There’s hardly anything more American than a road trip, right? Pack yourself and your ride-or-die, and all your various belongings into the car with some extraordinarily unhealthy snacks and some music, and then hit the open road. Head out in any direction and you’ll find the same road trip landmarks–the freaky small town where everything closes at 5pm and there are no streetlights, the interstate adjacent Motel 6s, Cracker Barrels and Circle Ks, the occasional respite of a patch of grass along the highway with enough vending machines to restock you, and finally–the tourist traps and must-see destinations–the ones you know everyone will ask about when you get back.
If your particular road trip takes you straight south til you’ve cleared Shawnee National Forest with a quick diversion through Arkansas and Missouri, you’ll find yourself in Memphis, Tennessee. More blues and ‘cue than fellow tourist town Nashville, this is also where you come if you’re planning to pay your respects to some American royalty. If anyone can wear that crown it’s Elvis Aaron Presley, he of the swinging hips, ostentatious outfits, sonorous voice and peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Memphis loves Elvis, and as it happens, Elvis loved Memphis, having often said there’s no place he’d rather be than home in Memphis on the pastoral estate we all know as Graceland.
Having been to a lot of famous people’s homes, I can’t say I was expecting anything out of the ordinary here–some video, some room to room discussion and anecdotes, and maybe a gift shop with some Elvis merch so you could prove you walked that rock n’ roll hallowed ground. As it turns out, Graceland is a much more rockin’ place than Lincoln’s log cabin or Frank Lloyd Wright’s storied houses, with that stately yet ostentatious flair the man himself had.
It’s an experience–really–from the mansion tour itself and its funky vibe to a slew of add-on experiences that’ll take you through not just the various locations on the verdant midcity estate and some of the most prized belongings of Elvis and his family. The experience also takes you through his car collection, his time in the army, the archives of interesting artifacts related to his life and career, his fashion, those he influenced, his films, his planes, and even the ongoing attempts to capture the Elvis magic in blockbuster hits and Hallmark films alike. Graceland is an expansive property that’s almost like a theme park, sans the coasters and rides of Dollywood which are substituted with a sort of exploded view of every aspect of one of the biggest names to ever enter the American ouevre.
When you first arrive onsite, you’ll be funnelled into one of two video rooms to introduce you to the estate and to Elvis himself (not personally of course, since at least as we’ve read it, he really has left the building). Though Elvis certainly got play in my house growing up, and I’d even seen him in a few films, there were some key things I’d forgotten or not known that primed me well for the visit.
One of the biggest things the short introductory film had me thinking about was just HOW famous Elvis was. Once he was signed in 1954, his music skyrocketed to top of the charts and before long he dominated the airwaves–radio and TV–and filled theaters with fans hoping to see him in his latest starring role in the ’60s, with only a short break in the late ’50s for his stint in the Army. There are truly few even now who’ve known the kind of celebrity that Elvis did, and who could simply afford a beautiful estate in the middle of a city, a few planes and a small army of vehicles as well as a closet full of the most delightfully rhinestoned, tacky jumpsuits one man could ever hope to possess.
From the theater, you’ll take a quick walk over to the bus depot, where you’ll be handed headphones along with an entire iPad with a lanyard for your neck so you can watch the accompanying tour video, narrated by none other than Uncle Jesse himself (so you can have a double hit of nostalgia), John Stamos, whose real life love for the King is so profound that he recently dressed both himself and his son up as Elvis for his son’s first birthday. It’ll also allow you to explore a 360-degree rendering of the room and take snapshots you can then email to yourself later. As I was photographing I opted out of this, but my husband filled me in on some of the more interesting tidbits about the house itself, and the outbuildings we also visited. Still, the headphone/iPad experience is a little isolating, as tech forward and fun as it can be.
And while we’re sure the 10k-plus square foot Colonial Revival was always an interesting home to get a look-see at, Elvis’ touch makes it one of a kind. It’s an estate unlike any other I’d yet been to, with a little bit of the old world glamour most mansions seem to be steeped in and a LOT of rock star flights of fancy, from brilliant turquoise peacock stained glass to mirrored basement TV lounges, jungle-themed sitting rooms with green shag carpet and unsettling monkey statues and harvest brown, goldenrod and orange kitchens that my parents aspired to, stables, a racquetball court with a few arcade games, and of course, a piano just in case, and a few private rooms that only the family still retains the right to visit.
Once you’ve moved on from the mansion to Vernon’s office, the stables, and the racquetball court, you’ll find yourself in more of a straight up museum, which covers everything from his birth in Tupelo, Mississippi, to his life with Priscilla and Lisa Marie on the estate–his beloved horses, some items from his off-limits office, a sort of Vegas style settee from a more ostentatious era of home decoration, his police badge collection and evidence of his charitable work in Memphis and the greater US.
From there, it’s time to move into the memorial garden to pay your respects. Something else I was unaware of in visiting Graceland was that though Elvis wasn’t originally buried on his beloved property, he and his entire family are now laid to rest together just past the pool in a pristine rotunda ensconced in more custom stained glass.
Then you’ll give away your iPad and head back across Elvis Presley Blvd to begin your trek through ALL the other exhibits, if you so choose. Most of this is included in what’s called Elvis Presley’s Memphis Entertainment Complex, which includes the Presley Motors Automobile Museum, Elvis: The Entertainer Career Museum and the Elvis Discovery Exhibits, with a $6 add-on fee giving you access to the Elvis’ Airplanes exhibit.
Visitors should be aware that there are MANY packages available when going to Graceland, but it is possible to just visit the estate and the museum on the grounds rather than going all out, with packages that include every single museum on site and memorabilia including photos, badges, meal vouchers, exclusive VIP exhibits and lounges, photo opps and keepsake backstage passes. A more sensible package which still includes most of what’s onsite is billed as the Elvis Experience, and for a cool $69 includes both the mansion tour and access to the Memphis Complex as well as the planes. Something else you should know is that if you do decide to go whole-hog here, it’ll take you a while. The website cites the average tour time at 3.5 to 4 hours and that seems to be on the low side if you’re not going to run through a few of the buildings or skip them entirely.
In fact, since we were at Graceland, a new exhibit has opened up, covering Elvis’ love of football.
To say the Graceland experience is extensive is to fall short of describing it accurately, as it’s downright granular. I thought this would be its downfall, to be honest; though I find Elvis’ work iconic and enjoy his larger-than-life stage persona, I’m not auditioning to narrate the mansion tour or collecting anything and everything with his face on it, but surprisingly, the exhibits have a pretty universal appeal for those who might not be Elvis diehards. If you’re into classic cars, fashion or film, there’s something for you, and if you’re into interesting moments in American military history such as Elvis’ deployment to Germany, you’ll find yourself enriched.
So, is Graceland over the top? With some 200,000 square feet of exhibit space. Its own high-end hotel, cafes, smokehouses and exhibits on everything Elvis ever had an interest in, it sure is. It’s quintessential American overindulgence–but there’s a time and a place. Just like the man under the bedazzled jumpsuits, there’s substance here too, and perfectly preserved nostalgia that spans decades. Elvis’ story is an American fairytale down to the tragic ending, and while his fame may have been near singular and his wealth extreme for his time, in exploring the estate and various experiences you may just find the reason for the universal appeal.
Each of the Memphis Complex’s museums is well curated and expansive in their own right, with nice touches like a massive wall full of accolades to impress upon visitors the scale of Elvis’ success to the pull out drawers of the archives which include all sorts of little tidbits, up to and including the infamous TV Elvis shot. One of our favorite experiences in this collection was the last we took, Elvis’ Airplanes, as his jets are just as decked out as his house, and really evoke the King’s taste and style, down to the gold flake sink in his private dressing area on board and the TV placed at the foot of his giant on board bed.
We found that we really enjoyed our peek into the life of this American icon, and though the admission price is hefty, even just for the mansion and grounds tour, the sheer amount of things to do and the well-put-together nature of the exhibits make it worth the time and ticket price. If you’re in the mood to hit the road, consider making the trek to Memphis and taking the Graceland tour yourself. For information on all the exhibits, the hotel and events, click here. And, to throw in a last little bit of unsolicited advice, if you want the full Memphis experience, make sure to head to Central BBQ (the one on Central, please) once you’re done for some incredible Memphis ribs--just remember, Midwesterner, smoke is the sauce. Now that we’ve explored Graceland, we have to wonder if Paisley Park can live up to it. Stay tuned for that next time we hit the road.