You probably know Dolly Parton as a country music legend—a buxom blonde with a big voice who has written more than 3,000 songs, won 11 Grammy Awards and produced 44 Top 10 country albums over the past four decades.
You might even know that her Imagination Library has encouraged millions of youngsters to read by mailing them free books each month. And that she contributed $1 million to help develop Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine.
But in East Tennessee, Dolly—now 76 years young—is more than that.
She is beloved. A living legend. The patron saint of Sevierville, Tennessee, who awards annual scholarships to graduates of her hometown’s high school. The guardian angel whose Dollywood Foundation provided $9 million to help families affected by the 2016 Gatlinburg fires.
She’s an ambassador for the friendliness of East Tennessee and the peaceful beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. And she’s the life force behind an entertainment dynasty that includes a theme park, a water park, two hotel resorts, dinner shows and more.
In 1986, Dolly partnered with Herschend Family Entertainment to redevelop a theme park in Pigeon Forge, near Sevierville. Previously, the park had been Silver Dollar City, Goldrush Junction and Rebel Railroad.
Today, Dollywood is a beautifully landscaped 160-acre park with more than 50 rides and attractions, including Lightning Rod (the world’s fastest wooden roller coaster) and Wild Eagle (America’s first winged coaster). In 2023, the park will open its longest rollercoaster, Big Bear Mountain, a two-minute narrated hunt for the Big Bear that takes riders to heights of 66 feet at speeds that reach 48 mph.
The park’s most famous ride, though, is the Dollywood Express, a coal-fired steam train pulled by one of two historic engines, Klondike Katie, No. 192, or Cinderella, No. 70, that were used during World War II to transport troops and lumber across Alaska before it was a state.
Naturally, Dollywood is big on music. Parton family members perform regularly and Dolly pops in periodically. She was there during August to film “Magic Mountain Christmas,” a movie that will air this year on NBC.
Open from mid-March through Jan. 2, Dollywood’s calendar is filled with award-winning festivals, including the Harvest Festival (featuring crafters and elaborate pumpkin and owl light displays) and Smoky Mountain Christmas.
The American Eagle Foundation’s sanctuary at Dollywood rehabs injured and orphaned bald eagles, vultures, owls, and hawks. Eagles nest in a net-enclosed wooded grove. A bird show introduces visitors to winged residents and highlights conservation efforts.
Park visitors can view a replica of Dolly’s childhood home and walk through one of her tour buses.
While it’s not fine dining, Dollywood’s food is pretty dang good. You can sample country cooking at Aunt Granny’s buffet or try eateries that specialize in fried chicken; barbecue; or ham, beans and cornbread. Red’s Diner serves up burgers, fries, and shakes. Customers stand in line for Dollywood’s go-to goodie: cinnamon bread.
One-day tickets for adults are $89. Child and senior discounts, as well as combo attraction tickets, are available.
Dolly’s newest resorts
Dolly’s HeartSong Lodge and Resort, opening in 2023, is across the street from Dollywood and next door to Dolly’s DreamMore Resort and Spa, which opened in 2015.
Visiting DreamMore feels like being welcomed into Dolly’s home. With 300 rooms, which start at about $179 a night, it features pools, restaurants, a gym and spa, and family-friendly amenities. Nightly marshmallow roasts are held at outdoor firepits.
HeartSong will have a Smoky Mountain ambiance. It will be about the same size as DreamMore and have similar amenities.
HeartSong, Big Bear Mountain, and some unannounced projects are part of a decade-long $500 million Dollywood investment plan.
Other Dolly ventures
From May to September, sun-lovers can visit Splash County, a 35-acre water park adjacent to Dollywood. Themed around Dolly’s memories of swimmin’ in mountain streams, the park features water slides, a wave pool, a rapids ride, and a pool with a waterfall, geyser, jets, and bubblers. One-day adult admission is about $50.
After leaving the parks, you can stop in downtown Pigeon Forge to see the life-size bronze statue of Dolly strumming her guitar on the Sevier County Courthouse lawn. Sculpted by late Tennessee artist Jim Gray, the statue was erected in 1987.
For dinner, you can choose between Dolly’s Pirates Voyage Dinner Show or Dolly Parton’s Stampede Dinner Theatre. Tickets are $70 for adults, $35 for kids.
The Pirates Voyage, which opened in 2019 in Pigeon Forge, features an acrobatic pirate battle, mermaids, and tropical birds. Dinner includes creamy vegetable soup, fried chicken, ham, corn on the cob, an herb-basted potato, and the “Walk the Plank Peach Turnover.” (Vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free meals available upon request.).
A Pigeon Forge staple for 35 years (there’s also one in Branson, Missouri), the Stampede features a similar four-course meal and an equestrian show billed as a “friendly competition between the North and the South.”
The attraction was rebranded in 2018 after years of being the not-so-politically correct “Dixie Stampede” that played on Civil War rivalries. Kerfuffle over cultural insensitivity was quashed by Dolly who simply owned the edit in her inimitable style.
“As soon as you realize that (something) is a problem, you should fix it. Don’t be a dumbass,” she said at the time. “I would never dream of hurting anybody on purpose.”