Amusement mecca Myrtle Beach, S.C., offers deep discounts
By Laura Bly, USA TODAY
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — When times were flush, the mom-and-pop motels, condos and vacation rentals strung along a 60-mile stretch of Atlantic coast dubbed the Grand Strand would deliver the same message to footloose August travelers: "Sorry, No Vacancy."
This summer, a sign at Myrtle Beach's Sea Hawk motel reflects a new reality: "We Appreciate And Need Your Business."
And, for the most part, tourist-dependent establishments in one of the South's most popular bargain beach and golf destinations are getting it.
Sure, they've had to slash room rates, boost free concerts and golf rounds, and offer more coupon specials. Yes, cost-conscious vacationers are subbing all-you-can-eat seafood buffets for groceries from Piggly Wiggly, or cutting their stays from one or two weeks to a long weekend. What's more, many Myrtle Beach merchants are still grousing about lost sales after the city voted to crack down on the hundreds of thousands of bikers who roar through on rallies each May.
But the combination of this year's cheaper gas (at least 90% of the area's 14 to 15 million annual visitors drive to get here) and plentiful discounts appears to be paying off. Myrtle Beach had its busiest Fourth of July weekend in four years and hopes for a strong Labor Day and fall golf season as well, despite a 1% increase in the city sales tax that will go toward increased tourism promotion.
At the oceanfront Myrtle Beach State Park, campsites ($29.80-$33.16 a day) are sold out every weekend, and visitor numbers are up considerably from last year. "People tell me they're giving the kids a choice: 'Do you want to stay in a motel and eat out for two days, or camp for a week and cook our own hot dogs?' " says entrance gate staffer Gina Daniels. "It's an easy decision."
ABC commentator Cokie Roberts famously chastized then-candididate Barack Obama for vacationing in "foreign, exotic" Hawaii instead of Myrtle Beach last year, and the Grand Strand's centerpiece is famous for garish billboards, pancake parlors and beachwear emporiums touting 79-cent shark tooth necklaces, free hermit crabs and NOTHING OVER $5.99 (fine print: "special sections only").
Despite a plethora of "gentleman's clubs" — now-defunct Hooters Air was based here, and area golf courses are a big draw for buddy trips — families and couples are mainstays of the Myrtle Beach vacation scene. So are values, from mini-golf courses touting all-day play for $10 a person to free shagging lessons at Fat Harold's Beach Club in neighboring North Myrtle Beach. (No, shagging has nothing to do with the area's strip joints or hitting practice balls: It refers to a popular 1940s step that is now the official state dance.)
One of Myrtle Beach's signature attractions, a beachfront amusement park called The Pavilion, was torn down three years ago — leaving an empty lot and recriminations from nostalgic regulars. But fans of coasters and cotton candy still have options.
At Family Kingdom, an all-day pass to rides like the Swamp Fox coaster and the biggest Ferris wheel in the state costs $23.50. This month, North Myrtle Beach opened the family-friendly O.D. Pavilion and Amusement Park overlooking the Atlantic on the main drag, Ocean Drive.
And Myrtle Beach's former Hard Rock Park, which went bankrupt a few months after its debut last year, reopened this spring as Freestyle Music Park with a softer image, more kid-oriented rides and sharply lower prices. Now, admission is as low as two for $19.99, vs. $50 per person during the park's former incarnation.
"This is a big discount market," says operations director Brian Blanchard, "and everybody is looking for deals."
That includes Bostonian John Gaston-Perry, who has driven down to join extended family for a week at a time-share. Out early on a steamy Saturday morning, he's bragging about bargains between practice swings at a Myrtle Beach driving range. He is impressed with a new weeknight offer at the nearby Tupelo Bay executive course — two play for the price of one, including a cart — and even happier with the used set of eight Mizuno irons he picked up for a song at a local golf store.
For his wife, Jeannine, low prices are merely a bonus after a cold and rainy New England summer. "I'm here for the beach," she says. "And the weather."
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Seven commercial and charter airlines fly to Myrtle Beach International Airport, midway along the Grand Strand that extends from Little River, S.C., to Georgetown, S.C.
Where to stay: Most lodgings are independently owned, from small motels to towering oceanfront condos. Through Sept. 26, Sea Mist Oceanfront Resort (800-793- 6507, myrtlebeachbestbuy.com) offers two-night packages starting at $212 per room that include water park, miniature golf and amusement park passes. Through Oct. 31, Oceana Resorts (866-469-7853, oceanaresorts.com) offers 50% discounts at several properties.Through September, select weekly vacation rentals are 30% to 55% off at Elliot Beach Rentals (888-669-7853, northmyrtlebeachtravel.com).
Where to eat: Seafood dominates, from all-you-can-eat buffets to the Sea Captain's House, a 1930 beach cottage famous for its she-crab soup. At the southern end of the Grand Strand, the Marsh Walk at Murrells Inlet offers a string of restaurants with just-off-the-boat fare.
What to do: With more than 50 area courses, Myrtle Beach is the self-proclaimed Mini-Golf Capital of the World (the Masters National ProMiniGolf Championship is held here in October). Regulation golfers can tee off from more than 100 courses; check Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday (800-845-4653 or golfholiday.com) for packages and info.
Live entertainment includes The Carolina Opry (800-843-6779 or thecarolinaopry.com), Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede (800-433-4401 or dixiestampede.com) and Alabama Theatre (800-342-2262 or alabama-theatre.com).
Information: Myrtle Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (800-356-3016, visitmyrtlebeach.com).