NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Summer vacation in a sputtering economy may be somewhat restrained, but it's a gold mine for towns benefiting from Roadside America's renaissance.About 86% of Americans surveyed by travel site TripAdvisor said they were planning a vacation trip this summer, up from 81% last year. Of those, one in 10 say the roughly 20-cent drop in gas prices from last summer is fueling more trips by car. Another 21% say they'd be willing to drive 10 hours or more to their vacation destination if it meant saving on airfare.
How do you not include the home of Walt Disney World ( DIS), Universal Orlando ( CMCSA), Sea World and Gatorland. A mix of old-Florida kitsch and big tourism opulence, Orlando drew more than 55 million visitors last year, including 41 million vacationers from the U.S. alone. That's not only up from the 34 million Orlando drew in 2009 when the recession was at its worst, but is well up from the 35.3 million it drew in pre-downturn 2007.
Those towns don't ring any bells on their own, but they set off a whole carillon for travelers who've ever taken Interstate 95 down the coast to Myrtle Beach, Orlando, Miami or any other warm-weather hot spot. The line between these two towns is home to South of the Border, the heavily advertised tourist trap built by Alan Schafer in 1950 as a means of selling beer to the dry North Carolina county to the north. It's since expanded to a bazaar of shops selling fireworks, "Mexican" trinkets and bumper stickers once ubiquitous on family cars along the eastern seaboard. Are the Sombrero Tower, "Mexican" neon sign giant and other blatantly stereotypical attractions worth stopping for? That may depend on how long you've been driving and how many margaritas it will take for your co-pilot to drown the "Are we there yets" from his or her memory.
Tucked amid the Black Hills, Rapid City is just close enough to everything to be the nexus of area tourism. Being squarely in the shadow of Mount Rushmore 25 miles away earned it the City of Presidents moniker and inspired a local philanthropist to commission life-sized sculptures of every president from George Washington through George W. Bush to mark downtown Rapid City's streetcorners and draw visitors into area shops, restaurants, brewpubs and the alley of city-sanctioned graffiti artwork created by local kids.
Tourist trap, you say? Gatlinburg's ski gondola-style tramway, Ober Gatlinburg theme park and Seattle-style Space Needle would certainly indicate that. As would nearby Pigeon Forge's Branson, Mo.-style theaters, indoor skydiving and Dollywood amusement park that's every bit as outsized and sugar-sweet as Dolly Parton herself. But Great Smoky Mountains National Park gives Gatlinburg a whole lot more heft than your average marquee-and-shirt-shop roadside mess. The park draws nearly 9.5 million visitors a year, the most of any national park, and 5 million more than the second-place Grand Canyon. It accounts from nearly $720 million in local tourist spending all by itself and uses little other than natural charm and cute little corners such as the Cades Cove historic cottages to keep that cash rolling in. If you can't make the summer trip, don't get too bummed about it. The Smokies' canopy of bold bronze and auburn leaves makes it a great fall getaway as well.
The hardcore boardwalk crowd still takes it up to Atlantic City for the slots and shows and the tourist dodgers seem to prefer Rehoboth Beach and Ocean City, N.J. Yet if you want the East Coast boardwalk experience without betting the house or fist pumping, your best bet is still Ocean City. The 8,000-person town draws more than 300,000 visitors each weekend for rides, cotton candy, saltwater taffy, wax museums, white marlin fishing, fireworks and free concerts by third-tier music acts. The size, crowds and borderline tackiness of Ocean City are a putoff to some, but they're also what draw families back to the boardwalk for generations at a stretch.
Are the actual Dells along the Wisconsin River beautiful? Sure. Do the Duck Boat trips down that river offer great views of the surrounding landscape, absolutely? Are either of those the reason nearly 5 million people a year come to this 2,500-person city each summer? Absolutely not. Waterparks keep tourist money flowing through the Dells. Sprawling complexes such as Noah's Ark, Mount Olympus, Kalihari and Los Rios water parks at Chula Vista are the big draws, but even hotels from the Great Wolf Lodge down to the Holiday Inn Express have indoor and outdoor waterslides. This is Vegas for the under-13 crowd, with ziplines, mini golf and go-karts running all day and magic and stunt shows drawing the crowds at night. Don't know who Rick Wilcox, Jeremy Allen and Tommy Bartlett are? The two magicians and the late showman/stuntman are to the Dells what impressionist Danny Gans and animal trainers Siegfried and Roy were to the Vegas Strip. The families that dive into the Dells each year spend like high rollers, too. The Dells were a big reason Wisconsin visitor spending increased from $8.5 billion in 2009 to $9.9 billion last year. Sandusky, Ohio
As evidenced by Orlando and the Wisconsin Dells, if a big-draw amusement park's rides can shake loose some family spending, smaller attractions will spring up to catch the loose change. In Sandusky, the big shark in the the water is Cedar Fair Entertainment's ( FUN) Cedar Point on Lake Erie. The park boasts 15 roller coasters, second in the U.S. only to Six Flags Magic Mountain ( SIX) in California, and two of the top five tallest and fastest roller coasters in the country in its Top Thrill Dragster and Millennium Force. It's a giant complex including the Soak City and Castaway Bay water parks, games, hotels and beach resorts that leaves plenty on the table for smaller operations such as the Grey Wolf and Kalihari that line the highway leading to Cedar Point. Even a local Quality Inn has an indoor water park. Boat trips to the barge parties and swim-up bars of the Lake Erie islands just north of the city and other attractions such as the Merry Go Round Museum make Sandusky a boon for summer tourists. Overall, Cedar Point and Sandusky helped nudge Ohio tourist spending by 6% last year to more than $40 billion. Leavenworth, Wash.
When the railroad company pulls its headquarters out of town and the local timber industry slowly dies away, what's a little Cascade Mountain town supposed to do? If you're Leavenworth and your only other option is a slow death, you improvise. In 1962, the town put Project LIFE (Leavenworth Improvement For Everyone) into effect and turned its town into a Bavarian village. With the Cascades already doing a great impression of the Alps, Leavenworth decked out its town in Tudor Revival architecture and decked out everything from the motels to the McDonald's ( MCD) in Gothic fonts and edelweiss. Now teeming with Nutcracker museums, beer gardens and Oktoberfest celebrations, Leavenworth is a boon for tourists traveling Route 2 and willing to stop in for a bratwurst or a Hefeweissen. -- Written by Jason Notte in Boston. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham. >To submit a news tip, send an email to: email@example.com.