The Wonderfully Weird and Wacky Hot Springs
Not long ago, I watched a 4-ton potato rolling through downtown. Measuring 28 feet, it was one of about 40 entries in the World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade. But this was well before the start of the event and the semi-trailer carrying the spud was just another vehicle on the road, looking for a place to park. It was turning heads and raising eyebrows. For me, it was just another oddball sighting in a town whose quirky character is part of its charm.
Over the years, I’ve seen men in lederhosen and on stilts. I’ve seen burlesque beauties cloaked in feathers and silk. I’ve seen fairies, mermaids and leprechauns, and nearly one hundred Elvis impersonators. I’ve seen Storm Troopers marching through the Convention Center and Batman repelling down the Waters Hotel.
But outrageous antics are nothing new to Hot Springs. Peddlers of the peculiar have been entertaining tourists since they first started coming here in the late 1800s. One of the earliest and most popular attractions was the Ostrich Farm which operated from 1900 through the 1940s with hundreds of ostriches roaming the property, competing in races, and pulling passenger carts. Today, you can still enjoy funky, throwback attractions. You can celebrate our local history in some wacky ways or you can step into an alternate reality with our multi-genre comic-con. If you march to the beat of a different drum, you’ll find your rhythm in Hot Springs. Check out the sections below for ways to enjoy the wonderfully weird and wacky Hot Springs, Arkansas.
While this is the world’s shortest St. Patrick’s Day parade, it’s a huge event with some 30,000 onlookers, celebrity guests and festivities that span multiple days. The parade route runs the length of Bridge Street which measures 98 feet, 11 inches and is said to be World’s Shortest Street in Everyday Use. The parade features colorful floats from local businesses and organizations and dozens of offbeat entries including a group of Irish belly dancers, a pack of Irish Wolfhounds, and the International Order of Irish Elvi (IOIE). Representing Elvis in all forms and fashion, the group has marched in the parade every year since 2005. Celebrity Grand Marshals have included Pauly Shore, Mike Rowe, Bo Derek, John Corbett, Jim Belushi, Kevin Bacon, Alfonso Ribeiro and Ralph “The Karate Kid” Macchio, among others. Official parade starters have included Mountain Man from “Duck Dynasty,” actor Gary Busey, retired professional wrestler Ric Flair, “Napoleon Dynamite” star Jon Heder, and Stephen “tWitch” Boss. In addition to the parade, the event features live music, a pop-up pub, the Arkansas Blarney Stone Kissing Contest and a performance by the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.
Held each summer, this event celebrates the city’s history as a bathing Mecca in a most peculiar way. Named for the prominent downtown businessman who dreamed up the idea, the Running of the Tubs features costumed teams racing customized bathtubs on wheels through downtown Hot Springs. The race, which also includes a special heat between the Hot Springs Fire and Police Departments, is followed by an awards ceremony that recognizes the most outlandish tubs with awards like Most Spirited, Most Original and Best Overall. As a result, participants come up with some pretty creative themes, donning costumes and tricking out their tubs to look like everything from a pirate ship to the Mystery Machine. Standouts from past years have included the Austin Weirdos’ Willy Wonka tub and the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa’s Yellow Submarine tub. Spectators also get in on the fun, wearing bathrobes and shower caps and arming themselves with water guns and water balloons. All in all, it makes for some silly, wet fun.
A multi-genre comic and pop culture convention presented by Visit Hot Springs, Spa-Con celebrates the inner geek in all of us. A three-day, family-friendly event, it is held each September at the Hot Springs Convention Center with panels, workshops, cosplay contests, video games, vendor booths, celebrity guests, and thousands of costumed attendees. Celebrity guests have included Sheryl Lee and Sherilyn Fenn from David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” Shannon Purser from “Stranger Things,” Nichelle Nichols from “Star Trek,” Micheal Hogan and Richard Hatch from “Battlestar Galactica,” Sean Maher from the television series “Firefly” and the follow up film “Serenity,” and Pam Grier, who, in addition to numerous film roles, starred in the science fiction television series “Smallville.” Butch Patrick, who played Eddie Munster in the classic 1960s sitcom “The Munsters,” made a guest appearance in 2018, along with the Munster Koach, the family car that appeared in the series. Other vehicles on display have included a DeLorean, the time-traveling car from “Back to the Future,” the Batmobile, Herbie the Lovebug, and Ecto-1 from “Ghostbusters.”
For more wacky wheels, make plans to visit Hot Springs during the Hot Water Hills Music & Arts Festival, held each October in Hill Wheatley Plaza. In addition to cutting-edge, live music and artist booths, the event now features a collection of “art cars” that are wildly decorated with toys and knicknackery of all sorts. The festival is presented by Low Key Arts, a nonprofit arts organization that brings original, forward-thinking and independent music and art to Hot Springs. Its programming includes two music festivals, a short film festival, a filmmaking workshop, and Arkansas’ only solar-powered community radio station, KUHS 102.5 FM.
In addition numerous events, Hot Springs offers year round entertainment opportunities including some out-of-the-ordinary attractions. Master illusionist Maxwell Blade is best known for big production magic shows but his Theatre of Magic, located in the historic Malco Theatre, is also home to one of Hot Springs oddest collections. Maxwell Blade’s Odditorium and Curiosities Museum is tucked away in three dimly lit rooms off the main lobby. The exhibit features over 300 rare and unusual items from around the world. While the main stage pulsates with lights, fog and sound, this side show was eerily quiet the morning I toured it. I was completely alone and felt as if something was going to pop out and shout “Boo!” at any moment. Still, I took my time strolling through the rooms, peering into the various jars of formaldehyde and studying the painted faces of the ventriloquist dummies whose eyes seemed to follow me as I walked on.
“We wanted it to be a little bit edgy and creepy,” Blade said of the collection which also includes a pipe made from a human femur, an electric chair, and the mummified remains of mythical creatures such as Marina the Fiji Mermaid.
For more chills and thrills, check out Hot Springs Haunted Tours. During this 60 minute walking tour, you will visit several haunted buildings and learn about the “dark, morbid side of Hot Springs.” If you prefer more lighthearted fun, take a trip to Tiny Town, an interactive miniature city featuring scenes from all across America. Handcrafted and fully animated, it comprises hundreds of moving parts that visitors can operate themselves. The attraction was built over a 40 year period by the late Frank Moshinskie who started working on the project when he was just 13 years old. It is made almost entirely of recycled parts like aluminum foil, toothpicks, tin cans, coat hangers and sawdust. Tiny Town is located in the Whittington Park Historic District not far from one of Hot Springs’ oldest tourist attraction… The Arkansas Alligator Farm and Petting Zoo opened in 1902 and is predated only by the bathhouses. If you’ve always wanted to hold a baby alligator, this is the place to go. The farm has over 130 alligators, including about 30 babies. The babies measure around 12 inches while the adults are up to 10 feet long. Try to schedule your visit during one of the alligator feeding shows. Held at noon on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, you can watch the owners drop chunks of raw meat into the alligators large, gaping mouths. For an extra $5, you can feed some of the smaller alligators meat on a stick. Besides the main attraction, the Alligator Farm is home to a petting zoo with a variety of animals including miniature donkeys, pygmy goats, sheep, emus, a rabbit and tortoises. There are also several caged animals including three types of primates, a mountain lion, an arctic wolf and a timber wolf. Inside is a mini-museum with Native American artifacts, an alligator skull and other aquatic attractions, most notably the “merman,” a dried out, half-fish, half-man creature that has been with the museum since it opened in 1902.
Where to Stay
Beckoning a bygone era of family road trip fun, Dame Fortune’s Motor Court is the perfect place to rest your head after a day of offbeat adventuring. The motel is owned by Andi Roberts and her two sisters, Texas natives who frequented Hot Springs throughout their youth and into adulthood. The sisters purchased the boarded up building in 2016 and gave it a complete overhaul, gutting about 95 percent of the building but maintaining its retro vibe. They restored most of the 1950s tile work in the bathrooms and saved one original, interior wall owing to its unique, horse-laden wallpaper. The rooms are all light, bright and tastefully decorated with mid-century furnishings and just a touch of kitsch. The exterior is that of a classic motor court, creating an atmosphere that is steeped in nostalgia.
Where to Eat
SQZBX (pronounced “squeezbox”) is one of Hot Springs most unique eateries. A family run pizza joint and brewery, it is owned and operated by local musicians and entrepreneurs, Zac Smith and Cheryl Roorda. Prior to entering the restaurant business, the couple performed locally for 14 years as the “Itinerant Locals,” with Smith on tuba and Roorda on accordion. Together they brought to the stage a highly-entertaining brand of polyester-clad polka. With SQZBX, the couple combined their love of music with their passion for pizza – while also paying homage to the building’s former life as a music repair shop. The restaurant is housed in a historic building that the couple painstakingly renovated over a multi-year period, earning them a historic preservation award. It features a vintage tin ceiling and restored decorative and architectural elements incorporated into the design. The bar is made from old pianos and the walls are decorated with accordions and piano parts left behind by the former owner. The restaurant is sandwiched between the community radio station, KUHS, which Smith manages, and the couples’ other business, the Starlite Club of Hot Springs, an equally unique, members-only dive bar, which features a live DJ spinning records, retro gaming nights and stand-up comedy shows.
Hot Springs - Past, Present and Future
To stroll through historic Hot Springs is to immerse oneself in a different time and space – be it the roaring ‘20s or some science-fiction fantasy land. For centuries this has been a place where people have come to escape reality – to rest and rejuvenate, to let their hair down and have fun. Today, that playful spirit lives on as we celebrate our past while looking forward to the future. Escape to Hot Springs and you’ll find a world of fun waiting just for you.
Leslie Fisher is a media professional with a passion for travel and adventure. She has Covered Hot Springs and the surrounding areas for over a decade and enjoys being a tourist in her hometown.