By LARRY VAUGHT
GATLINBURG — Having a chance to spend a few days at the new Margaritaville Resort here was even better than I anticipated.
There’s nothing about the new 163-room resort not to like. The lobby area is luxurious and my grandsons, age 9 and 6, loved the variety of pillows (there were more than 50 different ones). The pool, including the water slide, and hot tub were favorites for both boys. The rooms were spacious — the art on the walls can make anyone smile — and my youngest grandson thought the bathroom with the dual showers was “awesome” from the moment we got to our one-bedroom suite.
The location — fabulous. Anakeesta, one of Gatlinburg’s newest attractions, is across the street. Go the other way and you are at Ripley’s Aquarium. The LandShark Bar & Grill is just a few steps away from the resort’s entrance. Country singer Blake Shelton will be opening his third Ole Red restaurant and entertainment complex early next year and it is next to LandShark.
Two other facilities on the island. This is aptly named a resort and has all the luxury touch points in place from expanded shower to larger TV to junior water park area to this lobby.
“This part has sat quietly for number of years in Gatlinburg,” said Margaritaville Resort general manager Michael Russell. “To build this in place of an older hotel is great. We have all this activity going on around us and that is just great.”
It’s also great for Kentucky fans that Russell just happens to be a UK alum and Big Blue fan himself. He was born and raised in New York and went to high school in Michigan. His father is from Owensboro and Russell says he was “drawn” to UK.
“I fell in love with the place and didn’t want to leave,” Russell said. He was in Lexington from 1993-2008 as a student and then when he started his hotel management career. He got to see UK’s 1996 and 1998 national championship teams play.
“That was a great experience,” he said.
Russell moved to Madison, Wis., and was working there in 2012 when UK won another national title. A few months later he moved to California.
“I have been a UK fan from across the country and then the opportunity came to come back to this part of the country and closer to my alma mater,” Russell said. “I have been here about five months. Now I am with a small, upstart management company — Marlin Hospitality — and the Margaritaville brand that is a growing empire. This is the 13th property Margaritaville has put together (there are two in nearby Pigeon Forge). They spared no expense putting this one together.”
Russell is not the only UK fan at Margaritaville Resort, either. Steve Cate and Joseph Barnes are both die-hard UK fans, too. Like Russell, they think the upcoming basketball season is going to be special.
What about some UK watch parties in Volunteer country in Gatlinburg?
“Of course we are going to,” Russell laughed and said while sitting in the lobby. “Seriously, I get to see so many UK fans here and that has really rekindled my love of the team. So many people come down visiting from Lexington or the surrounding counties. It is that Wildcat fever. It’s an exciting time for the team and certainly exciting for us to watch in Vols country.
“The people that are real fans definitely show it and follow the team in a way we admire. I encourage that as much as we can (with his employees).”
Russell has not been to Lexington — or a Kentucky game — since he moved to Wisconsin. Cate and Barnes both said they would be happy to go to a game in Rupp Arena with him this season.
“Maybe it is time to get back for a game,” Russell said.
July is one of Gatlinburg’s busiest months and Russell says families — wife, husband, children — have made up the majority of the resort’s guests since it opened in early July.
“What we will see in coming months will be more couples. That tends to be the ‘leaf peepers’ as they call them. It’s a different kind of guest (that comes in the fall to the Smoky Mountains). Then we slide into the Christmas season which is also incredibly busy here, so I don’t think we will really slow down until maybe January or February, if then,” Russell said.
I”We are so grateful to have the clientele we do. Everybody is excited about the property and location. It has been a great experience so far and our feedback has been terrific.”
What makes the property so unique?
“You can go to the beach while you are in the mountains. That’s everybody favorite thing to say. We have created this beach mentality. A lot of people come and don’t want to leave the property,” Russell said. “That’s the largest testament to our success. People are here to stay in the resort and use the resort as a beach. The idea of escapism is the biggest draw for most people and we want to do all we can to make sure everyone enjoys every minute they spend here.”