Back in the glory days — the illegal gambling, mobsters and quack medicine days — Hot Springs used to be a lot more kitschy. Tourists loved that stuff. Even when this writer was growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were still quite a few semi-cheesy attractions, including the I.Q. Zoo (home to tic-tac-toe-playing chickens and basket-balling raccoons), Dryden Pottery, a cave and my personal fave — Tiny Town, an automaton city full of carved figurines, lovingly built by a lifelong tinkerer out of chicken wire, clay and old washing machine parts. Who wants to learn boring old science from a book when you can learn the Skinner Method from a firetruck-riding rabbit who rushes out at the sound of a bell? Good times.
Hot Springs still offers quite a bit of tourist kitsch, those attractions that remind us of an easier time in America, when gas was cheap and cars were the size of Cleopatra's sailbarge. Here are a few of our favorites.
THE ARKANSAS ALLIGATOR FARM
847 Whittington Ave.
Admission: Adults $6.50; children (3-12 years) $5.50; two and under free.
Hours: 9:30 a.m. -5:30 p.m. daily except on Thanksgiving and Christmas
Opened in 1902, the Arkansas Alligator Farm has offered generations of Arkies a glimpse at how easy it would be for them to slip a notch down the food chain. The one-acre site features hundreds of gators, from small to XXL, as well as a petting corral with whitetail deer and goats (you get a couple of slices of wheat bread to feed 'em with admission), and an attached roadside-style zoo full of turkeys, mountain lions, monkeys, peacocks and other creatures. In the summertime, the alligators are housed in concrete pools in the middle of the zoo complex. (The cool weather months find the hibernation-groggy gators piled under heat lamps inside their wintering barn, separated from the gawkers by only low, two-by-four railings, a wire fence and bare inches). Add to that one of the most Stuckeys-rific gift shops in Hot Springs and a Barnum's Museum-style stuffed Merman (!) on display, and you've got an old school tourist trap (and I say that in the most loving way possible) sure to take Gen-X'ers and older back to the childhood road trips of yore.
THE GANGSTER MUSEUM
510 Central Ave.
Admission: Adults $10, children (6-12 years) $4; under six free.
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday through Saturday.
The history of Hot Springs as a gambler's and gangster's playground is one of those things that a lot of Arkies have heard about, but not many have heard a LOT about. The true story of how the Spa City became a summer retreat for some of the country's biggest gangland names gets told well at The Gangster Museum of America. Opened in 2008 and recently relocated to a new space more centrally located on Bathhouse Row, the museum could use a few more three-dimensional exhibits (it's mostly framed photos and short films about the underworld history of Hot Springs, though there is a nice display of slot machines and gaming tables from nearby clubs shut by the state in the late 1960s), but for a history buff who wants to know more about the shady side of town and how it was allowed to exist for so long, it's genuinely fascinating. In addition to presentations on famous/infamous visitors like Lucky Luciano and Al Capone, a series of rooms focus on the town's resident kingpins, including Owney Madden, the British mobster who came to take the waters and wound up neck deep in the underworld there; Mayor Leo McLaughlin, who made a long career out of looking the other way; and Maxine Jones, the flamboyant madam who openly ran the city's most famous brothel. Lots of crime-geek infotainment, and you get to hold a real-life Tommy Gun at the end of it. Who could ask for anything more?
JOSEPHINE TUSSAUD WAX MUSEUM
250 Central Ave.
Admission: adults $10, children (3-12 years) $7, two and under, free.
Hours: 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Another old long-standing Hot Springs tourist draw, the Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum on Central Avenue is surely showing its age (they still have Elizabeth Taylor and a '70s-sideburned Sir Richard Burton on display), but that lends a certain charm to the place. Once the home of the fabled Southern Club, the space became the Wax Museum in 1971, and might well be the grandpappy of all surviving Hot Springs kitsch. It's definitely an attraction out of another, simpler age, with over 100 wax figures on display and themed rooms including Religion (with wax, 3-D representations of Da Vinci's Last Supper and the Crucifixion), Fairy Tales (featuring characters like Alice in Wonderland and Little Red Riding Hood), The Royal Grand Hall (with French and British royalty), and — my personal favorite — the World of Horrors, with poor wax bastards being subjected to some of the most horrific torments of the Spanish Inquisition, with a handy shortcut to bypass that room for the squeamish. As an added bonus, the front window of the museum features a miniature, albino version of the Big Bad Wolf that gave me night terrors as a kid.
NATIONAL PARK DUCK TOURS
418 Central Ave.
Tickets: Adults $18, children (3-12 years) $10, under three $5.
Hours: Tours every 30 min. from morning until dusk on weekends. See website for more details.
No one would mistake a Hot Springs duck boat tour for a sophisticated experience: You're hauled in a stiff-springed cargo truck through the streets of Hot Springs, while a helpful guide/driver points out the sights. Once you get to the edge of Lake Hamilton, though, that's where the Ducks pay the bills. Down the boat ramp and into the water you go with a splash. They've been ferrying tourists back and forth to the lake in the Ducks for over 40 years, so it's an experience ingrained in the memory of many an Arkansan. Sure, some might call trusting your life to a nearly-70-year-old amphibious bus built by Rosie the Riveter to haul U.S. troops during World War II a bit foolhardy. But I say: You're on vacation, man! Live a little. I'd be remiss if I didn't pause to note the May 1999 accident where one of the boats sank on Lake Hamilton in a matter of seconds, taking 13 souls to the bottom with it. Still, if you're willing to take a little risk (and trust that the tour companies are keeping a much closer eye on things since the accident), riding the Ducks is one of the quintessential old-timey Hot Springs attractions, not to mention one of the activities you'll have to check off if you want to get your Certified Arkie card.