Immersing in Smoky Mountain Culture at Dollywood Theme Park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

The working grist mill at Dollywood was built by hand to resemble mills in the 19th century. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2013)

The working grist mill at Dollywood was built by hand to resemble mills in the 19th century. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2013)

I admit it, I was wrong.

I thought Dollywood, the theme park in the Tennessee foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, would be a cheesy tribute to the buxom, big-haired blond country singer and movie star. I imagined over-the-top caricatures and cutouts everywhere—Dolly ad nauseam.

Nope.

While there is a small section devoted to Dolly, the theme of the park is the mountain culture of East Tennessee in which she was raised. Far from being cheesy, I find much that is genuine: the hospitality, the food, the crafts and the music.

Oh yes, there are amusement park rides, too.

Dolly Parton Puts Her Stamp on Dollywood

Dollywood opened in 1986, replacing Silver Dollar City Tennessee owned by Herschend Enterprises. Parton, who grew up in the area, had been considering opening her own attraction to give back to her community after her success in the music and film industries. Hearing this—and considering the competition the superstar would bring—Herschend formed a partnership with Parton, who gave her name and entertainment expertise to the business. Parton remains the park’s largest investor and Dollywood is the biggest employer in the county, with many of Parton’s extended family among its workers.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You love true American music, down-home cooking and old-fashioned crafts.
  • You want a wholesome experience the whole family will enjoy.
  • You get a thrill from amusement park rides.
  • Good for all ages, from tots to grandparents.

These family ties and Parton’s spirit of hospitality endure in Dollywood, ranked in 2012 as the World’s Friendliest Theme Park by Amusement Today. As I waited in the ticket line at the entrance, I expected to be faced with a sullen teenager. Instead, I was warmly greeted by a sweet-faced lady drawling “how you doin’ honey?” Dolly’s distant cousin, maybe?

Dollywood is especially good for multigeneration families with something to offer all ages. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2013)

Dollywood is especially good for multigeneration families with something to offer all ages. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2013)

Dollywood is a pretty place, surrounded by the natural beauty of the Smokys. For the most part, attractions are built around rolling hills and trees, including more than 300 native hardwoods and hundreds of flowering shrubs. The American Eagle Foundation, promoting bald eagle preservation, has its headquarters at Dollywood. I rested a spell under a shade tree at the park’s Eagle Mountain Sanctuary to watch some of the country’s largest collection of non-releasable birds flit about in a massive aviary.

Listening to Music from Country to Gospel to Rock ’n’ Roll

Music is where Dollywood really shines, its live entertainment winning more awards than any other theme park. It showcases a wide range of characteristically American music—country, bluegrass, Southern gospel, Appalachian and classic rock ’n’ roll. Guests often ask when Dolly Parton will perform. Though she makes a few appearances each year, Dollywood it not meant to be a showcase for Parton’s talents.

At the Back Porch Theater, I watched performers pick out songs on a stage built to resemble the porch of a Parton homestead. Some of Dolly’s relatives are among the musicians and, toes tapping, I imagined Dolly as a youngster singing with them.

A minister’s granddaughter, Parton first sang in church and her roots in Southern gospel music go deep. The park’s one-room country church, named for the doctor who brought Dolly Rebecca Parton into the world in 1946, has Sunday services open to all park guests.

The Southern Gospel Music Museum and Hall of Fame, also on the grounds, tells the story of this musical genre. The building contains more than 350 artifacts and serves as the headquarters for the gospel music industry.

Feasting on Good Home Cooking, Country Style

Yes, there are funnel cakes and foot-long hot dogs for the fast-food crowd, but Dollywood’s sit-down restaurants serve authentic down-home country cooking. Amusement Today has given the park a Golden Ticket award in the Best Food category.

Kids get a kick out of rides at Dollywood, which range from mild to wild. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2013)

Kids get a kick out of rides at Dollywood, which range from mild to wild. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2013)

Granny Ogle’s Ham ’n’ Beans serves up entrees such as meatloaf and pit ham. My pot roast came with sides of turnip greens and mashed potatoes. For dessert, I couldn’t resist fresh-baked fruit cobbler topped with homemade vanilla ice cream.

Miss Lillian’s Chicken House and Aunt Granny’s put on a massive buffet, while other restaurants serve slow-cooked Southern barbecue, fresh salads and sandwiches. Guests line up for the fresh-baked cinnamon bread at the Grist Mill, built to replicate an 1880s mill right down to the hand-hewed logs and roof shingles split by hand. Corn and wheat are ground into flour daily and available for purchase.

Like other theme parks, Dollywood has a few “monster” food items. A 30-inch pizza weighs in at 12 pounds and a 25-pound apple pie is baked in a 17-inch cast-iron skillet. Each slice of pie weighs three pounds and can be shipped home.

Shopping and Watching Craft Demonstrations

More than a dozen master craftsmen demonstrate their artistry in the park’s Craftsman’s Valley, a good place to shop for unusual items. Most are working in jobs that were vital to life in the 19th century, such as wood carving and leather making. A blacksmith makes hand-forged steel items; wind chimes are popular purchases. Candle makers craft candles and help children dip their own. Glassblowers demonstrate their art and guide guests in creating a personalized ornament.

A total of 40 shopping locations sell items from the usual theme park trinkets to a Bear Market where kids can build their own plush animal. So guests are not carrying their purchases around all day, the park will hold items at a central location for them to pick up when they exit.

Rides Range from Old-Fashioned Amusements to 21st-Century Thrills

Two steam locomotives pull the Dollywood Express on excursions through the park. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2013)

Two steam locomotives pull the Dollywood Express on excursions through the park. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2013)

Some guests come to Dollywood to take amusement park rides, especially the kids in the family. Forty rides and attractions range from kiddie rides, such as a Ferris wheel, to the Wild Eagle, the first wing coaster in the U.S.

The Dollywood Express train takes me through the park and surrounding woodlands. The train is powered by one of two steam locomotives built in 1939 and 1943 for the U.S. Army to haul troops and lumber in Alaska.

Fans Dote on Museum Devoted to Dolly Parton

Dollywood’s Jukebox Junction is a step back into the 1950s and ’60s, recalling the small town where Parton spent her teens. Red’s Drive-In resembles the eatery where she ate her first hamburger.

Next door, the Chasing Rainbows Museum is an unabashed tribute to Parton with memorabilia from her life and career. An entire case contains her musical awards. I couldn’t stop looking at the costumes from her movies “9 to 5” and “Straight Talk” and the lavishly sequined gowns she wore in concerts. Is her waist really that tiny?

Nearby, Dolly’s Closet sells her favorite fashion statements. A seamstress is on hand to customize apparel with sequins and appliqués to create just the right effect for Dolly wanna-bes. I pulled out at beaded top and a sales clerk croons, “Ain’t that purtty?” Sure is, I admitted. If only I had Dolly’s famous figure.

Practicalities

Details: Dollywood, 800-Dollywood

Where to find it: About 35 miles southeast of Knoxville, Tenn., in Pigeon Forge, a gateway city to Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

When to go: Open early March through late December.

Where to stay: Dollywood has cabins for two to 30 people combining rustic charm with modern amenities such as granite countertops, big-screen TVs and hot tubs. Pigeon Forge has accommodations in all price points.

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