Southern charm and thrill rides: Dollywood reopens
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As the resident Southerner here at TPG‘s New York headquarters (hey, y’all!), I was shocked to learn that so many of my colleagues had never heard of the national treasure that is Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and its shining gem, Dollywood. The pinnacle of Appalachian culture and good ol’ fashioned fun right in the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Dollywood hosts more than 3 million visitors annually.
Opened in 1986 with just one amusement park with a handful of rides and shows, Dollywood has grown to be one of the biggest tourist attractions in Tennessee. The now-greatly expanded version of the original park is home to some of the most exciting roller coasters in the South.
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Tennessee’s golden child, Miss Dolly Rebecca Parton, and her partners, also added an adjacent waterpark — Dollywood’s Splash Country — and the DreamMore Resort and Spa across the street. Not too shabby for a little girl from the mountains of East Tennessee.
I grew up idolizing Dolly, as many young girls in the South do, and not just because of her iconic style or because Dollywood was the highlight of my summer vacation every year of my childhood. I admired her for all the incredible things she does for the East Tennessee community, the people who call it home and children around the world. After you read this article, I hope you’ll have a burning desire to visit what I consider to be the eighth wonder of the world: Dollywood.
Where is Dollywood?
Dollywood is nestled in the foothills of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, about an hour outside of Knoxville. The national park’s proximity and drivability from much of the southeast U.S. makes the Smoky Mountains the most-visited national park year after year. Eleven million people visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2018, while the second-most visited national park, the Grand Canyon, had only 6.4 million.
When to visit
Dollywood’s hours extend beyond just “9 to 5.” The theme park is open mid-March to early January each year; hours vary but usually run from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
I’ve found the best times to go, if you have flexibility, are early June or at the end of August to soak up the full summer amusement park experience. Notably, the crowds are much more manageable on days when the forecast calls for a little bit of rain. We visited on a Sunday in July with a 60% chance of rain all day — quite the gamble, but we had the flexibility to come back another day if we had to, since we were staying close by. We got very lucky and the rain held off all day, which meant we basically had the park to ourselves.
The longest we had to wait in line for anything — in this case, the new family roller coaster in the Wildwood Grove area of the park — was 20 minutes. Members of our group rode the Lightning Rod and the Wild Eagle roller coasters and were able to walk right up without any wait at all. Many of the park employees were shocked by how slow it was that day — lucky us!
If you’re only going for one or two days, a weekday in the spring or fall would be your best bet for shorter lines and easier parking. (Though there is a line-cutting pass available, more on that soon.) It’s worth noting that the nearby national park’s most visited time of year is October, so I would expect the fall to be extremely busy for Dollywood as well.
Related: 10 fun activities in Gatlinburg
If you can, avoid weekend days in the summer months as these are the busiest times to visit. The winter holiday months are also really crowded, as Tennessee winters are typically milder than in the northern parts of the country, and season pass holders often make one final visit for the year before their passes expire.
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Who should visit Dollywood
The ideal audiences for a visit to Dollywood are families, couples, kids of all ages, grandparents and groups of kids. I wouldn’t recommend this as the best destination for bachelorette parties (unless the bride happens to be a Dolly superfan!), but in general, it’s great for the young and the young-at-heart.
A one-day adult ticket to Dollywood is $79, before taxes and fees, while a child’s one-day ticket (4–9 years old) and a senior ticket (62+) is $69. A two-day ticket costs about $20 more. Active or retired military, disabled veterans and military reservists (as well as their spouses and dependents) can show a military or dependent ID and receive 30% off admission prices at the front gates.
Season pass ticket options start at $139 for Dollywood alone, before taxes and fees, and go up to $189 for season pass access to both the Dollywood theme park and Dollywood Splash Country waterpark.
The amusement park and water park offer seasonal discounts at the end of the summer and at other times throughout the year; check the website for more information.
For those traveling by car, a general parking day pass costs around $14 if purchased in advance on the park’s website or $15 upon arrival. However, parking is free for Gold season pass holders. A Preferred Parking pass — that ensures a spot close enough that you don’t need to ride the tram to the entrance — costs about $27. Guests at Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort can park for free at the resort and take advantage of the complimentary shuttle to the park.
Before purchasing our tickets to the park, we headed to a local McDonald’s in Knoxville and got a soft drink with a Dollywood discount code on the cup. Enter this discount code at Dollywood.com/McDonalds to receive $10 off per ticket. You can also find $10 off one-day admission coupons at participating O’Reilly Auto Parts locations. Learn more by visiting the company’s website. AAA members can save $5 per ticket to Dollywood via AAA’s website.
Guests of Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort receive discounted tickets to the park, as well as Complimentary TimeSaver passes.
When purchasing my tickets, I ordered them online via Dollywood’s website (with the $10 off per ticket code from McDonald’s) and used my Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. This was a rookie mistake as it coded as “shopping” versus travel. Theme park tickets, apparently, are notorious for coding in a variety of ways, though most often as entertainment expenses. Now I know for next time.
Overall, Dollywood is truly great for park-goers of all ages — we saw families with young children, teenagers and many grandparents during our visit. We noticed that the park is very accessible and you can rent electric scooters on site. That said, the terrain at the park can be a little hilly, but there is ample shade and places to rest/soak up some air conditioning.
Dollywood is committed to providing an enjoyable and safe experience for all of its guests, and even offers a “calming room” for guests with special needs who may be experiencing sensory overload. That feature made Dollywood the first autism-friendly amusement park in the world. Learn more about the park’s accessibility information here.
Dollywood is a tribute to the mountain heritage, culture and history of the Smoky Mountains. Most of the original attraction areas focus on the history and culture of the southern Appalachian region, Dolly Parton’s home.
You’ll notice eight of the 11 different themed areas — Showstreet, Timber Canyon, Wilderness Pass, Rivertown Junction, Craftsman’s Valley, The Village, Country Fair and Jukebox Junction — depict the various historical eras and culture of East Tennessee.
Owens Farm, Adventures in Imagination and the newest expansion area, Wildwood Grove, explore Dolly Parton’s personal life, inspiration and imagination. Wildwood Grove opened last year as part of a $300 million dollar investment in the park that began six years ago and is expected to last for several more.
Now for the really fun part, the rides! In addition to all the classic amusement park rides — bumper cars, carousels, giant swings, twisty teacups, etc. Dollywood also boasts some of the best roller coasters in the world. Here’s a glimpse at a few of its more popular and unique rides.
FireChaser Express: This roller coaster opened in 2014 and holds the title for the first dual-launch family coaster in the nation, flying guests forward and backward for a truly unique experience.
Lightning Rod: I have to admit, I was too much of a chicken to try this coaster, but for good reason. When I asked my older brother what he thought of the ride after he got off, he said his two-word review of the ride wasn’t suitable for young ears. This ride holds the title for the fastest wooden roller coaster in the world, hitting speeds up to 73 miles per hour. You’ve been warned!
Tennessee Tornado: This triple spiral-looping coaster takes riders through an actual mountain at speeds close to 70 miles per hour.
Wild Eagle: As America’s first wing roller coaster, it takes riders on a unique experience to make them feel like they’re flying over the Smoky Mountains. As opposed to a typical roller coaster that has cars on a track, this ride seats riders on either side so there is nothing but air above and below! Also note this warning, which is featured on Dollywood’s website regarding this ride:
“During the spring and fall season, the social behavior of bees and wasp changes causing them to swarm our tall attractions. Flying insects are a natural part of the Great Smoky Mountains in the spring and fall. During the warmest part of the day, there are bees and wasps flying around the top of this attraction. We encourage each guest to use discretion when deciding to ride.”
Blazing Fury: This indoor roller coaster is a little deceiving. I accidentally took my 7-year-old niece on this one, thinking I had enjoyed it during my previous trip to the park. It’s all indoors so you can’t actually see what the ride looks like. Silly me. The 7-year-old did not enjoy it and was potentially permanently scarred. Fun ride for grown-ups, not so much for little ones. Lesson learned!
Dragonflier: The newest addition to the park, this family-friendly roller coaster featured within the Wildwood Grove area mimics the flight of a Smoky Mountain dragonfly and was my favorite ride on my latest trip to the park. It’s just twisty and exhilarating enough without making you fear for your life.
Smoky Mountain River Rampage: This has been my favorite ride at Dollywood since I was little, and continues to be a must-do for families. Inspired by a white-water rafting adventure, this one features a lot of wet twists and turns along the way. We always save this one for last, as you’re bound to get soaked. Be sure to bring a change of clothes; lockers can be rented at multiple points throughout the park, and there are also air dryers positioned right outside this ride for a small fee.
Dollywood Express – 19th-century steam engine: One unique attraction at the park is the Dollywood Express steam engine, a ride that’s been chugging through the park for more than 50 years (before it was even Dollywood). The authentic 110-ton coal-fired steam engine, which can be seen and heard throughout various points within the park, takes guests back in time on a breathtaking five-mile ride through a portion of the Great Smoky Mountains to experience some of the most beautiful views the area has to offer. The train departs at the top of every hour for a 30-minute tour and is sure to impress the entire family.
I highly recommend taking a ride during the fall months to admire all the beautiful foliage the Smoky Mountains have to offer. Just be careful — since it runs on real coal-burning engines, the smoke and soot could potentially get on your clothes.
Chasing Rainbows – the Dolly Parton Museum: Of course, this theme park wouldn’t be complete without the shrine to Dolly Parton that she deserves. Chasing Rainbows, located within the “Adventures in Imagination” portion of the park, is a tribute to the decades-long career of Dolly and her accomplishments. Visitors can admire the lavish costumes and gowns from many of her movies and red carpet appearances, as well as an entire case containing the plethora of awards she has won throughout her career (and plaques commemorating gold and platinum records). This is absolutely a must-visit for any true Dolly fan, and a popular highlight of the park for visitors of all ages.
The cast members
While there aren’t really any costumed characters walking around the park for photo ops, the smiling faces you see on the team members at Dollywood help set the park apart from many other regional amusement parks. Dollywood is the community’s largest employer with more than 3,000 local team members. The majority of the employees were born and raised in the Smoky Mountains, just like Dolly, and they help maintain the park’s authenticity. We encountered a handful of employees who had more than their fair share of Southern charm, and if we hadn’t constantly been hurrying on to the next ride, I’m certain I could’ve sat and chatted with each for hours. That’s the beauty of the South.
Eagle Mountain Sanctuary
The park’s Eagle Mountain Sanctuary is home to the largest exhibit of non-releasable bald eagles in the United States. The eagles living here are all permanently disabled and are cared for daily by staff members from the American Eagle Federation. This spot was my 5-year-old nephew’s favorite part of the entire park — even more than the funnel cake. This area is definitely worth a visit during your trip to Dollywood.
If you can’t make it to Pigeon Forge, or if you just want to scope it out before your next trip, you can check out the live Dollywood Bald Eagle Nest Cam and keep an eye out for the beautiful creatures from your computer.
I may be a little biased because of my Southern roots, but who doesn’t love some good ol’ country cookin’? Arguably the best aspect of Dollywood, and one thing that draws visitors from all over the world, is its outstanding dining options. Don’t just take my word for it. In 2018, Dollywood received a Golden Ticket award in the Best Food category from Amusement Today, a leading trade publication for the amusement park industry. This was the park’s fourth win in seven years. The park also received Golden Tickets for Best Shows, Friendliest Park and Best Christmas Event (more on all of those below). It was ranked the third-best park in the world overall.
Related: Best credit cards for dining
The park hosts three dinner show options, as well as more than 25 food vendors serving meals and snacks ranging from classic amusement park fare, like funnel cake and corn dogs, to more regional favorites like pork rinds, banana pudding (made using Dolly’s personal recipe), apple pie and kettle-fried taters (yes, that’s a real thing).
We had lunch at Red’s Drive-in because we were in Jukebox Junction when the kiddos started getting hungry. It offers your basic diner fare of hamburgers, fries and milkshakes, all of which are good; it also serves kids options, including an overpriced PB&J combo for $6.99 that consisted of a Smucker’s Uncrustables and a drink. A four-pack of those sandwiches costs $3.19 at Target, but that’s the price you pay for convenience during a day of quality family fun.
Aunt Granny’s Restaurant is an all-you-can-eat country buffet with comfort foods like chicken and dumplings, biscuits and gravy, and all the sweet tea your little heart desires.
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the most iconic food found at Dollywood: the world-famous cinnamon bread from the Grist Mill. I risk sounding dramatic here, but this bread will change your life. This pull-apart cinnamon loaf, so pillowy and glorious, will cost you $8.99 and will feed one really hungry person or multiple people as a snack (five of us ate it as a treat after lunch). Let me just tell you, it’s worth every penny.
You can purchase apple butter or icing dipper to accompany it for an extra $0.99. I highly recommend the icing dipper. If you are lucky enough, you’ll get to see them baking the bread, which produces a scent so magical, it permeates half the park. Go early in the day to ensure they don’t run out and expect a line.
The park’s website states that no outside food and drink is permitted; however, we had a couple of small snacks and fruit with us in my backpack and security didn’t have a problem with it.
Live music and theatrical productions
There is no shortage of live entertainment within the park, and that’s one of the things it’s most famous for, especially considering the success of its namesake. There are entertainment options every day at multiple locations throughout the park, including comedy shows, ’50s and ’60s-inspired musical theater shows, bluegrass and Southern gospel music, including performances by Dolly’s own family. Check the park’s website for specific dates and times of performances.
The gift shop
You exit the park through the gift shop, filled with typical souvenirs as well as some fun and kitschy Dolly Parton-themed merchandise. Dolly fans, rejoice! There is all sorts of swag for fans of all ages.
How to minimize lines
To fast-track the wait times on most of the rides, visitors may want to take advantage of TimeSaver Pass options. There are only a limited number of TimeSaver Passes available each day on a first-come, first-serve basis, so I recommend you purchase these online in advance. We tried to purchase TimeSaver Passes online the morning that we were going and it said they were all sold out for the day — though thanks to the weather, we lucked into not needing it.
There are a few different options for TimeSaver Passes, so here’s how Dollywood’s website breaks it down:
TimeSaver: For rides, enjoy using expedited entrances 10 times throughout the day at your choice of TimeSaver attractions. Your combination of 10 rides can include 10 different TimeSaver attractions, or you can ride your favorite rides* up to 10 times. For theaters, enjoy unlimited daily show reservations.
- TimeSaver Unlimited – Allows unlimited access to expedited entrances at your choice of participating TimeSaver attractions* and unlimited show reservations at participating theaters.
- TimeSaver Complimentary – Resort guests: For rides, enjoy using expedited entrances 10 times throughout the day at your choice of TimeSaver attractions. Your combination of 10 rides can include 10 different TimeSaver attractions, or you can ride your favorite rides* up to 10 times. For theaters, enjoy unlimited daily show reservations. Free to resort guests with exclusive resort theme park tickets or season passes.
It’s also important to keep in mind that not all rides and attractions are eligible for TimeSaver Passes. The eligible rides are:
- Dizzy Disk
- Dragonflier (limit one ride per person)
- FireChaser Express (limit one ride per person)
- Mystery Mine
- Sky Rider
- Smoky Mountain River Rampage
- Tennessee Tornado
- Waltzing Swinger
- Wild Eagle
- Drop Line
- Lightning Rod (limit one ride per person)
TimeSaver is $44** (plus tax) per person, per day. Gold, Super Gold Passholders and Smoky Mountain Cabin guests receive a $5 discount. TimeSaver Complimentary is free for resort guests of the Dollywood DreamMore Resort with exclusive resort theme park tickets or Season Passes.
Another handy resource we utilized on our trip was the Dollywood app. Be sure to download this before you head to the park. The app provided free Wi-Fi for the duration of our time at the park, and it also showcased wait times for any ride at that given time, which made mapping out our day much easier.
Where to stay
When it comes to lodging in Pigeon Forge, there is no shortage of options. My favorite accommodations in the Smoky Mountains are always cabins for a truly authentic mountain visit. For this particular stay, my family and I rented a cabin about 10 minutes down the road from the theme park. There are cabin rental companies with properties scattered all across Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Sevierville, any of which would be a reasonable drive to Dollywood. You can find plenty of options at Airbnb. (Here’s advice for families using Airbnb.) Dollywood even has its own cabin company (of course): Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Cabins.
Cabins provide the luxury of letting your family spread out and feel like you’re at home (and also save money on some home-cooked meals if that’s your thing). Many of the cabins in the area offer discounts to various attractions, including Dollywood admission, so be sure to ask upon booking if they have any coupons available.
Another obvious lodging choice for visitors of Dollywood to consider is Dolly Parton’s DreamMore Resort. The resort, which opened in 2015, is just a few minutes down the road from Dollywood and focuses on the themes of family and storytelling. Guests of the resort receive complimentary TimeSaver passes, early entry to the park on Saturdays, access to a free shuttle that runs to and from Dollywood and a special resort guest-only entrance at the park.
The DreamMore Resort features a zero-entry (beach-style) outdoor pool, an indoor pool open year-round, an outdoor hot tub and a splash pad. The resort offers four restaurants, including a southern-style buffet. The Spa at DreamMore Resort features salon and spa services seven days a week.
You can find DreamMore and other nearby hotels in the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel portal, which means you can stay there using points from your Chase Sapphire Reserve® at 1.5 cents each — which would be 16,600 points per night on this example date.
Just down the road is Wilderness at the Smokies, a hotel and waterpark resort in Sevierville, Tennessee, about a 30-minute drive from Dollywood. This resort describes itself as “rustic mountain-modern charm with world-class amenities.” It features a waterpark and family adventure center complete with laser tag, a climbing wall, a bowling alley, mini-golf and much more. Think Dave & Busters, but in hotel form.
Wyndham vacation rentals is another great option if you’re looking for a combination of that rustic mountain charm, but with more of a hotel vibe. There are multiple properties and lodges throughout the area, and you can learn more about their offerings by listening to The Points Guy’s interview with Wyndham Destinations’ chief brand officer, Noah Brodsky, on this episode of the Talking Points podcast.
While Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, isn’t exactly a top points hotel destination, there are still a ton of hotels in the area, given it’s such a big tourist destination for the southern part of the country. A quick Google search will bring up a few points options like Springhill Suites by Marriott (Category 5, 35k Marriott points per night), Tru by Hilton (27k–30k Hilton Honors points per night), and Home2 Suites by Hilton (from 29k–50k Hilton Honors points per night). Non-points options include Margaritaville and a year-round Christmas-themed hotel.
Dollywood is known for its over-the-top celebrations of each season, drawing many locals for a day trip to take part in the festivities. While the exact dates vary a bit from year to year, these are the tentpole events that keep loyal Dollywood lovers coming back. (Note that many festivals will likely be canceled or postponed due to coronavirus.)
Festival of Nations: March–May
This festival is a celebration of music, dance, food and art. Festival of Nations welcomes performing groups from around the world for an international entertainment celebration.
Barbecue & Bluegrass: April 24–May 3
As the Dollywood website instructs, come hungry to the Barbeque & Bluegrass festival. This is Dollywood’s annual free concert series featuring some of the biggest names in bluegrass music and some of the country’s tastiest barbecue.
Summer Celebration: June 20–Aug. 2
Dollywood’s annual summer celebration runs all summer and features extended park hours, summer entertainment and a nightly fireworks show seven days a week.
Great Pumpkin LumiNights: Sept. 25–Oct. 31
Arguably one of the best times to visit the area is when the leaves are changing and the park hosts its Great Pumpkin LumiNights experience.
Smoky Mountain Christmas: Nov. 7–Jan. 2
If you want to experience the true magic of a Smoky Mountain Christmas, visit Dollywood during this award-winning winter celebration. With the addition of Glacier Ridge, it took the total count of holiday lights up to five million throughout the park, making Dollywood feel like a real-life version of “Frozen.”
Dollywood is unique among amusement parks and is a must-visit for all Dolly Parton fans. It’s a peaceful spot due to its location within Smoky Mountain National Park, but there’s also no lack of excitement for visitors.
Add a trip to Pigeon Forge to your bucket list to soak up all the delicious Southern food, Appalachian culture and incredible thrill rides this park has to offer. You’ll leave with a healthy dose of Southern charm and you may just catch yourself saying “y’all” by the time you leave.
Featured image courtesy of author.
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