me than that. But I have to show it.”

For the complete article please see

The Park at OWA continues to thrive with new planned dark ride
From the article by Genie Davis on

The Park at OWA opened in coastal Foley, Ala. In 2017 and has been rapidly expanding. In 2018, the park debuted their Wacky Waters splash pad and water play area, along with shaded rest areas, and air-conditioned quick-service dining areas. Just adjacent to the park is the dining destination area called Downtown OWA, there was the addition of an Italian restaurant in October 2018, Trattoria Pizza & Italian, which joined the upscale burger chain Wahlburgers as a sit-down eatery attraction adjoining the amusement park itself. Downtown OWA is free to all guests, all the time.

And now, summer 2019 brought a new dark ride to the park, which the park promoted in advance of the attraction opening in part through an online voting contest for the ride’s name: Alabama Ghost Adventure, Mystic Mansion, or Midnight Maze was up for grabs. Each voting participant was entered into a contest to win four free park tickets. The winning name was Mystic Mansion.

The dark ride is an enclosed, air-conditioned attraction built by the Sally Corporation. Ride cars will seat four, and the attraction features an interactive game play component peopled with lighthearted “fright” characters. Guests take their ride car through what The Park at OWA’s Hellmich calls a “midway-style” attraction, with neon colors, black light effects, and a mysteriously spooky storyline.

Before hopping inside their “Doom Buggy,” guests are greeted by Professor Phearstruck in the queue line, where he explains the history of Mystic Mansion, its curse and who haunts it now. There are 15 different scenes in which the Mansion’s ghost could appear; riders weave through the family-friendly attraction and a spooky storyline featuring the main ghost: Boocifer.

New in the dining area of OWA for 2019 is a new restaurant from Southern icon Paula Deen.

Developed in record time between 2015 and 2017 by The Poarch Band of Creek Indians, The Park at OWA was the first new amusement park opened in North America for a decade when it began. Along with 22 amusement park rides and the 10,000-square-foot Wacky Waters attraction, which is only open during spring and summer months, the park includes a range of midway games.

Centered on a vast lake, the 14-acre park includes retail and dining options, along with entertainment such as a March parade event for Mardi Gras and concerts in the downtown area of OWA. Also in Downtown OWA: Legends in Concert, the longest-running show in Las Vegas, has announced its new residency at a 430-seat theater adjacent to the TownePlace Suites by Marriott.

According to director of marketing and PR Kristin Hellmich, the broad 520-acre site in which the amusement park is located has a master plan that includes expanded offerings for the park, retail and concert venues in the downtown areas. The park itself has another 16-acres allocated for rides which will more than double its current size. Park visitors can stay overnight at the Marriott TownPlace Suites hotel; OWA’s master plan calls for the construction of condominiums and an RV park as well.

Many of the rides have a distinctly retro vibe. “The park is very much a throwback… it’s an amusement park not a theme park,” Hellmich says “Our retail/dining destination, which you find right outside the park gate, is reminiscent of what you would see at a Downtown Disney or Universal City Walk.” There is also a shopping and dining district called the Warehouse District. The park serves as both a community destination vacation destination.

Among the park’s most popular rides to date is Rollin’ Thunder, a coaster with a vertical lift and four inversions that resembles Zamperla’s Coney Island attraction, the Thunderbolt coaster. Other thrill rides includes Zamperla’s Twister and Wave Rider.

Also popular is Zamperla’s Endeavor ride, Alabama Wham’a. The family-friendly coaster Southern Express, and the Wave Rider Disk O Coaster are also strong draws. Family rides like the spinning tea cups, Tea Time, and the Aero Zoom, which features rider-controlled glider wings, are among the other rides offered.

Zamperla is the main ride manufacturer involved with the attractions at the park and provided all the initial rides for the park. Hellmich says the reason for initially selected a single ride vendor was in part due to the fast-track construction of the park itself. “We looked at who offered the diversity, quality and speed of service to produce what we needed in the timeline we had. That drove us to Zamperla. We are definitely open to working with other manufacturers as we move forward.”

As to the Wacky Waters Splash Pad which debuted last summer, the water play area includes a 20-foot tall dump bucket, a “tree” that showers guests with 54 gallons of water per minute, a six-foot water dome, and other sprayers and water play attractions. It is located near the kiddie rides at the dry amusement park. Hellmich says the splash pad was built in part due to guest feedback. “Our guests spoke about recommended improvements to the amusement park, and we listened.”
The $500-million amusement park was named the Attraction of the Year in 2018 by the Alabama Tourism Department.

The park has extensive promotion on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram; while attendance numbers have been kept close, park attendance grew in 2018 with its first full summer season, over the park’s 2017 opening. Attendance and enthusiasm continue to build for the attraction this summer.

For the complete article please see

Tourism industry can help in 2020 census next April
The Alabama Census 2020 Complete Count is a statewide outreach and awareness campaign designed to ensure an accurate and complete count of all residents of Alabama in the 2020 Federal decennial census which will begin on or around April 1.

The U.S. Census Bureau conducts a census of the United States every 10 years, going all the way back to 1790.

In 2010, Alabama had a 72 percent response rate to the census with lower rates particularly in west Alabama and in some urban areas.

A projected slowed population growth in Alabama has put the state in danger of losing one of our seven congressional seats after the 2020 Census. The loss of a Congressional representative would mean one less critical voice advocating for Alabama on the national stage. The only way to potentially avoid this outcome is for all Alabamians to participate in the 2020 Census.

The tourism industry will help increase awareness in underserved neighborhoods. Tourism director Lee Sentell will encourage DMOs to become active in the counts in their communities.

The data collected during the census is used in a variety of ways that affect decisions regarding community services provided to residents and the distribution of more than $675 billion in federal funds to local, state and tribal governments each year. This funding supports local programs for schools, health care, community assistance, infrastructure, and other important needs. The census also determines the number of representatives we will have in Congress.

John Emerald Distillery wins medals in National Spirit Competitions
More than 30 spirit industry leaders and upwards of 500 spirits brands participated in the inaugural PR%F Awards and PR%F Awards Design Distinction during a two-day blind-tasting point-rating competition in Las Vegas June 16-18, 2019.

John Emerald Distilling (JED) picked up multiple awards during the Las Vegas blind-tasting competition. JEDs Gene’s Spiced Rum was awarded a gold medal, while their John’s Alabama Single Malt Whiskey and Spurgeon’s Barrel Aged Rum brought home respectable silver medals.

These awards follow a silver medal for JED’s John’s Alabama Single Malt Whiskey and a bronze medal for JED’s Hugh Wesley’s Barrel Rested Gin in the prestigious 2019 San Francisco World’s Spirits Competition.

“It’s great to see our spirits representing Opelika and Alabama in the winner’s circle of different top-rated national and worldwide competitions,” said John Sharp JED’s co-founder. “From day one, our goal has been to make top-shelf products that our customers, city and state can be proud of. To reach that goal we craft our spirits with patience using only the finest raw ingredients obtainable. It appears that approach to making quality Alabama spirits is being recognized.”

For five years John Emerald Distilling Company has been producing top quality Alabama spirits in historic downtown Opelika, Alabama.

How to get the most out of your Rocket Center visit
From the article by Matt Wake on

Attention spans have shortened to the length of a Billie Eilish single or maybe even a Snapchat message. Waking hours overloaded with social media, texts, streaming, email, work, school, offspring and whatever adult humans you still interact with in-person. Whatever free time’s left has to be spent efficiently. Recently asked U.S Space & Rocket Center director of communications Patricia Ammons how to get the most out of a visit there. With the Apollo 11 lunar mission’s recent 50th anniversary, now’s as good as time as ever to visit the Rocket Center, which first opened in 1965. The below “hacks” should prove handy for regular or first-time visitors to that aerospace museum and quintessential Huntsville attraction. Or folks who just want to cut straight to the best stuff. (The following interview has been edited and condensed.)

Apollo simulator
“We have one of the two Apollo lunar module mission simulators the Apollo astronauts would have trained in for their missions,” Ammons says. “Neil Armstrong and the rest of the Apollo guys would have used these trainers to practice for the real deal.”

“Our exhibits really are amazing,” Ammons says. “The exterior vertical Saturn V and outdoor Lunar Module are the only models we have on display. Everything else on display here was developed for use in some way, either as a prototype, as a test article or was surplus. The external fuel tank on our space shuttle exhibit was the first one assembled.” The Rocket Center is located at 1 Tranquility Base and open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily. The facility is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. General admission is $25 adults/$17 kids (ages 5-12) and free for age 4 and under.

Ammons says, “The new INTUITIVE Planetarium is a must see. This really is a state-of-the art visual experience and our new planetarium director is building original programming to take advantage of its amazing technology.” Tickets to planetarium shows are $10 adult/$9 child daily and $10 Rocket Center member/$15 non-member Friday evenings.

Davidson Center
“We also have some gems in the Davidson Center for Space Exploration,” Ammons says, “including the Mobile Quarantine Facility that was used for the Apollo 12 mission (the second manned lunar mission). That’s a cool part of the Apollo story I don’t think many people think about. We were sending people to places we had never been before and we didn’t know what they were going to be exposed to. First, we blast them off on the biggest, most powerful rocket ever made flown and then they have to be quarantined when they get back in an Airstream trailer while they get tested for space germs.”

“NASA Emeritus Docents volunteer their time to share stories of working for NASA or its contractors on the Apollo, shuttle and SLS programs, among others,” Ammons says. “Most are retired but some are still working or doing consulting. They wear white lab coats with a big NASA logo on the back, so they’re easy to find. We also have a group of Military Emeritus Docents who give tours of our Aviation Challenge facility, which isn’t typically open to the public. We give those tours on Saturdays during the summer.”

Lunch with an Astronaut
Ammons says, “We have Lunch with an Astronaut every Friday from now until late August. This event sells out quickly, so it’s best to purchase tickets in advance.” Tickets are $30. Vegetarian options are available.

“Biergarten is really fun, and people love sitting under the Saturn V rocket for a German dinner,” Ammons says. “The German part, of course, is a nod to the German rocket engineers who came to Huntsville in 1950 as part of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, which was the foundation for the rocket work done here. The cool part is we give back a portion of the proceeds to a designated charity each week, so it’s a great way to have a ‘so Huntsville’ experience and support the community.” The Rocket Center’s free to attend Biergarten events are held 4:40 – 7:30 p.m. through Nov. 21. Prices for the German beers and food items served there vary.

2019 Alabama Governor’s Conference on Tourism
The 2019 Alabama Governor’s Conference on Tourism is Aug. 17-20, at the Von Braun Center and Embassy Suites Hotel in Huntsville. The conference provides tourism professionals a chance to gather and learn about the economic impact of the industry on the Alabama economy, learn new strategies for marketing local Alabama attractions and amenities to visitors, raise money for scholarships through silent auctions and celebrate achievements.

Registration and Reservations at

Alabama Welcome Center Retreat 2019
Alabama Welcome Center Retreat 2019 will be held at The Lodge at Gulf State Park, Oct. 27-29. The retreat gives the Alabama Tourism Industry the opportunity to showcase their communities with the devoted staff of the Alabama Welcome Centers. The welcome centers close so each employee can participate in this educational retreat.

Information and registration coming soon!

“Partner Pointer” for the tourism industry website
This year’s annual Alabama Governor’s Conference on Tourism is in Huntsville on August 17 – 20. Come learn, network, and hear about this year’s accomplishments and what is to come in Alabama.

You can register online for the conference at



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