If you're a country fan or someone living in a 200 mile radius of Pigeon Forge, Tenn., you've heard about Dollywood. It's the theme park owned by Dolly Parton that promises lots of fun for the whole family. But is it really anything more than a simple amusement park? And would someone who isn't toting around a van-full of toddlers really going to enjoy the experience?
Over the 4th of July holiday weekend, I traveled from Nashville to find out for myself. Once you make it through the long drive that sweeps past flea markets, all-you-can-eat buffets and antique stores, you're greeted by a giant butterfly soaring behind letters spelling out "DOLLYWOOD." You have arrived.
To get the full experience, I stayed at Dolly's DreamMore Resort. Although this luxury hotel could have easily gone cheesy and over-the-top, the accommodations were incredibly homey. White rocking chairs and ladies clad in frilly pink dresses with free cups of lemonade greet you on arrival. The interior is much like Dolly herself -- classy, but politely demands your attention. With multiple restaurants, inviting pools and plenty of Parton memorabilia, there's a little something for everyone. One of the biggest reasons I loved staying at the resort was the ability to hop on an old school trolley to get to the park within 10 minutes.
I hadn't been to Dollywood since I was 8 or 9 years old, where I got a pretty rad photo alongside Elvis (sadly, I couldn't find the image to share, but you can imagine). Back then, getting the chance to eat a bag of cotton candy would have been enough to earn a 5-star rating from me. But this time, I was a little more hesitant. It had been 20 years (!) since I had set foot in the park, and a lot had changed in that time.
In order to earn more visitors and please yearly passholders, Parton has made an effort to make sure new rides are constantly being introduced. Although I didn't ride it, (partially because it was down for maintenance and partially because I am a big scaredy cat), the park is now home to the fastest wooden roller coaster ever.
For me, the biggest challenge of enjoying a theme park trip is being relaxed enough to feel like a kid again while being surrounded by screaming children. I loved all of the rides, but the real appeal for me was just how spread out the park was. Even on a holiday weekend, the park was never packed and there was plenty to do. That freedom to roam without stressing over which line to get in made it a lot easier to just enjoy the day.
I was surprised at the variety of stores and attractions inside the park. Sure, there's a store where you can get a neon t-shirt with Dolly on it (yes, I bought it), but there are also many handmade products available for purchase. A glassblower, ironworker and soap maker are on hand to show you how things were made back in the olden days. There's even a protected eagle habitat smack dab in the middle of the park, which was a nice place to stop and soak up my surroundings.
But the best part about Dollywood is all the personal touches. There's an area of the park that's dedicated to her incredible career. There's a museum that features a hologram version of Parton that morphs into a butterfly after she sings "I Will Always Love You." Along with a seemingly endless stream of memorabilia, the walls are covered with televisions show clips of her TV and film appearances. Outside, her old tour bus is set up for you to explore.
The little things struck me the most. In a small garden area, there are metal signs that have been added over the years that pay tribute to friends that have passed on. Although they are slightly hidden in a pathway to some hidden restrooms, the plaque that reads "IN MEMORY OF TAMMY WYNETTE" serves as a sudden reminder of how many of her country comrades are now gone.
There are at least 20 of these signs, memorializing Grandpa Jones, Ray Price and others, that most tourists probably walk right by without a thought. Even Dolly's museum is more of a tribute to others than herself. Every wall praises someone who helped in her career, whether it be her own father or Carol Burnett.
Although many may see Dollywood as a place to spend a holiday with the kids, it's also meant to create a legacy. Parton started the whole thing as a way to revitalize and invest in her hometown and county. One of the biggest things I noticed was how friendly and cheerful every employee was, from the drivers to the hot dog vendors. Many of them praised her efforts to give back to her workers through park perks for employees and their families.
If you want a sign of how important Dollywood is to Parton, head to the bottom floor of the DreamMore Resort and look for a wooden box enclosed in glass. Inside, she has placed a sheet of lyrics that will be her "last song," revealed on her 100th birthday. That's the kind of thing you might think would end up in the Country Music Hall of Fame. But Dolly has opted to keep it in a place where fans can view it whenever they want (you don't have to be a guest at the resort to give it a tour).
For me, all of these things culminated into an experience that actually did make me feel like a kid again. And along with that, I got the chance to dive a little deeper into who Parton really is and where she came from.
If you're a die-hard Dolly fan, or just love a good roller coaster, this is a surprising vacation spot you shouldn't overlook. And yes, I'm already planning my return trip.