American Heartland park
(Mike Allen)

First it was the humidity, then it was exotic animals.

In what could be seen as our state’s latest attempt to mimic Florida this summer, a Branson entertainment company announced plans for a $2 billion dollar theme park and resort in northeast Oklahoma near Vinita and Grand Lake.

If that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to you, you’re not alone. The announcement of the American Heartland Theme Park came a bit out of nowhere, and the governor’s office, which normally likes being front and center on major economic development projects, has been oddly silent on the company’s animated announcement. In his story on the park, Richard Mize of The Oklahoman quoted Hopper Smith, the interim director of the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, who seemed more reactionary than involved.

“We are pleased that American Heartland Theme Park and Resort has taken the first step and chosen Oklahoma to build a world-class entertainment destination,” Smith said. “We look forward to assisting with this project as it develops.”

Will it develop? That seems to be the $2 billion question. A large RV park and cabins are supposed to be built first, opening in 2025. The six-area theme park would follow a year later, according to Mansion Entertainment Group, the bold outfit behind the announcement.

“Mansion Entertainment Group is on the verge of becoming the most powerful entity in family entertainment, with its unparalleled expertise across film, television, animation, music, theatre, and family immersive entertainment experiences,” the company’s homepage proclaims.

Most known for the recently rebranded Mansion Theatre for Performing Arts in Branson, Missouri, the company produced a TV special this year, and it is delving into video, audio and animation production in the Missouri area. Regarding one of the company’s recent offshoots, CEO Larry Wilhite says his studios and soundstages possess “new state-of-the-art custom-made equipment exclusive to Mansion Sound,” and that it “is currently not available anywhere else in the world.”

National media, who have widely reported on the American Heartland Theme Park story, seem a bit incredulous, and you can’t blame anyone for raising their eyebrow at the price tag. But for all of the surprise, the renderings, the experienced team members, and the location offer some confidence in the concept. (For some insightful commentary from theme-park enthusiasts, watch the video below.)

The other odd thing, at least to someone like me, is the overall theme itself. In a press release, Oklahoma Rep. Rusty Cornwell (R-Vinita) says the American Heartland park will “celebrate the rich cultures and hometown values America has to offer.” How that will translate to a rollercoaster is anyone’s guess at this point, but I’m envisioning a Route 66 ride with plenty of wildlife.

It’s safe to say I’m a bit skeptical about all of this, but if the American Heartland Theme Park were to be built, it would be an enormous economic boon for the state. With developers claiming they will open the first-phase RV park in only two years, I guess we’ll know soon how high this project gets off the ground.

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