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The Death of Roadside Attractions

The Death of Roadside Attractions

Roadside attractions used to be road trip highlights. They’re even featured in popular media, like in Disney’s animated trilogy, Cars. However, numerous tourist towns have watched their roadside attractions close up shop.

Sadly, there’s no turning back once these pit stops and landmarks close. The treasures many tourists once cherished are gone for good. So, what forces are behind the fading era of roadside attractions?

Let’s hit the road and find out!

What Are Roadside Attractions?

Roadside attractions, or “tourist traps,” have played a significant role in American travel culture for decades. You can find everything from massive fiberglass statues to quirky museums and displays. These novelty locations capture the imaginations of tourists looking for something interesting to see or do along their route.

They are often a source of entertainment and allow drivers to take a break from the road. Many families stop and take pictures and make unique memories. Unfortunately, the future of roadside attractions remains uncertain. 

Pro Tip: Some roadside attractions come in the form of truck stops. Check out the largest truck stop and determine if it’s worth the hype.

Next Exit: A History of Roadside Attractions

History of Roadside Attractions

Roadside attractions appeared along roads in the early 1900s as automobiles became popular. Entrepreneurs looked for a way to capitalize on the increase in travelers hitting the road. Some of the first to appear were simple structures that attracted attention. Tepees, giant coffee pots, and oversized fruit stands lured motorists and their hard-earned money off the highway.

During the mid-20th century, roadside attractions thrived. Each stop tried to one-up others to attract visitors. The highways and byways of America had bizarre and entertaining sights. Travelers could experience local history, culture, and out-of-this-world experiences.

Unfortunately, while some roadside attractions have evolved into museums, theme parks, or other establishments, many have permanently closed. It’s been a slow fade over the last several decades as we’ve watched their bittersweet endings.

Why Are Roadside Attractions Dying Out?

Roadside attractions have been slowly dying for years. The interstate highway is primarily to blame. It encourages speed and efficiency in traveling.

The construction of interstates caused travelers to abandon more leisurely travel adventures. Traveling became more about the destination than the journey. For many, taking detours to quirky attractions became an inconvenience instead of exciting. 

Additionally, younger generations tend to have less sentimental attachment to many of these sites. The focus on digital entertainment and virtual experiences has grown, which are much more expensive and cost-prohibitive for roadside attractions. Younger travelers are often content with entertaining themselves on their phones and other devices.

Decreased visitor numbers have resulted in slow and painful closures for many businesses over the years. While some remain staples along Route 66 and other iconic routes, too many are long gone.

Many decades-old roadside attractions are showing their age and have too many repairs to keep up with.

What Happens When a Roadside Attraction Closes?

When roadside attractions close, the most immediate impact is to the owner of the business, the employees, and whoever owns the building or property. The loss of revenue and wages requires them to find other potential income sources. Depending on the area, this can be incredibly challenging.

Additionally, when roadside attractions close, it can significantly impact the local economy. When fewer attractions are available, tourists may think twice about stopping or exploring an area. In some instances, it can cause a domino effect where multiple businesses close their doors.

Unfortunately, after years of operating, many roadside attraction facilities are showing their age. Getting another business to move in after the business shuts down can be challenging. It may require extensive work to renovate and overhaul the space. As a result, many of these buildings and structures sit empty.

We’ve said goodbye to many popular roadside attractions over the years. Let’s look at a handful of famous spots that no longer exist.

1. Launching Pad Drive-In (Illinois)

The Launching Pad Drive-In was a famous roadside attraction in Wilmington, Illinois. Most people know it for The Gemini Giant, a massive 30-foot fiberglass statue standing outside. It’s an astronaut holding a rocket, and it has been an iconic part of Route 66.

The Launching Pad opened in 1960 and has undergone a series of owners and renovations. Unfortunately, Launching Pad Drive-In faced serious issues. According to a September 2022 Facebook post, the owners had a series of health complications.

However, according to several recent Google reviews, there’s more drama taking place. A wrecked car parked in front of The Gemini Giant for some time to prevent tourists from taking pictures. In addition, someone wrote over-the-top messages on the windows. While the Facebook post hints that the closure is temporary, it’s not looking like it.

2. Little Juarez Cafe (Texas)

The Little Juarez Cafe, or The Brownlee Diner, sat on the Texas-New Mexico border. It was a popular roadside attraction for travelers along Route 66. They’d stop and grab a bite to eat, a cup of coffee, or take a break from the road.

The diner started serving customers in 1952. Unfortunately, the decision to bypass the Glenrio during the construction of Interstate 40 quickly turned the area into a ghost town. The Little Juarez Cafe closed its doors in 1973 and joined the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. 

3. Afton’s Station (Oklahoma)

Afton’s Station in Afton, Oklahoma, was a bustling gas station when Route 66 thrived. The gas station owners constructed it in 1933 and featured a curved canopy over the gas pump. This design was a standard design characteristic of the era.

After Route 66 lost its luster, Afton’s Station became the Afton Station Packard Museum. It was an automotive museum that housed several vehicles and memorabilia related to the iconic highway. Unfortunately, the family sold all the memorabilia after the owners’ deaths. They later auctioned off the building in 2019. While the structure remains, the online listing for the address lists it as permanently closed.

4. The Spindle (Illinois)

The Spindle, or the “Car Kabob,” was a unique art sculpture. It featured eight cars standing vertically, pierced by a spindle. It was a creation of artist Dustin Shuler, who installed it in 1989. If you have ever watched the movie “Wayne’s World,” you may have seen it.

The Spindle was a controversial piece. Some saw it as a quirky and unusual public art display, and others saw it as an eyesore. Over the years, there was much back and forth about it remaining.

Unfortunately, in May 2008, The Spindle got the ax. A redevelopment project in the area requires the use of the structure’s space. The original plan was to relocate it to a different location. However, after dismantling the artwork, the owners auctioned the vehicles.

In addition to the four mentioned above, countless others have come and gone over the years. Many are technically still standing but have fallen into disrepair or have closed to the public. While many roadside attractions have gone by the wayside, plenty remain. You can find roadside attractions all over the country. Some of the most popular options to consider are South of the Border (Hamer, South Carolina), Cadillac Ranch (Amarillo, Texas), Salvation Mountain (Slab City, California), and Wall Drug Store (Wall, South Dakota).

These are all quirky and exciting spots where you and your family can make unforgettable memories. Aside from Cadillac Ranch, the rest of our list is far from Route 66. If you’ve never heard of them, they’re unique experiences worth discovering.

wall drug store
Cait riding the jackelope at Wall Drug in Wall, SD.

Suggested Reading: Are you planning a Route 66 road trip? Learn if it goes through any national parks.

Visit Roadside Attractions Before They’re Gone Forever

It saddens us to see roadside attractions closing their doors and boarding up the windows. However, all good things must come to an end. As a result, we strongly encourage you to visit any roadside attractions you see. You never know; they may not be around the next time you’re traveling through the area.

Do you have a favorite roadside attraction? Share it in the comments below!

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About Mortons on the Move

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of “Go North” on Amazon Prime Video, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for and an Arizona travel guide.

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Joe Curbelo

Wednesday 15th of November 2023

Glad that South of the Border has survived. Took many family road trips in the 70s and 80s between Florida and New Jersey and, as a kid, always enjoyed reading the "Pedro says..." signs!

Michael Bonney

Wednesday 15th of November 2023

On our trip home from the Grand Canyon we stopped at “Standing on the Corner “ Winslow Az. Always loved the song by the Eagles! And also visited the Big Round Barn in Arcadia Ok. My wife loves taking pictures of barns and this was a beautiful structure inside and out!