Travel

The Last Blockbuster On Earth Is the Ultimate 90s Immersive Experience

Step inside a virtual time machine.

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

It begins in the parking lot in Bend, Oregon. Almost everyone stops to take a picture under the familiar blue and yellow sign, in front of the QuikDrop return. Hanging on the side is the ubiquitous ripped movie stub logo. You’d know it anywhere.

Inside, I’m stationed in the back of the store against the bright canary yellow wall. Next to me is a collection of Russell Crowe’s costumes: his robe from the movie Cinderella Man, his leather hood from Robin Hood, and the blue vest he wore in Les Misérables

The items were acquired from Crowe’s (spectacular) breakup auction “The Art of Divorce,” by comedian and TV host John Oliver, and gifted to another Blockbuster store in Anchorage, as life support. It didn’t survive. After the store closed in 2018, the items were sent here to Bend, and now make for a pretty good vantage point to watch the tourists stream in. The back wall is usually the first place they stop.

Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury

Due to lack of funds, this Blockbuster was last renovated in 2006. But it’s better this way. It’s frozen in time with popcorn ceilings and yellow walls, gray carpets and low fluorescent lighting. Wire shelving still displays DVD cases, emanating the smell of plastic. Candy and bags of popcorn are for sale by the register. Movie-lovers browse the aisles. There are employee recommendations shelves, and an actual person to seek opinions from instead of an algorithm.

Most people aren’t stopping in to rent movies, though. It’s the memories, triggered by these visceral elements. After the Blockbuster in Western Australia shuttered March 2019, this is now the official last one standing. Celebrities like Ron Howard, Kevin Smith, and Chrissy Teigen have stopped by. You can get a souvenir laminated Blockbuster card that reads “Last Blockbuster Video: Bend, Oregon.” Or better yet, get a real, working one to rent movies. It’s free with a driver’s license and credit and debit card. And some people do, just for the night.

“We have tourists come set up an account, even if they just rent it and take it to their hotel room and return it the next morning,” says manager Sandi Harding. “We have had some really cool people that come in, went to Goodwill, bought a DVD player, took it to their hotel room, watched a movie and re-donate it the next day.”

The Blockbuster is a stop on bus tours, and cab drivers give out souvenir cards to people visiting town. The middle of the store is reserved for locally made merchandise. You can buy hats, t-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, cozies, board games, magnets, cups, baby onesies, and adult-sized ones.

And in the glass display case of Blockbuster trinkets past-next to the Crowe items-there’s a bottle of beer. Called The Last Blockbuster, it was released in 2019 by local brewery 10 Barrel, a version of their Sinistor Black Ale. Its flavor? Red licorice.

Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury

This is a story about time travel. And the tremendous, gripping strength of nostalgia. Some current-day immersive experiences trade on this power: the bright 80s neon colors of juggernauts Meow Wolf, immersive sets like the Friends experience. Or the promise of childlike wonder to those who thought they had outgrown it, like New York’s Museum of Ice Cream and Albuquerque’s Electric Playhouse. There’s even an actual pop up called The 90s Experience, that feels like you stepped into the opening credits of Fresh Prince. (According to one Yelp user the decor is so detailed there’s a half-used Bath & Body Works lotion sitting out.)

The Bend Blockbuster is an actual vestige of time past, and a virtual time machine. The first Blockbuster opened in 1985 in Dallas, Texas, with 8,000 VHS tapes, 2,000 Beta tapes, and a rapid growth trajectory. According to Built to Fail: The Inside Story of Blockbuster’s Inevitable Bust, one year into the business, it had expanded into 20 stores, offering a wide selection and family-friendly fare. From 1987 to 1994, there were over 3,000 Blockbusters-more than one a day-gobbling up competitors and dominating weekend entertainment.

But easier access to movies and bad business decisions would be the behemoth’s downfall-including the disastrous no late fees initiative, and, perhaps most famously, turning down the opportunity to buy a fledgling company at the time, Netflix. The demise was almost as quick as its growth. In 2014, Blockbuster LLC closed all of its corporate stores, with 50 franchises left. By 2017, it was down to three: Bend, Anchorage, Alaska and Morely, Western Australia. And in 2019, one remained.

Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury

The first Blockbuster in Bend opened in 1992 as local franchise Pacific Video, converting in 2000. If you’ve seen The Last Blockbuster, you’re probably already acquainted with Harding: the 2021 documentary spotlighted the struggle of the last store to survive, and focused largely on her efforts. Harding joined the franchise in 2004 during the company’s peak, with over 9,000 stores. “When they filmed the documentary they did not tell me how much I was going to be in the movie,” she says. “I probably would have said “absolutely not” through the whole thing.”

But not because she’s not appreciative. Rather, since the movie was released she’s become somewhat of a celebrity with a store to run. “The first month that movie came out, I literally was coming in through the back door,” she says. “Not that I don’t wanna talk to people, because I love that. But I couldn’t get my work done!” There are bright pink signs in multiple places in the store that ask you to not take pictures of the employees without their permission.

And in the end, it’s worth it. “We’re so grateful to Zeke [Kamm] and Taylor [Morden] for doing that, and it really helped the store a lot,” she says. “And of course Netflix picking [the documentary] up really helped with that. And all of us know the irony of that, and we’re all kind of laughing.”

Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury

This is a story about community. It’s strange, rooting for a company that originally shut down mom and pop video stores on its way up. But these days, the last Blockbuster resembles those indie shops more than its corporate owner, Dish Network, which holds the Blockbuster license. The store itself is still owned by original franchise-owner Ken Tisher. For Harding, it’s a family affair: her kids paid their dues behind the counter, and even her mom is now employed there.

This mom and pop runs on a couple things: ancient IBM computers (miraculously), and Harding. During the pandemic, it was impossible to prevent people from converging in the store-mostly around the Russell Crowe stuff (thanks John Oliver)-so they shut down for two weeks. They continued to cater to their subscription customers, plus any veterans that happened to stop by. “They had my home number and my cell phone and they’d call me and tell me what they wanted,” says Harding. She’d go down to the store, retrieve it, and they’d pick it up.

Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury
Vanita Salisbury

And the store thrives on nostalgia. In 2020, they made news with an Airbnb collaboration. For three nights, ordinary citizens could sleep in the Blockbuster for just $3.99-the cost of a rental. “It was a great opportunity for us to do something for the locals that had kept us open for all these years,” says Harding. There were VHS and DVD players, rollerblades and 90s-era clothing to play dress up with. Two brothers opted to play Mario Kart on the Nintendo 64s and one couple made it an extra special date night. “They had VHS movies that they’d never seen of each other growing up,” says Harding. “That was the coolest thing.”

People still email her daily about staying in the store. But if it happens again it would be a rare occurrence. “It was really cool and a lot of fun, but our store isn’t set up to be an Airbnb,” she says. “We don’t have a shower.” Also it’s still a functioning store.

She’s more interested in using the influence of the brand in charitable ways. They’ve done benefits for street dogs with the humane society. They do toy drives and collaborate with the Ronald McDonald house every Christmas. And there’s an upcoming suicide awareness event this summer. “That is something that touched our store unfortunately,” she says. “I don’t think that it hasn’t touched anyone.”These days, the Bend Blockbuster’s income is now 80 percent from merchandise, shipped as far away as Japan and South Africa. They’ve had to expand their merchandise operations to the dance studio next door. Each item is shipped with a thank you note.

And they’ve been so successful at promotion that people regularly inquire about opening their own franchise. “Nostalgia inspires a lot of people to want to do it but they have to remember that while we make it look like a lot of fun, it’s still a lot of work,” says Harding. And nostalgia does have a shelf life. Every day they wonder if it might all disappear. According to Harding, “Even when business is good, you still have to think about what’s happening six months from now and six years from now. And how do we keep this going as long as we can.”Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat!

Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. She wishes every night was a Blockbuster night.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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