By David Rogers. April 10, 2018. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Just turning four years old, “career choice” is probably the furthest thing from Bennett Fairbetter’s mind. Astronaut and cowboy might be among the top choices on any other day, but on a birthday trip to opening day at Tweetsie Railroad, being an engineer who gets to blow the train whistle is probably at the top of his list for occupation alternatives.
Young Fairbetter couldn’t wait to get on the train, dragging his parents along and up the ramp to the nearest passenger car.
The train — that is what brings his biggest smiles. While a few kids held their hands over their ears whenever the whistle blew, Bennett only jumped higher with excitement at the impending first Tweetsie train ride of the season.
It never gets old.
Hundreds of people, almost all parents and grandparents with young boys and girls in tow, lined up for admission tickets on the morning of April 6th, the Fairbetters among them.
“It never gets old,” Tweetsie owner Chris Robbins smiled on Saturday, just inside the High Country’s most popular attraction. “This is my 23rd personal season here at the park, but Tweetsie’s 61st anniversary season, and our 62nd year of operation. Not much has changed over the years in terms of our clientele. It is families with young children. They are looking for a great family experience. They were looking for fun in 1957 and they are looking for fun today. This is an opportunity to do something fun and adventurous with the family.”
Even in an age of smartphones and X-boxes, Robbins noted that especially at the age of a lot of the attraction’s guests, basic fun is a top interest-getter.
“Kids are pretty much the same,” he explained. “They are looking for basic fun. They want to play on the wagons and horses. They want to ride the train. They want to see the cowboys and Indians. That really hasn’t changed since we started doing the Wild West theme in the late 1950s. Of course, we have changed our offerings in terms of rides and shows. A lot of things we have today didn’t exist when we first started. Stuff has been expanded and added over the years, all with the idea of adding more for families to spend the day here.”
People want to be around other people having a good time.
Asked how many folks passed through the turnstiles on any given year and what the economic impact might be for the region, Robbins responded quickly.
“In any given year we average a quarter million people coming through the gate,” he observed. “The most recent economic impact study was done by Appalachian State in 2005. At that time it was between $25 million and $30 million. We average a couple of thousand people per day. If it is rainy, of course, it might be pretty slow. But there are days when the park is packed. It depends on the time of year and the event that might be going on at any particular time…The best possible day is when the parking lot is packed and the park is full. People in general want to be around other people having a good time. And that is when our staff is sharpest, too.
New to Tweetsie in the past year, Robbins shared, was a Christmas event. “In 2017 it was all-consuming. It was a major investment and a major leap forward for Tweetsie. In addition, this year you’ll see some other changes. The Tweetsie Junction area is being totally revamped. Today it is still dirt and gravel out there with some construction signs because we are behind with all of the weather challenges this are has experienced, including snow!”
Robbins noted that Tweetsie employs 26 full-time, year ’round staff members, with about 250 seasonal staff on the payroll. “On any given day, there are about 150-160 people here, working in the park,” said Robbins.
His favorite is the train, but he also likes the ferris wheel and the animals.
“For us,” concluded Robbins, “it never gets old. There is something new happening all of the time. We are always trying to make improvements to the park. That keeps us busy and, really, occupies a lot of our time and energy through the winter, those improvements and planning for the future. It doesn’t get old because we are always thinking of new things and new events to add to the park.
“Do you hear how excited those kids are?” Robbins asked, pointing to a huddle of kids preparing to board the train. “It doesn’t get old for them, so it doesn’t get old for us!”
For Bennett Fairbetter, this is his second year of opening day excitement at Tweetsie.
Spencer Fairbetter, Bennett’s father, explained to Blowing Rock News that he and his wife Amber first bought a house in the Blowing Rock area as a rental for most of the year when they weren’t in town.
“Then we decided we wanted to move here, to raise our kids here,” he explained. “We both grew up in small towns. I grew up in Blowing Rock. We enjoy small town life and wanted to raise our kids in the same environment in which we grew up, enjoying nature, all of the surroundings, and being closer to family. I am an IT geek with a larger company and am able to work remotely.
“And opportunities like this are an important part of why we made this choice,” Fairbetter chuckled. “This is Bennett’s favorite place. Every time we drive by, he wants to stop in. His favorite is the train, but he also likes the ferris wheel and the animals.”