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Have a grand ole getaway in Nashville, Tenn.
A short drive away, Nashville is filled with music and family-friendly activities
0712NASHVILLE-Opry Mills
The Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tenn., is home to thousands of plants, many tropical, that grow inside its greenhouse-like atriums. - photo by Tasha Biggers

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Performers aboard the General Jackson Showboat sing "Why Haven't I Heard From You?"

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There's a lot for families to see in Nashville, especially for country music fans.

If you live in Hall County, you can take your crew on an early morning drive and be in the city by noon. From a boat that whisks you down the Cumberland River to the shows on the Grand Ole Opry stage, here's a few things you can do in Music City.

Get a backstage look at Ryman Auditorium

In downtown Nashville, stop by Ryman Auditorium to see the place where the Grand Ole Opry found success.

It's where Minnie Pearl flirted with Roy Acuff and a parade of icons performed what Opry originator George D. Hay called music that was "down-to-earth for the earthy."

Margaret Newton, who has worked at the Ryman for two years, said she grew up with parents who dragged her to see the Opry.

"I saw all the greats, you know, but I really didn't want to," Newton said, adding that now she's thankful that she was able to attend the Opry in its earlier days.

The Opry moved to its new location, the Grand Ole Opry House, in 1974, but the show makes visits to the Ryman in December and January.

"We closed the doors in '74, moved to the new auditorium," Newton said. "Emmylou (Harris) sung the very last song when we left to go to the new auditorium, ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken.'"

You can take a backstage tour of the Ryman and learn about its history and how the building was reopened in 1994.

Pop acts like Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers now perform at the Ryman, and although Newton gets to meet many performers, she said she's rarely star-struck - with the exception of one charming country singer.

"I'll tell you, one time I was taking up tickets at the front door and Brad Paisley came in," Newton said. "He patted me on the arm and he said, ‘Do you want my ticket?' And I did get star struck then."

See country stars at the Grand Ole Opry House

The architecture of the Grand Ole Opry House is like a mixture between a grand church and a humble barn, with gleaming chandeliers hanging from planks of faded wood.

It's a perfect metaphor for some country singers - a bunch of down-home people all gussied up.

Eloise Russo, a tour guide who has worked at the Opry House for 20 years, said it's an honor for a singer to be invited to the Opry.

"They're so happy to be here," Russo said. "It's a great honor to even play on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. Plus, it's a big honor and prestige to be an Opry member."

Another tour guide, Bill Kelly, said the Opry has high expectations for its members.

"When you have a membership, there's a lot expected out of you," Kelly said. "You have to guarantee them 10 shows a year."

When artists retire, it's a different story.

"Garth (Brooks) is retired now," he said. "He comes whenever he feels like it. Dolly Parton, the same thing. She comes when she feels like coming."

Like the Ryman, you can take a tour of the Grand Ole Opry House and go backstage, where you'll get a peek at the stars' dressing rooms and see the view from behind the curtains.

The Opry, which began as and remains a radio show, was born more than 80 years ago.

After a daytime tour, you can check out one of the Opry shows, which are on stage 7 p.m. Fridays and Tuesdays and 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturdays.

You'll see the Opry band, square dancers and various styles of music - bluegrass, folk and country.

"It is a radio show; it is not a concert. So when you come to the Grand Ole Opry, you're going to see them tape and hear commercials," Russo said.

The show is recorded with an audience of as many as 4,400 people.

Dine in tropical gardens of Gaylord Opryland Hotel

You can stay in the backyard of the Grand Ole Opry at Gaylord Opryland Hotel.

The hotel has more than 3,000 rooms and suites, a spa, nightclub and indoor gardens with more than 10,000 different plants.

Even if you don't stay in the Gaylord Opryland, it's worth a visit just to see the gardens flourishing in each atrium.

You can eat Sunday brunch at the Water's Edge Marketplace Buffet Restaurant and watch the indoor river flow by.

Orchids perch on countless trees, and palms jut up to the glass ceiling.

Magnolias spread their branches in the Magnolia atrium, where you might see Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs. Stubbs broadcasts for radio station 650 WSM-AM from the hotel, and passers-by can look through a window and see him or other disc jockeys at the microphone.

Glide through downtown on a showboat

A different way to see downtown Nashville is to hop on the General Jackson Showboat. The boat will take you right through downtown, and you can take in dinner and a show along the way.

Michelle Yandell of Hermitage, Tenn., is a banquet captain on the Gen. Jackson.

Yandell said the showboat, which is 300 feet long, launched in 1985.

"It's actually named after another ship, the original steamboat," Yandell said.

She said a Las Vegas-style show was performed on the boat for a while, but "we've gone back to a country version."

The show, called "Country Music USA," follows the historical dates of the Grand Ole Opry.

"It'll take you to current day with all the country music," Yandell said.

The nightly show on the Gen. Jackson includes a dinner of prime rib with horseradish sauce, garlic mashed potatoes and dessert created by chef Chris Brown.

At Opry Mills, get up close with sting rays

Across from the boarding dock of the showboat is Opry Mills. It's a shopping center, but kids will love one special attraction: The Aquarium Restaurant and adjacent Stingray Reef.

At Aquarium Restaurant, a 200,000-gallon tank sits between the tables and booths and you might get a glimpse of feeding time as workers drop bits of fish for the sharks.

Erin Muldoon, 25, of Nashville, a biologist at the restaurant, said the sharks usually eat about 10 pounds per feeding.

"Since we are in Tennessee, we've got to make our own salt water. So for once a week, we'll take a large chunk of salt and throw it in," Muldoon said.

Across the hall from the restaurant, kids can feed sting rays that are born and raised right there in Opry Mills.

"With the sting rays, we have babies about every five months," Muldoon said. "We have about 40 babies right now."

She said the rays have about two to four babies per pregnancy.

"They're tiny, maybe a little less than a dinner plate," she said. "They're folded up kind of like a burrito. They'll shoot out, unfurl and just take off."

The rays, whose stingers are trimmed, are so tame they almost jump out of the tank looking for a bite.

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