Images of the Sunsphere are ubiquitous in Knoxville. Visible from all along the western edge of downtown, while only 32 years old, it has become the iconic symbol of our city. It’s part campy curiosity and part tourist magnet. Most famously, The Simpsons visited a number of years back and pronounced it a wig shop.
Situated near the center of the World’s Fair Park, it offers interesting views and, now, fresh signage highlighting various parts of the downtown area as well as lesser know facts about the city. I knew, for example, that we had red pandas at the Knoxville Zoo, but I did not know that the Knoxville Zoo is considered the “red panda capital of the world.”
The deck just re-opened last week, so I took an opportunity to investigate. I found a number of people looking around, some of whom seemed to be local and others who were visiting the city. I can honestly report that they were reading the information and discussing it. A large wall with photographs from the 1982 World’s Fair drew a fair amount of attention on its own.
The new kiosks do a nice job of higlighting significant area attractions and features. The local arts scene is mentioned, including the Tennessee Theatre, WDVX and the Blue Plate Special, the Bijou Theatre and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra as well as Knoxville Opera. The Knoxville Zoo is given a shout out and Visit Knoxville is splashed in every direction.
A kiosk featuring the new map of the downtown area that seems to be popping up all around is complimented by a kiosk detailing some local history, with a focus on the civil war. Another kiosk notes that there really is a place called “Rocky Top” and I was delighted to find a mention of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. In noting that the song is the fight song for the University of Tennessee, I believe the it provides the only mention of the university in the deck, which is a bit odd given its local dominance and the fact that a portion of campus is easily viewed from the deck. I may have missed a more prominent mention.
There are completed murals and murals underway along the interior walls. Austin-East High School students did one of the murals. While it’s great to get students involved in the project, it would have been interesting to see what professional muralists might have chosen to portray. One of the most universally lauded projects completed by Visit Knoxville since their re-structuring was the mural on the side of their building.
The views, of course, haven’t changed. It’s still a great spot for surveying the length of the World’s Fair Park or for a look into Fort Sanders. It features good views of Sharp’s Ridge, the Tennessee River, Church Street United Methodist and much of the downtown skyline.
The flooring and ceiling tiles were replaced and modern touches added. Flatscreen televisions give additional information. QR codes take visitors to helpful sites and an ipad sign-in system has been installed. Everyone around me seemed to be abuzz about something and having a good time.
Is the whole structure a little cheesy? Maybe, though I think it’s pretty cool that as we walk around the city or as visitor’s approach via the Interstate, we can all look up and see a big golden ball. Not many places can say that, for better or worse. It’s a good spot to take guests (open 9:00 AM – 10:00 PM), maybe followed by a visit to the Icon Ultra Lounge for a cocktail or an excellent meal. Space is also available for events.