Graceland is Disney World without the rides and Magic Kingdom.
Opened to the public in 1982, Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee quickly became a national attraction—and looks like it hasn’t been touched since its founding days. Last summer, out of a gnawing fascination and a desire for a good laugh, my father and I embarked on the pilgrimage that all devoted Presley fans must make once in their lifetime.
To reach America’s mecca, we drove along Route 61, cutting through thick corn fields and thin towns consisting of six homes. Thirty miles from our destination, I thought we had arrived; we drove by a Rock ‘n’ Roll Cafe, Elvis Pawn Shop, and a giant mural of Elvis in his white-sequined jumpsuit, ’70s Pompadour hairdo, and Hollywood Boulevard sunglasses. But it wasn’t until we passed piles of trash discarded from drivers’ windows that we reached a baby blue sign announcing Graceland. We had finally made it.
We pulled into the parking lot and walked over to the ticket booth, where we asked for two $190 Ultimate VIP tour tickets: our all-access passes to everything Elvis that we knew we never wanted nor needed but were about to experience. My dad and I made our way through a broken white gate to the Graceland Visitor Center: three concrete buildings where an array of unimaginable opportunities awaited. Within you will find anything and everything that Elvis’s face could be printed on: from grainy photo opportunities in front of the $25 photo booth with a huge Elvis backdrop to a climb onto Elvis’s private plane and even the Graceland gift shop.
Every item in the gift shop has a five-star rating, or so the Graceland website reports: t-shirts featuring Elvis in karate poses, gold sequin Elvis Christmas hats, and enough garish mugs to overwhelm any coffee shop.
Next up on our visit was Elvis’s own house. While the Ultimate VIP tickets guaranteed us an express pass to skip the lines, there were in fact no lines to skip that day (and presumably every other day), so we walked up the steps to the house with everyone else on our bus. At the door’s entrance, a Graceland staff member threw a pair of headphones at me—and I mean threw—which I reflexively half swatted at and went on to catch. I connected my headphones to the iPad that another staff member sympathetically handed to me (after witnessing my prior panic), and upon clicking the start button, the out-of-place voice of a British gentleman led me through the castle and the life of The King.
Nothing about the organization of the house seemed to make sense: the five sets of stairs, the bit of glitter that covered just about everything, the green shag carpet covering the ceiling, and the glaring clash of perhaps the worst interior design decisions from the ’60s and ’70s, including mismatching animal print couches and disco balls hanging overhead. Even the overly dramatic voice of the British tour guide speaking into my too-loud headphones had trouble finding the words to justify the existence of Elvis’s wall of mirrors, Jungle Room, and television room, whose three TVs left me contemplating how, and perhaps more importantly why, they would all be used at once. (The Great Man himself may have been similarly stymied, as he reportedly—on more than one occasion-–discharged one of his several firearms at his TVs).
After spending 20 minutes listening to the faux-British docent and staring too long at Elvis’s seemingly endless family portraits, I declared my tour over and headed to the bathroom. Approaching the sink to wash my hands, I glanced up into a mirror lit by vintage-style Hollywood lights. However, as I stared at my reflection, in a flashing moment I saw Elvis instead of myself: his blue sedated eyes, overly slicked back hair, trademark smirk, and sequined attire that made him so lovable and perhaps even more laughable at the same time. It was at once overwhelming and underwhelming, as though I had descended upon and endured, for almost half of a day of my life, a colossal and fabricated forced smile. It was time to leave Graceland.