A Bit of Background and a Review of Dollywood
A few weeks ago we took a long road trip a couple weeks ago and one of our stops was Dollywood and the DreamMore Resort in Pigeon Forge, TN. My husband’s family lives in Tennessee and he went to college in Knoxville, so we are pretty familiar with the area. After a long hiatus, it was decided that it was time to return.
Because my business is mainly focused on family-friendly destinations, I wanted to check out Dollywood again. The park itself still has a solid reputation and the new DreamMore Resort was also getting good reviews. As someone who is a bit heat-sensitive, I wasn’t thrilled by the idea of a mid-summer visit but sometimes you just have to take opportunities as they arise.
I have to say, I was impressed. We travel quite a bit to the Orlando theme parks and our standards for theme park vacations are high. My husband would probably just say that our standards are high but, let’s face it, we’re just theme park snobs.
Dollywood and the DreamMore Resort met or exceeded our expectations on a number of levels. Both can compete with their bigger rivals in Florida and California. The beautiful mountain setting also gives them a definite edge when you are thinking of locations. The staff at both were excellent and you can tell customer service is a focus for their business. I can say that I will definitely be recommending this destination to my clients in the future.
In this post, I’m going to give a run-down of our experiences. There’s so much to cover, however, that I’ve decided to break this into two posts. Today, I will be discussing the Dollywood Park itself. Next week, you can expect to see my assessment of the DreamMore Resort. Because of time constraints, and much to my water-loving son’s disappointment, we did not get a chance to experience Dollywood’s Splash Country. Still, we were so happy with our visit that I’m sure we will be back sooner rather than later for an update and extended stay.
Dollywood Theme Park
I was really excited for this portion of our trip. The last time I visited Dollywood was 14 years ago when my husband was my boyfriend and we were taking a few days to visit his parents in nearby Maryville (pronounced, “Mer-vuhl” by the locals). It was late June or early July and the temperatures were extreme. After spending the morning and early afternoon enjoying the roller coasters, we were entirely spent.
I remember slogging out to the trams that afternoon and waiting in the blistering sun to get back to our car. There was some cover for the queue but it wasn’t enough for the amount of people waiting on the trams. Hubs, then boyfriend, was dying of thirst and decided it was worth it to spend $2 on a bottle of water from the vending machines positioned in the line. Keep in mind that he was in student mode at this point and every extra dollar was precious.
When a diminutive 8 oz. bottle shot into the dispensing tray, Rob (“Hubs”) reached for it in disbelief. The other people in line around us just stared and you could hear a collective gasp and some muttering at the size of the bottle. Clutching the mini-bottle in his hand Rob raised his fist to the sky and yelled, “What the HELL, Dolly?!” Being a supportive girlfriend, I laughed my butt off.
Rob still ended up marrying me but I did have to drive us all back through the then unfamiliar mountains while he and his parents slept off the heat (a fact I still haven’t let him live down).
Fast-forward to a couple weeks ago and I again found myself visiting Dollywood in the dog days of summer again. We were hopeful that the temperatures would be moderated by some forecasted storms but we didn’t catch a break until much later in the day. Fortunately, at any of the food and beverage outlets in the park, the Dollywood staff will happily hand out complimentary, large, cups of ice water whenever you ask. There are also some awesome misting stations in the park that are worth visiting. So, in spite of the heat, we had a blast.
Because we stayed at the DreamMore Resort, we were able to take complimentary resort transportation to a dedicated turnstile to enter the park. We also received complimentary Time Saver passes that allowed us to skip the lines on up to ten attractions throughout the day. This was a fantastic addition for the coaster lovers in our party but most of the less intense attractions and kid’s rides don’t offer Time Saver queues. Something to consider if you are thinking of upgrading your tickets and you aren’t staying at the Resort.
Much like other theme parks, Dollywood is split into different areas, each with it’s own purpose and style. The park is laid out in a roughly triangular shape with the two children’s areas, the Country Fair and the new Wildwood Grove, being extensions on either side of the triangle. This is a LARGE park with lots of hills so be prepared for lots of walking. You are in the Smoky Mountains, after all. Be prepared to bring or rent stroller, ECVs, or whatever else you might need to help you get through the day.
Quick note on accessibility since I just mentioned ECVs: If you have accessibility needs, you will need to visit the Ride Accessibility Center soon after entering the park to ensure you have all the information and accommodations you or your party requires. Dolly wants everyone to have a great time at her park and I noticed a great number of solid accommodations during our visit. Dollywood also has a Calming Room available for guests with sensory sensitivities. For more information, be sure to visit the following link: https://www.dollywood.com/themepark/Guest-Services/Accessibility
Okay, back to the review:
Dollywood is an ode to Dolly Parton’s childhood home in Pigeon Forge, TN. You can expect to be immersed in Smoky Mountain culture and to be able to find out more about Dolly’s childhood and her adult life. You can visit one of her tour buses, see a replica of her childhood home, and even go to church services in a small mountain chapel in the middle of the park. Additionally, you can listen to multiple styles of live-music acts, see glass blowing demonstrations (my husband’s favorite), ride an authentic coal-fired train, shop for Smoky Mountain arts and crafts, and so much more. It’s a wonderfully unique theme park experience.
In addition to the cultural side of the park, I’m pleased to say that Dollywood has kept pace with its larger rivals in terms of its rides. While you have plenty of low-key rides for small kids and those looking for a more low-key experience, Dollywood has some of the most intense roller coasters we’ve ever ridden. The Lightning Rod, touted as the world’s first launched wooden roller coaster, will knock any coaster fanatics socks off. As my husband said, once it launches you just don’t stop until the end. It is fast and it banks HARD. Even the new Dragonflier coaster in the child-focused Wildwood Grove was intense. My daughter loved it (she’s five and a bit of a daredevil). I went on the Mystery Mine and was blown away. It’s an odd mix of crazy mouse and looped coaster that will get just about any rider alternately screaming and laughing. I didn’t make it on the Wild Eagle but my husband absolutely loved it. [Note: I love coasters but I have two small kids so I didn’t get to ride everything I wanted. More reason to return again soon!]
Thought we had a great time, there were a few things we felt Dollywood could have done better:
I wasn’t too thrilled with our lunch at Red’s Drive-In in Jukebox Junction. The burgers were ok but the flow of the restaurant cause huge jams of people at the soda dispensers and condiment bar. It appears Dollywood decided to install Freestyle machines as their soda dispensers. These are fun but you need a huge bank of them to ensure you don’t get backups at peak times because too many choices equals everyone taking foreverdeciding what they want to drink. This restaurant only had four machines and it took a good ten minutes to get a drink after ordering. Also, someone had decided to put the ketchup station in between two of the banks (away from the condiment bar) so it was a bit of a nightmare getting lunch together.
My only other true complaint has to do with the new Wildwood Grove section. This is a beautiful addition to the park with some great kids attractions, a thrilling coaster, a splash pad, and an excellent indoor (read, air-conditioned) play area. My kids lovedit. That being said, because it is new there is little to no shade to be had. In the summertime, you get roasted just walking around. Also, because it is new, most of the food stations aren’t up and running early in the day when small kids are active. We found it hard to even purchase bottled water because the only stand that was fully open in the morning had a huge line and the area’s restaurant didn’t open until later in the afternoon. Still, as I said, I think this is a wonderful addition to the park. It just needs to work out a few kinks.
Honestly, I could go on forever about this park but I’m sure some of you have stopped reading so I’m going to wrap things up. To conclude, I want to give you all my list of tips for planning your visit to Dollywood:
1. Try to go in the low seasons. The weather will be cooler and the crowds will be lighter. You may be in the mountains but the summers are HOT. Prepare accordingly.
2. Go for the rides (which are amazing) but don’t overlook the many unique attractions that showcase eastern Tennessee and Dolly Parton’s life.
3. Consider purchasing Time Saver passes only if you intend to ride the coasters.
4. I didn’t mention this in the body of the article but don’t skip the Grist Mill and be sure to order some Cinnamon Bread. It’s amazing.
5. Stay at the DreamMore Resort if you can. The perks are absolutely worth it. More on this in next week’s post.
6. This park is enormous. You will not see everything in a single day (especially if you have small children) and you will make yourself miserable trying. I recommend building in some down time to enjoy the food, shows, and shopping and to give your feet a bit of rest.
7. As always, contact your trusted travel advisors (hopefully me) to help you plan. Vacations are so much more enjoyable when you know what to expect and you’ve planned correctly.
So, that’s it for now on my assessment of Dollywood. Stay tuned for my review of DreamMore next week and, as always, if you have any questions or experiences of your own to share, be sure to put a note in the comments section below. See you next week!