My last installment of Pandemic Adventures focused on the wide variety of world-class rides at Dollywood. However, Dollywood is also home to world-class shows and entertainment experiences comparable to some of the best theme parks in the country. Since the park’s icon and namesake is one of the most recognizable musicians on the planet, most of the live entertainment revolves around music. There’s even an entire museum devoted to Dolly’s career containing hundreds of costumes, awards, and artifacts.
The two biggest and most popular musical productions at Dollywood are available on the TimeSaver system, so we took advantage of our Unlimited passes on Monday to see those shows. The Kingdom Heirs perform in the Showstreet Palace Theater near the park’s entrance and play predominantly gospel music in a barbershop/4-part harmony style. The accomplishments of this group with 36 years of performing at Dollywood are impressive and their voices are quite amazing, particularly the bass, even though the style of music might not match my taste. Their 30-minute performance showcases the immensely talented vocalists accompanied by a small backing band.
The other big show at Dollywood available on TimeSaver is Dreamland Drive-In. This immense 55-minute production features a 12-person cast blasting through decades of iconic songs in a rapid-fire style. Dreamland Drive-In follows the story of a long-lost drive-in movie theater and the characters that worked, frequented, and grew up there through mostly the 50’s and 60’s. It features nostalgia, a track list a mile long, and a plethora of costume and set changes presented is a random jukebox style. The mass of lyrics and choreography must take weeks to master and probably feel like a marathon for the performers who typically put on 3 shows 5 or 6 days a week. Other theme parks around the country present similar jukebox-style shows, but none are as massive or enjoyable as this one. If you’re coming to Dollywood and only have time to see one show, this is the one to see.
Harmonies of the Heart is another must see show if you’re a fan of Dolly Parton and her music. This show features members of Dolly’s family performing many of her biggest hits along with some other recognizable tunes. The 30-minute show is like going to a mini country concert, and features some very talented musicians and vocalists. The songs are interspersed with stories about the Parton family delivered with that undeniable southern and wholesome charm you would expect from a Dollywood show.
The Tones are an acapella group that perform on the small, outdoor Village Depot Stage with interesting and unique takes on recent pop tunes. Acapella performance can be hit or miss in theme parks, but The Tones are right up there with the best in-park performers we’ve seen over our travels. The performance is a bit on the short side at just 15 minutes, but it’s fun and engaging.
The final live stage show that we took time to watch in its entirety over our 2 days at Dollywood was Wings of America. This show features birds of prey in an outdoor theater setting. Wings of America is all about the mission of presenting the majesty and importance of these birds that places education ahead of entertainment. While there aren’t the jokes, tricks, and props you might find in other theme park bird shows, Wings of America is still worth a watch simply to get an up-close look at some of these majestic creatures. All of the birds are walked around the theater by handlers to allow the audience a chance to get a good look at them without the need for binoculars or massive telephoto lens.
I’m a sucker for bird shows, and this one harkens back to the old days when you exit the theater feeling like you learned something more than being mesmerized by some trick or skill a bird had just performed. I think I still prefer bird shows that focus on entertainment over education, but Wings of America proves that there’s still a place for these more educational shows in theme parks.
The rest of the shows scheduled over the course of our visit to Dollywood did not fit into our busy schedule, so we only caught glimpses of most of them. In fact, the daily show schedule is so packed that guests could not step foot on a single ride yet still have more than enough live entertainment to fill a full day at the park. There are also visiting performers that rotate over the course of the year, so while many of the shows are the same from day to day, there are new performers displaying their talents across the plethora of performance venues in the park. The park seems to always be finding new acts and live performances to entertain guests.
One of those new performances has taken up residence in Wildwood Grove for the entire summer and features hundreds of performers flying through the air. Sweet Summer Nights combines fireworks, music, and Intel drones to wow guests with an evening spectacle worthy of the most popular destination parks. Before the sky is lit with pyrotechnics and hovering LED lights, Dollywood puts on the Sweet Summer Nights Dance Party. The area around the Wildwood Tree coverts into a dance floor with lights, pulse pounding music, DJ booth at the base of the tree, and a cast teaching guests all the latest dance moves. Since the area immediately around the tree can get a little crowded before the start of the show, capacity is restricted, so it’s worth venturing into this area before the Dance Party starts. This area also offers one of the best viewing locations for the fireworks and drone show, which starts almost immediately after the Dance Party.
The DJ counts down to the start of Sweet Summer Nights, and fireworks start lighting up the night’s sky. However, this first volley of pyrotechnics is just a prelude to one of the most awe-inspiring nightly theme park shows I’ve ever seen. The drones light up, change colors, and hover in various formations painting detailed moving pictures in the sky.
Each individual drone represents a single pixel on the canvas and can change color and position to create elaborate shapes and pictures that can even be animated. The lights dance in the sky to a soundtrack of mostly recent popular songs played on Wildwood Grove’s powerful sound system, undoubtedly why this show is staged in the newest area of the park. I have seen Universal’s Dark Arts show that utilizes drones as part of its finale, which is a pretty impressive sight, but those drones only make a couple of forms and appear and disappear in a matter of less than a minute. The drones here create image after image over the course of nearly 15 minutes that are simply mesmerizing. Show designers have been working for decades trying to find ways to paint pictures in the night’s sky using different types of fireworks (those smiley faces, cubes, and stars that never quite look right but are at least recognizable), lasers that need a backdrop to draw their green/blue line sketches onto, and powerful projectors on water screens that have limitations in terms of viewing and all the mist created that inevitably ends up soaking guests if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction. Drones solve so many of those problems that previous solutions can’t, though I’m sure high winds and other limitations exist, to create a presentation that is simply jaw dropping. I guess my only issue with Sweet Summer Nights is that there really isn’t a story to it with songs presented jukebox style and random images that peripherally reference the songs. However, the spectacle is a can’t-miss experience, and should be a springboard for other parks and show developers to derive even bigger and better displays to come. As Fantasmic! was for World of Color, Rivers of Light, and likely HarmioUS, Sweet Summer Nights is almost certainly going to be an inspiration for future theme park drone shows to come, because the possibilities within this media are limitless.
While Dollywood has more live stage shows that you could possibly see in a single day, there are even more entertainment options around the park. Dollywood doesn’t have street performers like some theme parks do, but they do have numerous artisans displaying their talents predominantly in Craftsman’s Valley.
I’d liken this area of the park to a Renaissance Festival where you find medieval artisans peddling their crafts and putting on demonstrations of their talent. There’s a candle maker doing dipped and peeled candles, wood carvers showing off intricate sculptures and carved signs, a glass blower creating delicate works of art, the Valley Forge Blacksmith, and the ever-popular Grist Mill selling Zach-approved cinnamon bread.
We’ve watched blacksmithing demonstrations at theme parks and historical attractions around the country and saw a very cool display here on a previous trip to Dollywood. However, the park has just recently begun to allow guests on stage to actually forge their own souvenir a la Forged in Fire, the popular blacksmithing reality competition show on History Channel. Instead of buying a pre-made knife from a display case or asking the blacksmith to design and forge a custom knife that they create for you over the course of the day, guests can now do it themselves with the help of a seasoned professional. Because of the instant and immense popularity of this experience, guests need to visit the blacksmith shop soon after park opening since there is limited availability (sorry Disney fans, you can’t sign up for this online 120 days in advance). When you sign up for the experience in the morning, you are given the choice to forge your blade from 3 different source materials, a threaded hex bolt, a horseshoe, or a railroad spike. As you would expect, the larger the source material, the more expensive, and also the longer the experience takes (and the more strength is required). Once you’ve decided on your source material, you prepay for the experience and are given a time to return to the shop to create your blade. If you’re among the first people to arrive in the morning, your reservation will be earlier in the day, but the longer you wait, the later in the day your appointment will be (you cannot pick and choose a time, you receive the first available spot).
We were lucky to be second in line to sign up on Wednesday, and were given a return time @1 hour later. Our son was going to forge a blade from a hex bolt, a 20-minute experience, and I was going to forge a blade from a horseshoe, a 40-minute experience (FWIW, the railroad spike takes about an hour of forging time). When we returned to the blacksmith an hour later, we were given our personal protective equipment consisting of an apron and hard hat fitted with a face shield, and were led to the shop floor (participants are required to wear closed-toed shoes for obvious reasons).
The blacksmith will heat up the source material while explaining the process, handing you a hammer to draw out what will become your blade on the anvil stationed between you and the blacksmith. Participants are situated about 8 feet away from the 2,000-degree furnace, but can still feel the immense heat and can see the heat in the brightly colored steel that is brought to the anvil for hammering. Guests get to do all of the heavy lifting here as you hammer the steel while the blacksmith moves the metal back and forth to create the blade. Little by little, the shape gradually starts resembling a knife, and the blacksmith will guide you to try to create the highest quality finished product possible.
Once the blade is an acceptable shape, the blacksmith will quench the blade to ensure it's hardened, and takes it to the grinding station to refine the edge and look of the piece. Guests are not allowed to do this part of the process because it requires a lot of experience and skill along with interacting with unguarded mechanical equipment.
However, you can be plenty close enough to see your work become a finished blade. When the finish work is done, the blacksmith will ask for your seal of approval, and lead you off the shop floor. Since the park doesn’t allow guests to carry weapons, finished blades are packaged so they can be shipped to the front of the park for pickup. In addition to the blade, guests also receive a sheath and a certificate of authenticity, and can purchase a display stand for an additional cost. We’ve done other arts and crafts style experiences in theme parks before including: paint your own pottery, build your own lightsaber, dip your own candle, and pick your wand (really vice versa if you’re not a Muggle), but this experience is absolutely the most unique souvenir craft experience we’ve ever had in a theme park (or even outside of a theme park). While you don’t get to do the dangerous parts of the process like take the steel in and out of the forge or create a shower of sparks on the grinder while refining the blade, you truly feel like you’re responsible in creating a piece of art that is your own. For Dollywood, you become free talent for passersby who hear the clanging of hammers on steel. Blacksmith demonstrations can now produce pre-paid souvenirs that run non-stop throughout the day. It’s a brilliant enterprise all around, only helped by the popularity of Forged in Fire. Of all the experiences we had over the course of our nearly 2 weeks through the Southeast, this is one that I will probably remember the most.
Over our 2 days at Dollywood, we weren’t quite able to see everything, but did experience all of the highlights and most of the big attractions. We saw many of the world class shows, experienced one of the most unique nighttime spectaculars in the world, and forged souvenirs that will last a lifetime. It had been over a decade since we had last visited Dollywood, and while we got more than our fill of the park’s rides and shows over our 2 days, we absolutely cannot allow another decade pass before returning.
Next time – Smoky Mountains, Asheville, and US Whitewater
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