The Tweetsie Railroad theme park was up against a 2007 deadline to renew land leases or close, but owners negotiated deals so the family-run park could operate for at least a few more years at its current location in Blowing Rock. The park will celebrate its 50th season of entertaining families when it opens May 4.
"It's been a long battle, and it's just one more step toward a final resolution," park general manager Chris Robbins said. "We have a little sigh of relief, but we still have a long way to go."
The popular mountain attraction is one of a handful of theme parks surviving from the pre-Disney era, when such attractions were mostly family-operated. But Tweetsie faced an uncertain future two years ago, as its current land leases were set to expire at the end of this year.
Since its opening in 1957, much of the park has been on land just south of Boone that was leased by Robbins' father and two uncles. With land prices soaring in Watauga County in recent years, it was unclear whether Robbins and his immediate family would be able to negotiate a renewal of the leases on the two parcels of land they do not own.
"Trying to get some commonality with both groups was the hardest part," said Robbins, who in 2005 turned to two consulting companies that helped the family-owned park plan for all contingencies, including a possible relocation.
While moving the vast theme park with its live shows, animal park, amusement rides and its main attraction and namesake - an historic steam locomotive called Tweetsie No. 12 - isn't ideal, it's better than shutting down, Robbins said.
The park has identified and secured a site in neighboring Wilkes County for possible relocation if additional long-term agreements on the current leases don't work out.
"We'll move the park if we have to," Robbins said. "Tweetsie just has this emotional attachment in North Carolina, for the young and old."
Tweetsie will welcome around 250,000 visitors this year. The park has added three carnival rides and one pirate-theme dark ride, and plans to have several special events throughout the season.
The park also has real historical roots in the mountains. Tweetsie No. 12, one of two steam engines used on the excursion railroad, is the last surviving engine from the 50-mile, narrow-gauge Eastern Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad that ran through the mountains from Boone to Johnson City beginning in the late 19th century.
Locals named the train the "Tweetsie," after the shrill steam whistles that echoed through the hills.