First-Timer’s Guide to Dollywood

by Anne Braly

Dollywood's DreamMore Resort has a large heated swimming pool for summer fun/photo by Anne Braly

There were a lot of firsts on my recent trip to Dollywood. It was the first time I’d ever seen a 25-pound apple pie, though I’d heard plenty about it. It was the first time I’d been offered moonshine in a restaurant. I was outside the park – there’s no alcohol inside the park. But my server did offer me moonshine — right before a family feud. More on that later.

A replica of the small cabin Dolly Parton lived in as a child is a sight to see at Dollywood/photo by Anne Braly

Actually, it was the first time I’d ever been to Dollywood, as much as I hate to admit it, being a Tennessee girl.

For the uninitiated, or if you need a refresher course, there are some tips to follow to ensure a smooth entry. For starters, do your homework ahead of time. The park’s app and its website, www.dollywood.com, has a wealth of information, from ticket sales to a detailed map with every spot in the park marked, right down to the bathroom locations. Download the map and learn the lay of the land. This is a big park – 150-plus acres – with 11 different themed areas, each with their own personalities but all reflecting aspects of founder and country music sensation Dolly Parton’s life or the history and culture of Southern Appalachia.

The Mystery Mine coaster takes riders deep inside a mine shaft, while the Wild Eagle, in the backgound, takes riders on a screaming ride with two huge loops while they sit in seats beneath the track, open to land and sky/photo by Anne Braly

You can also buy tickets in advance online; book a room at DreamMore Resort – heated pool, comfortable rooms; s’mores by the campfire at night; dining inside or out with views of the pool and gardens. The app and website are a one-stop, get-it-done Dollywood planning experience.

When entering the park, families with young children should stop by the height measuring center and have children measured. Some rides aren’t designed for little riders, so they will be given color-coded wrist bands and a hand-out showing which rides are appropriate for your child. Also, there are signs at the entrance to each ride indicating what colors are appropriate.

There is also a quiet room near the entrance where parents with disabled children or guests with sensory sensitivity can calm down. The park can be a loud, busy place and sometimes a little too much for some people. There are experts on hand who can help you.

Dollywood is organized into 11 themed areas that reflect the life of park founder and country music legend Dolly Parton as well as the history and culture of Southern Appalachia: Showstreet, Rivertown Junction, Craftsman’s Valley, The Village, Country Fair, Timber Canyon, Wilderness Pass, Jukebox Junction, Owens Farm, Adventures in Imagination, and its newest area, Wildwood Grove.

Showstreet

Showstreet is the first area you’ll encounter as you enter the park. This is not an area for rides. It’s mostly shopping and entertainment with venues including the popular concert hall, Showstreet Palace Theater and the Celebrity Theater. It’s also the place to have your children measured for height to see which rides are appropriate for them, as well as Doggywood located right outside the front gate. Dogs aren’t allowed in the park, but if you simply cannot leave Fido at home, he or she can stay at Doggywood for the day starting at $25. Reservations are necessary and space is limited so plan ahead.

Dining along Showstreet: The main attraction in this area is Front Porch Café, a full-service restaurant with sandwiches, salads, soups and the like. If you’re just thirsty, there’s a stand along the pathway where you can pick up a cup of frozen lemonade. Pair that with a piece of salted caramel fudge from Spotlight Bakery and your sugar rush has begun.

Rivertown Junction

You can’t go to Dollywood and not see the house in which she was born. Actually, it’s a replica of the tiny two-room cabin where the Partons lived in Locust Ridge, Tenn., outside Sevierville. You’ll find it amazing how the family managed to live in such a small space with no electricity or running water. Behind the cabin is the Back Porch Theater where you can catch one of the park’s newest musical productions, A Brighter Day. No reservations are needed, but get there a few minutes early; otherwise you might be standing on the sidelines.

Rides: The primary ride in Rivertown Junction is the splashy Smoky Mountain River Rampage, a whitewater rafting experience. Plan on getting wet.

Dining in Rivertown: Aunt Granny’s, once a buffet restaurant, is now, due to COVID-19, a full-service restaurant — at least, for the time being — with servers dressed in country costume bringing bowls filled with Southern specialties to the table, such as fried chicken, pot roast, chicken and dumplin’s, pinto beans, mac and cheese — a literal smorgasbord. It’s an all-you-can-eat gastronomic experience, so come hungry and leave full as a tick.

Craftsman’s Valley

This is a lovely area along the creek with a lot to offer, including a wonderful partnership with the American Eagle Foundation. Learn how birds of prey live and see them up close and personal at one of the Wings of America shows. It’s a free event in the Wings of America Theater with several shows daily. You can also see bald eagles in their natural habitat perched along the hillside behind the theater. These are birds that have been injured and cannot be released into the wild, but some are breeding pair and their offspring are released when ready.

Craftsmen demonstrating traditional Appalachian crafts – glassblowing, woodcarving and leather making among them – are in shops around Craftsman’s Valley. Stop in and see them in action. It’s a good learning experience for kids. Other attraction in the area include the Robert F. Thomas Chapel where services are still held every Sunday; and the one-room Calico Falls Schoolhouse.

Rides: There are nine roller coasters at Dollywood, and Craftsman’s Valley is where you’ll find two of them. Tennessee Tornado is known for its signature first drop and lots of loop de loops. Blazing Fury is the park’s oldest coaster and goes underground, carrying a theme of a town being engulfed in flames – a mindbender, for sure. You’ll also find the Daredevil Falls flume ride in Craftsman’s Valley.

dollywood
Park guests line up at The Grist Mill to get a loaf of Cinnamon bread, the most-popular of all Dollywood food items/photo by Anne Braly

Dining: There’s a reason why the park sells T-shirts that say: I ONLY CAME FOR THE CINNAMON BREAD. Craftsman’s Valley is where you’ll find this Dollywood treasure. The line gets long come midday, so plan on getting there as soon as the park opens to avoid long lines for a loaf of homemade cinnamon bread dripping with butter, brown sugar and cinnamon. Also in Craftsman’s Valley, you’ll find Granny Ogle’s Ham ‘n’ Beans, a sit-down eatery with Southern specialties; Miss Lillian’s Smokehouse with its new smoked brisket sliders; and several food kiosks for treats on the go.

The Village

Known by Dollywood old-timers as Village Square but now known simply as The Village, this area is best known by the familiar blowing of the horn of Dollywood Express as it leaves the station. The Dollywood Express is a full-size steam engine. Hop aboard and take a 2.5-mile tour around The Village, up the side of a mountain and back. It’s a historic ride that lets you sit and rest your legs for a while and see the park from a different perspective. Also in The Village you’ll find the old-fashioned Village Carousel and Heartsong Theater where you can watch a film that takes you on a journey around the Smoky Mountains while Dolly shares her story and memories about some of her favorite places.

Dining: Every park must have a pizza place, and you’ll find one of two in The Village – Victoria’s Pizza. Try one of the new flatbreads. The mascarpone cheese pizza dressed with arugula, artichoke hearts and prosciutto drizzled with balsamic is especially delicious.

Country Fair

Imagine you’re at your county fair with fun rides for kids, ice cream and Dippin’ Dots. That’s what you’ll find in Country Fair, the downhome area of the park.

Rides: Dizzy Disk, The Amazing Flying Elephants, Lemon Twist , Shooting Star, Sky Rider, The Waltzing Swinger, Piggy Parade, Busy Bees, Lucky Ducky, Demolition Derby (bumper cars), and The Scrambler. Some of the rides have height restrictions, but with games and festival-type foods, it’s a place for kids.

Dining: Grandstand Café is the main dining venue in Country Fair and is the only place in this area to find something besides sugary sweets, including award-winning fried chicken, hot dogs, sandwiches and salads.

Timber Canyon

Timber Canyon is reminiscent of a time when logging ruled The Smokies, and one of the main features you’ll see when you approach this area is Thunderhead, a wooden coaster that rules the skies overhead. There are a handful of shops in Timber Canyon and just a couple of eateries – Lumber Jack’s Pizza and Drop Line Dippin’ Dots.

Rides: There’s a second coaster in Timber Canyon, Mystery Mine, that takes you on a thrilling ride deep inside a “mine shaft” then back out again to vertical lifts and drops. And then there’s the Drop Line, if you dare – a 20-story-tall freefall experience that gives you amazing views of the park — for a minute — before it drops you back down to Earth.

Jukebox Junction

This is a fun area – a throwback to the 1950s when carhops and hot rods dominated small town life.

Rides: The Rockin’ Roadway car ride lets you experience the pleasure of driving a classic convertible down a roadway set in the 1950s. And this is the place to ride the world – famous Lightning Rod, a coaster made of wood and steel that’s fast as greased lightning.

Dining: Red’s Drive-In has menu classics from the 1950s – bacon cheeseburgers, a side of fries and really thick, frosty milkshakes. The décor inside and out is fashioned after Red’s Café, a restaurant in Sevierville where Dolly tasted her first hamburger as a little girl.

Owens Farm

The Barnstormer, a thrilling coaster that simulates the daring stunts of pilots back in the 1920s, is the highlight of a visit to Owens Farm. While the older kids are screaming through the air, the young ‘uns can dance around a splash pad or play on the Lil’ Pilots playground.

Adventures in Imagination

Take a turn off Showstreet and take time to visit Dolly Parton’s Chasing Rainbows Museum. It’s everything Dolly with pieces of her life that come together under one roof. Some displays go back to her childhood in the cabin on up to her life as a star of country music. Secret notes passed in elementary school, the outfits she’s worn in her concerts, words to songs scribbled on paper – she kept it all and it’s all on display.

One of her favorite tour buses is also available for tours, post-COVID.

There are no rides here, no restaurants. Just pieces of history – important pieces of a Tennessee legend.

Wilderness Pass

Grab your hat! The Wild Eagle has landed and is ready again for take-off, but first, walk around the plaza and dip your hand in wax to create a mold of your wrist and hand – rings, bracelets and all – creating a one-of-a-kind keepsake to remind you of your trip to Dollywood.

Rides: The Wild Eagle is America’s first wing coaster and is perched 21 stories above Dollywood. It will take your breath away – literally – as it races below, not on, the track. There’s nothing but air above and below the rider. This is a coaster not for the timid. And though the FireChaser Express takes riders on a less-harrowing ride, it’s an exhilarating one, blasting riders not only forward, but backward, too.

Dining: You might want to save a hot dog from The Dog House until after you get off the Wild Eagle. Just saying. There are also funnel cakes to be found in Wilderness Pass.

Wildwood Grove

This area is Dollywood’s newest. It opened in 2019, but then COVID hit, so not many people have had the chance to check it out. This is a section for kids young and old. It’s home to storybook woodland characters who greet you as you walk around a plaza dominated by a fantastical Wildwood Tree, 50 feet tall and bedecked with colorful butterflies that glitter in the breeze and light up at night. It magically plays music, too, from its gnarly bark. Cool your toes in the nearby creek, then set off for adventure in Hidden Hollow where there’s a collection of kid-friendly things to do.

Rides: There’s a modest swing ride, not as terrifying as some. A roller coaster, the Dragonflier, that’s short but filled with excitement as it speeds along a twisting path with turns and drops. The Treetop Tower takes you up in the air in seats of acorns before gently bringing you back down, and the Mad Mockingbird takes riders on a whimsical flight as it dips and soars.

Dining: Till & Harvest Food Hall is an open-air dining venue that puts a Southern spin on Mexican fare. It’s like Chipotle and other build-your-own burrito and bowl places. But at this hall, you can get your bowl filled with grits before adding your favorite Mexican toppings.

Dinner Theater

And finally, what caused that family feud? Blame it on the Hatfields and McCoys and one of the most entertaining dinner shows in all of Pigeon Forge. The Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud is an all-you-can-eat event that’s a spoof on history and a lot of fun. Enjoy the evening with a commemorative glass of moonshine, if you dare. The dinner show is a rousing way to conclude your day at Dollywood and Pigeon Forge.


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