THREE MONTHS AGO, my globe-trotting mother suggested a family vacation so bizarre we pretended not to hear her. When she mentioned it again, we avoided eye contact and quickly changed the subject. After she brought it up a third time, my sister turned to me and said with a sigh, “OK, I guess we’re going to Dollywood.” Then she added, “But let’s not tell anyone.”
Dolly Parton’s theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, probably isn’t on the list of dream destinations for many Bostonians. None of my friends had been there, and most had never even heard of Pigeon Forge. Whenever I told someone where I was going, I would get laughs but no recommendations or advice. But as Dollywood celebrates its 30th anniversary, it might be time for New Englanders to give it a try. After all, if the Zac Brown Band can sell out three nights in a row at Fenway Park, we’re surely ready to enjoy the playground of the queen of country music.
To be honest, no one in my family was particularly devoted to Dolly Parton before our trip. We appreciated her skills as a singer, songwriter, and actress, just not enough to ever see her in concert. And before my mother heard her friend raving about Dollywood in yoga class, we never dreamed of making a pilgrimage to the park of the self-described hillbilly. But my mom was persistent, and being game for anything, we made plans for 12 of us — yes, 12 — to spend five days in Tennessee in June.
I come from a large family. The four siblings, spouses, and multiple nieces and nephews get along so well that we often travel together. Several times a year, someone will throw out an idea for an adventure, and whoever can swing it will join. These days, many of our trips revolve around my mother’s seven grandkids, whose ages range from 3 to 18. We took most of them to Disney World last Thanksgiving, so as we headed south this time, we couldn’t help comparing the two parks.
Dollywood is different. That’s clear as soon as you approach the front gate with its mere four turnstiles. Instead of adopting the herd mentality as at Disney, we lingered to chitchat with the greeters. Lesson number one: This is the South; there’s a lot of chitchatting.
We are Disney veterans, so we automatically snap to, strategizing which sections to tackle to maximize efficiency and minimize lines — other people aren’t fellow visitors; they’re the competition. Yet, instead of rushing around Dollywood in a “can we cover it all?” low-grade panic, my family enjoyed it at a leisurely pace. Maybe it’s a Southern thing, but we all slowed down, strolled, and hopped on whatever rides we happened upon.
Don’t get me wrong: Disney never disappoints. If you aren’t having fun at the happiest place on earth, it’s your own fault. But this may come as a surprise to you, because it certainly did to me: In many ways, we liked Dollywood more.
DOLLYWOOD AND ITS SISTER ATTRACTION, Dollywood’s Splash Country Water Adventure Park, together draw more than 2.5 million visitors annually, making them the most popular ticketed attractions in Tennessee. Great Smoky Mountains National Park — which charges no admission fee — brings in another 10 million sightseers. But even with those big numbers, Pigeon Forge is not easy to reach from Boston. (See “How to Get There.”)
My siblings joining this trip live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Atlanta, so they were able to drive to Dollywood in just a few hours. I flew from Logan to Knoxville, Tennessee, with one stopover — there are no direct flights from Boston — then my family picked me up for the 40-minute drive to the park. Because I was booking last minute, I couldn’t help but notice it would have been cheaper to fly to Paris. However, with a little more notice, you can find round trips to Knoxville for around $350.
Although we planned five days in Tennessee, we would commit only to single-day tickets to Dollywood. We also thought we might visit the national park for a hike or spend a day at the 35-acre Splash Country, which offers 27 water slides and is open Memorial Day through Labor Day (Dollywood itself is generally closed most of January into March). You can buy separate tickets or combination passes that include both parks.
But we weren’t far past those four turnstiles on Day One when we felt like skipping down the sidewalks. The first part of Dollywood looks very much like Disney’s Main Street USA, with lots of charm and cute shops. At 150 acres — roughly the size of Six Flags New England in Agawam — the park is big enough for a visit of multiple days, but small enough that you don’t need monorails or other modes of mass transportation to get around.
Dollywood is focused on thrilling rides set against the backdrop of an old-time country village. Among the 10 subsections of the park, the County Fair has the most kids’ rides, Craftsmen’s Valley features many shops as well as replicas of a mountain chapel and a schoolhouse, and Timber Canyon and Wilderness Pass are where you find most of the roller coasters.
The park is not the shrine to Dolly Parton we had feared, though there is enough about her to deepen your respect for her life and work. We enjoyed the replica of the tiny two-room log cabin where she and her 11 siblings grew up, as well as a museum featuring mementos from her enormously impressive career. You feel her genuine love for her people and her heritage. Parton got involved in the park to give back to her community, and with some 3,000 on staff, it is by far the largest employer in the area.
Dollywood is surely profitable, but you never feel profits are a driving force. Kids aren’t hopped up on some cartoon character or the latest movie release — our brood didn’t end up buying a single souvenir during our visit. It was refreshing to ride a log flume that was simply a log flume, not a branded experience. And it was a joy to come giggling off a roller coaster to turn around and hop on again.
In fact, that may be the number one reason to visit Dollywood: the lack of long lines. During our Thanksgiving Disney trip, we had waited 45 to 70 minutes for each attraction, even with FastPasses. We actually created a game to distract the young ones by having them keep count of all the little girls dressed as Elsa (my nephew spotted 86 in one day and earned bonus points for the adult visitors dressed as Elsa). At Dollywood, our longest wait was 15 minutes.
Dollywood is justifiably famous for roller coasters. The park has seven great ones, ranging from throwback wooden coasters to modern thrillers that spin and twist you upside down. The Wild Eagle has hundred-foot loops and reaches speeds of more than 60 miles per hour. It suspends riders on wings off a center track, adding to the sensation of free fall. In March, the park will open the $22 million Lightning Rod, which will reach 73 miles per hour, making it the fastest wooden roller coaster in the world.
For those who don’t like high-speed thrills, there are plenty of other options. We rode carousels, Ferris wheels, spinning teacups, and bumper cars that had us laughing wildly. There are shops where you can make your own crafts, or you can watch as woodworkers, blacksmiths, potters, and candle makers ply their trades. And there’s something sweet about watching people gathering around simple games — like trying to win a stuffed animal at the ring toss — and chitchatting.
The food at Dollywood has won many awards, but Yankees beware: You’re in for some culinary culture shock. The park has 25 restaurants or food establishments that mostly feature Southern cooking. The funnel cakes are famous, as are the candy apples, and there’s fare like ham and beans, corn dogs, and kettle corn. As with the rides, you don’t have to stand in line, call days ahead for reservations, or dine at 5 p.m. Most places we visited took walk-ins, even for our group of 12.
The most famous restaurant is Aunt Granny’s All-You-Care-to-Eat Buffet, where the portion sizes and fat content are outrageous ($16 for adults). But if you’ve never experienced a true Southern feast of collard greens, chicken-fried steak, and biscuits, you only live once. (You just won’t live long if you eat like that every day.) Another crowd-pleasing restaurant is also a buffet: Miss Lillian’s Chicken House, which specializes in fried chicken and all the sides ($14 for adults).
My family tends to graze rather than sit for big meals, and we sampled great snacks throughout the park. You can eat a fairly healthy diet, as long as you avoid things like the 25-pound apple pie served in a 2-foot-wide cast-iron skillet for $130. For sweets, we returned again and again for the gooey, homemade cinnamon bread at the Grist Mill, a working mill with a giant water wheel. Find it by following the scent. The bread, served hot and dripping in icing, is so popular that there are all sorts of attempts to replicate the recipe online.
On the recommendation of a local friend, we dined one night at Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant & Grill, about a 15-minute drive from Dollywood. Every visitor to the popular restaurant is served warm apple fritters with homemade apple butter and a non-alcoholic “Applewood julep.” For adults looking for something stronger, the Apple Barn winery is also on the property. As the restaurant often has a wait, there are rocking chairs on the big porch where you can sit — and shoot the breeze, of course. The dining is best done family-style in order to sample dishes like trout cakes, which are rarely found north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
After dinner, it was back to our lodgings. Since my family was all in for an authentic Southern experience, we booked a cabin not far from the park. You can rent cabins directly through Dollywood, but those were sold out for our last-minute trip. Instead, we found ours through Cabins of the Smoky Mountains, which rents about 500 cabins in the area (some pet-friendly), ranging in size from one to 18 bedrooms. (See “Where To Stay.”)
In reality, our cabin was less about rustic living and more about luxury “glamping.” Our three-story cabin had six en suite bedrooms and could sleep 18 with bunk beds and pullout couches (that size rents for about $300 to $1,000 per night). It also had a hot tub, pool table, two game rooms, a home theater, and — the ultimate necessity when visiting Tennessee in June — AC.
Staying in the cabin turned out to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of our trip. At the end of each day, we returned to a real (albeit huge) cabin, in the real woods, abuzz with real lightning bugs, not a cabin-themed hotel. I can still see my family sitting in that log cabin, talking and laughing.
DESPITE OUR HIGH ENERGY and excitement, we couldn’t cover even a third of Dollywood’s rides and attractions on our first day. We returned for Day Two and, before long, knew we’d be back for Day Three. We were having far more fun than expected while spending far less. As my sister remarked at one point, “Dolly really gets the 99 percent.”
The park has two standing offers that are excellent for the budget-minded. Dollywood closes at 10 every night in the summer. If you enter after 3 p.m., you can reuse that ticket for the entire next day. You can also upgrade a single-entry ticket ($62 for adults) to a season pass ($99) while you’re in the park, with no surcharge. We opted to upgrade, making our visit just $34 a day per adult, $29 for each kid. The passes include unlimited rides and all the shows and concerts (other than separate-admission events and festivals), which take place all over the park. Only the hourlong zipline adventure carries an additional charge (about $40).
During our three days, we enjoyed the shows as much as the rides. The summer headliner during our visit was “The Gazillion Bubble Show.” Don’t snicker. The performer, who is part magician and part acrobat, combines skillful bubble blowing with multimedia vignettes, music, and lasers. We were mesmerized, especially when he filled the entire theater with bubbles that looked like snow. Another must is riding the Dollywood Express, a coal-powered steam train that takes you through the forest and foothills around the park.
You would expect a place called Dollywood to have excellent country music, and there is plenty of it, performed in large, air-conditioned theaters and smaller, open-air venues. The talent is impressive. One show we really enjoyed, “Country Crossroads,” has six singer-dancers performing medleys tracing the history and highlights of country music.
At times, the music even comes to you. We were near some sanitation workers, or so we thought — until they burst into song and dance, flash mob style.
Even if country music is not your genre, you’ll recognize the songs, know the words, and find yourself singing along. And there’s nothing like country music to remind even hardened Northerners that we all fall in love, get our hearts broken, and yet do it all over again.
This year Dollywood celebrates its three-decade anniversary with even more entertainment. While Dolly herself is not a regular performer, she played two live shows this summer, in part to benefit one of her charities that promotes literacy by sending books to children every month from birth to age 5. Next spring, the park will once again host the Festival of Nations, featuring international music and dance. Another yearly festival is devoted to Barbecue and Bluegrass.
As for members of my once-skeptical family, we’re already talking about returning for the holiday concerts in a few months, when the park will be illuminated with 4 million lights. And why not? We have those season passes.
HOW TO GET THERE
> Knoxville, Tennessee
The closest airport to Dollywood is Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Airport, less than an hour away by car. A recent search shows round-trip flights from Boston averaging $350 with one stop.
> Asheville, North Carolina
The next closest airport is Asheville Regional, about a two-hour drive away. Round-trip flights from Logan are around $400 with one stop.
If you want to make it a longer trip and visit this country music mecca, you can take the scenic drive from there to Dollywood in 3½ hours. Round-trip flights from Logan are around $250 with one stop — for now. Next spring, JetBlue is planning to roll out twice-daily round-trip service from Boston.
WHERE TO STAY
> Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort
In late July, after our visit, Dollywood opened its new 300-room DreamMore, which is described as both luxurious and family-friendly. It offers restaurants, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a spa, a kids’ camp, and perks like exclusive access times to certain rides.
> Cabins of the Smoky Mountains
This company, voted the best family resort in the Smokies by Southern Living magazine, offers about 500 cabin rentals in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. (You can also book cabins through the theme park.) Per-night prices range from around $100 for a one-bedroom that sleeps four to $3,000 for a “cabin” that sleeps 58.
With dozens of hotels (and private home rentals) in the area, there is bound to be a place that fits your budget. The Inn at Christmas Place, in Pigeon Forge, is holiday-themed.
Janet Wu is a reporter/anchor on Boston’s 7News. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.