I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
May 1, 2018
If you live within driving distance of the Great Smoky Mountains, visiting Dollywood is a rite of passage. Country legend Dolly Parton put her name on the theme park back in 1986 and since then, millions have flocked to the area, transforming sleepy Pigeon Forge, Tennessee into a bustling tourist town filled with hotels, restaurants, and attractions. I have great memories of visiting Dollywood my grandparents as a kid, and so do many of my friends. Those memories are a big part of what keeps me coming back with my own children now that I’m an adult.
How would I describe the Dollywood experience? Imagine an Appalachian-themed Disney World and you come pretty darn close. With the addition of the elegant-yet-comfortable DreamMore Resort and two different Dolly-themed dinner theaters, you can now easily spend two days in Pigeon Forge without leaving the the Dollywood ‘bubble.’ When you see the place for yourself, trust me — You’ll want to stay in that bubble just as long as you possibly can!
We’ve been to dozens of theme parks over the years and Dollywood stands out for a number of reasons. Here’s what you need to know about Dollywood before you go.
In our family of six, we have one who suffers from motion sickness, one who’ll only brave the tamest of rides, one who’s slightly more daring, and three who’ve never met a roller coaster they didn’t love — so we look for theme parks with a (very!) wide range of rides. Dollywood excels in this department. You’ll find rides for every age and stage here, from babies to grandparents and everyone in between.
The Wild Eagle, the Tennessee Tornado, and the Barnstormer are just a few of the exhilarating options that will appeal to thrill seekers, while intermediate riders will love Daredevil Falls, the Mountain Slidewinder, the Smoky Mountain River Rampage, and the Firechaser Express. Junior coasters and milder rides like Blazing Fury will appeal to your younger family members, and there are plenty of rides like the carousel, the Amazing Flying Elephants, and the historic Dollywood Express that the whole family can enjoy together.
But rides are only part of what makes Dollywood so family-friendly. The real reason this park is truly multi-generational is that there are just as many attractions here for seniors and adults as there are for kids. Dollywood is a music mecca, with annual festivals celebrating bluegrass, Christian, gospel, and international music genres. Special concerts are scheduled throughout the year featuring popular performers like Amy Grant and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Visit the park during one of these festivals and you’ll find that many park goers are there for the music, not the rides.
Dollywood is also one of the few parks in America where it’s really worth your while to make time for shopping. Watch Dollywood’s blacksmith create hand-forged steel items at the Blacksmith & Foundry, visit Mountain Blown Glass and make your own glass blown ornament, or watch crafters in action at Valley Woodcarvers. Buy goat milk soap made on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau or choose from hundreds of hand-dipped candles at Old Flames Candles. You’ll find Appalachian arts and crafts everywhere you turn as well as shops featuring jewelry and tasteful home accessories, and it’s of note to add that the prices are very reasonable.
Y’all, this park is gorgeous on a scale that absolutely matches the Disney experience. So much attention has been paid to making Dollywood a beautiful, comfortable, and CLEAN park to visit, from the many shade trees and lush landscaping that helps keep you cool while waiting in line on a hot summer day to the regional art displays throughout the park. If you love local art like we do, you’ll really appreciate the audience Dollywood is giving to Appalachian artists. As an example, I was thrilled to recognize fairy houses created by former Disney Imagineer Art Millican Jr., which adorned the roof of a Dollywood food counter — We visited Millican’s whimsical studio in Blairsville, Georgia just last year!
Dollywood clearly embraces its role as an equal opportunity employer. Many senior citizens work in the park, and their friendliness and warmth adds much to the overall experience. I was also pleased to see a number of employees with physical challenges, as well as plenty of very well-trained teenagers and college-age workers. Whenever I visit Dollywoood, it strikes me anew that the company is doing its absolute best to find a place for motivated workers, no matter their age, stage, or limitations.
No joke. It’s worth a wait in line at the Grist Mill for a warm, gooey loaf of cinnamon bread. We went nuts when we tried it and immediately went back for seconds! In fact, just plan on coming to Dollywood hungry, because the park has won the coveted Golden Ticket award for best food four out of the last seven years and it doesn’t take long to understand why. Experienced parkgoers set aside time for the all-you-can-eat country buffet at Aunt Granny’s Restaurant, which includes down home favorites like cast iron cornbread, green beans, fried chicken, biscuits, and more. Looking for a meal on the go? Frannie’s Food Truck serves up the park’s super-popular fried chicken sandwich — The chicken, according to Dolly, is marinated in pickle brine for up to 8 hours and has a very distinctive flavor.
We also loved the funnel cake at Crossroads, and at the new Front Porch Cafe, word on the street is that the meatloaf is a must-try. Not only is it Dolly’s personal favorite dish, but a Food & Wine writer recently dubbed it ‘the most distinguished meatloaf I’ve had in years.’ Incidentally, the Front Porch Cafe is also the best place to go if you have a family member with a food allergy, sensitivity, or restriction. The chefs there are happy to work with you to come up with dishes that meet your needs.
I had been hearing good things about the new resort hotel at Dollywood and now that I’ve stayed there, I can enthusiastically recommend it. Enter the beautiful lobby of the DreamMore Resort and you’ll feel a bit like you’ve been transported to a Grand Hotel from a century ago, when it was expected that guests would want to spend much of their vacation in and around the hotel rather than using it as simply a place to sleep, shower and change.
You’ll find plenty of comfortable spaces to congregate at this resort, both indoors and out, as well as activities including live music, family movie nights, ranger talks in the barn, craft projects for both children and adults and a kids camp. The resort has indoor and outdoor swimming pools and my kids loved that the outdoor pool was heated, allowing them the fun of swimming outside on an unseasonably cold, rainy day. Rooms are spacious, comfortable, and designed with families in mind — Choose either a standard hotel room or one with a king-sized bed and bunk bed alcove for the kids.
The hotel also has a spa, a 24-hour fitness room, a game room, a lounge serving lunch and dinner, a grab and go market (where you can get Dollywood’s famous cinnamon bread!), and Song and Hearth, which features delicious southern breakfast and dinner buffets.
Best of all, resort guests get a number of special park perks that will enhance your Dollywood experience. Each guest receives a complimentary TimeSaver pass, which allows expedited entry to up to ten rides at the park each day — You can use this pass on ten different rides, or to go on a ride multiple times if you like — The choice is yours. Guests can also take a shuttle from the resort to the park, saving on the $12 Dollywood parking fee. Dollywood has a special entrance just for DreamMore guests, and guests can have their Dollywood purchases delievered straight to their hotel room.
When I hear the words ‘dinner theater,’ I don’t get very excited. Too often, it means a mediocre dinner and mediocre entertainment. Fortunately, we had an opportunity to see Dolly Parton’s Pirates Voyage Dinner & Show in Myrtle Beach last year, so we knew that Dolly’s dinner shows are a cut above the rest. She has two dinner shows in Pigeon Forge — Dolly Parton’s Stampede features horse riding stunts, special effects and musical numbers along with a four-course feast. We opted for the newer Smoky Mountain Adventures, which includes plenty of circus-style acrobatics, stunts, and excitement, along with a delicious four-course meal. There isn’t a bad seat in the house and believe me when I tell you the entertainment and food at any of Dolly’s dinner shows are going to be even better than what you’re expecting.
If you live within driving distance of the Smokies, you could easily plan a weekend getaway at the DreamMore Resort and spend your entire stay reveling in the clean, safe, comfortable shelter of Dolly’s world. If you’re staying in the area longer, there’s plenty more to do! Check out my curated list of 30 things to do with kids in nearby Gatlinburg We also spent a weekend in Sevierville — Here are my recommendations for that area. Both Gatlinburg and Sevierville are minutes away from Pigeon Forge.
Have a great time in the Smokies!