One writer visits the Pigeon Forge, Tennessee museum dedicated to the National Enquirer's salacious tabloid reporting. Here's her story of what's the "Farewell to Princess Diana" experience is like.
Rumors of the Princess Diana death ride have been greatly exaggerated.
In fact, as I stared at the small kiosk, maybe 3 feet by 3 feet wide, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. This is certainly not how I anticipated feeling after embarking on a four-hour road trip from Nashville to Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Disgusted, superior, shocked maybe. But not disappointed.
I first heard of what was being hyped as a death attraction of Diana’s last moments in a Daily Beast piece covering the opening of National Enquirer Live. There were intimations of a virtual-reality enhanced experience. It sounded gaudy, salacious, and in poor taste — the quote that made the story go viral was an investor in the museum saying, “It’s definitely not in poor taste.” I had to see it. And, because I wanted to go into the experience totally fresh, other than reading her pre-opening interview in the Daily Beast, I had no idea what to expect.
Almost a week later, I’m still struggling to come to terms with what I saw.
The museum itself, if you want to call it that (and the very nice people who work there do call it that) is located on the Parkway, the main drag of the formerly isolated, unknown Pigeon Forge. Thanks, in large part, to native daughter Dolly Parton and her eponymous Dollywood, it has transformed into a major tourist destination. National Enquirer Live is just one of several attractions that straddle the line between museum and spectacle. It's among the newer structures, with cartoonish proportions, colors, and designs, which make older establishments, like Dolly’s own Stampede (a "dinner attraction," formerly named a more explicitly pro-Confederate Dixie Stampede), look downright drab by comparison. Across from National Enquirer Live, for example, is the Titanic Museum Attraction, which includes a replica of the Titanic ballroom. WonderWorks, a sort of science museum slash attraction, looks like a mansion that has been turned completely upside down. Visitors enter through a door in the “roof.”
Which is to say the edifice of National Enquirer Live, giant hands holding a giant camera you walk through the lens of to enter, beneath a crashing clock tower (Big Ben?), feels right at home. Once inside, a very nice woman (and really, I cannot overemphasize how nice everyone who works there is) told my friend and me we had to get the VIP ticket for $27, which includes pictures at various photobooths. She guided us through downloading a free app that included augmented reality covers of the magazine, as well as a feature that allowed us to find and collect famous pets. If you’re confused by why an app about a tabloid attraction would allow you to collect pets, you’re beginning to get a sense of the weirdly contradictory journey I was about to embark on.
Per their own literature, and the app, which I still have on my phone, National Enquirer Live “celebrates over half a century of… sensational journalism.” And while the through line in each exhibit is popular tabloid fodder, from Princess Di to Michael Jackson, to Bigfoot, exactly what is going on beyond that seems to shift. Sometimes it’s a “behind the headlines” video where longtime Enquirer employees recount real reporting they’ve done. Whether this is above board (contacting former classmates of John Lennon’s killer) to just plain gross (bribing a cousin of Elvis to take a picture of the singer at his closed-door funeral) goes uncommented on.
When we entered the first room, an employee told me “Don’t miss Kimberly Breaks The Internet,” which was the first photobooth opportunity. It is, predictably, an attempt to replicate Kim Kardashian’s iconic Paper magazine cover, while carefully avoiding using her actual name or likeness. What this had to do with the Enquirer at all is unclear. Similarly, there was a “seven degrees of separation” game, and a chance to electronically place your “handprints” on a “walk of fame” that is just a computer-generated image projected on the floor.
After the celebrities and JFK assassination theories, you arrive in the Bigfoot room that is meant to be “historical” in nature and not reflect the Enquirer’s current editorial practices. Here, you enter a faux cabin complete with an outhouse and what, presumably, could be a full-sized Bigfoot to pose with. A true crime room shows various representations of famous murders, like Scott Peterson’s boat, including a “body” wrapped in a blue tarp (ostensibly that of his murdered wife, Lacey Peterson); a bunch of fake pageant trophies accompany JonBenet Ramsey wall text.
Then we entered the Royals room.
After all that preceded it, I may have no longer been expecting a theme park experience as promised by the Daily Beast, but I was expecting more than what I got.
Which was a mostly empty, yellow room simply labeled as “The Royals Presented By National Enquirer Live.” The first thing you see is the booth titled “Princess Di: Farewell To The People’s Princess.” Right before we walked in, we could see an employee touching up the paint; there were wet paint signs hanging when we walked in.
The death experience was, itself, a more boring version of a local attraction I had visited on countless field trips as a child: Battles for Chattanooga (formerly “the Confederama,” but Dolly Parton doesn’t corner the market on having to rename unpalatably pro-Confederate attractions). At the Battles For Chattanooga, when I managed to stay awake, I would see how the Union and Confederate armies fought over several weeks, and how the Confederacy would eventually retreat into Georgia and lose its last stronghold in Tennessee. This was done by a glowing map that was originally designed in the ‘50s and revamped in the ‘90s, with lights, sound, and video. I only bring this up at all to say that unfortunately, Farewell to the People’s Princess has nothing on Battles for Chattanooga. A map that has bored generations of school children is way more interesting than the retelling of one of the most famous deaths of one of the most prominent and beloved people in the world.
Instead, in the much-hyped "Farewell," you get a small, plastic map of the area of Paris where she died. After you press a button, the map “comes to life” by adding green to the trees and blue to the river. Cars are projected onto the road as a voice narrates the last moments of Diana’s life. It’s a fairly clinical and brief rundown of the crash that killed Diana and Dodi Fayed. They drove into a tunnel and did not drive out is pretty much the narrative arc. Details like which pylon they hit (number 13) and the exact time (12:19 a.m.) keep it from feeling salacious and more like a dull recitation of facts. As the lights fade, returning the diorama to all white, the English-accented voice presents you with a series of questions:
Was this just a tragic accident? Was Diana pregnant? Did the queen want her dead? Was there a cover-up? Did she fake her own death? If you just ask a lot of questions and never make statements do you skirt all legal liability?
The rest of the room included the following: a quiz about the Queen and what she owns, a Game of Thrones-style interactive family tree that lets you know how many people would have to die for a certain royal to be crowned queen or king, another interactive screen that allows you to age various royals to their present-day appearances and back again using a slider, and a touch-screen “closet” that lets you learn about select royals via their wardrobes. (Harry likes desert boots!)
After oversized Bigfoot, a hall of celebrity portraits and professional impersonators — including Dolly Parton and Kim Jong Un — that chatted with one another, and an animatronic Michael Jackson that turned its head to unexpectedly reveal Thriller-style yellow eyes, all of this felt like a letdown. That’s all Diana gets?! I wondered, forgetting for a minute that I had expected to hate whatever the death experience was. My initial reaction was, “She deserves more!” More than Bigfoot, at least.
It’s unclear if the relatively understated Royals room is meant to be understated because it’s also meant to be respectful. It offers some fun facts (Eugenie was the only royal whose baptism was televised. The Queen owns all the swans in the Thames.), a little liability-free speculating, and no garish death portraits or replicas. An interactive cover briefly summarized how affected Americans were by Diana’s death, and was quick to note that the National Enquirer was not part of the high-speed chase the night she died.
Then, off to the side, you're free to flip through various National Enquirer headlines through the years of their Royals coverage. While the rest of the room feels like a fairly benign celebration of hereditary monarchy, the covers reveal the dark core of National Enquirer’s coverage of them. Headlines were cruel, speculative, and often the result of harassment and stalking. One spread included shots of Diana in private moments, wearing a very conservative one-piece bathing suit. The captions referred to her as “her royal thighness.” Another, from the nineties, claims Charles is going to give up the throne to marry Camilla.
It would have been easy to miss this in a room of more flashy exhibits that amounted, mostly, to fun royal trivia. (Did you know the Queen owns all the dolphins in English waters?) But once I flipped through years of tabloid coverage of the royals, the tension of the entire experience was impossible to ignore. It was a mostly light-hearted, fun look at the Windsors, from a publication that had tormented them, nestled among rooms of similarly exploited public figures. And the royal who's celebrated most of all? Princess Diana, who spent the vast majority of her adult life, not just the night she died, hounded by paparazzi.
National Enquirer Live doesn’t seem particularly concerned with defending or explaining its editorial practices, except to continually, implicity lay the blame at the feet of their readers. Audio in the app and wall text drives home the point several times throughout: They were merely giving the public what they wanted. The Enquirer torments these people because we can’t look away, and we can’t look away because we are given the spectacle, creating a sort of tabloid ouroboros.
Inside the Royals room, I felt like I was conversing with my own darkest urges.
The National Enquirer Live experience celebrates the publication, of course, but it also feeds our own appetite for the topics it covers: fame, crime, and conspiracy. That millions loved Diana is not questioned. That millions also craved and felt entitled to glimpses into her life — which ultimately cost her her life — is also not questioned. Instead the implied takeaway: You can care about someone deeply, and also not really care about them at all.
It doesn’t take a lot of distance to know how exploitative it all is. But even as I grappled with my own ambivalence about it, I was also having fun. Tabloid gossip spread out over several rooms with photo booths and video and fun facts and wild speculation is fun.
It was fun to play Path To The Throne, even though it was literally plotting mass death events to see what kind of catastrophe would have to strike an actual living family for each person in it to become monarch. (Sorry, Eugenie, you will never rule.) It was fun to crawl into the alien ball pit and laugh at conspiracy theories. Tabloids are experts into tapping into what intrigues and fascinates us. To say I didn’t enjoy it reminds me of people who sniff about hating fast food; it’s chemically designed to be irresistible.
As we exited into the parking lot, a woman walking in stopped me and my friend and said, “Is it worth it?” I shrugged, because I didn’t know what to say. Is it worth the admission fee? Is it worth the cost to human lives, even those who owe their livelihood to public fascination? Is it worth thinking about our own role in this billion-dollar industry? Just like the various questions posed throughout our journey about Bigfoot, JFK, and Princess Di, National Enquirer Live will give you no answers. I left with no moral high ground. I can only say for sure that, yes, it is worth getting the deluxe ticket package. It’s only $2 more, and you’ll get a fake National Enquirer cover with your own face on it to print, post, or just save on your camera roll. After immersing yourself in a tabloid, it only seems appropriate punishment that, at the end, you become a part of it, too.