PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — For the first time in 13 years, I made the three-hour drive from Nashville to Dollywood for a weekend getaway. Dolly Parton herself visited the theme park just one day before my friend and I got there, so we missed her annual welcome parade through Pigeon Forge. And I skipped all the water rides inside the park because it was too cold that day to walk around wet.
Our timing was all wrong, but it’s all right. Spending a day in Dollywood during the off-season is a welcome change from the 9-to-5 routine.
Since it was a dreary Sunday in April, we walked right up to the roller coasters and jumped in. The first drop of Thunderhead, a massive wooden roller coaster, promptly plunges you 100 feet down into an S-curve, and if you manage to loosen your grip, you can wave at the people in line as you fly through the station. A few steps away, Mystery Mine is both terrifying and exhilarating. At one point, you’re slowly moving straight up, with your toes pointing up at the sky and your back parallel to the ground — then … swoosh! When we checked out the ride photos afterwards, my face looked like one of those jaw-deforming Scream masks. This ride opened last year, to the tune of $17.5 million. With all those curves, I needed to just walk for a little bit. Isn’t there like a song-and-dance revue or a museum or something around these parts?
Yes, and that’s where you’ll find most of the adults in Dollywood. We briefly popped into a few shows that were part of Dollywood’s Festival of Nations. The Mexican dance show was filled to the back row, and so was the Russian National Theatre’s wintry presentation. Irish lads were teaching tourists about their unique drums. I had never heard music from Ecuador before, and I loved the soothing woodwinds after getting roughed up on all those rides.
If you’re into roller coasters, you won’t want to eat early, although it seems like every restaurant in Pigeon Forge specializes in pancakes. We curbed our appetite in a Dollywood bakery by splitting a small loaf of sticky cinnamon bread. The cashier expressed his concern that we didn’t order our own loaves. “You’ll be back,” he said.
The last time I was at Dollywood, she had recently released Heartsongs: Live From Home, an album she recorded at the park. This was before a lot of Parton’s plastic surgery, which I only bring up because she looked so different in the Heartsong movie, which plays in the Heartsong Theatre throughout the day. It’s kind of corny, but I couldn’t get that “Heartsong” tune out of my head all day. This may be the right time in the story to rattle off one of my favorite Dolly quotes: “I look just like the girls next door … if you live next door to an amusement park.” And if you want to look like one of those girls, you can pick up some shiny new clothes at Dolly’s Closet, a store I spent about, oh, about five seconds in. Why’d you come in here lookin’ like that?
Late in the afternoon, we stumbled across a palatial building colorfully splashed with these words: “Chasing Rainbows.” Occasionally you’ll hear her songs in the background in various parts of the park, but this is the best place to completely absorb the life of Dolly Parton, from her childhood “coat of many colors” to voluptuous mannequins with, uh, colorful wardrobe choices.
Born in 1946, Parton grew up with 11 siblings in a tiny cabin in Locust Ridge, Tenn., and a replica is quietly nestled amid the multi-million-dollar roller coasters. Her uncle, Bill Owens, bought her a guitar when she was 10 and secured an appearance for her at a Knoxville TV station. (How cool is this: Owens now performs at Dollywood in a tribute show where Parton’s family and friends sing her music.) She moved to Nashville after high school and met her future husband on her first day in town. A country singer named Bill Phillips had hits with two songs that Parton and Owens wrote, then she signed up as the “girl singer” on Porter Wagoner’s syndicated TV show. Country fans noticed her right away. Who wouldn’t? In the mid ’70s, she successfully re-launched her solo career and found worldwide fame by crossing over into pop music.
In 1986, she upgraded an amusement park near her hometown and christened it Dollywood. Though she still tirelessly promotes her music career, she’s now considered a living legend, and dozens of trophies (including some wooden CMA Awards) are displayed at the bottom of a grand staircase in the museum.
It was the middle of the afternoon by the time we soaked up every inch of the Chasing Rainbows exhibits. Taking a cue from “Here You Come Again,” we circled the park again, returning to Thunderhead and Mystery Mine, along with another very quick ride on Tennessee Tornado — with speeds up to 63 mph. We noticed that many of the same teenagers, who trickled in at the end of the day, immediately tumbled out of the train and scrambled to get right back in line. Late in the afternoon, we paused for a demonstration of blown glass, which had the younger kids captivated. And, yes, we did eventually buy another loaf of that delicious cinnamon bread.
As the weather warms up this summer, it’s a sure bet kids will flock to the water rides, as well as Dolly’s Splash Country. Meanwhile, their parents can find relief in the air conditioned theaters. As for me, I’m going back in the fall for Barbeque & Bluegrass (Sept. 5-28). The kids will be back in school, but it should still be hot enough to enjoy getting soaked. I can hear it now: “Islands in the stream/That is what we are …”