At the Lake of the Ozarks, they’ve put up a Margaritaville where Tan-Tar-A used to be
There’s that great scene in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz where the Band’s Levon Helm is talking about how music flows together in the middle of America. “Bluegrass or country music, you know, if it comes down to that area, and if it mixes there with the rhythm and if it dances, then you’ve got a combination of all those different kinds of music,” Helm says in his marvelous Ozark drawl. “Country, bluegrass, blues music. Show music.”
“A melting pot,” Scorsese says. “And what’s it called?” A languid smile crosses Helm’s face.
“Rock and roll,” he replies.
I was thinking about this the other day while learning about the history of Tan-Tar-A, the first major resort at the Lake of the Ozarks. Opened in 1960 by a St. Louis real estate developer named Burton Duenke (pronounced dinky), the name is said to translate in Blackfoot Indian to “one who moves swiftly.” But the Blackfoot Indians aren’t from anywhere near the Ozarks — their reservation is in Montana. And a few years ago a Duenke heir told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Tan-Tar-A was just the name of a boat Duenke’s wife saw while on vacation. In the Bahamas. Meanwhile, the design motifs at Tan-Tar-A were vaguely Asian, with lots of bamboo and flowers and Chinese lettering. The story behind that is apparently that somebody once told Duenke the land reminded him of northern China.
I choose to view this stew of jumbled and incongruous facts as distinctly Missourian — kind of like how we pronounce the town of Versailles as though the word is plural. An ignorant but somehow beautiful melting pot. Rock and roll.
And now, a new wrinkle in the Tan-Tar-A tale: the resort is no longer called Tan-Tar-A. It is called Margaritaville, and Jimmy Buffett owns the place. (Technically, a hospitality investment firm that licenses the name Margaritaville and various other Buffett brands is the owner.) As of May 1, Tan-Tar-A is now officially on Island Time®.
Like a benign version of Gene Simmons, Jimmy Buffett has spent the last 30-plus years systematically monetizing the beachy, blissed-out lifestyle his 1970s hits — “Margaritville,” “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” and “Fins” — celebrate. Parrotheads, a Boomer-heavy subculture of Buffett enthusiasts, buy up Buffett paraphernalia in astounding numbers. An incomplete list of Buffett’s licensed products includes a SiriusXM channel (Margaritaville Radio); Margaritaville Foods (frozen shrimp, tropical cakes, salad dressing, salsa, and, hell yeah, margarita mix); and Landshark Lager (made by Anheuser-Busch under the name Margaritaville Brewing Company). There is even a Jimmy Buffett retirement community in Florida called Latitude Margaritaville.
Then there are the Margaritaville resorts, of which the former Tan-Tar-A is now one. (There are 12 Margaritavilles in all, with many more in the pipeline.) Tan-Tar-A wasn’t exactly a small, independent business — it was bought by Marriott in the late 1970s and later sold to various investment entities — and over the last few decades the place had begun to show its age. But everybody at the Lake knows Tan-Tar-A. I suspected that its transformation into a Jimmy Buffett theme park would be big news down there. So I texted a friend of mine, a native of the Lake, and asked him.
“Oh yeah, everybody’s talking about it,” he said. “You’re really staying there?”
I was. Well — they invited me.
I’ve been to the Lake probably 30 times in my life. I don’t know — maybe 50 times? If the number was 100, I would not be surprised. I went to college an hour away, and I’ve had several friends whose parents owned houses at the Lake, and as a kid we spent a handful of vacations down there. On one of those vacations, we stayed at Tan-Tar-A. It was in 1996; I was 14. Tan-Tar-A has traditional hotel rooms, but there are also cabins nearby in the woods, and we stayed in one of those. Other things at Tan-Tar-A in 1996, as I remember the experience: a miniature golf course, a video arcade, a bowling alley, and a Sbarro. I had the time of my life.
All that stuff is still there, it turns out, though the Sbarro is now a pizza place called Frank & Lola’s. There’s also an indoor water park (lazy river, some water slides), horseback riding, an 18-hole golf course, wave runner and paddle boat rentals, at least three pools (one with a swim-up bar), and about seven different places you can obtain food or beverages.
At JB’s Boathouse Grill (formerly Black Bear Lodge), I ask our server — a wisecracking boomer named Scott; Tommy Lee Jones with a sunglasses strap — where we should go, what we should do. I mention the Landshark Bar, a lakefront establishment on the property that seems to be hopping on the Friday afternoon we arrive. Scott describes Landshark as having a “party atmosphere,” as opposed to the more subdued vibe at this bar and grill.
“You should see some of the boats that pull up there,” Scott says of the Landshark Bar. “Million dollars, easy.”
Implicit in this comment is what I detect to be mild discomfort with the way the Lake is changing. I pick up on that same attitude later on a scenic boat cruise, when the old-timer captain quotes some of the prices per square foot in the “big rambling mansions” we pass by. And I notice it again at Woody’s, a local watering hole up the road from Margaritaville, where I meet my aforementioned Lake friend, who happens to be back home visiting family this weekend. He hasn’t lived in Missouri for ten years, the Lake for almost 20. I inform him that our Uber driver told us that Billy Ray Cyrus is playing a show that night at a bar called Shady Gators.
“The Lake has gotten so Vegas-y, so party,” he says. “What I can’t figure out is, who owns all these ridiculous boats? They’re everywhere. How are there so many people at the Lake of the Ozarks who can afford a boat that costs $750,000?”
I don’t get it either. But boy are they out there. While dining at Windrose Marker 26 — the resort’s fancy restaurant, it’s somewhat hidden on the property and requires reservations; no cheeseburgers in this paradise, probably on purpose — we sit a table over from a guy whose brand-new seaplane is bobbing out on the dock. On a scenic cruise, we pass multiple massive yachts and sexy cigarette boats. I wave and give them peace signs, and they mostly return the gesture.
The establishment that most embodies the Margaritaville mindset is Landshark Bar, an indoor-outdoor bar sitting on a patch of lakefront that until recently was occupied by a cemetery and a half-dozen sixties-era cabins. Goodbye to all that. Now, it’s where you go to blow out your flip flop, where there’s booze in the blender, where the tourists are covered in oil. Buffett lyrics, painted on slabs of wood, adorn the walls: “Welcome to Fin Land”; “Stranded on a Sand Bar.” This is where you see ladies in swimsuit bottoms that are not quite thongs, but close, and shirtless dudes (and dads) with pre-distressed Cardinals caps casually flexing while gripping Bud Lights (or Landshark Lagers, which taste exactly like Bud Lights).
But there are children here, too; it’s not as rowdy as other Lake bars I’ve been to. It even closes at 10 p.m. I’m told that this is the sleepier side of the Lake; Shady Gators and Horny Toad is where the foam parties and boat races and wet T-shirt contests tend to go down, and that’s pretty far from Margaritaville. (“We’re still very focused on families here,” Ann Walters, a 23-year Tan-Tar-A employee who’s now Margaritaville’s head of sales, tells me. “And we will continue to do a lot of conference business — we have 89,000 square feet of indoor meeting space.”)
If it’s not already clear, I am not even remotely close to the demographic Margaritaville is after. I’m a millennial (an old one, but technically I am one). I have no kids. I live in the city part of a city. I enjoy mocking pretentious restaurants, sure, but that’s also where I prefer to have dinner. I’ve never walked up to a stranger and said, “So, where ya from?”
Also, I basically like my job. This is something I didn’t quite appreciate about Parrothead culture until I got to Margaritaville: The whole experience is built around the notion that everybody’s just trying to get away from their normie nine-to-five lives and pound some dang Landsharks and margs on the sand. The bartenders at the lobby bar wear bowling shirts that say “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” on the back. In our room, the throw pillows are etched with phrases like “Escape to Paradise” and “Changes in Latitude / Changes in Attitude.” These Buffett maxims serve as a kind of zen poetry for Margaritaville’s actual target demographic, which best I can tell is suburban baby boomers who’ve made good money selling medical equipment, owning HVAC repair companies, or pushing paper at Monsanto. Ironically, many of these people could live full-time the getaway fantasy Margaritaville is selling, if only they weren’t so addicted to hoarding our nation’s wealth.
Because Margaritaville is not really geared toward somebody like me, I figured I’d punt on actually critiquing the place (beyond the, uh, 1,500 words I’ve already written) and instead get some input from a real-life Parrothead. So I messaged the Kansas City Parrothead Club on Facebook and a few hours later found myself talking with a guy named Bob Whiteacre.
Bob, a retired banker who turns 70 this year, lives in the north-central Missouri town of Lucerne. But he’s often in the Kansas City area; his girlfriend lives in Basehor. He actually called me from a four-day Parrothead festival at Table Rock Lake.
“Yeah, we’re just settin’ around, listening to some trop-rock, having some adult beverages, doing a little dancing, having a little conversation,” Bob said. “This is the third year we’ve done this down here, and it’s getting bigger every year.”
In August, many of these Parrotheads will descend upon Margaritaville for a similar weekend party. Bob said that, in 1980, when he became the chairman of the Missouri Young Bankers Association, the bankers’ annual conference was held at Tan-Tar-A. One of his first orders of business was to move it to the Four Seasons.
“It had really gone downhill at that point,” Bob said. “The carpet in a lot of the rooms was all ratty. It was no good then.”
But he came down to Margaritaville earlier this year and found it to be to his liking.
“We ate there, had mimosas at the bar, went to the Landshark and the tiki bar nearby and had a few drinks — I thought it was great,” Bob said. “I’ve been to quite a few Margaritavilles around the country — Panama City, Vegas, Key West, they got one in Tulsa — and I think that [the Lake of the Ozarks Margaritaville] is my favorite.”
I have to admit, chatting with Bob, I found myself wondering if I might one day have what it takes to be a Parrothead. He just seemed so nice and happy. Unfortunately, I have a low tolerance for steel drums. But if you’re interested, the KC Parrotheads — there’s about 90 in the club right now, but membership fluctuates due to people retiring and moving south — meet monthly, often at Sharkeez in Lee’s Summit, Bob said. Look ‘em up on Facebook. Or just escape to Margaritaville at your earliest convenience. It’s five o’clock somewhere, baby.
Margaritaville Lake Resort at the Lake of the Ozarks
490 Tan Tar A Drive,
Osage Beach, Missouri
Rooms start at $164; cabins, spa packages, and golf packages also available. More information at margaritavilleresortlakeoftheozarks.com.