Dollywood does have kitsch, but it was a welcome addition to one of the best theme park experiences of my life

Dollywood does have kitsch, but it was a welcome addition to one of the best theme park experiences of my life

The FireChaser Express rollercoaster at Dollywood celebrates the firefighters who ‘tame nature’s fury’ and preserve Tennessee’s Smokies Mountains.Curtis Hilbun/Dollywood

It was my own fault for doubting Dolly; I mean, how could I have not trusted her completely? Dolly Parton is one of the few people in this broken, complicated world who maintains undisputed and unreservedly earned icon status. In addition to possessing supreme songwriting skills and musicianship, she is wise and kind: A philanthropist, Parton has founded an international literacy program and helped to fund the Moderna vaccine, among other good deeds.

So what would make me think her theme park might not live up to this standard?

I headed to Dollywood this past summer expecting a high level of cheesiness and a mediocre theme park experience, riding the cachet of the Dolly name – and that great pun – to attract the masses.

Instead, we had one of the best theme park experiences of our lives. There was kitsch, for sure. But it was welcome and only added to the experience.

I wouldn’t describe any of us in our group of five travellers (three adults, two teens) as Dolly Parton fanatics, although we are all fans. Who isn’t?

The rafting ride called the Smoky Mountain River Rampage is built around a story of local farmlands flooding.Dollywood

We landed on Dollywood – in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., where Parton grew up – because of geography as much as anything. We live in different cities – Vancouver, Toronto and Atlanta – and wanted to meet somewhere and travel to an amusement park, mostly because my young teenager is currently very into them (he is often regaling me with information he picks up from the “roller coaster community”). We were looking at Six Flags when I asked: Wait, how far is Atlanta from Tennessee, where Dolly Parton has her theme park? Could we drive there?

Yes, we could. Three-and-a-half hours – part of it through the beautiful Smoky Mountains. The plan was set.

What is now Dollywood originally opened in 1961 as a small, locally owned Civil War-themed tourist attraction. It went through several iterations and was called Silver Dollar City when Parton bought a stake in it in 1986. It reopened that year as Dollywood. The adjacent Dollywood’s Splash Country waterpark opened in 2001.

We got three-day passes, which allowed us to visit both on alternating days. (Prices have not yet been set for this year’s passes, with the park reopening in time for spring break on March 11.)

Dollywood takes the “theme” part of its description seriously. Along with Dolly-specific attractions, everything is on brand: the food, the souvenirs, the rides.

Dollywood boasts roller coasters for thrill-seekers and rider of various ages.Dollywood

The FireChaser Express roller coaster celebrates the firefighters who are able to “tame nature’s fury and preserve the Smokies for generations to come!” The rafting ride called the Smoky Mountain River Rampage is built around a story of local farmlands flooding. The ride’s connection? “Help needed! Bring all boats and rafts to aid in rescue.”

In the heat of a Tennessee August, I particularly loved that ride, as well as Daredevil Falls, a flume ride that offered thrills and a brief reprieve from the heat.

The roller coasters, for the most part, were a little too thrilling for my taste (or stomach), but I did manage a ride on that FireChaser Express. Billed as the park’s family coaster, it completes its journey going backward, putting an end to my day and my roller coaster-riding career, I announced, my face as green as the trees surrounding us.

More my speed was the Dollywood Express, a train that takes visitors up through and past the theme park and into nature – a lovely ride, but so authentic that it is powered by coal; an announcement warns passengers of the possibility of getting a cinder in an eye. Equally alarming were the plumes of black smoke we witnessed chugging into the gorgeous Smoky skies.

The Dollywood Express takes visitors past the theme park and into nature.Dollywood

There are more than 50 rides in total and while the park is large, it’s not overwhelming. It was easy to walk the circuit in a single day.

There are some attractions related to Parton’s life: a replica of the tiny mountain cabin where she grew up, featuring mostly original family treasures such as bed quilts, dishes, paper dolls and family photos. There’s a 1946 wall calendar hanging with Jan. 19 circled – Parton’s birthdate. “These mountains and my childhood home have a special place in my heart,” the sign outside says. “They inspire my music and my life. I hope being here does the same for you!”

Parked on site is Parton’s “home on wheels,” a custom-RV tour bus (mirrors on the ceilings, two bathrooms, a makeup table, a double-bed for Dolly and bunks for the others) built in 1994 in Saint Claire, Que. (!), and used by Parton until she upgraded in 2010.

The food at the park is also on theme: the burger diner, Red’s, is named for the spot where Parton tasted her first hamburger as a child. Aunt Granny’s (the nickname Dolly’s nieces and nephews gave her) serves up southern-fried chicken and catfish, biscuits and gravy. Another spot, Granny Ogle’s Ham ‘n’ Beans, is named for Parton’s best friend Judy’s mother, a friendly park attendant told us.

Throughout the park there are trees offering shade, along with lots of places to sit and just chill; and installed gadgets to keep you cool as you wait in line for the rides – water misters and fans. Also: lots of performance and music. We particularly loved a three-piece band that went from a bluegrass version of Don Henley’s The Boys of Summer, which got people (us) singing along and dancing in the streets of Dollywood, to Hank Williams’s I Saw the Light.

The park is large, but easy to walk through and take in in a single day.Dollywood

Dollywood’s Splash Country water park is a separate experience, again on theme, referencing local rivers and swimming holes. Waterparks are not generally my scene, but this one is designed with more than kids in mind. For the comfort of the rest of us, there are plenty of free-with-admission lounge chairs where you can put your stuff and hang out while the kids hit the waterslides. There are also paid options – right up to a deluxe cabana retreat with a large-screen TV (for US$325/day last summer).

The generous seating offered around the children’s area makes this place pleasant and user-friendly for young families. There is a large wave pool, waterslides for all levels and a long, winding lazy river that my girlfriends and I went around and around in, chatting and catching up after three long years apart. I feel like Dolly would have approved.

I left Pigeon Forge with a backpack full of gift-shop swag – something I pretty much never do. And now on cold Canadian mornings, I pour myself a cup of ambition into the mug I brought home, with Parton’s smiling face and the quote, “I will always love you.” And I think about good times with old friends, in the sunshine.

Marsha Lederman was a guest of Dollywood. The theme park did not review or approve this article.