Theme park to open 1st US attraction at gateway to Smokies

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — In its quest to redefine tourism at the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains, The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has inked a deal to bring an international entertainment company to the United States for the first time.

Tribal Council and international theme park company Puy du Fou have signed a letter of intent to develop a new “spectacular immersive show” as part of a 200-acre development located at Exit 407 south of Interstate 40 on the way to the Smokies.

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Tribal Council approved $75 million on May 4 for phase one development of “The 407: Gateway to Adventure.” Its leaders are seeking world-class attractions to appeal to the record-breaking crowds flocking to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

The 407 partners have estimated the development could attract 6.7 million visitors in the first year after phase one is complete. That’s expected sometime in 2024.

“We are excited to take the first steps towards developing this world-class attraction that will help support our nation economically while creating a new platform to share dimensions of Cherokee history many have never heard,” said Chairman of the Tribal Council Richard French.

Puy du Fou is known worldwide for its immersive experiences inspired by history. The flagship park in France draws more than 2.3 million visitors each year, according to a release. It features shows, period villages and on-site resorts.

The United States is the company’s next frontier for expansion.

Puy du Fou will produce an immersive walk-through show inspired by the journeys of Cherokee Indians who served in World War I. It’s intended to be a “patriotic and moving journey for the entire family,” according to a release.

“This project in Tennessee developed together with the EBCI means a lot for us: it will initiate our presence on the American soil where there are so many great stories to tell,” said Nicolas de Villiers, chairman and artistic director of Puy du Fou. “As lovers of history and cultural roots, we are proud and honored to partner with the EBCI Tribe to achieve this goal.”

Philippe de Villiers, who ran as a nationalist candidate in the 2007 French presidential election, founded the organization in 1978.

TripAdvisor Traveler’s Choice named Puy du Fou the No. 2 amusement park in the world in 2020.

The 407 is owned and operated by Kituwah LLC, a business subsidiary of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The 200-acre development will also be anchored by a 74,000-square-foot Buc-ee’s travel center, the company’s largest to date.

The project is intended to capitalize on the millions of visitors who visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year. The park shattered attendance records last year with more than 14 million visitors.

Knoxville-based OE Experiences represents Kituwah and The 407 in its search for world-class entertainment partners for the property. Now that initial funding is assured more hotels, restaurants, retail and attractions will be announced later this year, a release said.

The tribe also purchased 122 acres on the north side of the interstate. It purchased both properties for about $21 million.

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