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On the Road: Myrtle Beach, land to sea to air

Pelicans, in effort to promote tourism, give Ben a big day on the town
May 20, 2016

The Myrtle Beach Pelicans are an anomaly.

Virtually all Minor League teams depend on the support of those who live in the community in which they operate. But the Pelicans -- the Class A Advanced affiliate of the Chicago Cubs -- are located in a market that relies heavily on tourism. Therefore, the team's success is predicated upon drawing out-of-towners to the ballpark during the relatively brief time in which they are vacationing in South Carolina's most well-known coastal locale.

On May 6, four days before I visited the Pelicans, the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce unveiled its "Grand Strand 2020" initiative. In a nut (or conch) shell, the chamber's goal is to attract 20 million tourists annually to Myrtle Beach by the year 2020 (the current number is approximately 17 million).

As Pelicans president Andy Milovich told me, one of the ways this goal can be achieved is by attracting tourists from further afield. This was one of the reasons the Pelicans were thrilled to sign on as a Chicago Cubs affiliate before the 2015 season; Cubs fans travel well, and now have an excellent reason to journey from the Midwest for a Myrtle Beach vacation.

To a certain extent, Myrtle Beach's myriad tourist attractions are in direct competition with the Pelicans; all are vying for the traveler's entertainment dollar. But the team operates with a "rising tide lifts all ships" philosophy and seeks to do its part to preach the Myrtle Beach gospel to Americans nationwide. To this end, when I was in town, they asked me to arrive at the ballpark some eight hours before that evening's ballgame. The goal, as Milovich put it, was to make sure I got "the full Myrtle Beach experience."

I obliged.

The dinosaur-riding individuals pictured in the above photo served as my tour guides for the afternoon. Pelicans community relations assistant Hunter Horenstein is on the left, while marketing and community development assistant Jeffrey Draluck is on the right. Hunter and Jeffrey are friends.

Inanimate replications of extinct creatures are one of many attractions at "Broadway on the Beach," the epicenter of Myrtle Beach's tourist economy. The 350-acre complex includes restaurants, bars, theaters, shops, rides, all manner of kitschy souvenir stands and, of course, more. After a BBQ lunch at Sweet Carolina's Lowcountry Grill, I endured an arduous several-second walk to the Dragon's Lair "putt putt" golf course (I grew up referring to "putt putt" as "miniature golf," but when in Rome and to each his own).

The Dragon's Lair is one of some 50 putt-putt courses in Myrtle Beach. We opted to play the "Viking" course, lining up our shots on nautical pillage-themed holes as dramatic music (call it Game of Thrones-lite) thundered over the PA. We only had time to play five holes; I completed all five with two strokes apiece en route to trouncing my overmatched yet unfailingly sportsmanlike hosts.

From the Dragon's Lair it was a proverbial hop, skip and a jump to Ripley's Aquarium, which, believe it or not, is home to a large array of marine life.

The "Planet Jellies" exhibit, rife with spineless bioluminescence, was a highlight. But the "Dangerous Cove" is the true standout, as it felt as dangerous as a moving sidewalk-enabled aquarium attraction can be. As visitors glide through a tunnel, they find themselves in disconcertingly close proximity to large sharks.

"YOU CAN ALMOST TOUCH THEM," reads the promotional text on the aquarium website. True, but you can also never touch them. It's a paradox.

But if touching is your thing -- it is mine -- then please note that Ripley's Aquarium offers many opportunities to do so.

Hunter and Jeffrey, loyal and conscientious tour guides that they were, then drove me to the Myrtle Beach SkyWheel.

This Ferris wheel, gargantuan at 187 feet, offers views of the beaches and coastline as well as Myrtle Beach proper.

Riding the SkyWheel is a great way to put one's larger surroundings in perspective, but it can make you feel kinda alone if your tour guides don't ride along with you.

The SkyWheel was a mere aerial warm-up, however. After making a brief stop at the iconic Gay Dolphin Gift Cove, it was on to Helicopter Adventures so that we could embark on a helicopter adventure. Hunter and Jeffrey joined me in the air this time, but, magnanimously as ever, they allowed me to ride shotgun alongside our pilot. (I want to say our pilot's name was Tim, but I had to leave my notebook behind in a locker and thus this detail has been lost to the annals of time.)

We weren't on just any helicopter adventure, however. We were on the "Grand Adventure," the longest of the seven ride packages that Helicopter Adventures had available (because when a traveling Minor League Baseball writer visits town, no expense should be spared). This 42-mile jaunt -- over beaches, golf courses, waterways and increasingly expensive-looking housing developments -- took us to the brink of North Carolina before we turned back around toward Myrtle Beach. On the return trip, we got a good view of the youth tournament complex operated by Ripken Baseball.

And thus concluded a whirlwind afternoon in Myrtle Beach, made all the more enjoyable thanks to the endless good cheer of my tour guides. At that evening's Pelicans game -- that'll be covered in an upcoming Ben's Biz Blog post -- Hunter and Jeffrey were back and brighter than ever.

And they still need a nickname.

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.