By Jennifer Jacob Brown
Cast in the shadow of the old abandoned fairgrounds and drive-in theater on Sowashee Street, the crumbling cement towers that mark the entrance to Royal Land could easily go unnoticed by a passersby in a hurry to get from point A to point B.
But as the entrance to the overgrown ghost town of an old amusement park, the towers have fueled the imaginations of those who have stopped to notice it since the 1970s.
Today, the grounds of Royal Land are like something out of a Stephen King novel. Standing guard over the rusted tracks of an ancient train ride, a dank and mildewed old ticket booth, and decaying reel-to-reel tapes half buried in the weedy ground, the entrance to Royal Land seems like a gateway into a world that is haunted by the ghosts of disgruntled carnies and the long-ago cries of little children who just want to go on one more ride.
Not surprisingly, Monte Royal, whose family created Royal Land, said people ask him about the place all the time.
"They say, 'I was walking and I just wandered up on these two towers,'" he remarked. "People are curious about it."
Royal helped to build and operate the park, a pet project of his father, A. Lloyd Royal, during its brief heyday in the late '60s and early '70s.
Royal Land began when down-on-their-luck carnies abandoned rides at the adjacent fairgrounds, also owned by the Royal family. The elder Royal became intrigued with the rides and, once he had collected enough of them, decided to make his own non-traveling carnival next to the fairgrounds, Monte Royal said.
Lloyd Royal hired Monte, a carnival worker, and some laborers to put Royal Land together.
Among the rides at the park were a roller coaster, a merry-go round, a ferris wheel, and a train ride. Monte Royal said his father purchased the train ride after being impressed with a similar ride at Opry Land.
Nearly everything at the carnival was second-hand. When Lloyd Royal wanted to add something to the carnival that wasn't left behind on his fairgrounds, he would purchase it second hand and have it renovated. An old ticket booth from the fairgrounds was transformed into a movie projecting booth. A rusted train left over from a movie set was purchased for the train ride, and the park itself was powered with a half-broken old generator.
"That place was something else," Monte Royal said. "Everything looked old and worn down."
At one point, when sleeping in a trailer on the grounds, Monte Royal said he would have frequent nightmares about the ferris wheel rolling over him in his sleep.
The train ride gave him troubles outside of the dream realm. While renovating it, he said he got terrible headaches after applying special silver paint that was designed to go over rust.
"I probably still have brain damage from those fumes," he joked.
Once the train was renovated, Monte Royal helped to operate it. "They (other workers) put A/C and heat in it, but the heat was always twice as much and the A/C was always half as much as it needed to be. It was a bakery in that thing in the summertime."
The train track, he said, was about a quarter of a mile to half a mile long and ran through large patches of mosquitoes in the summertime. Because the park was operated with a used, half-broken generator, Monte said the train rides would often be interrupted by flickering lights, while at the same time the carnival music would slow to a deep, protracted drawl that would have made a nice soundtrack to his ferris wheel nightmares.
When this happened, Monte would simply stop the train ride and run across the grounds to get the generator working again.
The roller coaster was another problem altogether. "On a good day, it would go all the way around," he said. "But on a bad day it would have to be pushed over the last hill."
The worn-out and broken-down amusements at the carnival, for Monte, added to the charm of the Royal Land — but unfortunately they didn't add to the revenue, and the park was only open for three or four years.
"It never caught on because we didn't have the tourist market," he said. "It wasn't strong enough to lure travelers from the highway."
Though Royal Land was far from a smashing financial success, its ruins add to the character of our town, and its brief existence provided Monte Royal with some unique memories to reflect upon and some fun stories to tell.
"At the time it was no fun at all," he said. "But looking back it was...um, interesting."
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