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Trap or Treasure? Reevaluating US Tourist Traps

Back when my family visited the “Oregon Vortex” site in 2019, I didn’t know what a tourist trap was. I was simply entranced; the guides described the Oregon Vortex as a mysterious whirlpool of energy which altered perspective and gravity. They compared our heights with yardsticks to show how taller people appeared shorter when standing at the center of the Vortex, led us around an old topsy-turvy House of Mystery where the very laws of gravity seemed distorted, and showed us old scientific-looking diagrams. I marveled at the attraction with a sense of wonderment, seeking to wrap my head around such an oddity, chuckling afterwards at the crayon drawings of Gravity Falls characters in the windows of the gift shop.

My brother did not have the same experience. The showmanship of the guides and the groups of people that stood agape at the guides’ claims annoyed him. He was not convinced by the explanations and demonstrations they offered, and he told us that the place was peddling nothing more than an over-expensive illusion.

At the time I attributed his complaints to his adolescent cynicism, but in retrospect I realize that he had a point. The Oregon Vortex almost certainly qualifies as a “tourist trap,” which is a place that draws in tourists with overblown claims, novelty gimmicks, or glitzy décor only to milk them for their money. My brother realized this about the Vortex earlier than I did and, as a result, didn’t enjoy his visit like I did mine.

In a way, our attitudes made all the difference in our experiences. As I saw on that day, tourist traps are not one-size-fits-all experiences. Many people resent what they see as tackiness, overblown pretension, over-crowdedness, and manipulative marketing and pricing practices. Yet despite this negative association, many others visit and enjoy these places for the sense of community that they inspire and the esoteric charm or historical grandeur they embody. The question to ask isn’t whether or not a place is a tourist trap; it’s whether or not a place truly appeals to your tastes. The only way to know whether you’re missing out on a trip highlight or saving yourself time, money, and trouble is to learn beforehand, from good sources, what these “tourist traps” really have in store.

Roadside Attractions

This category of tourist trap refers to unusual sights that gain disproportionate attention. These may not offer more than visual novelty or ironic photo opportunities, but if that’s what draws you in, this sort of place may interest you. If they’re too far out of your way or it’s too crowded to see anything, you should be safe to pass them by.

Gum Wall—Seattle, Washington
A hand touching a brick wall covered in gum

For many, this site, located outside the Market Theater box office, may sound gross, overcrowded, or pointless. It’s exactly what its name describes: a public “mosaic” that was born when theater patrons began to plaster gum to the wall to pass the time, a casual practice which spiraled into a sensation. It became so popular that the city had to clean all the gum off in 2015 to protect the wall. This wasn’t the end, however. People have continued to stick gum to it. Depending on your sensibilities, it could be a great photo opportunity or a time to add your piece to the pile. This spot can get crowded at times, but if you’re already in Seattle for the fish market or the coast, it may be a fun little excursion.

The World’s Largest Ball of Twine—Cawker City, Kansas
The path leading up to the World's Largest Ball of Twine pavilion on an overcast day
Photo by Jimmy Emerson, DVM

Some attractions, such as this ball of twine, are more isolated, so their appeal must be weighed against the time it would take to travel there. This site may be too out of the way for some, but for others it’s a local claim to fame that must be defended. After all, there are other oversized balls of twine (like those in Darwin, Minnesota, and Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin) that continually compete with Cawker City for the world record. The excitement of competition could make the ever-expanding nature of the ball an irresistible attraction; after all, visitors can add to it every August during the “Twine-a-thon” festival. However, if you’re not already visiting Kansas, or if you’re not drawn in by the Twine-a-thon’s free food, horseshoes games, and car show, it may not be for you.

“Must-See” Famous Places

Many attractions are famous enough to both attract millions of people and disappoint many of them every year. These are so ubiquitous in American culture that deciding which are overrated and which are worth it is tricky. These examples may shed some light on which stops to take on your next trip.

Times Square—New York City, New York
A busy Times Square in the middle of the day

This famous plaza has earned the “tourist trap” label many times online for its sheer volume of visitors. Some even estimate that as many as 120,000 people can fit in Times Square at a time, which can feel suffocating. Many people revel in the sheer scale of this central location; it’s still one of the most iconic spots in the city, what with the bustle, the Jumbotron, the LED displays (including the largest in the world), and the Broadway advertisements. For some, it’s too loud and crowded to be worth more than five minutes. If you’re okay with crowds and spectacle as part of the experience, Times Square is a fine stop; if you’re not, you could very well pass it by.

Mount Rushmore—The Black Hills, South Dakota
A shot of the highway close to Mount Rushmore.

In a way, this attraction owns its reputation as a tourism magnet: historian Doane Robinson conceived the idea of the Rushmore sculpture as a way to bring more tourism to this very out-of-the-way state. For fans of the area’s history, the attraction includes a detailed tour and a short “presidential” hike. However, many visitors have labelled this famous sculpture a tourist trap, citing overhype and the extremely expensive parking. For uncertain visitors, there are a few tips worth mentioning: (1) The park charges for parking but not for admission. If you can find a parking spot along the road just beyond the monument, it’s a much cheaper visit. (2) It’s calmer and much less crowded in the off-season during fall and winter. (3) The Black Hills sport many other natural attractions (such as Custer State Park and Wind Cave) that could be included alongside a Rushmore trip if the faces themselves don’t seem like a good enough draw.

Niagara Falls—Niagara Falls, New York
A shot of Niagara Falls from high in the air

This scenic location has begun to resemble a “tourist trap” over time; with the number of visitors increasing (currently at over 20,000 a day), the state park has exploded with money-grabbing attractions and high prices for food, parking, and other services. Looking beyond these factors, however, the site is deservedly called the “Eighth Wonder” of the world; it has spectacular spots such as the Cave of the Winds, the Niagara Gorge, and the Goat Island , as well as the famous Maid of the Mist boat excursion straight to the falls themselves.

If you don’t mind the crowds and you think this natural wonder sounds like your dream trip, here are some ways to make the most of your visit (1) Bring your passport and visit both sides. The Canadian side allegedly has better views of the Falls, though the US side is slightly less touristy. (2) Do some extra research to avoid getting lured into expensive tours of sites that could realistically be traversed independently on foot.

Tourist Towns

Some cities market themselves entirely on tourism from one angle or another. These places necessitate a longer stay in order to get the full experience.

Roswell, New Mexico
The "Welcome to Roswell" sign (with a flying saucer on it)
Photo by Blurz

Believe in aliens? If so, Roswell might be your paradise, as this was (allegedly) the site of a 1947 UFO crash landing and government cover-up, and the town has been milking the event ever since. If you don’t believe in aliens, Roswell’s sensationalism may look gaudy and exploitative. The town markets itself around mysticism, which often means kitsch plastic aliens and flying saucers. However, the bizarreness of such marketing could prove engaging on its own; many have visited the town just to experience the oddity of an extraterrestrial-obsessed place. If the UFO museum doesn’t interest you, the area also sports an impressive state park (Bottomless Lakes) and many art and history museums. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to enjoy Roswell.

Branson, Missouri
A curve of the Wildfire coaster at Silver Dollar City.
Photo by Silver Dollar City

This touristy town is known for its many local theaters, heavy Southern/Midwestern influence, and rampant commercialism. For these reasons, it also has impressive traffic, which can only be avoided by steering clear of the main streets on the town’s map. If you’re interested in Ozark culture and are comfortable spending money, the town delivers on its promises. Features include live theater shows, from country music to magic to Bible reenactments; Silver Dollar City, an 1880s-themed amusement park; an aquarium; an “upside-down house,” which offers many science-based activities for kids; and several other family-fun attractions. Branson wears its intentions on its sleeve as a centerpiece of Midwestern entertainment, and for some people, that’s all it needs to be.

Trap or Treasure? You Decide.

It’s clear that the term “tourist trap” can be very blunt and may not always represent the true value of a place for every potential visitor. So, when you travel, it’s important for you to not only know yourself and your tastes but also be price-savvy and wise with your time. This mindset makes it easier to get the most out of travel and truly experience the interesting parts of the country that you may have otherwise written off as a waste of time.

Sam Lambert