When you’re about to putt, the last thing you expect is to be rushed by a lifelike animatronic gorilla. But at least at Virginia’s 18-course Perils of the Lost Jungle, you can’t say you weren’t warned.
It’s the kind of goofy, cheap thrill you can expect from the wackiest of America’s 1,600 mini-golf courses. Computer technology developed by Disney (known as animatronics) has helped to make miniature golf more popular—and more challenging. Ripley’s Old MacDonald’s Farm Mini Golf in Sevierville, TN, features talking animated barnyard animals that cheer, jeer, and even call out “Nice putt” to certain players.
Many indoor mini-golf courses are glow-in-the-dark or black-lit, such as Glowing Greens in Portland, OR, a 10,000-square-foot tropical island/pirate adventure with optional 3-D viewing. Some courses are even quirkier, such as Ahlgrim Acres in the basement of an actual funeral parlor in Palatine, IL, or Lake George, NY’s Around the World in 18 Holes, where each hole represents a country through its famous landmarks (and a few stereotypes).
Miniature golf has its own national day, September 21, and turns up in pop culture: Homer and Marge of The Simpsons conceived Bart in the windmill of a mini-golf course; Adam Sandler refined his short game at a miniature-golf course in Happy Gilmore; and in Jackass 2003, they demolished a mini course with golf carts.
It’s a far cry from the early days of mini-golf, which began in St. Andrews, Scotland, in 1868 because women were not allowed to complete a full back swing; with an 18-hole mini-course, women wouldn’t have to drive the ball. In 1927, a Chattanooga, TN, hotel owner built a mini-golf course on Overlook Mountain, hoping to draw traffic to his property, and three years later, it hosted the National Tom Thumb Open, America’s first mini-golf competition. (These days, Myrtle Beach, SC, attracts serious mini-golfers to an annual championship.)
By the ’50s and ’60s, the local putt-putt was a family destination and a fine place to bring a first date. As DVDs and video games have families increasingly glued to their digital screens, miniature-golf course owners have adapted to the new technology by replacing windmills and clown mouths with interactive challenges and animatronic characters.
So go ahead. Get goofy, bring the family, and test your swing at one of America’s wackiest mini-golf courses.