Published August 16, 2010
Had Elvis not passed away on August 16, 1977, he'd be 75 years old, and who knows? The King might still be greeting fans and signing autographs at the famous wrought iron gates of Graceland. As it is, we'll have to be content with making the pilgrimage to this sprawling compound ten miles from downtown Memphis.
Graceland is the sum of everything an Elvis aficionado could dream of, and a few things nobody could. But long before it became a kingdom of exhibits and attractions drawing both curiosity seekers and diehard fans, it was Elvis' treasured family home where he lived and died and now rests forever. With a vast collection of Elvis memorabilia, there are plenty of oohs and aahs here (and the occasional ouch), but - kitsch aside - it's hard not to be impressed by a phenomenal musical legacy that spanned only 23 years and yet will live forever.
5…Welcome to My World.
While it’s set on 13 acres, Graceland isn't especially overwhelming in terms of what you need to see. You can easily hit the high points in a half-day, depending on your tour package and the time of year - the biggest crowds hit during August’s Elvis Week, his birthday on January 8, and Christmas.
Graceland is divided into two parts. On one side of Elvis Presley Boulevard is Graceland Plaza and Graceland Crossing with parking lot, visitors center, 128-room Heartbreak Hotel, RV park and campground, 14 gift shops, and three themed restaurants serving casual fare including Rockabilly's, a 50's-style diner that features Elvis's favorite peanut butter and banana sandwich. On the other side is Graceland mansion, where shuttles drop off visitors to begin the audio-guided tour of the house, grounds, and gravesite.
Best bet: Spring for the few extra dollars and take the Platinum Tour which gets you into the must-see Automobile Museum (including Elvis' famous 1955 pink Cadillac) and self-guided tour of Elvis' private jets - the Lisa Marie and Hound Dog II - plus special themed exhibits. A pricier Entourage VIP Tour throws in a special VIP-only exhibit at the mansion, front of line mansion access, and additional themed exhibits.
4…That's All Right, Mama.
As far back as high school, Elvis said that when he hit it big he would buy a house for his beloved mother Gladys, a promise he kept in 1957 at age 22 when he gifted his parents with Graceland Mansion.
Although considered lavish in its time, the house is quite modest by today's standards, and has been kept as pretty much a time capsule since Elvis' death. The audio tour begins after you enter the foyer (if Internet blueprints can be believed, you are standing directly under the spot where Elvis' body was found in the upstairs master bath) and continues through the house, the grounds, and the Meditation Garden/gravesite. The music room is where Elvis lay in state between the stained glass panels, and later thousands of fans filed past his casket in the foyer.
The stairs leading to the second floor are as close as you are ever going to get to the King's private quarters, off limits to everybody but the family and selected employees. Next is the formal dining room; the guest room of parents Vernon and Gladys (note the dresses hanging in the closet); a very brown, very 70s kitchen; the basement TV room; the colorful pool room; and of course, the infamous Jungle Room, an island-style hangout complete with waterfall, faux fur, and green shag carpeting on the floor and ceiling.
3… (Everything but) Blue Suede Shoes.
After leaving the house, head to the Trophy Room building (formerly a recreation room) and its fascinating collection of artifacts from Elvis' music, movie, and television career from 1954 to 1971 - everything from early Sun Records to movie wardrobes, scripts, stills, and props.
There are also personal milestones: Elvis' army uniform next to his and Priscilla's wedding outfits, with daughter Lisa Marie's childhood dresser and baby clothes in the corner. The aptly-named Hall of Gold features walls covered with gold and platinum records through the 1980s, and a photograph of an exuberant Elvis holding his first gold record for “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1956. This is also the home of one of Elvis' most famous and recognizable outfits - the gold lamé suit made at manager Colonel Tom Parker's request. With faux diamond cuffs and iridescent shirt, Elvis reportedly never liked it, and wore the complete suit only three times in his career.
2… Pure Gold.
The grounds of Graceland are surprisingly serene and beautifully maintained, given the 600,000 or so visitors that traipse through here annually. As private homes go, only the White House draws more.
You can view father Vernon's private office building, the storage room-turned-shooting gallery (you can still see the bullet holes in the walls), Lisa Marie's swing set, and the kidney-shaped pool with a sign warning visitors not to throw coins. Nearby horses graze under tall trees where Elvis once rode his golden palomino, Rising Sun, now buried in the pasture. The racquetball building that Elvis had built in 1975 was where he spent his last early morning on earth, playing and singing at the piano in the lounge area. The adjacent court displays Elvis' famous jumpsuits and capes from his later years - including the Aztec Sun outfit from his final concert on June 26, 1977 in Indianapolis - and a dazzling floor-to-ceiling wall of Elvis' certified gold and platinum records presented by RCA and the Recording Industry Association of America.
1… Peace in the Valley.
The final stop on the tour before boarding the shuttle back to Graceland Plaza, the Meditation Garden - which Elvis had built in 1965 - is across from the pool and patio area and was originally designed to be a place of quiet retreat. The bodies of Elvis and his mother Gladys were relocated here from Forest Hill Cemetery after a bungled attempt to raid Elvis' grave led the family to get special permission from the city for the reburial.
Visitors walk past the half-circle of graves - parents Gladys and Vernon on one side of Elvis and paternal grandmother Minnie Mae on the other. Especially touching is a commemorative marker for Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis' stillborn twin whose remains are buried in an unmarked grave in Tupelo, Mississippi. A steady stream of fan tributes - flowers, letters, and the ubiquitous teddy bears - come in all year long and are placed on the grave and rotated out as the elements take their toll. During Elvis Week in August, hundreds of tributes line the driveway as an expected 30,000 fans wind their way to the grave site during the candlelight vigil that begins on August 15 and continues to the early morning hours of August 16. Throughout the year, fans can visit the grave for free every morning between 7:30-8:30, before the paying tours begin.
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