Theme Park Insider Summer Roadtrip: Dollywood

August 2, 2009, 6:05 PM · We awoke this morning in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee to a steady rain. A quick check of the forecast called for showers all morning, followed by thunderstorms in the afternoon. Looks like we'll we doing Dollywood in the rain.

Now, lots of folks won't bother visiting a theme park in the rain. Which is why I say... all the more reason to go. Folks not visiting means shorter lines for the rest of us.

So Natalie and I walked right on to Thunderhead...


...and Mystery Mine.

Mystery Mine

Perhaps I would have enjoyed Thunderhead more if I hadn't ridden substantially the same ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain earlier this spring. And if I hadn't been spoiled on wooden coasters by Holiday World's world-class trio. But after riding those, Thunderhead just didn't wow me the way it had so many other riders in the first few years after its 2004 debut.

And Mystery Mine? I hadn't been on a Gerstlauer Euro-Fighter before, despite the fact that Mystery Mine had won our Theme Park Insider Award for best new attraction in 2007. The best way I can describe this unique coaster is as if a wickedly talented designer had pulled apart a Wild Mouse and rebuilt it for extreme moves. You've got two 90-degree lifts, a heartline roll and dive loop, as well as a couple of jaw-rattling sudden dips.

I mean that last part literally. The position of the over-the-shoulder rests just under my jaw about near knocked my teeth out on one of the early dips. Mystery Mine is to roller coasters what the 12-tone scale is to music - a radical design that engages students of the genre but just doesn't feel like much fun.

We had a much better time on Lumberjack Lifts, a 25-ft. pull-up tower.

Lumberjack Lifts

Frankly, the rides at Dollywood just didn't do much for me. We had started our day on the Journey to the Center of the Earth 4D ride, which was little more than a clip job from the Brendan Fraser movie. While the Tennessee Tornado offered a smooth triple loop in a lovely mountain setting, Blazing Fury served up three small drops within a crudely animated dark ride. And while River Battle could have been a hoot on a hot, crowded day, on a rainy morning with no one else on the ride, it felt kinda pathetic. Who are we gonna get wet?

Our day picked up with lunch, though, as we took Theme Park Insider readers' advice and opted for the all-you-can-eat chicken buffet at Miss Lillian's Chicken House.

Miss Lillian's Chicken House

At $13 for adults and $6 for kids (11 and under), this is a steal of an all-you-can eat deal. The salad wasn't worth filling a plate with, but the fried chicken, corn, mashed potatoes, pepper gravy and chocolate cake all earned thumbs up from the family. The biscuits were especially tender and tasty, though we missed not having jelly to smear all over them.

Okay, the food was good, but that wasn't enough to earn the praise I'd hear from so many readers over the years about this park. If it wasn't the rides, what could it be?

Well, duh, Robert, this is Dollywood, Dolly Parton's theme park. What makes this park impressive became apparent as soon as I walked into a musical show.

Dollywood's top show this summer is Sha-Kon-O-Hey!, a tribute to the people and spirit of the Smoky Mountains. A phonetic transcription of the Cherokee shaconage, the title means "Land of Blue Smoke." The 45-minute show features singing, acrobatics and a live bluegrass band accompaniment, with eight original songs composed by Parton herself.

The story opens with a Depression-era Smoky Mountain family packing up to move west, in pursuit of work.


But the family's young boy doesn't want to go, and retreats to an old tree, where he wishes to the spirits to stay.

Wishing at the tree

The boy's wish reveals an enchanted valley, where the spirits of generations past dwell. (And sing and dance, of course.) He's joined there by his sister and grandmother, who'd come looking for him.

Spirits in the valley

Grandmother is the kids' bridge to the past, teaching them the "old ways" and the stories of her youth, but the kids can't run away from their father. The boy returns to the tree to amend his wish.

Back at the tree

The kids reunite with their father for the trip west, while grandmother will remain home, with the people and spirits of the Smokies.

Sha-Kon-O-Hey finale

By the time we exited the theater, the skies outside had cleared and the sun shone brightly. So let's let the symbolism beat us over the head, shall we? You want to find the real attraction at Dollywood? Just listen for the music.

Update: Laurie wrote her take on Dollywood over at

Next stop on the roadtrip: Orlando

Previously on the Summer Roadtrip:

Replies (19)

August 2, 2009 at 8:10 PM · Apparently, there is some water shooting ride there which is supposed to be a near copy of Buccaneer Battle. Did you to ride it? What did you think of it?
August 2, 2009 at 9:34 PM · I think with Dollywood, and Silver Dollar City here in my home state, you have to be careful about raising them up to the level of a Disney, Universal, or Busch park. Herschend doesn't quite have that kind of dough, but they do get a lot of things right. And for those of us trapped in the Midwest, the Herschend parks offer a Disney-on-a-budget experience that the local iron ride park won't even dare attempt. And while the experience does fall short on some levels, I think it is also best appreciated on repeated visits.

Nevertheless, it sounds like you had a good day despite the weather and the inflated expectations. Thanks for the report and the pictures, Dollywood looks as beautiful as I remember it!

One thing: Lumberjack Lifts?! Robert, please! ;)

Anyway, onto the big dogs in Orlando!

August 2, 2009 at 9:52 PM · I was going to try Dollywood on while I was traveling from houston to pittsburgh(its on the way), but now I am not sure.
August 2, 2009 at 10:50 PM · I adore Dollywood!

And although Mystery Mine is a bit jolty in that outside section - the rest of it is amazing. Ride it at night and that last drop and heartline roll is terrifying. And Thunderhead is my #1 wooden coaster - but I haven't ridden The Voyage or Terminator yet.

Yes, Dollywood is not Disney and it's not Great America or Busch - but it does offer incredible food, amazing crafts, wonderful music and breath-taking scenery. They're getting better and better with the rides.

Don't count it out!

August 3, 2009 at 4:12 AM · Mr. Miller, please reread the trip report as it is a very positive review and should not deter you from making Dollywood a destination. Keep in mind that Mr. Niles just spent sometime vacationing in the Williamsburg area and visiting Busch Gardens, one of the most beautiful and thrilling theme parks in the world. Dollywood, while a great park, is not quite up to that level. The rides are definitely more family-oriented than your standard thrill park, but they are fun and immersive, and the food, shows, and atmosphere will put your visit over the top. Go to Dollywood, you will not be disappointed.
August 3, 2009 at 5:04 AM · Dollywood is a park that I feel is more about the total package then just the rides. They have some great coasters but the rest of the park is more what it is about. You need to go looking for an experience. Enjoy the feel of the mountains and its people. Enjoy the crafts, the great foods, the many shows (which is much of what Dollywood is about). The park is unique in that if you visit 4 times over the year you could have 4 very different times. The festivals provide a new product each time they change. "Festival of the Nations" provides entertainers and crafts from all over the world. This is held each spring. The main season provides their standard product with the resident shows and crafts. The October month provides Gospel Music groups all month as well as the standard park shows. Also this time has craftsmen from all over the country showing their products. November and December bring the Christmas event which is just the greatest event in my view. Its not to be missed. I guess you can tell I am a fan of this park. We go about 4 times a year and live near Baltimore, over 9 hours away.
August 3, 2009 at 5:20 AM · Can some of you Dollywood regulars chime in as to if MM has gotten a little rougher over time? I don't remember it being bad at all but I rode it prob two years ago. I feel bad that I pushed it so hard on this board if its not quite what it used to be. Thx.
August 3, 2009 at 5:40 AM · Mystery Mind has not changed at all. Its the same ride it was opening year. I know some of my friends love it and some do not. I myself like the ride one or two times each day I am there. I would not want to ride it many more times then that in a day. Thunderhead I could reride over and over again.
August 3, 2009 at 6:56 AM · Cole, I will say this: even on its worst, most rickety, painful day, Mystery Mine is 1000x better than the Lumberjack Lifts.
August 3, 2009 at 9:23 AM · Two attractions that I am curious to hear your take on I did not notice any mention of..... DareDevil Falls and The Mountain Slidewinder ride. Did you maybe sit those out due to the weather not being ideal for water rides? If anyone else has visited the park and is familiar with those two rides I'd like to hear your take on them as I have not ridden eithor (I have not been to Dollywood in several years now).
August 3, 2009 at 11:11 AM · Dare Devil Falls is a nice flume which has been given the title of the tallest drop in Tennesse. The theming is all right and its a fun ride that usually has a short wait. Mountain Slide winder is like a waterslide that a group of four ride on. You will get soaked.
August 3, 2009 at 12:15 PM · You expected amazing rides didn't you. You have to remember there aren't many amusment parks in the area so that works fine. Was Timber Tower running? It was closed Saturday. I thought the show was good, but the set needed some work. I have never eaten at Dollywood, just sandwiches out of the back of the van. Mystery Mine was terribly rough and the shoulder restraint didn't help any. I never see any of the special effects on it either except for the fire. When I went on it the screen for the lift hill didn't even work. Dolly really packs people into that park too. When I heard about rover battle I thought it would be more real and far less plastic. I hope you didn't skip the water park! It is a pretty good one! Blazing Fury is very old and very fun. It's a classic!
August 3, 2009 at 5:00 PM · Dollywood is an odd park in my opinion. I emailed them asking if they had any media area for bloggers and I got back a (in my opinion) terse-sounding email that explained to me why blogs aren't "legitimate" news sources...and never gave me a chance to say what blog I write for. I found it strange. I was going to try and visit them that summer but decided against it after that...:/

From that interaction, I would bet that this is an older style park. They really need to address their customer service. I won't forget that email...

It seems that they have a lot of older style rides that you don't see anymore..and that is a good thing. I think that theming is sadly overlooked by the metal parks of today. I am very glad to see this blog post because of that! :D I think it would be really interesting to see what they do when Dolly is in town. I find that parks tend to reflect the local culture (like my beloved Kennywood) and they all have something good to be experienced. Yay for theming and atmosphere!!! :)

August 3, 2009 at 7:55 PM · This was tough one for me to write, but lemme try to summarize it: Dollywood's a nice, older regional amusement park built alongside an outstanding national-destination show park.

Folks who love shows and shopping will love Dollywood more than just about any other theme park in the country. But ride and immersive attraction fans, who aren't that into shows, will probably scratch their heads and wonder what the fuss is about.

When I write about theme parks, I'm judging them on this: Would I want to travel across the country to see this again? Every park we list on the site (and some we don't) are well worth doing for locals and regional tourists. If they weren't, we wouldn't list them, or talk about them.

But not every park is worth traveling across the country to see. If you love music and shows, Dollywood is. If you don't, Dollywood isn't.

I hope that this clarifies things.

All that said, I see in the Timber Canyon and Wilderness Passage leg of the park the potential for a great destination theme park. There's not enough back there yet, but everything that Dollywood's put in that area has been solid (even if MM wasn't my cup of tea).

August 3, 2009 at 8:46 PM · While Dollywood may not be the place for roller coaster seeking junkies it is a place that the ENTIRE family can enjoy. There is one thing Dollywood has that other's don't and it is an overall blend of rides, attractions, shows, crafts and shops.

Rides: No it's not Busch Gardens and does not have ten coasters but not everyone in the family wants coasters. And NO IT IS NOT DISNEY it actually HAS three large coasters. It has the perfect mix three large coasters, one family style coaster and plenty of other rides to suit ALL AGES and are not all themed around characters that we liked when we were eight years old.

Attractinos: Dollywood is home to three national organization including, The American Eagle Foundation, Chestnut Tree Foundation, and the Southern Gospel Music Hallf of Fame. All three you will not find at other parks. And because of Dollywood's efforts they are giving back to the comunity and educating park guest on important facts. Did you know because of the work of the American Eagle Foundation (Housed at Dollywood) the American Bald Eagle the symbol of our great nation was taken of the endangered species list last year?

Shows: While Dollywood may not have multi-million dollar productions they do have spectacular shows. Dollywood has won more Big E Entertainment Awards from the IAAPA than any other theme/amusement park in the WORLD. Winning the largest award (The International Heartbeat Award) three years running.

Crafts and Shops: Outside of it's sister park, Silver Dolalr City, in Branson Missouri Dollywood has the largest array of unique crafts and shops featured at a theme park. Dollywood is all about preserving a long forgotten heritage that they now bring to life every day for new generations.

Sorry for the long post but I want to make it clear that if you truly enjoy parks that go behind concreate and steel and have the ENTIRE package Dollywood is definitely worth a visit.

August 4, 2009 at 3:59 AM · I think your review was very fair. You last comments really sum it up well. If you are going to a park mainly for coasters then I would go somewhere else. If you love a true theme park and enjoy quality shows then Dollywood would be a great visit and I do think worth a visit from across the country. My wife and I so love it that we plan to move to the area in about 4 years. Also note that in my view you have not really seen near all the park has to offer unless you have visited during the Christmas season. What a treat that is!
August 4, 2009 at 4:01 AM · If the combination of good family rides, high quality shows, great food, and a fun family atmosphere is something you are looking for, then Dollywood is a fine vacation destination. I would travel (and have traveled) 12 hours to spend a couple days at Dollywood. It is not Disney, and it is not even as good as Silver Dollar City (IMHO), but it is a worthy destination for a family theme park visit (especially when your SDC Season Passes provide half-price admission to the park!).
August 4, 2009 at 7:03 AM · I have to disagree with almost your entire article. I have travelled extensively and would consider myself an enthusiast having been on nearly 200 coasters. Dollywood is a tremendous park and its ride mix is unique.

I was floored when you panned Thunderhead. I agree it is not as out of control as the Voyage, but Thunderhead's re-ridability and use of terrain and the twister format make it one of my favorite woodies anywhere.

You mention little about "one and only rides" Dollywood offers like the Slidewinder, Blazing Fury, Dare Devil Falls etc. Almost wherever you go on the park there is something you have to be at Dollywood to ride, it does not exist anywhere else or anywhere close.

I agree on the shows. Dollywood currently has the best in the industry. Sha-Kon-O-Hey is musically an increible show. My favorite at the park is Dreamland Drive-in.

The food is also the best anywhere. It is a bit pricey but the portion size is rediculous.

August 7, 2009 at 7:14 PM · Dollywood is a FAMILY park. There are rides and attractions for the WHOLE family to enjoy. The Lumberjack lifts are fun. I felt a little silly at the age of 46 pulling my husband up on the lift, but it still was fun.

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