VIDEO: Doing Wall Drug

Posted In: Destinations, Disney, Video

South Dakota’s Wall Drug evokes competing emotions. My feelings on the subject are divided. As the Persuaders once sang, it’s a thin line between love and hate. Or to paraphrase Dickens: it is the best of tourist traps; it is the worst of tourist traps.

Let’s start by hearing from the prosecution. The argument for hating Wall Drug? It litters the West with obnoxious billboards touting “free ice water” and an assortment of silly kitsch (like free Tyrannosaurus Rex viewings). Those thousands of intentionally tacky billboards help to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. One reason you stop at Wall Drug is because you’ve seen all those billboards. You also stop because everybody else stops there. Then you wonder why you stopped.

Wall Drug is sort of like a Kardashian – it’s famous for being famous, leading one to question whether it has any merit whatsoever. You may feel a little dirty when you stop at Wall Drug, kind of like you feel if you watch more than 3 seconds of a Kardashian reality TV show. You feel like a lemming running brainlessly towards “free ice water” with all the other lemmings, err tourists. Is free ice water really worth degrading yourself in this fashion? Have you no self-respect? The prosecution rests.

Okay, that’s enough negativity – let’s hear from the defense and focus on the positive. The argument for loving Wall Drug? The story of Wall Drug is an impressive example of creative marketing and entrepreneurial bootstrapping. Its founders built a “must see” road stop destination in the middle of Nowhere, South Dakota.

Sure, they blanketed the sparse South Dakota landscape with billboards. Who cares? At least they gave us something to see other than grass to the horizon. (Most of South Dakota is grass, and not of the smoking kind.)

At peak season, Wall Drug employs more than 200 people who come from around the world. It is the largest employer in the small town of Wall, and seems like a happy place to work. We spoke with some employees who have returned for several seasons to work at Wall Drug. It entertains more than 20,000 visitors a day, who stay on average more than two hours a visit. It must be doing something right.

Is Wall Drug tacky? Yes. Again, who cares? At least Wall Drug has a sense of humor. In a world dominated by stale cookie cutter strip malls and Walmart parking lots, Wall Drug is a refreshing blast of originality. It’s more than a tourist trap. It’s a destination to be checked off your bucket list (although I probably wouldn’t skip Italy to vacation in Wall instead).

Wall Drug is like that crazy house in California, the one with multiple additions that make little sense. I’m sure it all started in the 1930s as a quaint little drug store. Now there are doors and hallways to nowhere, and that’s part of its appeal. Why not have a giant jackelope and a T-Rex? As someone once said, you’ll never go broke underestimating the taste of the American public.

As the decades have passed, more and more kitsch has found its way to Wall Drug, along with a chapel (?!) and candy store and water features. Now it’s a sprawling complex of touristy treats, most of which are as intellectually stimulating as fried Oreos are nutritious.

But hey, the stuffed animals and mediocre animatronics give you a nice break from driving across South Dakota. Kids love exploring Wall Drug. It’s kind of like a Disney attraction assembled at random on a 3rd World budget. There are singing gorillas and candy apples and nickel coffee – what’s not to like? This is a roadtrip destination that’s as viable as a giant ball of twine or two-headed deer. Sure, it’s mostly a waste of time, but that’s the point. You will be happy to waste two hours of your life here.

I have actually driven across South Dakota several times, on my way to and from Yellowstone National Park. The first few times, I refused to stop at Wall Drug. You have no idea what a gargantuan act of willpower is required to drive hours across South Dakota and then skip the Wall Drug exit.

But going to South Dakota and skipping Wall Drug is kind of like going to Paris and blowing off the Eiffel Tower. I’m glad that I finally succumbed to temptation and ventured inside Wall Drug.

Don’t be a snob. Love is the way. Give in to the Dark Side.

Just say “yes” to Wall Drug.

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