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WNC Business

Small amusement park attraction means large community impacts

Apr 21, 2024 11:47AM ● By Randee Brown

Beginning in 1957 as a train ride in WNC’s High Country, Tweetsie Railroad has become an attraction bringing more than 250,000 visitors to the region each year, according to President and Owner Chris Robbins.

According to Robbins, the amusement park has changed in a lot of ways, but maintains a classic nostalgia that maintains visitor interest. The original train track was expanded to a three-mile loop, a wild-west theme was adopted, and souvenir stands, food options, and rides have expanded over time and continue to be replaced and updated to give visitors a reason to come back year after year.

Adjusting to market conditions is one way the attraction ensures guests get the best experience during their visit. Changes in the number of days the park opens is one notable change; Robbins said there were some days that it didn’t make sense to open because so few people would come. By backing off the number of days in the regular season, the visitor count per day is up and each part of the park is available for guests’ enjoyment. 

Special seasonal events have been added to provide unique experiences for guests. The park added the Ghost Train during the Fall in 1990, and began featuring Christmas-themed activities and decorations during the holiday season in 2017.

Other special activities including the Frisbee Dogs, the Day Out With Thomas, and Railroad Heritage Weekend attract guests interested in these additional offerings. 

“The rides and the event themes change every once in a while, but the family atmosphere stays the same,” Robbins said. “It’s a balance of keeping things fresh and maintaining continuity of who we are. We don’t want to mess with the essential ‘Tweetsie-ness’ of the park. The train is the feature and we wouldn’t exist without the train. Everything revolves around that.”

Adjusting marketing and advertising strategies has also boosted visitation numbers. As the state’s population continues to grow, the new NC market adds new opportunities for marketing. An emphasis on social media allows captured guest content to be shared with audience members, which Tweetsie’s Marketing Director Meghan Minton said makes it easy to portray the real story of a visitor’s experience.

“Social is social, and people like to talk about their visits,” Minton said. “It’s a great place to bring family and friends, and people like to shout it from the rooftop. We still do traditional marketing to let people know about events, but posting social media content is about sharing families’ stories and offers new visitors a sense of personal connection.”

Guests visit Tweetsie Railroad from easily drivable distances of North Carolina, as well as from other states like Florida, Virginia, and South Carolina. Those traveling from farther away stay for several days to go shopping, eat at restaurants, and stay in area hotels or AirBnbs. 

“This adds up to a huge amount of tax revenue for the county and its towns,” Robbins said. “A report from 2006 showed it was tens of millions of dollars. We haven’t completed a similar report since, but we’ve extended our season since then so we estimate the tax revenue is even more now; it must be a staggering figure.”

The impact of employment is large as well. Tweetsie maintains 37 full-time, year-round staff, but during the summer, that number jumps to about 250 people, with at least 150 working on any given day. 

Extending beyond direct hires, the amusement park supports a variety of local businesses through additional service needs. There are many suppliers, foodservice workers, contractors for infrastructure improvements, track and trestle maintenance, electricians, carpenters, plumbers, and other local services that Tweetsie has built relationships with over the years.

Maintaining personal relationships is an important value for Tweetsie’s company culture, with local businesses as well as guests. Rather than investing in focus groups or market studies, leadership at Tweetsie Railroad prefers a grassroots method of receiving community feedback. 

“To find out what our customers think, we go right outside and ask,” Robbins said. “Guests love the family-friendly, nostalgic atmosphere, and the locals love Tweetsie as well. The train is over 100 years old, and we are preserving a part of the history of the railroad that once serviced Boone back in the 1800s. They love hearing the whistle, and having a relationship with the local population is great. We’re fortunate to support the community in multiple ways.”

Photo courtesy of Tweetsie Railroad.