Discovering the United States through its roadside attractions, museums, parks, cities, and towns.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Myrtle Beach: Mini-Golf Haven (and More)

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is a resort town and the crown jewel of the Grand Strand, a 60-mile stretch of beach in the Palmetto State. Much of the small city’s tourism economy is based on a bevy of miniature golf courses, and it is for this reason that I select it as a destination during my two-month long cross-country trip in the fall of 2017.

Mini-golf dates back to the 19th century. In Scotland the Ladies’ Putting Club of St. Andrews had a miniature course based on the conventions of the time that it was improper for a lady to “take the club back past their shoulder.”

Garnet Carter is generally considered the forefather of mini-golf as we know it; his course in Tennessee featured hollowed-out tree trunks, rock tunnels, and gnomes to accompany the themes conjured up by his Fairyland Inn. Carter patented and franchised this model, named “Tom Thumb Golf,” and soon courses were sprouting up around the nation.

The recreation activity took hold in the lean years of the Great Depression. Scrap material – tires, pipes, and the like – made courses cheaper to produce, a savings passed down to cash-strapped customers ever in need of leisure activities.

The market for miniature golf has ebbed and flowed ever since. But one location it is has synonymous with is Myrtle Beach. There are more mini-golf courses per square mile than in any other city in the United States, and host to the US ProMiniGolf Association’s annual “Master’s” Tournament. The courses are virtually all located on Highway 17, which borders the Grand Strand.

The groundwork for making Myrtle Beach a mini-golf haven started long ago. At the turn of the 20th century, the development company Burroughs and Collins hoped to turn Myrtle Beach into the next Coney Island or Atlantic City, building a railroad in part to achieve that end. In 1926, mogul John T. Woodside provided the funds to pave Highway 17, and built the city’s first golf course.

The Tom Thumb models seized the attentions of the area’s real estate developers. They were, after all, cheaper to build and maintain than a traditional course, and there was no shortage of available labor. And with a longer vacation season than most East Coast cities, the stars aligned for the mini-golf boon in little Myrtle Beach. In 1935 a tourism magazine hyped the town as a destination, including the mini-golf courses, and it grew from there.

Nina Garinkel and Maria Reidelbach, in the book Miniature Golf, remark on the “Myrtle Beach Style” of mini-golf courses that came to be by the 1970s. It is “characterized by large central rockeries made of sprayed synthetic rock over which water, dyed blue or gold, cascades dramatically…Invariably a jungle atmosphere is invoked, replete with palm trees, thatched huts, and fiberglass ‘wild animals.’”

According to Bob Detwiler, president of the US ProMiniGolf Association and the man behind several courses in Myrtle Beach including Hawaiian Rumble, estimates that mini-golf brings $25 million a year to the city. While there are other attractions along the Grand Strand and within city limits, it is the string of golf courses – with mountains, jungles, and exotic lands begging to be conquered with a small colored ball and a putter – that calls visitors traveling along Highway 17. With about 50 courses in place and a healthy competition among them, mini-golf figures to remain an important part of the city’s tourism economy.

I arrive in Myrtle Beach on a Sunday night and sail in to Captain Hook’s Adventure Golf. As a fan of Peter Pan, I’m happy to be immediately whisked away to a mini-golf version of Never Never Land. Passages from J. M. Barre’s beloved novel are printed on wooden signs so that as you progress through the course, you re-live the tale. You enter a cavern and see “Hook’s Jailhouse,” eye silhouettes in the window of a tavern, board a pirate ship, find Tinkerbell locked away, and encounter treasure, among the many delights.

I play alongside a family of four from Tennessee – a husband and wife, and their two teenage children. We chat about my trip, Tennessee, California…the young lady asks me, ‘My friend says all the hills in California are brown – is that true?” I respond that for the most part, yes, they are green for only a few months every year.

I don’t want the night to end, really. But I am tired and hungry and seek to amend both. My lodging for the night is the Vancouver Motel. I get a great deal on this seaside, white-and-blue, clean and friendly place. I’d never find a deal like this in the ocean towns of my home state.

There are seafood restaurants abound, but I have to consider my loyalty to Yelp! Ratings and they don’t score particularly well. I’m not in the mood for seafood anyway, and discover, in another part of town, a little pizza place called Gino’s. It’s New York style delicious-ness, and I devour a small cheese pizza that fills the spirit as much as it fills the stomach.

The next morning, the rain comes. It arrives as I just reaching the Atlantic Ocean. A feeling of immense gratitude and bliss overwhelms me as I touch the water. I have done it. I have driven completely across the country, from Pacific to Atlantic, literally sea to sea had I just driven 30 miles west and then doubled back on the first day of this journey five weeks prior.

I want to linger on the beach, but the rain is strong. I grab a couple of shells as souvenirs and scramble back to the motel parking lot.

Rain is bad for mini-golf. Not surprisingly, I  am the only customer at Jungle Lagoon. The fiberglass giraffe, rhino, tiger, gorilla, and other creatures are my sole companions. I have to look for shelter now and then but the rain is not steady which affords me the ability to play the entire course. The progression has you ascending to a “Scenic Overlook” where you get a spectacular overlook of the city.

The Cancun Lagoon is different. It features half-inside, half-outside courses in addition to an all-outside course. I welcome the respite from the rain. Featuring a Mayan theme, the courses include cave paintings, waterfalls, potted plants, and several multi-level holes. It is less fanciful than Captain Hook, less endearing as Jungle Cancun, but just as appealing in its own way.

Of the three courses, there’s no doubt about my favorite: Captain Hook. And there are more to try – additional ancient civilizations, jungle wonderlands, and exotic islands. There’s also other tourist activities begging for attention, such as an aquarium and a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Museum. However, the need for food, the presence of the rain, and most of all the constant conundrum of this trip – the push to keep going and see as many different things as possible – have me leaving town.

I make an unplanned stop on the Grand Strand, to the Nostalgia City & Museum. This store/museum is filled with Americana – signage, famous life-size figures, vehicles large and small, license plates, tacky and charming souvenirs (a stuffed mermaid with an “I (Heart) Myrtle Beach” t-shirt combines both), and various treats and knick-knacks.

Then it’s another visit to Gino’s. This time I have it with ham and mushroom and admittedly the plain cheese was much better. But also, like the mini-golf, it’s a different version of the same thing the very next day…which only reinforces my overall approach to the cross-country adventure: see it, soak it up, enjoy it, and move on to the next cool thing.

Many thanks to Julie Ellis, Public Relations & Communications Manager, who took the time to respond to my queries in the midst of recovery from Hurricane Florence, and to all the businesses in Myrtle Beach that I patronized during my visit.

Additional sources:

Ali Slagle, “Why Myrtle Beach Takes Mini-Golf So Seriously,” Atlas Obscura,

Ransom Riggs, “The Zany History of Mini Golf,” Mental Floss,

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

A Run for the Roses

“And it’s run for the roses
As fast as you can
Your fate is delivered
Your moment’s at hand
It’s the chance of a lifetime
In a lifetime of chance
And it’s high time you joined
In the dance
It’s high time you joined
In the dance.”

                -“Run for the Roses,” written & performed by Dan Fogelberg

For any horseracing fan, a visit to Churchill Downs is a must. On the first Saturday in May for the past 144 years, three-year-old thoroughbreds have taken to the legendary track for the Kentucky Derby and tried to capture horseracing’s first of the Triple Crown races. In 2018, Justify won the crown – consisting of the Derby, the Preakness Stakes (in Maryland), and the Belmont Stakes (New York).

But on the day of my visit to the Kentucky Derby Museum, which is housed on the same grounds as the track, Justify’s historic “Run for the Roses” (so nicknamed for the blanket of flowers draped upon the winner’s back) is still half a year away.

General admission includes a 30-minute walking tour and access to all the museum features. I choose from an additional menu of tours, tacking on the Barn and Backside Van Tour for an additional fee.
Patrons can get their blood pumping for the excitement of the Derby right from the start by viewing “The Greatest Race,” an 18-minute film played on a 360-degree, 4K high-resolution theater. It is difficult to explain in writing just how majestic this movie is, the ways it is projected and played, but it’s safe to say that even the most casual racing fans will wish afterwards they could step out into the stands of Churchill Downs on Derby Day immediately after leaving the theater.

The museum has exhibits on every aspect of the Kentucky Derby – spotlights on the horses and jockeys; a closer look at the fancy hats and attire worn by attendees; the path from foal to entrant; and much more. There’s an also an opportunity to ride a mechanical horse in a simulation game, and the ability to view any of the past races on your own personal screen.

All the Triple Crown winners – from Sir Barton in 1919 to American Pharaoh in 2015 (and now Justify, 2018) – receive royal treatment with more in-depth profiles. Prominent trainers and owners, and horses who fell short of the Triple Crown in the Belmont, and other notable figures, are all given a spot in the limelight. And the museum features a touching tribute to Winning Colors (1988) and the two fillies before her – Genuine Risk (1980) and Regret (1915) – to wear the roses.

On the tours we learn that the track is 75% sand, 23% silt, and 2% clay. The Derby is preceded by a two-week festival all over the city. Locals call the Thursday before the Derby “Thurby.” On Friday, the Kentucky Oaks takes place (“Lilies for the Fillies”). The board in the center of the track is the size of three NBA courts, which comes in handy for many patrons on Derby day because the site is so thoroughly packed (some 100-120 thousand fill the infield alone).

The average jockey stands 5’4” and weighs 110-115 pounds. Secretariat’s heart was three times the normal size. The number 10 slot has produced the highest number of winners, while number 17 is scarily unlucky (no horse starting from that slot has ever won). Donerail is the biggest long-shot victory in Derby history, having won in 1913 with 91:1 odds (meaning for a $2 bet, you walk away with $182 – adjusted for inflation, that’s $4,682 today).

Churchill Downs contains 47 racing stables and has a holding cell for drunks. From March through November, 700 workers live full-time in about 250 dorms. There’s 1,400 total stalls, in which horses spend up to 22 hours a day. It has a chapel, too, though services are held on Monday since Sunday is a race day. One building is marked “Press Center,” but that is only the case one day a year. The other 364 days, it is simply a rec hall. 158,070 people attended the Derby in 2017, about 148,000 more than the number that attended way back in 1875.


The “Sport of Kings” does not attract the patronage and attention of the major sports, but Derby Weekend is truly an event that brings premium customers and prices. The local Super 8 costs around $55 most of the year; on Derby Day it soars to $600 a night. Anything downtown will run you in the neighborhood of a grand, and the Brown Hotel (which the day of this writing would cost just under $200) goes for $2,000 a night. In addition to that, most hotels require a minimum four-night stay.

Then there’s the mint julep. This bourbon-based cocktail became associated with Derby in the 1930s, and you can have one in a collectible glass. For a Derby glass, it will cost you $14. To have it in a silver cup, you need pay $1,000. For twice that amount, you can have it in a gold cup.

The tours are filled with fun facts, but truly it is amazing to be surrounded by something that carries such an aura and a history. To walk the same path the horses do from the paddock to the track is a little bit of a surreal experience: to imagine the electricity of the crowd as the jockeys’ dreams of running in the Derby come to fruition; the anticipation building with each step of a hoof closer to the oval where legends have been born.

When I have seen everything, I sit down at the Derby CafĂ©. The Pulled Southern Bar-B-Que is savory and the service impeccable. A visit to the Gift Shop caps my fantastic time at the Kentucky Derby Museum. For horseracing fans, it’s a do-this-before-you-die pilgrimage. For everyone else, it’s a insightful, beautiful place.