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More Than Meets the Eye

Off the Slopes, Utah Proffers Tremendous Cultural Opportunities

By John Blodgett

Utah has earned a reputation for offering visitors hardcore activities that get the adrenaline going: skiing, rock climbing, and mountain and road biking, among plenty of others. But Utah has a softer side, too. Arts and cultural attractions statewide offer plenty of things to do when heart rates return to normal—and they’re reason alone to come pay a visit as well.

“The line is disappearing between recreation and arts and culture customers, especially in the summer,” says Visit Park City President and CEO Bill Malone, whose seat at the table of the State Board of Tourism Development gives him a statewide perspective.

The slogan “Utah Life Elevated”® gets to the heart of the experience of visiting the State: it isn’t only about what you see, but also what you feel, according to Leigh von der Esch, Managing Director of the Utah Office of Tourism. Increasingly, what visitors are feeling is luxurious. In recent years—in a down economy, von der Esch points out—four major luxury brands have opened lodging facilities in Utah: Montage Deer Valley, The St. Regis Deer Valley, Waldorf Astoria Park City and, near Lake Powell, the Amangiri, one of only two Aman resorts in North America.

The decision to build in Utah is proving a wise one. For example, Montage Deer Valley’s Dan Howard reports that the resort’s average daily rate from December 2010 – April 2011 was thought to be one of the highest in the nation.

With the plethora of new luxury properties, in addition to the award-winning Grand America Hotel and long-time favorite Stein Erickson Lodge, it’s no wonder Luxury Travel named Utah a top destination in 2011.

Roll the Credits

From Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to The World’s Fastest Indian, from Touched by an Angel to High School Musical, Utah has been a star of the big and little screens for years. But few films have generated the excitement that Disney’s John Carter is causing. “It could be the Harry Potter of sci fi—and it was shot in Utah,” says von der Esch.

According to Marshall Moore, Director of the Utah Film Commission, John Carter is the largest-scale production ever shot in Utah. It spent more money in the State than any film in history, and over the course of 45 days in 2010, scenes were shot in six distinctly Utah locations: Lake Powell, Big Water, Delta, Hanksville, Moab and Kanab. The film was recently released in March 2012.

There’s a tangible relationship between filming in Utah and tourism. In 2011, for example, Canyonlands National Park had an 8 percent jump in visitation. “Much of that came from the fact that we had the film 127 Hours come out last year,” says Marian DeLay, Executive Director of the Moab Area Travel Council. “Now everyone wants to come see where Blue John canyon is.”

Close by at Dead Horse State Park, enough people visit where 1991’s Thelma and Louise was filmed that the location where Susan Sarandon’s and Geena Davis’ famous car-over-a-cliff closing scene was wrapped up is now unofficially named “Thelma and Louise Point.” The Utah Film Commission publishes a brochure, Filmed in Utah, with a map to these and other filming sites.

“There is no greater billboard than when a move is made here,” says von der Esch, who adds that DVD releases and the accompanying extra footage and features give a film a “long shelf life” that helps promote the State for years after it leaves the theaters.

Curtain Call

Salt Lake City’s theatrical offerings cover a wide spectrum. The Pioneer Theatre Company stages well-known musicals and plays such as The Producers and Romeo and Juliet; Hale Centre Theatre caters to families with the likes of The Sound of Music; the edgy Salt Lake Acting Company is known for its annual and satirical Saturday’s Voyeur; and the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center’s three venues, including the landmark Capitol Theatre and elegant Abravanel Hall, feature dance, music and plays that run the gamut from world-class to experimental.

The performing arts aren’t relegated just to Utah’s capital city. Cedar City’s esteemed Utah Shakespeare Festival celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2011. Attendance was up 3 percent, says Maria Twitchell, Executive Director of the Cedar City-Brian Head Tourism Bureau, who adds that the festival’s addition of the “mega popular” Les Miserables to its 2012 schedule should bring even more playgoers to the area.

Farther south in Ivins, Tuacahn Amphitheatre had a “phenomenal” year, attracting 196,000 out-of-town guests for a 38 percent increase over 2010, according to Roxie Sherwin, Marketing Director of the St. George Area Convention and Visitor Bureau. Its relationship with Disney is a huge draw. “They showed Little Mermaid and sold out (all 25) performances,” she says.

Musical Interlude

To paraphrase Julie Andrews in her signature role, Utah is alive with the sound of music. Throughout the year and throughout the state, vocalists and musicians take to the stage, often in the great outdoors, to entertain visitors and locals.

In Salt Lake City, the Red Butte Garden Outdoor Concert Series is a hit with performers as well as music fans, who can roll out blankets on the grass and have a picnic (with wine and beer if they choose). Downtown venues such as the Gallivan Center, Brigham Young Historic Park and Liberty Park offer lunchtime and evening outdoor concert series, often free of charge. Abravanel Hall is home to the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera. In the nearby mountains, Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort hosts a Cool Air Concert Series and a Mountain Music Festival.

The Park City area is rife with music in the summertime: The Deer Valley Music Festival (featuring the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera), the Park City Performing Arts Foundation Summer Series, the Park City Chamber Music Festival and the Park City Jazz Festival are included in the lineup, as are free concerts at Canyons and other locations.

The Moab Music Festival brings chamber, jazz and traditional music performances to perhaps the most unique venues in the State: a selection of locations amidst red rock and sandstone, including a Colorado River site accessible by jet boat. The Moab Folk Festival is a treat for folkies, attracting performers from Utah and surrounding states.

Not-so-musty Museums

Two new museums in Salt Lake City have solidified the capital’s status as a cultural attraction and offer multi-generational appeal for families traveling together.

Utah, long known for its landscapes and its natural history, now will be known for the museum that celebrates both. When it moved from one part of the University of Utah campus to another, the Natural History Museum of Utah underwent a stunning transformation.

“We really want people to know this is not your grandmother’s natural history museum,” jokes Executive Director Sarah George. Housed in a copper-clad building with a commanding panoramic view of the Salt Lake Valley, the museum is quite literally the “Trailhead to Utah.” An innovative web-based system, accessible via smartphone, leads visitors on four different “trails” through the museum. Plans are in the works to connect visitors’ experiences inside the museum with other areas of the State, including state and national parks and other museums.

“There’s a whole sense that the museum is your partner in exploration,” says George.

Downtown’s The Leonardo is a showcase for Utah innovation, says spokesperson Lisa Davis, and that’s immediately apparent in the lobby where visitors can interact with a data visualization sculpture via its very own Twitter feed. It’s a place where disciplines such as engineering, chemistry, biology and computer science “come together into something else” to give visitors an experience that is multi-dimensional and, in many instances, hands-on.

“Getting your hands dirty” is important, says Davis, because “doing something changes you.” Among other things, visitors can participate in a gene study run in conjunction with Mario Capecchi, the University of Utah’s Nobel Prize-winning geneticist.