The next day we headed back to Memphis and our first stop was Graceland. Surprisingly, the late crooner’s gated estate is not in a fancy area. Just 10 miles from downtown Memphis, it faces a major thoroughfare (Elvis Presley Boulevard) that contains many commercial buildings. The visitors’ admission area is directly across the street from the main gate and a shuttle bus arrives every few minutes to ferry passengers to the other side and up the hill to the house on the 20-acre estate that the “king” bought for $102,500 in 1957.
The stairs to the second floor of Graceland where Elvis died
Elvis originally lived there with his parents, as well as his grandmother, and all four are buried in the Meditation Garden at the side of the house. In 1967 Priscilla moved in after marrying Elvis and she lived at the house until she separated from him in late 1972. They divorced the following year. Their daughter, Lisa Marie, also lived in the house until her parents’ separation when her mother moved with her to Los Angeles. Elvis died in the upstairs bathroom of the house in 1977.
There are three tour options and all include the use of a headset which gives you an audio-guided tour of the house and its surrounding grounds. The cost for the house tour alone is $28. For $5 extra, an upgraded “Platinum” tour adds a self-guided tour of four other displays back at the main admission area: two of Elvis’ private jets; his auto collection; a huge assortment of his jumpsuits; and “Private Presley” which relates to his tour of duty in the U.S. Army. At $69, the priciest option is a “VIP” tour that includes all of the “Platinum” options, plus some extra Elvis memorabilia; front of the line access for bus boarding (there was a 20-minute wait when we went); unlimited all day access; plus a souvenir “keepsake backstage pass.”
We opted for the “Platinum” tour and it was a very interesting few hours. For us, the first impression we got was that, surprisingly, the house was not very big. The official square footage is slightly more than 17,000, but the rooms are not very big. There is an upstairs (which isn’t open to the public), the main floor, a basement (housing a TV room, a bar, and a billiard room) and in the back of the main floor is the famous “Jungle Room” (den).
Our second impression of Graceland was our conclusion that even if you have a lot of money, you don’t necessarily have good taste. Most of the rooms were pretty gaudy looking and not at all attractive. We understood that we were basically in a time capsule dating back to 1977, but we still had to wonder why Elvis, with all of his money, never hired an interior decorator to make the place look more tasteful?
The tour exits at the back of the house and onto the grounds which feature a few more exhibits. There’s a building showcasing many of the King’s gold records, the wedding outfits he and Priscilla wore, plus numerous photos and other clothing. There is also a racquetball building that has been converted into a museum showcasing more of his gold records, awards, and jumpsuits.
The last area on the tour is the Meditation Garden at the side of the house, just a few feet from the swimming pool and patio. Elvis, his parents and his grandmother are all buried here. Elvis, who has an eternal flame at his gravesite, was originally buried at a local cemetery, but due to security issues, he was reburied at Graceland less than two months later.
The gravesite of Elvis, his parents and his grandmother
After boarding the bus and heading back to the main admission area we toured the remainder of the exhibits. I liked seeing Elvis’ cars and planes, while my wife preferred viewing his jumpsuit collection.
After Graceland we headed to downtown Memphis to take a tour of the Gibson Guitar factory. This $10 tour is by appointment only and led by a knowledgeable employee who showed us how a guitar is created from start to finish. We got a very upclose look at the factory’s craftsmanship in action at 16 different work stations and they put out a truly beautiful product.
Part of the tour at the Gibson Guitar Factory
Naturally, my wife and I were familiar with the Gibson name, but we weren’t really that familiar with guitars or their cost. The tour gave us a new respect for the production of a guitar and a walk around the retail store at the factory gave us quite a lot of respect for their cost when we found out that many Gibson guitars sell for about $3,000 and some sell for more than $30,000!
After the guitar factory tour we headed across the street to the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum located in the FedEx Forum sports and entertainment complex (where the NBA Memphis Grizzlies play). This museum, which was developed by the famed Smithsonian Institute, provides a comprehensive Memphis music experience beginning with rural field hands and sharecroppers of the 1930s, through Memphis’ musical heyday in the 70s, to its global musical influence.
Admission is $10 and the museum’s self-guided audio tour features over 300 minutes of information, including more than 100 songs. There are seven galleries featuring three audio visual programs, more than 30 instruments, 40 costumes and other musical treasures.
After our enjoyable visit to the museum I mentioned to my wife that I thought it was time to see the ducks walk at The Peabody and her reply was, “what?”
To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what this involved, but I had heard rumors of it for many years. All I knew was that it involved ducks walking through a hotel lobby. So we headed over to The Peabody Hotel and got there around 4:40 p.m., which, it turned out, was very good timing.
I asked the desk clerk, “what time will the ducks be walking?” When he answered, “5 p.m.,” my wife said “I thought you were kidding.” Me? Kid about a duck walk? No way!
The Duck Walk at The Peabody Hotel
With some time to kill we grabbed a table in the main lobby close to the travertine marble fountain and ordered a drink. We then noticed that five ducks were playing in the fountain and we waited for the “walk” to begin. As time went by the crowd got larger and then the “Duckmaster” arrived to announce the upcoming walk. He then roped off the ducks’ walking area and gave a brief history of this tradition, which officially began in 1940.
It turns out that the ducks live in the “Royal Duck Palace” on the hotel’s rooftop and make the trek down each morning at 11 a.m., returning at 5 p.m. To read the history of the duck walk, go to: http://www.peabodymemphis.com/peabody_ducks/index.cfm
The hotel lobby was beautiful and we both agreed that the duck walk was a fun event to witness. There’s no need to buy a drink, as you can just stand in the lobby to watch the walk. However, by getting a table we had a front row seat and our drinks came with a nice assortment of nuts, dried fruit and pretzels. It was definitely a relaxing way to unwind after a whirlwind day.
There were a few other attractions we would have liked to see, but we didn’t have enough time and we’ll try to see them on a future visit. At the top of the list is the National Civil Rights Museum ($12 admission), which is housed in the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Another is the Sun Studio tour ($12 admission) where Elvis recorded his first record; and a third is the Stax Museum of American Soul Music ($12 admission) located at the original site of Stax Records.
Later that night we visited Beale Street which is promoted as the “home of the Blues and the birthplace of Rock and Roll.” It’s the most popular tourist entertainment area in Memphis and covers a three-block area with about 25 shops, bars and restaurants. The main emphasis seems to be on bars and I would compare it somewhat to Bourbon Street in New Orleans, except it’s much cleaner and more wholesome.
Beale Street in Memphis
We tried a local barbecue joint which we both liked a lot and then we went to one of Beale Street’s bars to have a few beers and listen to some blues music. It was a weeknight so there was no cover charge and beers ran $3 each. A reasonable price for a fun evening at the home of the Blues!