Dolly Parton’s Dollywood Turns 25 With Challenge Courses, Country Music and Christmas Lights

Hometown Theme Park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Offers Roller Coasters, Crafts and Star's Museum

PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — It’s been 25 years since Dolly Parton bought a relatively small theme park near her hometown and christened it Dollywood. Today it offers everything you’d want in a family attraction, from surprisingly scary roller coasters and kid-friendly water rides to crowd-pleasing live shows and a big gift shop. Of course, Parton is a master of reinvention, and because of her connection to the park, Dollywood isn’t just the same old song and dance, year after year.

To commemorate the 25th season, Parton and her business partners, Herschend Family Enterprises, unveiled a $6 million challenge course at the far end of the park where tourists of every shape and size safely strap themselves into a vest and harness, then tentatively make their way across a variety of rope swings, mountain facades and wobbly wooden steps. And looking up, they can see — and occasionally hear the screams of — adventurous visitors soaring on the Great Smoky Mountain Skyzip, high above the 150-acre park.

Every year, Parton personally rides a parade float through Pigeon Forge, visits the theme park and unveils a new attraction. In 2009, she wrote eight new songs for the extravagant Sha-Kon-a-Hey! Land of Blue Smoke, a mystical musical about the last family to leave the Smoky Mountains. The year before that, the River Battle ride encouraged families to pile onto a raft and soak other families with water guns.

Of course, there are the perennial favorites, too. The Tennessee Tornado is a triple-loop steel roller coaster that reaches 70 miles per hour and surges with back-to-back 360-degree loops. Across the park, the wooden Thunderhead races by at 55 miles per hour. Meanwhile, Mystery Mine takes a 95-degree, 85-foot vertical drop — and that’s just in the beginning. If all that sounds too intense, the relatively mild Blazing Fury may work as a launching point for the younger set. And there’s almost always a seat on the Dollywood Express steam locomotive.

For Parton’s own legion of fans, the Chasing Rainbows Museum is the ultimate draw. Parton displays a massive amount of photographs and keepsakes from her own archives, with the most impressive piece being the modest patchwork jacket that inspired her classic song, “Coat of Many Colors.” Just a few steps beyond it, a grand staircase leads into an awe-inspiring room of outfits, awards, magazine covers and multi-media exhibits. The newest addition may be the graduation cap and gown(s) she wore when the University of Tennessee in Knoxville presented her with an honorary doctorate degree in 2009.

“I always thought that if I made it big or got successful at what I had started out to do, that I wanted to come back to my part of the country and do something great, something that would bring a lot of jobs into this area,” Parton told The Associated Press earlier this year. “Sure enough, I was lucky, and God was good to me and things happened good. We started the park, and 25 years later, we’re still at it.”

Parton’s likeness is scarcely seen across the park landscape, but her music accentuates a few of the attractions. There’s a quaint shop called Old Flames Candles, named after her No. 1 hit, “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You.” Her uncle Bill Owens, who brought a young Parton to Nashville to pursue a music career, sings and picks at the Back Porch Theater while some of her cousins perform hits like “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You.”

In a quieter part of the park, more than a dozen bald eagles reside in an aviary while craftsmen explain traditional skills such as glassblowing and blacksmithing. A large hall of photographs describes the evolution from the former Silver Dollar City into what has become the top ticketed tourist attraction in Tennessee, bringing in about 2.3 million visitors a year.

Nearby, a one-room church is named for Robert F. Thomas, the doctor who delivered Parton in 1946. As the fourth of 12 children, she grew up poor in a part of Sevier County called Locust Ridge. A replica of her Tennessee Mountain Home is on prominent display in the park, next to a buffet restaurant called Aunt Granny’s, lifting the nickname she was given by her numerous nieces and nephews. It’s not hard to find a quick bite anywhere in the park, though, with a breakfast stop recommended at the Spotlight Bakery, just a few steps from the entrance.

Parton’s other properties in Pigeon Forge include the Dixie Stampede, a fork-free dinner theater that pits the north side of the coliseum against the south side, with the winner largely determined by animal races and audience participation. Dollywood Vacations is a community of mountain cabins nestled behind the park. Meanwhile, Dollywood’s Splash Country cools off the kids with water slides, wave pools and river tubing. The summer-only attraction will be open this year through Sept. 6.

Starting on Sept. 29, the park will host a month-long National Gospel and Harvest Celebration. That’s followed by Smoky Mountain Christmas, elaborately decorated for the season from Nov. 6 through Jan. 1, 2011. After that, if the last 25 years are any indication, the future certainly holds something new and unexpected.

See photos of Dollywood.
Craig Shelburne has been writing for since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.