Watch Out for These Tourist Traps in All 50 States
For better or worse, tourist traps are part of the American landscape. Countless overhyped, colorful, quirky, and sometimes downright mystifying spots draw sightseers nationwide. Whether a given attraction qualifies as a tourist trap is often in the eye of the beholder. Travel blogger David James of The GypsyNesters has his own test: Visitors usually leave feeling a little swindled.
"But we love tourist traps. David cannot pass them by," says his wife, Veronica James. "Boomers are really into this stuff because, when we were kids, that's where we went. We would pack up our station wagon and go to these places."
Some are iconic locales now overrun or overrated. Some are actually still beloved by locals. Others lure road trippers out of the way of their intended destinations. They might be cheesy, inauthentic, overpriced, crowded, boring, ugly, or just plain not worth the time. We talked to travel bloggers and industry professionals and read online reviews to identify tourist traps in every state.
At the McDonald's in Newport, a bronze bust and a photo commemorate the day in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan came by for a photo op with a Big Mac. (The goal was to make him look like an average Joe, which he made clear he was not, by asking an aide what he was "supposed" to order.) Although a plaque reads, "President Reagan ate here," Roadside America reports that the restaurant where the Gipper ate was demolished, and the original memorabilia is gone. A new McDonald's was built on the same site in 2006.
Gold Dredge 8 provides a window into Fairbanks' gold-mining days and receives generally good reviews, but there are plenty of tourist trap tactics at play. It costs $40 for adults and $25 for children to take a narrated train ride to the dredge, visit the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and briefly pan for gold -- emphasis on "briefly." It seems the chief purpose of the tour is to steer people to the extensive gift shop.
Deriding staged gunfights lasting only 30 seconds and declaring the O.K. Corral just okay, critical reviewers say the town of Tombstone is worth a visit only for true cowboy fanatics. And even they might want to rethink this destination, which detractors label gimmicky and overpriced.
Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro is said to be the world's only diamond-bearing site open to the public, but some reviewers scoff that they could find the same variety of rocks in their driveways. They report that kids quickly lose interest in digging in the hot sun and hard dirt. Better to skip the fee of $10 for adults and $6 for children.
Fisherman's Wharf traces its history to the 1800s, when it was the home base of San Francisco's fishing fleet, but it has evolved over the years into tourism central. Today it's riddled with overpriced junk for sale, street vendors preying on unsuspecting tourists, and too many people to make it comfortable to walk around. Check out these fun, budget-friendly options in the Golden State, instead.
A pedestrian and transit space covering about 1.3 miles in downtown Denver, the 16th Street Mall is a tourist trap akin to Times Square in New York City and Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. It's overrun with chain stores and restaurants, offering very little that's unique to Denver.
The Pez Visitor Center in Orange doesn't draw the same adoration as its namesake candy dispensers. A "self-guided tour" mainly entails access to a gift shop and a peek through a window at a factory that may not be running. For some visitors, though, a look at the staggering variety of dispenser heads made since 1948 may be worth the $5 price of entry for adults ($4 for children). It comes with a $2 credit for use in the gift shop -- hint, hint.
It seems a tad unfair to continue calling a well in Lewes a "Fountain of Youth" when it has dried up (particularly given how crazed people are about preserving their youth). It's said to have been discovered in 1631 by the area's Dutch colonists, but it's unclear what made locals believe the water had such magical powers, or what makes tourists believe the well is worth a visit. Furthermore, it appears it’s private property now.
Never heard of a skunk ape? You're not alone. According to the website of the Skunk Ape Research Center, it's a large, hairy, bipedal mammal that calls the Florida Everglades home and may be a distant relative of Bigfoot. Reviewers point out that the facility in Ochopee is not a "research center" at all -- just a gift shop with a small museum devoted to an obscure mythological creature. There is also an animal exhibit, which costs $12.
While some may find the history of Coca-Cola and its various flavors interesting, Georgia finance writer David Bakke calls out the World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta as plagued by long lines, mediocre exhibits, and pricey souvenirs. Visitors pay $17 for adults and $13 for children to enjoy what amounts to a giant Coke commercial.
A retreat for Hawaiian royalty in the 1800s, Honolulu's world-famous Waikiki Beach is now plagued by crowds and trash. It has attracted both a large homeless population and the likes of Hermès, Gucci, and Prada. Visitors have described the commercialized beach as a cross between New York City and Miami Beach, and not in a good way.
Tour guides talking about the day-to-day lives of prostitutes, represented by tarted-up mannequins? The Oasis Bordello Museum in Wallace seeks to provide an authentic glimpse into the colorful past of the mining district where this brothel is located, but some visitors say the museum is sad and creepy, or perhaps not worth the $5 admission.
Between the $15 price to ride the Ferris wheel, crowds, mediocre bars, and cafeteria food, locals often steer clear of Chicago's Navy Pier, leaving it for the tourists, resident Rachel Cooper says. Still, there are a few redeeming attractions, such as performances by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (although tickets aren't cheap) and epic fireworks displays over Lake Michigan.
What started as an ordinary baseball has grown into the world's largest ball of paint and one of Indiana's most visited roadside attractions, as hard as that might be to believe. After about 40 years of painting, the ball has more than 25,000 layers and weighs more than 4,000 pounds. Tourists passing by Alexandria can call to make an appointment to view the ball -- but why?
There's not a whole lot to see here, folks -- that's one of the primary criticisms of Spook Cave. An escorted boat tour of a flooded cave in McGregor does give visitors a chance to learn about the history of limestone in the region and view stalactites. Whether that's worth $12 for adults and $8 for children is the question. There's also a pricey gift shop.
Cawker City's claim to fame: the world's largest ball of twine. Apparently there's been some competition for that title since the ball was started in 1953. Although it's often cited among the country's best roadside attractions, it hardly seems worth a detour of more than two hours round-trip off the nearest interstate.
Opened in July 2016, Ark Encounter promises to bring the Biblical story of Noah's Ark to life. The recently completed, wooden replica of the ship was built according to dimensions provided in the Bible -- 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 51 feet high. Some visitors find the admission prices big as well, especially after construction won government tax breaks: An adult ticket is $40, children's admission is $28, and visitors also pay for parking and activities inside the park, such as a $49 zip line experience. "I don't see how families can afford it," one reviewer writes on TripAdvisor.
It's an iconic destination, yes, but Bourbon Street, in the French Quarter of New Orleans, has become increasingly known for strip clubs, wild parties, tacky offerings, and scammers seeking to separate visitors from their money. Don't want to avoid the historic street altogether? Just do some research, pick your spots ahead of time, and take care to avoid the con artists. Remember, there’s plenty of free fun in the Big Easy.
Entirely geared toward tourists, the Land's End Gift Shop sells everything from lobster-print pants to lobster keychains and bumper stickers. There are also calendars featuring idyllic New England images, plush animals (including, of course, lobsters), mugs, hats, and other miscellaneous gifts to help visitors remember Maine. Save your money for some real lobster.
The sign for God's Ark of Safety proclaims, "Noah's Ark Being Rebuilt Here!" The plan, 30 years in the making, is to construct a replica with the same dimensions listed in the Bible. But the ministry building it in Frostburg has managed to erect only a tangle of steel beams so far. In the meantime, someone else has beat them to it in Kentucky.
Wizard schools, ghost tours, and oddball Frankenstein and Dracula "museums" have taken over Salem, once a truly intriguing town. It dates to 1626 and is notorious for holding witch trials that led to the hanging of 19 innocent people. Tourist trap economics have come to trump historical charm, say GypsyNesters David and Veronica James, although the Salem Witch Museum is an exception.
"Tourist trap" is right there in the name: Da Yoopers Tourist Trap in Michigan's Upper Peninsula doesn't take itself too seriously. This eclectic collection of kitsch includes Big Gus, the world's largest working chainsaw; Big Ernie, the largest working rifle in the world; and Gravel Gertie, the largest motorized tricycle in Michigan. There's a rock shop and a souvenir shop selling T-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, sports memorabilia, gag gifts, and a variety of unusual items made from wood, glass, and metals -- a little something for everyone, it seems.
The Mall of America attracts 40 million visitors a year with chain stores that most people probably have near their hometowns. Some of the biggest draws have high prices: $36 for a day pass at Nickelodeon Universe, $24.25 for adults and $17.25 for kids at the aquarium, and $20 a person for the Crayola Experience. One saving grace: No tax on clothing in Minnesota.
The sight of a roadside restaurant in the shape of a 28-foot-tall woman draws many tourists intrigued at the prospect of eating inside her skirt. But the building is based on an offensive archetype: Mammy's Cupboard dates to 1940, a time not exactly focused on political correctness. Although it was repainted a lighter skin tone during the civil rights era, it remains the subject of much criticism and social debate.
A theme park in Branson that opened in 1960, Silver Dollar City is no Disney World. It has 40 rides and plenty of detractors who say it's run-down, not kid-friendly, and not laid out well. At $62 for adults and $51 for children, it's overpriced to boot.
The collection of silver dollars on display at Lincoln's World Famous 50,000 Silver $ Bar in Haugan was started in 1952, and by now there are coins covering the walls, bar, and ceiling. There's also a family-run restaurant, a motel with free RV parking, a convenience store, casinos, and "Montana's largest gift shop." If you'd like to marvel at other people's money while spending your own, this is the tourist trap for you.
With the real Stonehenge often labeled a tourist trap, it's hard to see the appeal of a replica made from vintage American automobiles painted gray to look like giant stones. Those who have visited Carhenge in Alliance describe it as everything from a step above a junkyard to the perfect Griswold family moment.
It's probably not helpful to name the entire city of Las Vegas, even though it's certainly one of the most deliberately designed tourist traps in history. We'll offer up this little gem instead: the Area 51 Alien Travel Center and Brothel in Amargosa Valley. A name that baits tourists with both "alien" and "brothel" really speaks for itself. Close encounters, indeed.
These man-made ice caverns operate in several locations, including Lincoln, during the winter months. While praised by many for its beauty and fun quotient, many Yelpers dinged the attraction for having rude staff and others said it just didn’t look as impressive as advertised.
Tacky. Not a good place for children. In need of refurbishing. These are just some of the downsides of the present incarnation of the Atlantic City Boardwalk, reviewers say. The iconic boardwalk, lined with stores, restaurants, and casinos, dates to 1870 and unfortunately has seen far better days.
The town of Roswell has become synonymous with UFOs (thanks to an alleged crash in 1947), but it doesn't have much to offer aside from that claim to fame. The primary highlights for alien fans are the International UFO Museum and Research Center ($5 for adults, $2 for children) and Roswell UFO Tours ($100 an hour for one to four people).
In a city with countless one-of-a-kind museums, two overpriced chain museums in Times Square draw wide disdain from travel bloggers. Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and Ripley's Believe It or Not cost about $30 to get into, and neither has anything unique to offer visitors to the Big Apple, though many other places do offer cheap amusements.
It's fitting for High Point, known as the home furnishings capital of the world, to be home of the world's largest chest of drawers. Originally built in the 1920s, complete with knobs and giant dangling socks, it served as an information bureau -- pun undoubtedly intended. Then a furniture store in Jamestown, a 10-minute drive away, built what looks like an 80-foot chest on the outside of its showroom, somehow diminishing the value of both.
Don't leave the choice of a North Dakota casino to chance. From Spirit Lake Casino in St. Michael to 4 Bears Casino in New Town and Dakota Magic in Hankinson, visitors complain of a general lack of quality and professionalism at smaller tribal casinos, citing run-down machines, unpleasant atmospheres, and very few winners. "ATM pays out," one customer snarked in an online review. "That's about it."
Criticism of the cooking at Mary Yoder's Amish Kitchen, Bakery, and Gift Shop in Middlefield is all too common. Reviewers say the food, often in a buffet, is bland, unappetizing, and overpriced. The gift shop is also expensive, they say, with a warning to stop only if there's nothing else open. But that's easier said than done when the tour bus stops at the restaurant.
With a tepee out front and a KOA campground, Cherokee Trading Post near El Reno has "tourist" written all over it. But, hey, if you're in the mood to shop for moccasins and Native American "art," this is the place.
Like many tourist traps, Prehistoric Gardens in Port Orford is likely to be irresistible to children, with a life-size Tyrannosaurus at the front gate. But some visitors say it's overpriced, at $12 for adults and $8 for children, and provides less than 15 minutes of entertainment. In an age of "Jurassic Park" films and the dinosaur robots of the George S. Eccles Dinosaur Park in Utah, steel and concrete sculptures may not cut it.
Philadelphia isn't Las Vegas -- it isn't even Atlantic City, which is just an hour away -- and tourists shouldn't go to the SugarHouse Casino expecting a high-rolling experience. Reviews are filled with complaints about slow service in a cramped, cheap-looking structure filled with cigarette smoke. "A lackluster, dirty slots barn," one Yelper says.
The Big Blue Bug is a 58-foot-long termite -- 928 times the size of a real termite. Designated the world's largest bug, it cost $20,000 to build out of steel and fiberglass. But don't make the mistake of stopping in Providence just to see it. The bug can be appreciated well enough from Interstate 95.
One word: tacky. Travel review sites are full of mediocre reviews of this cluster of restaurants and shops offering everything from fireworks, knick-knacks, and bumper stickers to leather, antiques, and hats. Its towering statue of a sombrero is well-known to road trippers as a place to stretch your legs on a long drive -- but nothing more.
Wall Drug may have started as a drugstore in 1931, but it has morphed into a classic American tourist trap with a sprawling souvenir shop and eateries that are collectively "crowded, overpriced, and stupid," say the GypsyNesters duo. Countless signs along Interstate 90 make travelers feel as though they absolutely have to stop, but many who do, regret it.
Elvis has long since left the building, yet his Memphis home continues to rake in oodles of cash from devoted fans. Tickets to Graceland start at nearly $40 for adults and $17 for children and cost at least $93.75 for a VIP tour. That's not to mention the multiple gift shops on the grounds selling Elvis-themed tchotchkes.
Devil's Rope Museum in McLean has an intriguing name and free admission, but it may become less interesting when visitors find out that "devil's rope" is barbed wire. That's right. This quirky museum showcases the 450 patents that apparently exist for barbed wire, as well as more than 2,000 variations that have been found by collectors. For some visitors, it's fascinating. For others, it's just fencing.
While $5 a person is not a lot to pay, for some it's just too much for a "tour" of Moqui Cave that lasts just a few minutes. The cave near Kanab is billed as a natural history museum, but visitors complain that the collection of Native American artifacts, dinosaur tracks, and minerals is paltry at best. They say the attraction is mostly a gift shop -- and why pay an entrance fee to shop?
It's not worth going far to look at a very pretty hole in the ground that isn't the Grand Canyon. For $5 for adults and $2.50 for children, Rock of Ages (a company that makes "enduring art" -- its euphemism for headstones) takes visitors to a granite quarry and on a factory tour. The visitors center peddles granite gifts and jewelry.
What's the obsession with recreating Stonehenge, exactly? Foamhenge is made entirely of Styrofoam. It was put up on April Fools' Day in 2004, and these days some visitors feel like the joke's on them. They say the kitschy sight hasn't been kept up and is falling into disrepair. That includes a dirt road full of ruts leading to the attraction.
Reviews of Seattle Children's Museum, along with local media, say the exhibits are far from innovative, many of the toys are similar to what's at home, and exhibits are poorly maintained. For children older than 4, it will likely be a tad boring and not worth the cost of admission -- more than $11.50 for adults and children.
A perplexing collection of statues at Farnham Fantasy Farm in Unger, the "Farnham Colossi" run the gamut from a 25-foot-tall fiberglass muffler man to a beach dude statue and a Big John bag boy. It's a half-hour off the Interstate (whether 70 or 81) to get to the site of these massive figures.
The Wisconsin Dells area is a tourist trap to end all tourist traps, with tacky water parks and wacky attractions now divorced from the namesake rock formations that originally drew sightseers. Even a breathless write-up on Roadside America admits, "At times the Dells seems like a ravenous snake, swallowing tourists whole, digesting their lump of vacation energy and disposable income."
Tours of the abandoned and crumbling Wyoming Frontier Prison in Rawlins, which opened in 1901 and closed in 1981, include viewing the Punishment Pole, where prisoners were whipped with rubber hoses, and the chance to sit in a real gas chamber. The cost is $10 for adults and $8 for children -- in other words, $30 for a family with small children to endure weeks of nightmares afterward.