Do you have a “bucket list” – a list of places you want to visit, experiences you want to have or goals you want to accomplish in your life? I sure do! I’m lucky enough to have crossed a few items off my own list – visiting Europe, hiking to the Hollywood sign, dining at the Versace Mansion in Miami – but the list of things still left to do is a long one! I’m super excited about today’s post because it’s something that’s been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember – visiting Dollywood!
If you read my last post about Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, you may recall that I’m a huge Dolly Parton fan, and I have been since I was about 11 or 12 years old. I’ve always had eclectic and diverse music tastes, even as a kid – while my peers were listening to Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys (not to date myself here…!) I was listening to The Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Dolly Parton. Today I enjoy a wide range of music – my Spotify playlist includes artists from Lizzo to Miranda Lambert to Def Leppard – but Dolly will always be my number one. She’s not only written some of the greatest songs of our time – Jolene, 9 to 5, and I Will Always Love You, to name a few – but in addition to being an extremely talented musician, she’s also a pretty incredible human being. Here are just a few cool facts about Dolly:
- She donated $1 million to COVID research, which helped fund Moderna’s COVID vaccine.
- In 1995, Dolly started the Imagination Library, which gives children free books every month from birth until age five. The Imagination Library services 5 countries (including Canada!) and gifts over 1 million free books every month. Dolly dedicated the program to her father, who was unable to read or write.
- In the 1990s, Dolly started the Buddy Program to incentivize students in Sevier County to finish high school. Students were paired up, and if both they and their partner graduated, Dolly would give them a check for $500. This reduced the county’s dropout rate from over 30% to under 6%.
- After the 2016 Smoky Mountain wildfires, Dolly created the My People Fund to donate money to families who’d had their homes destroyed by the fires. The fund donated over $12.5 million to residents impacted by the fires.
- Dolly grew up in a very poor family; she was one of 12 children and they all lived in a two-room cabin in Sevierville with no electricity or running water. Regarding Dollywood, she said she “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.” Today, the park is Sevier County’s largest employer, was named among America’s best employers by Forbes, and offers free tuition to their employees.
I’m sure now you can see why I love Dolly so much! I’d also heard so many terrific things about Dollywood, so when we decided we were going to Tennessee, I knew the park was a must-visit. While planning our trip, I was lucky enough to connect with a PR representative at Dollywood who graciously set us up with two complimentary tickets to the park.* I’m so glad we got to experience Dollywood for ourselves because the experience was everything I could have hoped for and more! With over 50 rides and attractions, one couldn’t possibly cover all of Dollywood in one blog post (or even one visit) but I’m going to share some of my favourite highlights with you all!
Seasonal Events & Festivals At Dollywood
We visited Dollywood just as they were wrapping up their annual Harvest Festival, which celebrates all things autumn! The park was decorated with intricately carved jack-o-lanterns, whimsical pumpkin sculptures and various fall-themed installations. We especially loved seeing the ‘Colossal Pumpkins’: huge, prize-winning pumpkins from East Coast farmers that weigh anywhere from 800-1500 pounds!
Dollywood hosts seasonal festivals and events all throughout the year, so there’s never a bad time to visit. In spring, the Flower & Food Festival brings the park alive with imaginative floral sculptures and limited-edition menu items. Summer brings the Smoky Mountain Summer Celebration, which lights up the skies with a spectacular drone and fireworks show. And during the holiday season, Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas illuminates the park with over six million Christmas lights, and offers special holiday shows, food and shopping. All that to say…I may be planning another trip to Dollywood soon, because I want to experience the park in every season!
Things To Do At Dollywood
Dollywood Express: Neither Tania nor I are big roller coaster people (I admit; I’m chicken!) but there was one ride that we both couldn’t wait to try: the Dollywood Express. This old-fashioned coal-fired steam train takes visitors on a 20-minute ride through the park and up into the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, offering both a great bird’s-eye view of the park attractions and some gorgeous natural scenery. Our conductor played some Dolly songs for us and told us some interesting facts about the park along the way. The ride up into the mountains was beautiful with all of the fall colours surrounding us.
Eagle Mountain Sanctuary: Dollywood’s aviary is home to the United States’ largest presentation of non-releasable bald eagles, among other birds – like the cutie pictured below, Buzz the Black Vulture. These magnificent birds are unable to be released into the wild from reasons ranging from injuries to past abuse, but the good news is they are now being well taken care of by Dollywood and the American Eagle Foundation.
Live Music Shows: It wouldn’t be a Dolly Parton theme park without music! Dollywood has several live music shows taking place around the park at any given time. We got to see several bands performing as we walked around the park and they were all fantastic! Two of our favourites were the GloryWay Quartet, an award-winning gospel group that was performing in front of the park’s chapel, and a talented bluegrass band who was performing at the Showstreet Gazebo (sadly I can’t remember the band name.) Dollywood’s musical talent includes a regular lineup of performers as well as appearances from special guests, so there’s always something new to see.
Dolly’s Tennessee Mountain Home: Earlier I mentioned how Dolly’s story is a true rags-to-riches one, being raised with 11 brothers and sisters in a small one-room cabin. This exhibit is a replica of the home where Dolly grew up: it was built by her brother Bobby and the interior was decorated by her mother Avie Lee. It was difficult to take pictures inside due to dim lighting and glass reflections (the rooms are behind glass to protect the artifacts) but it was so interesting to see and I highly recommend it! It’s clear that Dolly has fond memories of her childhood despite being raised in tough conditions, which she speaks to beautifully in her famous song “Coat of Many Colors.”
Dolly’s Home On Wheels: After getting a glimpse into Dolly’s humble beginnings, you can time-travel to the opposite end of her rags-to-riches story and view her glitzy tour bus! While we were waiting to enter the bus, we learned some interesting facts from a park representative: for example, that the bus was built in Quebec, and that it was designed with several mirrored surfaces because Dolly is claustrophobic. It was so neat to tour the interior – it’s just as pink and glamorous as you’d expect!
Craftsman’s Valley: This is a section of the park that is dedicated to celebrating traditional craftsmanship. Walking through the valley, you’ll get to watch live demonstrations from blacksmiths, wood carvers, candle makers and leather workers. It was fascinating to watch these talented artisans at work!
Dollywood Emporium: The park has several souvenir shops, but the largest one – the Dollywood Emporium – is conveniently located near the park entrance/exit, so you can do your shopping before you leave and not have to carry shopping bags around. I’m not normally a big souvenir person, but here I couldn’t resist: I picked up a sparkly guitar-shaped Dolly keychain, a souvenir postcard, an “I Beg Your Parton” t-shirt, and a “What Would Dolly Do” mug. Unlike other theme parks I’ve visited, I was impressed by how reasonable the prices were!
Where To Eat At Dollywood
Unlike most theme parks where your culinary choices are typically limited to hot dogs, cotton candy and other ‘fairground’ snacks, Dollywood is actually renowned for their food, and is home to several top-rated eateries! As we were only there for a day, there was only so much we could eat, but here’s what we enjoyed while we were there.
The Grist Mill: If Dollywood is known for one food in particular, it’s undeniably their famous cinnamon bread, which is baked fresh daily at the Grist Mill. The mill was built in 1982 and at the time, it was the first operational grist mill constructed in Tennessee in over 100 years. We started our day with breakfast at the Grist Mill (if you’d like to check it out, I recommend going early like we did, as lines can get long later in the day.) We shared a pan of cinnamon bread and it was more than enough for two people – though I definitely could have eaten more! It really does live up to the hype: this cinnamon-y, sticky sweet, pull-apart bread is served warm with a side of vanilla icing, and makes a mouthwatering dessert (or indulgent breakfast).
Aunt Granny’s Restaurant: Aunt Granny’s is Dollywood’s most popular restaurant, and was voted one of the 10 best theme park restaurants in the U.S. by USA Today. The cost is $25 per person and the meals are served family-style. Each table gets to choose three main dishes, four sides, and one dessert per person from the menu. All the dishes (except the desserts) are refillable, so you can ask your server for more of anything you want! We decided to try the fried chicken, fried catfish and honey-glazed ham with sides of maple-glazed sweet potatoes, honey-glazed carrots, corn pudding and brussels sprouts. (Did I forget to mention all meals are also served with a plate of freshly baked biscuits?) For dessert, I got a slice of apple pie and Tania enjoyed the banana pudding. All of the dishes were delicious, but we especially enjoyed the fried chicken and corn pudding. Not surprisingly, we were absolutely stuffed after leaving! It’s a lot of food, but I love the concept of being able to try a little bit of everything.
Helpful Tips For Visiting Dollywood
- Arrive before the park opens to avoid wait times. The Dollywood website suggests arriving at 9am (one hour before the park opens) but as we were visiting on a weekday, we showed up at 9:30 and did not have to wait. If you’re going on a weekend or during a busier time, I recommend arriving an hour before just in case!
- Remember to check the Dollywood calendar before planning your visit, as the park isn’t open every day of the week.
- Be sure to download the free Dollywood app before you go! The app helps you make the most of your visit with a map, an up-to-date show time schedule and a wait time indicator for rides.
- If you want to eat at Aunt Granny’s, I recommend stopping by about an hour before you want to eat and putting your name on the waitlist – it’s a very popular restaurant and we waited for just over an hour to get in. While you wait, you can wander the park – just don’t go too far, as you’ll need to be back at the restaurant five minutes after they text you that your table is ready.
- You can ask for free ice water at any eatery, and there are also several water bottle refill stations throughout the park. Take advantage of this and stay hydrated, especially on warm days!
- Most importantly, I should note that this park isn’t just for Dolly fans. While it’s certainly a must-visit destination for fans like myself, it’s not all about Dolly, and there’s something to cater to absolutely everyone! Tania likes Dolly but isn’t a die-hard fan, and she had just as great of a time as I did.
If you’re here because you’re planning your own trip to Dollywood, I hope you found this post informative and helpful! And if you aren’t planning a trip (yet!) I hope this encouraged you to check out all the fun Dollywood has to offer. If you have any questions about the park that I didn’t answer above, please feel free to email me and I’d be happy to help!
In a few days I’ll be sharing a guide to another area we visited on our trip: beautiful Gatlinburg in the heart of the Smoky Mountains. Stay tuned!
*Our tickets to Dollywood were generously gifted by the park. As always, all opinions and thoughts are entirely my own.
Leave a Reply