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South of the Border is full of high-priced items of dubious quality. But the frugal y2kwhistlestop team spent little in two hours at this capitalistic Disney World:

Ticket for glass elevator ride to top of Sombrero Tower: 50 cents
Souvenir Pedro sticker with moving eyes: 27 cents
One game of San Franciso Rush, a fine video game: $1
Single scoop of cookies and cream ice cream: $1.48
One postcard, circa 1970: 10 cents
Total: $3.35

Ticket to top of Sombrero Tower: 50 cents
Single scoop of chocolate ice cream $1.48
French fries: 89 cents
Total: $2.87
But we weren't immune to Pedro's tempting fare. Had it been summertime, we probably would've hit Pedroland, the amusement park, and Golf of Mexico, the miniature golf course. South of the Border will probably require some post-election analysis.

Daily Dispatch - 02/06/00
In search of plastic trinkets
Taking a stand for tourist traps
Steve Myers
y2kWhistlestop reporter

SOUTH OF THE BORDER, S.C. - I've heard presidential candidates talk about what they'll do for Americans and how they'll protect their rights. But no candidate has taken a strong stand on an issue that just now became important to me: our right to buy crap. This widely ignored issue, which affects nearly every American, came to my attention Sunday after spending several hours at one of the finest tourist traps I've ever seen.

Driving north on Interstate 95 in South Carolina, we saw billboard after billboard proclaiming something called "South of the Border," with little explanation of what it was. When the 200-foot-tall Sombrero Tower appeared on the horizon just before the North Carolina border, I realized why the ads didn't say much: How could anyone summarize this fantastic complex in just a few words? This roadside paradise required a closer look.

South of the Border is not just another mega-truck stop like the infamous I-80 in eastern Iowa, which at night has more residents than many Iowa towns. No, this is the Disney World for people whose cars break down halfway to Florida. I only wished we had more time to spend there, for the two video poker casinos and the Cancun Salun were closed on Sunday. And the motor hotel had two-room executive suites for just $100 a night. "Pedro has water bedz!" declared the sign in the Pleasure Dome, the indoor pool attached to the motel. Pedro, I learned, is the mascot of South of the Border, named after a Mexican who worked at the motel in the early days.

We first went straight to the landmark that attracted us to South of the Border: the enormous metal and concrete tower topped with a sombrero next to the highway. Tickets to the top of the Space Needle-like tower were just 50 cents.

When we stepped onto the landing of the tower-- which was technically the brim of the sombrero -- we beheld the breathtaking view that brings people from all over the country. We could see I-95 in both directions, for miles. Through the chain-link fence, we looked at fields and trees. I was suckered into plugging a quarter into one of the telescopes, through which I saw, up close, trees, the highway and billboards. These views, if not priceless, were worth at least 50 cents.

The ticket counter was cleverly located inside the toy and candy shop. Like children who had just returned from the Sombrero Tower, we couldn't pass up the toy store. Large bins inside the neon-painted store held a wide selection. If you were looking for a $1.50 toy, you had a tough choice between a wooden South of the Border backscratcher and a movable shark, parrot or dinosaur head on a stick. They didn't have Jurassic Park toys, but they did have "Jurassic Period" dinosaurs. They didn't have Beanie Babies, but they did have Slammer bean animals.

There also were Whoopee cushions, South of the Border travel mugs and wind-up mice. But this wasn't a thin collection of tired gifts and toys: not only were plastic pink flamingoes for sale, pink flamingoes with lights inside for were going for just $39.50. Pedro's probably just breaking even on those, I thought.

We picked through the bin of brightly-colored can coolers, which were printed with slogans such as, "No thanks...I'm drinking," "Born to beg," and "I can't be overdrawn. I still have checks!" I like cold beer, but I wasn't sure it was worth $2.50.

I found more of the same in the gift shop. Actually, all the buildings were gift shops, but some were thinly disguised with other themes, such as the Africa store and the T-Shirt store. Near a sign that proclaimed an "End of Summer Sale," I started talking to a woman who was inspecting one of the parrot heads on a stick. During the last 30 years, she said, she has stopped by South of the Border about once every five years. "It doesn't change much," she said, looking around at the bins of merchandise and a couple of dated products in her hands. "I'm buying stupid stuff."

Though the woman at the ticket counter said this was a slow time of year, there wasn't a shortage of people wandering around between the different buildings and looking at souvenirs and painted concrete animals. People have been stopping at roadside attractions like South of the Border and Wall Drug in South Dakota for years. Long before Planet Hollywood and other themed events existed, these way-stations of kitsch offered people a diversion from the monotony of highway driving. They are part of the interstate culture.

Yet we hear nothing from candidates for next Leader of the Free World on how to protect these attractions and encourage more growth in the industry. Instead, it's Internet this and Internet that. No Internet taxes, they proclaim. How about no roadside T-shirt stand taxes? What about a tax incentive to use neon paint? And subsidies to build tourist traps on federal land?

With all this talk about Internet entrepreneurs, let's not forget those who staked out God-forsaken spots along the road to sell T-shirts and ceramic figurines. Alan Schafer, the founder of South of the Border, is a true entrepreneur. He hasn't left anything out of this interstate oasis of capitalism. Foot long hotdogs. T-shirts. Shot glasses. Travel board games. Both Mexico AND Africa stores. Even oversized nude playing cards, circa 1950, which were for sale in the Dirty Old Man's Shop.

Schafer started the South of the Border Beer Depot in 1949. It thrived due to its location just over the border from the dry counties of North Carolina. He built a grill, a Mexico Shop, then a motel -- or a "motor hotel," as this one still is called. Now, South of the Border is a 350-acre complex with a motel, a campground, six restaurants, two truck stops, a bingo hall, two casinos, the largest fireworks store in the region, three gas stations, an amusement park, an advertising company, security and fire departments and its own zip code.

South of the Border now earns over $15 million a year -- the 50-year old evolution of a roadside beer stand. That should be a lesson to prohibitionists. And an inspiration to young capitalists.

The presidential candidates aren't the only ones ignoring the economic and social importance of roadside souvenir shacks. All the media talks about are multimillion-dollar dot com companies. But after Amazon.com takes a dive, people are going to go back to the basics. They're going to demand simplicity and familiarity in their shopping. And how many Internet sites will have metal ashtrays painted with the sweet face of the young Elvis (95 cents)?

Next stop: Dewey Beach, Delaware

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