By LARRY VAUGHT
GATLINBURG, Tenn. — I’m not sure it’s really accurate to describe one of Gatlinburg’s more recent additions as a theme park because Anakeesta is so much more than that.
Granted, there’s plenty to do but the scenic ride to the summit of Anakeesta Mountain to get to Firefly Village brings a certain sense of tranquility with it. This was our first time to be here during “peak” season but even the increased activity in downtown Gatlinburg and more visitors to the mountain summit didn’t change how peaceful it seemed at Anakeesta.
I had my grandsons, ages 9 and 6, along for their first visit and they were hooked as soon as we started up on the chairlift. Of course, my friend — Mercer County High School football coach David Buchanan — felt the same way a few days earlier when he visited Anakeesta with his family.
Buchanan and his son did one thing we did not — they took advantage of the all-day admittance to return at night.
“The view coming down at night was really cool,” said Buchanan.
My grandsons loved the 16-bridge Tree Canopy Walk that rises as much as 60 feet above the forest floor (okay, I had a harder time following the instructions not to jump or run on the walk than they did). It’s almost very cool when those ziplining go over your head and you can see the excitement and/or fear in their faces.
We also again enjoyed the memorial walk that tell the story of the November, 2016, fire that was so devastating. The expanded trail just opened recently and I was amazed at the growth of the flowers and how many butterflies we saw in the botanical garden.
During peak season, Anakeesta also offers children’s activities each week day afternoon. My two really enjoyed the sand art and I enjoyed talking to one of the women helping them. I thought she was extremenly informative and cooperative — and later found out she was Karen Bentz, one of Anakeesta’s owners. Yet there she is every day helping children like mine create sand art and telling visitors like me all there is to do.
Where else would you find an attraction owner contributing like that to make sure everyone has a good time.
Karen and her husband, Bob, are University of Tennessee graduates. He received a BA in Forestry and Karen earned a degree in Parks & Recreation. They both worked for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the Fontana Dam area after college graduation before going to LSU where both received a Master’s of Landscape Architecture.
They started Land Design South in West Palm Beach, Fla., and became the top landscape/land planning firm in Florida. They also founded Atlantic Land Realties, a land development firm specializing in the development of Publix anchored shopping plazas.
After 30 years in business, they chose to focus solely on Anakeesta in Gatlinburg in 2014 and formed a partnership with Nick and Ashley Thompson of Climbworks and Michele and Kevin Canney that comprises the ownership of Anakeesta today.
The owners’ love for this project is easy to see. Michele Canney is the Anakeesta marketing director and can be found at the attraction often.
Karen Bentz is thrilled that the Cliff Trop Grill & Bar is now open and Buchanan and his family ate there. He praised the quick service, good food and great view. Now he was disappointed that Pearl’s Pie in the Sky shop only had ice cream and no pie. However, Bentz said the demand for ice cream is so great that pie is not available now.
Buchanan’s daughter, Emma, a sophomore at the University of Kentucky, enjoyed the Anakeesta visit and I noticed a lot of college age visitors when we were there. David Buchanan said his daughter enjoyed the tree canopy, Vista Garden and even the rocking chairs that overlooked a spectacular view.
We also saw a bride and groom who came straight from their wedding ceremony to take pictures at Anakeesta — Canney says that’s not unusual — as well as a couple celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary wearing their Bride and Groom shirts.
“We have a lot of people come to celebrate special occasions,” Canney said.
Coming in September hopefully will be the single rail mountain coaster. Like ziplining, the Rail Runner will require an additional fee to the admission price but it should be well worth it.
“I know we are looking forward to the Rail Runner,” David Buchanan said.