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My '9 to 5' sent me to sleep in Dolly Parton’s $10,000 tour bus suite — here’s what it was like

Sept. 22, 2022
19 min read
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Editor’s note: TPG’s Tanner Saunders stayed in the Suite1986 Experience courtesy of Dolly Parton's DreamMore Resort, but made all other travel arrangements himself. The opinions expressed below are entirely his and weren’t subject to review by any entity.

I'm not alone in loving Dolly Parton.

Most of us love Dolly, the 5-foot-tall East Tennessee multihyphenate bombshell who changed country music — all music, really — with her gift of storytelling and melodic magic.

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For me, though, Dolly created a special melody that played throughout my life. Growing up, I was lucky enough to visit Dollywood a handful of times and spent countless hours listening to her incredible songs on the road between Texas, where I grew up, and Tennessee.

In fact, I love music so much that songwriters like her inspired me to move to Nashville the first second I could, just like she did, to study songwriting at Belmont University. And in college, I even worked as a backstage tour guide at the Grand Ole Opry, taking guests behind the scenes before and after shows to share the stories of the stage and dressing rooms where Dolly, as a member of the Opry, performed her hits.

But in early September, I got to take my love for Dolly to a whole new level on a trip to her "Tennessee Mountain Home" of Pigeon Forge for an opportunity that's now probably the ultimate experience (apart from meeting Dolly in the flesh) for any die-hard fan: the chance to spend two nights sleeping on the 10-time Grammy winner's recently retired tour bus.

Pinch me. How am I so lucky that this is my literal "9 to 5"?

The Dolly Suite 1986 Tour Bus Experience

Earlier this year, Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa — her resort near the theme park — announced that Dolly was converting the tour bus she used for the last 15 years into a hotel "suite" that can be booked for a once-in-a-lifetime stay. Between 2008 and 2022, Dolly (who hates flying) traveled nearly 360,000 miles on the bus, using the time on the road to write the "Backwoods Barbie” album and “9 to 5 The Musical.”

For a cool $10,000, two guests (likely superfans) can book the bus for a two-night stay to sleep, literally, in Dolly's bed. The experience also includes a private dinner on the bus with Dolly's chef; breakfast for two each day at the resort buffet; and a bunch of goodies like Dolly's book, "Songteller: My Life in Lyrics" (I'd brought my own copy from home as it's essentially my songwriting bible) and her perfume, "Dolly, Scent from Above," among other glitzy extras.

And while the fee is steep, a good portion of the proceeds go directly to the Dollywood Foundation, which funds Dolly's Imagination Library, a program that gives free books to kids up to the age of 5 in a handful of countries. In fact, by 2020, Imagination Library had given away more than 150 million books. (Dolly herself also donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University to help fund the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

After covering the announcement of the tour bus experience and spending the night at the Dolly Parton-themed Graduate Hotel in Nashville, I knew this experience was something I'd have to do one day. Luckily, Dolly's team knew about my love of the country goddess and extended an invitation to be one of the first to lay my head in the most glitzy "suite" of them all.

In the spirit of Dolly's kindness and in appreciation of the comped stay, TPG is making a donation to the Dollywood Foundation for $2,500.

Livin' like Dolly

COLBY KIRKPATRICK/THE POINTS GUY

While the Suite 1986 Tour Bus Experience is a two-night stay, I arrived at DreamMore a night early, along with my colleague, Colby Kirkpatrick, to get a feel for the resort, located about an hour from McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS).

That night, I didn't sleep. I was too excited. I'd also found out that Dolly was sleeping at the resort in the top-floor suite, having just wrapped filming a movie at the park. Dolly always said she sleeps in her makeup so if there was an emergency, she'd look her best having to make a midnight escape.

"Should I pull the fire alarm?" I wondered to myself at 4 a.m. "No, that's probably not the way to get on her good side."

The big moment finally arrived at 10 a.m. the next morning. I met Shana, who manages the experience, to escort us to the bus.

Shana had an "emergency" and had to dash off for a moment. Later, we found out her "emergency" was Dolly leaving the resort. As it happened, a mom and her young daughter were at the right place at the right time to see Dolly exit. While I was sad to have missed her myself, Shana told us that Dolly took a picture with the little girl and asked her what she was doing that day.

"We're going to Dollywood," the child said. "Oh Dolly, I think I know her!" Dolly joked before floating away.

Walking from the resort to the bus, I felt like a celebrity strolling down a red carpet (just without the paparazzi). The bus pad is surrounded by greenery, and I noticed a handful of butterflies (a symbol often associated with Dolly) floating in and out of the flora.

COLBY KIRKPATRICK/THE POINTS GUY

The spirit of Dolly was with me.

TANNER SAUNDERS/THE POINTS GUY

When the door finally opened, I stepped up the stairs into the 45-foot-long Prevost bus, noticing the worn leather of the driver's seat, a sign of the hundreds of thousands of miles this once-touring bus had covered, then turned to my left for the first taste of my temporary life as Dolly Parton.

"Here I Am" flooded my head. There I was for sure.

COLBY KIRKPATRICK/THE POINTS GUY

The bus itself felt like a retro-homey railroad-style apartment; not a Four Seasons suite on wheels, but a place that's actually lived in.

In the front, there was a couch with a television above it that was shuffling through country music songs and a slideshow of Dolly photos. Directly opposite was a dining room table with a half-circle bench and inlaid cup holders where Dolly and her crew (usually her friend and personal assistant, Judy Ogle, and bus driver, Tim Dunlap) would’ve sat for meals. Maybe a pimento cheese sandwich?

In fact, I was told Dolly loves to make her own meals so much that in the bus's kitchen there’s a full-size refrigerator (bigger than the one in my New York City apartment) that required removing the bus windshield to fit it inside. The fridge was stocked with Coca-Cola products, including root beer — her favorite.

Around the main living and kitchen area, a close friend of Dolly’s, Donna Davis Carter, helped customize the space with hand-painted murals. In one scene, Carter depicted herself and Dolly dancing in colorful outfits around a fire.

But here, the real highlight was tucked away in the back corner, where a glass case held a rhinestone-studded guitar, guitar strap and hot-pink fringe-adorned tambourine from the "Two Doors Down" episode of "Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings" on Netflix. Though I was sad the instruments were behind lock and key, I could hear the strum of that shiny six-string in my heart.

COLBY KIRKPATRICK/THE POINTS GUY

To the side, there was a small door that opened to reveal a little bathroom with a toilet and a sink. It was there I was reminded that this may be Dolly’s motorized house, but it’s still a bus, and so the toilets flush by holding down a little switch that takes a while to do anything then sucks everything down with a dramatic "whoosh."

One fun thing Dolly installed was a trio of electronic pocket doors that separated the bus into four distinct areas, the second of which was where three bunkbeds were stacked for her travel companions. In those windowless bunks, guests could catch some shut-eye in privacy by closing multicolored, velvety curtains or catch up on their favorite shows by flipping down an in-ceiling television.

On a regular tour bus, the opposite wall would likely have more bunks — but this is Dolly we’re talking about. She had that wall retrofitted into a closet to hold her sequined dresses and, obviously, her wigs, of which she’s said to have one for every day of the year.

COLBY KIRKPATRICK/THE POINTS GUY

For the suite experience, the closet was transformed into another display that held dramatic jewelry, such as a pink hummingbird necklace (another symbol Dolly is known for); an assortment of glamorous dresses worn to specific events, including the dress she wore while cohosting the 57th Academy of Country Music Awards (which I watched live at home); and even a few pairs of her higher-than-the heavens heels, all of which were red-bottomed Louboutins.

KEVIN WINTER/GETTY IMAGES

The memorabilia reminded me of my tour guide days at the Opry where, in one dressing room, I'd tell fans from around the world the story of how Dolly wrote "I Will Always Love You" as a somber goodbye to her longtime musical partner, Porter Wagoner, when she wanted to venture out on her own.

As we say in country music, "May the circle be unbroken." And for me, it really had come full circle.

Personal space

Passing through the next pocket door, I realized I was entering a sacred space: Dolly’s private bathroom (two bathrooms on one bus!) and bedroom, all highly customized to be her sanctuary on the road.

The bathroom was tiny. Very tiny. But also beautiful and very Dolly. In a shoebox-size, bohemian space to the side was a toilet, orange velvet curtains hiding the storage area, golden candle sconces, a tiny sink in the corner and even toilet paper embossed with "Suite 1986."

But what was extra crazy about this compact bathroom was that it has a shower with an actual bathtub that’s maybe 2 1/2 feet deep and just wide enough for me to sit in with my legs folded into my chest. And I can say that with certainty because, for the sake of journalism, I did take a bath in that little tub.

I also sang my heart out because how many people in the world can say they sang in Dolly's actual shower?

And then there was the bedroom.

I was immediately overwhelmed with joy in the room, which is filled with flourishes of magenta, fuchsia, turquoise and gold, plus more textures, more fringe and more florals than I’d ever seen in a single space. And it all just worked.

I also wondered if maybe it was a play on Dolly's real-life coat of many colors, with each fabric and texture carefully selected to complement the next. Maybe this home was an ode to her first; a humble cabin with two rooms shared by her parents and 11 siblings with no running water or electricity.

Look how far she's come.

COLBY KIRKPATRICK/THE POINTS GUY

The room made me feel like Dolly herself had wrapped me up in her arms the same way her music did. It was an intimate feeling, like connecting with someone you know deeply despite not actually knowing them at all.

On the far end of the bus was another glass case, this one containing the best memorabilia of them all: a collection of Dolly’s big blonde wigs. I tried to imagine where she wore them. In an interview, she was once asked how long it takes her to get her hair done.

“I don’t know," she responded. "I’m never there!”

Dolly also had a separate refrigerator and microwave installed in her bedroom, presumably to have easy access to drinks and snacks without having to leave her sanctuary. Knowing it was there, I'd packed a bag of popcorn to heat up, along with a download of "9 to 5" for a movie night later in the stay.

COLBY KIRKPATRICK/THE POINTS GUY

And then there was the vanity, with a short cushioned stool, a big mirror and a little pull-out mirror, along with amenities for guests like Sun Coast salt scrub, lip balm and a white leather Dopp kit. Other goodies I got to take home from the suite included a vinyl copy of the "Coat of Many Colors" album, towels embroidered with the Suite 1986 logo and an ultraplush bathrobe with the same emblem as the towels.

I thought about Dolly’s self-confidence and how, despite criticisms for her appearance, she’s always been proud.

“It costs a lot of money to look this cheap,” she’s famous for saying.

To me, Dolly will always look like a million bucks.

Calling squatter's rights

Later, in this guest room-turned-closet, I was reminded for the second time that I was, in fact, on a bus and not just in a regular hotel room. I closed the motorized door separating the back area from the kitchen and when I went to open it, nothing happened.

I tried again and again and still — nothing.

TANNER SAUNDERS/THE POINTS GUY

Luckily, every guest on the bus has a private concierge phone number to text for any and every need.

My text: “So I 100% could be doing something wrong but the pocket door between the bunks and the kitchen area isn’t working and I’m stuck.”

But my mind was screaming, “You’re stuck in Dolly Parton’s bedroom surrounded by her clothes, her wigs and the creative air she breathed to make the music you love.”

Secretly, I was hoping they’d never come let me out. “I live here now,” I told myself and crashed onto the bed filled with more throw pillows than a Pottery Barn. I also took the time to crawl into one of the guest bunks to see how tight they actually were — they're pretty tight, y'all.

TANNER SAUNDERS/THE POINTS GUY

Sadly (and hysterically), I was eventually freed from my glamorous entrapment and spent my afternoon at Dollywood before heading back for the multicourse dinner that was included with my stay.

With a little bit of time to kill before dinner, I hung out in the front of the bus taking in all the details when I noticed a group of people had come up to the gate to take photos of the bus — and then another group. Over the course of an hour, I spotted people checking out the bus from every angle. Thankfully, with the super-tinted windows, they couldn't see me, but it was wild to realize that Dolly probably experiences this zoo-like experience everywhere she goes.

Dining like Dolly

That night, my co-worker Colby, a fellow Dolly fanatic who was staying in a room at the resort, and I were treated to one of the most magical dinners I've ever experienced — and I once ate at all three Michelin-starred restaurants at the Four Seasons Hong Kong in one night.

The dinner was prepared by Dollywood's executive chef, Mark Galvin, who'd brought a grill to the bus pad. The dinner was a multicourse feast that included a wine pairing with each course. An ultrafriendly server also joined in on the fun, transforming the table on the bus into a scene from an award-winning restaurant complete with table settings.

Before our visit we were asked about dietary restrictions and Galvin was more than excited to learn that we had none. And while you might expect this meal would be primarily country-fried classics, that wasn't the case.

Instead, a pineapple stuffed with grilled shrimp and red-pepper skewers and a pineapple-onion salsa made its way through the doors of the bus.

TANNER SAUNDERS/THE POINTS GUY

Then there was a burrata salad with crispy bacon, a juicy steak with mashed potatoes and bundled asparagus, and even an entire grilled fish dish. Galvin even works with a special purveyor to source edible flowers to use as garnish — and you can bet your bottom dollar we ate those, too.

For dessert, as if our stomachs could handle one more bite, there was a trio of sweets including Dolly's own banana pudding (my favorite!), a praline and creme brulee. I thought of it as a sugary ode to Dolly's "Trio" album made alongside country stars Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt — or maybe that was just the sixth glass of wine talking.

Dolly may not have been there, but eating her food, from her chef, at her table, was good enough for me.

After dinner that night, when I was all by myself, I closed all the pocket doors, turned down the air conditioning on the in-room thermostat (there are actually multiple units throughout the bus) and pulled back the covers to crawl into bed. That's when I remembered the decorative pillows weren't for sleeping on and that real pillows were stowed away in a bright pink ottoman on the side of the room.

I didn't think to ask if turndown service was an option, but I suspect another text to my concierge on duty could've made that happen.

Admittedly, crawling into Dolly's bed was a very peculiar experience. It was incredible — and incredibly bizarre — that I was alone in a celebrity's motorhome parked off the main lot of a resort in the Smoky Mountains. But it was also entirely comfortable and homey, though it might've been a little tight had I been sharing the bed with someone else.

Thankfully, I was alone with my thoughts and drifted away comfortably to the quiet hum of the stationary bus.

Out and about

Though it was tough to leave the bus, I had come all this way, so I made two trips to Dollywood during my stay. I could go on about how much I love the park, especially the wild roller coasters that use the mountains as leverage for bigger, scarier drops, but we have a handy Dollywood guide that can answer all of your questions.

One benefit of staying at the resort, though, is that you get a wristband that lets you skip the line for eight rides a day. There's also a shuttle that goes back and forth between the park and the resort lobby every 20 minutes. The park is also the best place to pick up Dolly souvenirs. For pet owners like me, it carries the entire line of Doggy Parton wigs, pink cowgirl hats, dresses and squeaky microphones, which I purchased for my corgi, Splenda.

TANNER SAUNDERS/THE POINTS GUY

Colby and I also ventured out to Dolly's Stampede for a wild dinner show where we ate whole chickens with our bare hands while watching trick horse riders. During the show, one side of the audience competes with the other in a series of events and, at one point, I found myself in the middle of it all, racing buckets of water to strangers on my team.

TANNER SAUNDERS/THE POINTS GUY

The kitsch level was turned all the way up, but we still had a nice time — as you can see from the commemorative photo I bought as a souvenir.

'I'll Never Say Goodbye'

After 48 hours of living my life like Dolly, I can say that no, it didn't go to my head.

Mom, if you're reading this, you don't have to ground me.

Instead, the experience left me feeling humbled and closer to Dolly than ever before. For someone with so much influence and prestige, it's clear her kindness and positive energy permeate every corner of her resort. And, for someone who could easily take private jets between one city and the next, it was fascinating to see how she built a home on wheels, thinking through every detail to make it a safe and creative space to live her life in.

TANNER SAUNDERS/THE POINTS GUY

The last night, as I crashed in her bed, I thought about my own life and how, despite all my connections to Dolly, I never actually saw her perform live until I moved to New York City to chase a dream of writing about travel, instead of writing songs.

TANNER SAUNDERS/THE POINTS GUY

That show was filled with all types of people, from my fellow Dolly-loving gays to drag queens, cowboys, kids and older people — a true representation of all walks of life and all the people inspired by her. After that show, she probably walked off stage and walked up the steps of the bus to find respite in the very room — the very bed — I was in right then.

The bus would have pulled out and off to the next show, another stop in her incredible dream. I took the subway chasing the next stop in mine.

Featured image by COLBY KIRKPATRICK/THE POINTS GUY
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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  • Intro Offer
    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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  • Annual Fee

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  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
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Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases