I’ve always envied those Theme Park Insiders who not only seem to have been to every theme and amusement park in the world, but who can talk intelligently about them and every ride they have ever ridden in technical detail. I’ve been fortunate to visit quite a few, maybe more than most, but I’ve reached the age where I’ve realized that there are still so many parks within a reasonable drive that I’ve decided I need to get to them and experience them first-hand. In April, I finally got to one of those parks that everyone kept telling me, “You have to go there! You’ll love it!”
I visited Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
Being fully immunized, traveling with a friend who is also immunized and who has been in my family’s pandemic bubble, I felt quite safe making the trip. We drove down I-75 from northwest Ohio, through Cincinnati (where for some reason they decided to refurbish every bridge across the Ohio River at the same time), through Kentucky and into Tennessee until we hit Knoxville. We turned left towards Pigeon Forge - and hit a parking lot just inside of the city of Sevierville.
It was still a highway, but traffic was completely gridlocked, and it stayed that way pretty much from when we arrived on Thursday afternoon until we left for home on Monday morning. There are two things I didn’t realize: 1st, Sevierville runs into Pigeon Forge which runs into Gatlinburg, and since they’re located in long, narrow valleys the tourist sprawl of hotels, tourist traps, tattoo parlors, wax museums, etc. seems to extend far off into the distance, and 2nd, it was Hot Rod Weekend in Pigeon Forge, which meant that not only was there twice the traffic, it was twice as loud. We asked some locals if the traffic was always that heavy, and non-moving, and we were assured that it was. Plan on giving yourself plenty of time, plenty of gas, and plan your turn lane far ahead of when you think you’ll need to get over.
Friday morning we visited the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge, an interesting place with a surprisingly small number of salvaged artifacts and lots of well-presented information and recreations of the ship (unfortunately, there was more social distancing in the final lifeboat to be launched than there was in the museum). Friday evening we checked our brains at the door and saw the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Feud show, which was really lots of fun and had great music and great food.
Plenty of corny jokes, good country clogging, a silly diving contest into a swimmin’ hole that appears when the stage floor drops down, and even dog tricks.
If feudin’ hillbillies ain’t yer thaing, there are plenty of other shows in the area, including a Motown review practically next door and a religious drama/dinner theatre across the street, and I can’t recommend one over the other. For what we paid and what we expected and got, it was worth the money.
But the main reason we went to Pigeon Forge was to visit Dollywood, a Hershcend Family Entertainment park that came highly recommended by many Insiders. I had visited its sort-of-sister park, Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo. a few years back, and enjoyed it immensely, and was curious how Dollywood would compare. I’m not going to rank every ride, show and attraction - there are plenty of places you can get that information from people more tech-savvy than I. I just want to share with you my general impressions, the high points and even a few low points, and let you decide if it’s worth fighting the traffic on Parkway in Pigeon Forge.
First of all, getting to the park itself was not challenging (other than the fact that my stupid car’s onboard map sent me to the deliveries-only entrance. Subaru owners, beware!). Traffic in the morning was light (but we did arrive about an hour before rides started). Leaving the park at 6:30pm on a Saturday night (closing time of 7pm) took us nearly an hour to drive the four miles back to our hotel. Whether that was because of the hot rod rally or if that was normal traffic, I don’t know. The next day we left to go back to the hotel about an hour earlier and we didn’t have any trouble.
It seems that the park opens somewhere between 45 minutes and a half-hour before the posted opening, but no rides start until the posted time. The entire park seemed to be open, with many of the shops and some food places opening when the gates are open. We had heard so much about the cinnamon bread at Dollywood, and the first place we went to, the Spotlight Bakery, is the place where it’s made (and where they also make it for the other location in the park where it can be purchased, the Grist Mill in Craftsman’s Valley).
It really does live up to its reputation! Warm, gooey, just the right amount of cinnamon. One lady I talked to said that she visits family in Tennessee every year from Florida, buys a dozen loaves of it and takes it back with her. She freezes it and has one loaf a month. Smart lady - wish I had done that! The bakery also makes an amazing selection of cookies, pastries, cakes, and a 25-pound apple pie for $189.99 (or $18.99/slice)!
It’s one of the best bakeries I’ve ever been in anywhere, theme park or not (and no, we didn’t get the pie).
My home park, Cedar Point, is improving in the food area, but it has a long way to go to even approach the quality of the food at Dollywood. Saturday, we had lunch at the Front Porch Cafe, between Show Street and Rivertown Junction. It’s a full-service restaurant, serving traditional Southern cookin’, and everything tasted great, with one problem. The chicken breast sandwich I got, with honey-bourbon BBQ sauce, was so drenched in sauce that it could not be picked up to eat. They literally had sauce on top of the bun! I used my knife and fork, and it was delicious, but I did mention it to the server who immediately informed the kitchen. Whether it will make any difference...and the food was terrific, messy or not.
Sunday, we went to the place that had been recommended by everyone we asked when we wanted to go to the best place in the park, Aunt Granny’s Restaurant (and before you say it, yes, we did hear jokes about Aunt Granny’s family tree not forking). It’s a full-service, family-style restaurant (pre-covid it was a buffet) where for $23/person you ordered two entrees (from five choices), four sides (from I believe eight choices) and dessert. Soft drinks, iced tea, etc. are included. We ordered fried chicken, chicken and dumplings (redundant, I know), mashed potatoes and gravy, corn pudding, coleslaw and green beans. The food was very good, not “OMG! I have to have seconds!” good (even though seconds are available) but we had plenty to eat. Dessert was tasty but not memorable (in fact, neither of us can remember what it was!), and fortunately a small serving. It’s easy to fill up on that much food!
Sunday afternoon we wanted to check out two more places, so we tried a new location just across the street from the Train Depot, Victoria Pizza. Wow, was it disappointing! They forgot to tell the staff that they need to keep the food ready for customers. For a quick-service pizza place with a limited menu, it was surprisingly slow. Also, every dining place in Dollywood has signs on the tables telling guests to let the hosts clean the tables after someone uses them. There were no clean tables, just one less-dirty table we found on the front porch.
The only snack we tried was an ice cream cone from Showstreet Ice Cream. I thought that $4.99 for a single scoop in a plain waffle cone was a bit steep, and the ice cream, while good, was not as good as Toft’s at Cedar Point- with fewer varieties to choose from.
Dollywood also has a reputation (and lots of awards) for being an extremely clean park, and I mostly agreed. Mostly, because I never saw anyone cleaning in the restrooms. Maybe I missed them, and while the restrooms were not exactly terrible, they also seemed a bit neglected. Even Cedar Point (last year) always had someone inside cleaning constantly. Other than that, the outside of the park was well-tended.
Dollywood’s layout is forced on it by its location, surrounding a large hill (what we in Ohio would call a mountain). Visually, it is a beautiful park, with wooded hillsides and towering trees providing what I suspect is blessed shade on a hot summer day. The buildings, with the exception of two areas, are all themed to the Appalachian/backwoods/rustic look that one would expect from a park set in the Blue Ridge foothills. With its rustic wooden structures, winding (too narrow) paths and constant background Bluegrass/Appalachian music, it reminded me of a renaissance festival - and I love renaissance festivals! Of the two areas not in that architectural style, Showstreet (the main entrance area) is very theme-park Victorian, and transitioned nicely with the rest of the park.
Jukebox Junction, however, is 50s/60s retro, with lots of pastels and is an obvious homage to Dolly Parton and her career. Note: while writing this article and looking at the park guide map, I learned that this is actually two different “lands,” with the area featuring Dolly’s career being called “Adventures in Imagination.” I never had any idea these were two different lands while in the park, since many of the shops and window signs in Jukebox Junction refer to people and businesses referenced in the “Chasing Rainbows” museum, where Dolly Parton’s career is showcased and which is located in Adventures in Imagination. The two lands run into each other seamlessly, which makes me wonder why even bother calling them two different names.
For some reason, possibly involving future expansion plans (about which I heard many rumors being discussed while waiting in queue) large areas on the hills around some of the coasters and the train route have been clear-cut of all trees, with hundreds of stumps left behind. It was rather jarring to see this - almost the antithesis of what one would expect in such a park with half of its name being “wood.” Of course, my home park, Cedar Point, only has (maybe) one cedar tree left in the park. Anyway, it will be interesting to watch if Dollywood has future plans for these areas of tree removal.
There were two things about the design and layout of the park that bothered me. First was the location of the entrances to their coasters. You would think that something as important to any theme park as a major coaster would have major attention paid to it, but most of their coasters’ entrances seemed almost hidden. I had to walk around several of them, looking for the entrance, and twice I had a “host” (which is what they call their employees there, like “cast members” at Disney) ask if they could help me find something. (Side note: the hosts at Dollywood are all top-notch friendly! We had several fun conversations with different hosts all over the park, which told me that they were both well-trained and honestly really nice, friendly, helpful people.) Second, the park’s location limits an easy addition to its original design, forcing new areas to be built wherever they can fit them in. Several of their areas are in cul-de-sacs (dead ends) that are hard to find unless you are specifically looking for them or pay attention to the map. I didn’t find Owens Farm until Sunday, and we walked past the entrance to their newest area, Wildwood Grove, twice until we noticed the path leading to it. There was a very nice, very small sign telling the backstory of this new land (the only such backstory sign we saw), but the big, beautiful, elegant Wildwood Grove sign can’t be seen until you climb up the path, through a tunnel and are already in this area.
We only saw one complete show, “Wings of America,” an excellent show featuring birds of prey that are unable to be released back into the wild, and are being cared for by the American Eagle Foundation in a joint venture with Dollywood.
Owls and falcons, along with eagles, were presented to the audience in an interesting and informative way, and you could tell that these unreleasable birds were being well cared for. Eagle Mountain Sanctuary is a large fenced-in wooden hillside with what looked like dozens of bald eagles nesting in the hillside, and is directly adjacent to the Wings of America Theatre.
There were other shows throughout the park, and many of them are presented on outdoor stages.
We even saw a fiddler just walking along one of the lanes, playing for whoever he passed by. Once again, I felt like I was at a renaissance festival, a great feeling that I miss deeply.
The shop and crafts at Dollywood are all top-notch. They had a very large blacksmith shop, glass-blowing shop, and candle-making shop, and dozens of unique gift and craft shops selling everything from tin signs to leather goods to home decor.
It reminded me of Frontier Trail at Cedar Point when it first opened (not the commercialized shadow of its former self that it has become). They have a feature that only a few other parks offer - you can have your purchases sent to the front gate for pick-up free-of-charge, so you don’t have to haul them around all day or rent a locker to store them. Very convenient and appreciated service... as long as you remember to pick them up! I nearly left Sunday empty-handed before my buddy reminded me to get my earlier purchases.
Dollywood has very few of the ubiquitous post-ride gift shops that you must pass through after riding their coasters. Some have a nearby shop featuring some coaster-themed merchandise, but even those seem to have a limited supply and variety of attraction-specific products. Dollywood merchandise is everywhere - Thunderhead-themed stuff? Not so much.
We were there just before the Flower and Food Festival opened, but it appeared that most of the remarkable topiaries were already in place, as was Umbrella Sky, a street completely shaded with open colorful umbrellas.
The food at Dollywood is already outstanding, and I wish we could have tried some of the special offerings promised in their advanced publicity. Special entertainment is also scheduled, and while I suspect the park is packed for this event, I still would have enjoyed experiencing it.
Dollywood really is a great park, even if you don’t ride a single ride (which I did, riding most of the coasters multiple times, but I’ll leave their descriptions to someone else for the time being). Visually attractive, with loads of interesting features (such as an overheard water flume running the entire length of Craftsman’ Valley),
beautiful, well-tended gardens, over-the-top friendly hosts, and foods that few parks can rival in quality, Dollywood is a park that every Theme Park Insider should check-out at least once, especially if you have a family that you want to spend some good quality time with. I couldn’t help but compare it with Silver Dollar City, the park closest to it in concept that I’ve been to, and I still think that SDC wins the contest by a few points, but that doesn’t mean that Dollywood isn’t an outstanding theme park well worth fighting the traffic for.
Driving south on I-75 towards Pigeon Forge, just north of Knoxville at Exit 141, we saw something that caught our attention, but that we didn’t see soon enough to stop and check out. We made a note to check it on the way home, and when we did, we discovered what was probably one of the strangest roadside attractions that two theme park fans could ever have imagined. I Googled it and found a listing for Patriotic Palace Amusement Park. Google Maps marked it as Smokin’ Butts BBQ. Some signs announced it as the location of a Fireworks Superstore.
I don’t know how else to describe it other than as the place where Ferris Wheels go to die.
We stopped at a gas station across the road from it, and the manager told us that it once was a fireworks store that burned down in 2014. (I didn’t know they could just burn down- I thought they would blow up, but anyway....) Someone decided to set up his BBQ trailer in the parking lot (which you have to drive through another parking lot to get to) and occasionally opens up to sell to travelers and locals. It seems that he bought some old Ferris Wheels and a few other remnants from carnivals (or maybe from a defunct nearby amusement park that the station manager said was called Coal Town and which was open for exactly one month before closing down, leaving behind its sky ride towers and a parking lot). He even set up an operating Ferris Wheel high up on a hillside- across the interstate from his business. The owner seems to have erected them to attract attention to his business, but when we were there the only sign of life was the illuminated “Closed” sign in the trailer window
Now all of the Ferris Wheels stand abandoned, disintegrating from the elements. The paint is peeling from the scattered towers and signs on the entrance gate and surrounding edges of the parking lot. We wouldn’t even have noticed the Ferris Wheel across the interstate if it hadn’t been pointed out to us.
I wish we could have tried the BBQ.
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