Truth be told, there couldn't have been a worse time than 2008 for a new theme park to open. The economy teetering on the brink of depression, sinking to lows not seen in years, the lack of expendable income for many, particularly the midwestern tourists who frequent Myrtle Beach by the millions each year, the cost of fuel and rising costs of just about everything else. All play a huge part the story of Hard Rock's turbulent first year. I visited the park on September 21, on what turned out to be the last day of the year in the wake of bankruptcy. I had thought about visiting the 26th, but my better judgement prevailed, and on an overcast Sunday I was there.
I truly enjoy Myrtle Beach. I've been going since I was a little boy, and I've seen the town grow into a smaller regional tourist town into the most visited beach in the US. Millions of people (most from the midwest) come here and partake in just about any attraction that one could think of. From the beach to golf (regular or minature) to restaurants to gambling to nightlife and on....there is a lot to do here. While there is a small (and good I may add) seaside amusement park called Family Kingdom that's been around for a long time, Myrtle Beach lacked a big time theme park presense until this year. Being a working musician and a theme park fan, I couldn't wait to see the finished product.
I arrived at opening time on Sunday morning to a parking lot that was almost empty. Parking fees were avoided by using a hotel shuttle. The cost of tickets hover near the $50 dollar range, but I got a pretty good AAA discount and got in for about $43. Not too bad considering the Orlando parks are closer to $100 than they are to $50 anymore. Walking into Hard Rock, the influence of Islands of Adventure was fairly evident to me. A large lagoon sits in the center of the park with an 80 foot neon Gibson Les Paul guitar statue on the other side, with the park surrounding the lagoon. The brick buildings near the front entrance contain a coffee shop that has a pretty good latte and a good atmosphere, a large gift shop, a tattoo parlor (henna of course), the Whammy Bar, a full bar with live music, and a candy store. Noticing that the crowd was nonexistent, I figured that more guests would show up a little later.
Taking a left out of the plaza brought me to Rock and Roll heaven. It wasn't too long before I began to notice the attention to detail. Example...the song pumping out of the PA was "Roxanne" by the Police. There is a small reggae section of the park with some games, a restaurant, and a water playground. As I was walking towards the area, a perfectly synced steel drum version of the song was pumping out of the speakers. As I left that section, the real song came back. That was just one of several little humorous details I noticed throughout the day.
Located in Rock and Roll heaven is the parks anchor attraction, the Led Zeppelin coaster. A B&M looper is always a winner, and this one was no exception. They did just about everything they could to theme the ride by designing the station in the form of a zeppelin, a synced on ride speaker system, and a preshow with a short video, lighting and fog, and loud music. The sand in the supports quieted the ride enough for the music to come through nicely. The ride itself isn't much different than other B&M loopers, containing all of the standard elements, but when was that a bad thing. The Stairway to Heaven fountain outside of the ride seemed to grab as many people as the coaster itself. Shaped like a guitar, it plays the rock classic by guests strumming the "strings" of water. I then sat down for a show...the Malibu Beach Party. It contained what one thinks it would...bikinis, water, surf music. Some unexpected moments in the show were the pyro and a couple of motorcycle stunts. The show blended some humor and diving stunts with attractive girls in bikinis and wheelies. Of course there was a little of that theme park cheese, but not enough for me to be bored. In fact, it was pretty entertaining. If it comes back next year, I recommend.
Directly across the lagoon sits the British Invasion section. Walking across the lagoon and into the area, I was welcomed by two British Royal Guards standing at their posts. Most British Royal Guards are serious looking dudes that don't move. These particular guards were leggy blondes with short shorts and sunglasses to go with their hats. I did find this section of the park to be the best themed. It resembles a section of downtown london, complete with a bus, several red phone booths, a restaurant called Carnaby Street (which was pretty good by the way), a run down building housing the Punk Pit, which is a giant inflatable obstacle course that is a bit of a workout, but fun. Another coaster called Maximum RPM sits in this area inside of a factory. Easily spotted by it's unique ferris wheel lift, the ride contains car shaped trains, complete with on ride music and a random soundtrack. The particular song on my train was fitting, and running down the track to the 80's classic "Cars" by Gary Numan was pretty cool, although I do wish that this coaster was longer. It was over too quickly. Fun, but short. Another trip..so to speak, in London is Nights In White Satin.
Nights In White Satin is a dark ride using the 3D glasses ala Spiderman at IOA, except that instead of being immersed in a fast paced action movie, you are taken on an acid trip. It begins while you walk through the queue to the ride The song made famous by the Moody Blues pumps in the background, while you are treated to a 3D psychadelic light and video show. I've never been on an acid trip, but the illusion seemed pretty real here. The smell of incense, a little water and fog. Kids who ride won't understand the premise, but will probably like the lights. Those of age will understand the theming aspect. It really was quite the trip, and I enjoyed the ride. I don't imagine that they could have come much closer to the real thing.
Another highlight of the British Invasion section was the Roadies Stunt Show. Having been a roadie in the past, I particularly enjoyed everything about this show. It features a lot of gymnastics, a lot of pyro, and a lot of metal music set to the story of a bumbling roadie. The main actor of the show had the crowd in his hand, and the villian was equally good. I loved everything about this show, and not just because I was a roadie. This one is a can't miss.
By this time, a few more visitors were showing up, and I do mean that in the literal sense. I walked through a 70's themed building, complete with some old video games and a long yellow wall waiting for you to write on it, a 70's themed restaurant, and a gift shop. Then it was out into a new area, Born In the USA. There was some standard fare, a 50's cafe and some midway games were located here. The main ampitheatre is also located here, behind a scale model of the Statue of Liberty. The kids section is located in this area as well, with a small collection of rides for the little ones, and the Kid's Rock State Park, which houses some play structures, a rock wall, rope bridges and forts. and other camp style things to do. The feature of the State Park is a water coaster called Slippery When Wet. There weren't many riders for this one on that particular day, but water coasters are a lot of fun on those hot days. There were several small stages around ready for a band, but most fell silent. The final section of the park was the Cool Country section, featuring the "Life in The Fast Lane" Coaster. It's a mine train coaster that was a lot of fun. It also had an on board sound system pumping out the classic Eagles tune. Most of the other rides in this section were fairly standard flat rides. There is also a statue garden and another theater for live music.
The park was pretty empty of visitors that day, and after talking to a handful of employees, I learned that small crowds were a little too common, althought it didn't take away from their spirits. The employees were all top notch. The ride crews, the restaurant workers, the ticket takers...all in great spirits and doing their jobs well. The park certainly didn't take a dive because it was a bad park. In fact, I liked the park...a lot. It's still young and lacking a little in the high end themed ride department, but it's the first year, and there is some space to grow. This park has personality...an edgy but dry, cheesy yet slightly suggestive sense of humor, found in every corner of the park, and it works really well. Even the bathrooms hinted at this humor. Walk into one of them and you will see pictures of women looking down at the urinals (and you as you use them) with various looks of shock on their face. The park is themed very well, on the level with the Orlando parks, complete with a night fireworks show that I didn't get to see. The shows were absolutely without question entertaining and fun to watch...this coming from someone who gets notoriously bored watching most of them.
There are some improvements that could be made as well. Price point is something that management should take a good look at. Even I as a seasoned parkgoer expecting higher prices, received a little sticker shock in some areas. Food and drink were of good quality, but certainly weren't cheap. The gift shop had some deals, but prices on some things were probably keeping them nailed to the shelves. The prices weren't totally outrageous, but for the Myrtle Beach visitor demographic (which I know, for at least half of the annual visitors probably live within a couple hundred miles of me), they are a little high. It would be better for host and guest if they dropped prices on some things. There are some voids in the rides department, but I chalk that up to being a young park. They also could do a little better by their passholders. $150 for one park for the year isn't cheap, but could be made easier with in park discounts. Even so, the reasons for Hard Rock's problems have nothing to do with the quality of the park and everything to do with economics. Tourism at the Strand was down this year, and Hard Rock did no marketing outside of the immediate Myrtle Beach area. They were hoping to rope in those millions of visitors coming in to visit the beach, and the bottom line is that tourists just didn't have a lot of money this year. If the park had opened a couple of years earlier, it would have been a moneymaking hit, but 2008 brought on a perfect storm of economic turmoil, and the park made a couple of missteps with no safety net...unless you consider bankruptcy such a net.
The bottom line is this. It would be a shame to see Hard Rock close down. The park is put together and run too well, and there is way too much potential for success for the doors to close. The park already has the intangibles...plenty of restaurants, good theming, places to relax, interesting things to look at. All it needs now is to grow, and if I had the money, I would come and save them. Hard Rock has gotten a bit of a bum wrap around here because of a few comments, but the truth of the matter is that it is an entertaining place that deserves a visit not only from all that come to the Grand Strand, but also anyone that appreciates a good theme park or a good thrill ride. The park is a winner, and will be a moneymaker if they can fix what's broken and hang in there. I wasn't surprised by the news later that week of bankruptcy, for I was one of less than a thousand people who visited that day. I left however, highly entertained and impressed, and I think that most who walk through it's gates in the future will leave in the same fashion that I did. When I get back to the beach next year, I hope the gates are open.
If the place is still around when I go on my 2010 Orlando excursion (if there is any money left in my savings in 2010!), maybe I can take a little two day jaunt to SC and check the place out.
Again, nice trip report. Lots of details and objective reviews. Thanks!
They seem pretty determined to reopen next year, however the economy is on a tight rope, and it's hard to tell what kind of investors they will get. Here's to hoping that they are open next year. I urge anyone visiting the area or otherwise able to go, to make it to HRP next year. If they are going to survive, they need lots of attendance.
As almost everyone else, I too feel that HRP set their standards for the opening season too high, as well as their admission prices. I think the management made some silly mistakes in expecting too much and not advertising enough, though hopefully they will learn from their follies and reopen next year with a better idea of how to go about running their theme park.
I'm sad to say that I could not make it to HRP this year. In fact, my family and I were planning to visit this past Friday. We still went to Myrtle Beach despite HRP being closed, and one thing I did notice was that a lot of billboards for the park. "Theme Park Now Open" is a bit misleading to families who are traveling on the main roads and are oblivious to the fact that HRP is closed, let alone the fact that HRP even exists. In a word, the billboards definitely need to come down fast, before people are misled.
Anyway, I do hope HRP can make a strong comeback, but I have my doubts, considering the deplorable state of the economy, as well as the park's lack of white-knuckle thrill rides. Yes, I realize HRP is a theme park, not a ride park, but the general public (most of them) won't understand that.
Walt Disney World
Tokyo Disney Resort
Theme Park Insider Books