Theme Park of the Day: Knott's Berry Farm

A First-Timer's Trip to Dollywood

May 13, 2021, 2:02 PM · 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.

Sign

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.

Hatfield and McCoy Dinner

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.

Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Audience

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.

Eagle Sculpt

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.

Showstreet

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).

Bread

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)!

Apple pie

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.

Chicken lunch

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.

Pizza

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.

Emporium

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.

Bakery

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.

Cop car

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.

Coaster

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.

Falcon

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.

Eagle head

There were other shows throughout the park, and many of them are presented on outdoor stages.

Band

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.

Owl crafts

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.

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),

Wheel

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.

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Footnote:

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.

Rocket

I don’t know how else to describe it other than as the place where Ferris Wheels go to die.

Ferris 1

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.

Woods 2

I wish we could have tried the BBQ.

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Replies (13)

May 13, 2021 at 2:18 PM

The best thing in Pigeon Forge is the magic show at the upside down building.

Terry Evanswood. Really a great night.

May 13, 2021 at 3:18 PM

Are you sure you won't talk a little bit about the rides? Other than Lightning Rod being mentioned as the #4 coaster on the Top 25 rollercoasters list on this site, there is no Dollywood page as there are on many other regional parks. If there is something, it is not coming up on the search. Even the word "Dollywood" is not highlighted in hypertext on the Top 25 rollercoasters list.

We are planning to visit Dollywood for the first time this summer. We have driven through Tennessee "the long way" many times when we visit family in the southeast, but have never veered off I-24 to take in some of the attractions in the state.

May 13, 2021 at 4:35 PM

FYI, a new Dollywood page is in the works.

May 13, 2021 at 4:53 PM

OK, I'll share my totally subjective opinions of the rides, short and hopefully without lots of mistakes. Also understand that Dollywood's coasters make lots of use of the hillsides, which gives a much different ride experience than the coasters at Cedar Point. Neither is better, just different.

Lightning Rod, in Jukebox Junction, is a recently RMC-treated coaster that is a really great, fast ride. You're launched up a hillside from the station, and it never seems to slow down. Rode it twice- both times a good ride.

Tennessee Tornado- a steel triple looping coaster that has most of its route through the trees and valleys. Fun, but a bit rough. One and done. Hidden entrance.

Fire Chaser Express (the extra Express seemed unnecessary)- a family coaster, but with a double launch, one forward and one backward. Good theming, but extremely slow loading. A good ride for younger family getting used to the big coasters.

Wild Eagle- America's first winged coaster, and while I preferred the experience of Gatekeeper at CP, this was still worth riding twice, once on each side. Good coaster elements, but I remember that the terrain beneath the coaster looked rather desolate. As lush a park as Dollywood is usually, it looked really out-of-place.

Mystery Mine- probably my favorite coaster. Rode it three times. Intense, tight turns, 90 degree lifts and 95 degree drops in dark "mine" shafts, some wild outside elements. A great ride! I wish CP had one of these.

Thunderhead-rough wooden coaster, and it felt like it was getting rougher, especially towards the end. It reminded me of Mean Streak just before it got RMC treated. Glad I rode it, but one and done for me.

Dragonflier- Family inverted coaster- good for younger riders working up to the big stuff.

Dollywood Express (train)- frankly, I found it both boring and annoying. Silver Dollar City has a train ride similar, but it had better scenery, a live cast that interacted with the train as it came by, and didn't continually blast the train whistle for no good reason other than to make noise. It didn't even take you anywhere, other than out around a big empty field, blowing its whistle the whole time.

Blazing Fury- indoor, very cheezy, very mild coaster. Fun, silly sort-of-story. It felt identical to Fire-in-the-hole at Silver Dollar City, just different scenery. Still, a fun experience that we did several times.

There were plenty of other rides that we could have done, but chose not to because they were identical to rides we already have ridden at other parks, and we wanted to spend the time "sight-seeing" and checking out the other attractions in the park. I definitely encourage you going there. One thing about their Timesaver Pass (their Fast Lane)- they have two kinds (I don't remember the price). One is good for (I believe) 8 or 9 rides on anything, and the other is good for unlimited rides.

The coasters were mostly good, not what I could consider great (other than Mystery Mine, and possibly Lightning Rod). I admit that I'm spoiled with CP, but Dollywood has a good, complete package of coasters, good variety and a good sample of rides for all ages. They have LOTS of rides for smaller children, and plenty of non-coasters for adults (Barnstormer- a giant swing; Smokey Mountain River Rampage- a river rafting ride; Daredevil Falls, a mill race soaker)just to name a few. It was cold enough that we didn't want to get soaked.

I hope this helps. I really do think that you'll find plenty to do at Dollywood, regardless of your preferences.

May 13, 2021 at 10:29 PM

I'm with you on Thunderhead, Mr. Koehl. I couldn't wait to get off it and just remember thinking to myself "This is the ride everyone swears by?". RMC could probably do some wonders with it.

May 14, 2021 at 6:09 AM

Mr Trexan, I remember thinking, towards the end of Thunderhead, that the intense, unending twists, turns and curves would have been amazing if not for the fact that my internal organs were getting shaken into a human haggis by the violent shaking of the train. RMC- please send Dollywood an estimate.

May 14, 2021 at 7:37 AM

Thanks, James.

Looking forward to the new Dollywood page, Robert.

May 14, 2021 at 10:27 AM

"Human haggis" is my new favorite phrase.

Thunderhead's sibling, Apocalypse, got so bad that SFMM eventually retracked it. Retracking also worked well for Ghostrider at Knott's, so there are solutions short of RMC'ing an aging woodie.

May 14, 2021 at 10:47 AM

It doesn't make sense to RMC a woodie in a park that already has an RMC. Thunderhead used to be really smooth given comparable coasters of its era, but my guess is that the elements have gotten the best of the coaster over the past 15+ years since it debuted. The Smokey Mountain region has some pretty wild temperature swings and extremely high humidity during the late summer months, which undoubtedly wreaks havoc on the structural and track members that dramatically impact ride quality.

Did you end up using either of Dollywood's queue avoidance systems? We're pondering a trip later this summer, and used their Lo-Queue system the last time we were there @14 years ago and found it pretty essential given the crowds. I expect that Dollywood won't be limiting capacity much longer, and wait times for the big coasters could get pretty unbearable (I recall Mystery Mine was @60 minutes the last time we were there, but it was brand new at the time). The Lo-Queue system worked like Flash Pass works now with guests given a device that you reserved a spot in a virtual queue so you could ride other attractions while waiting in the virtual line for the big rides.

May 14, 2021 at 11:39 AM

Thanks James. Great article and I loved the pictures.

May 14, 2021 at 12:55 PM

I went to Dollywood for the first time last week. And while I loved reading your write-up about the park, I feel quite differently about the place.

Firstly, I'll take Thunderhead over Lightning Rod any day. Neither are a top 10 for me, but Thunderhead has crazy comfy seats and restraints, and the ride experience was smooth (front and back) for me. The twists and turns were amazing, I re-rode it seven times compared to only two (by choice) on Lightning Rod. LR was fun, intense and jam packed with whack-a-doo elements, but the trains are uncomfortable and the airtime is painful on my legs. I'm not a fan of RMC's airtime hills, I prefer sustained rather than rapid ejection. Like Intamin's Superman hyper coasters or Maverick. Steel Vengeance is awesome until you get to those rapid fire hills at the end. I'd prefer 2 or 3 strong sustained hills over 7 quick pops that want to tear my legs off. I liked Twisted Cyclone at SF Georgia more than Lightning Rod.

Here's how I'd rank the coasters. #1-Thunderhead #2-Dragonflier #3-Mystery Mine #4-Lightning Rod #5-Tennessee Tornado #6-Firechaser Express #7-Wild Eagle #8-Blazing Fury #9-Whistlepunk Chaser

The food at Dollywood was lack luster. I started with cinnamon bread, it wasn't that great, I'll take Cinnabon or the AMAZING Cinnaholic store in Pigeon Forge over cinnamon bread. Then I got a brisket sandwich from a place near Blazing Fury, worst theme park food I've ever had. The brisket was awful, dry, hard, not tasty at all. I was going to try some festival food but the rain came and I left before doing so.

Finding all the attraction entrances was crazy easy, I love the little jaunt that Firechaser Express is in. I will 100% agree that the train ride is overrated, the benches were terribly uncomfortable, I was aching to get off the train as soon as it started moving. Dropline has one of if not the best views of any drop tower, and it's free of shoulder restraints! Dragonflier is smooth, comfy and suprising intense for a family coaster! Barnstormer has a ride cycle of less than a minute! Why? It seems as though most Screamin' Swings do though. The Heart Song show needs to go, no one seemed to enjoy it, there were a few pity claps though. Are there supposed to be actors, it was just a video?

Dollywood is one of the few parks I'm just happy to be at, I don't need to ride things to have a good time there. It's just a gorgeous place to be and I can't wait to return.

May 14, 2021 at 2:46 PM

Excellent report, James!

Dollywood is really one of the nicest non-destination parks in the country, and while it isn't themed as extensively as Disney or Universal, they do have quality theming throughout the park and a consistent feel. I do think the newer areas aren't quite as well done as the older, but that's not surprising given the park's recent shift toward thrill rides. Your comparison to Silver Dollar City is quite apt as both parks are operated by the same company and Dollywood was branded Silver Dollar City in the past before Dolly Parton became involved. After visiting both last year, I'd agree that Silver Dollar City is slightly better between the two, but both are must visit parks for any who call themselves a theme park enthusiast rather than a Disney/Universal fan.

I'm a little surprised you disliked Thunderhead so much, as I'd consider it the second best coaster at the park after Lightning Rod (which is a contender for the title of my favorite coaster and outranks Steel Vengeance...sorry) and have the ride in my personal top 50. That said, it does have good days and bad days, and on my last visit it was a particularly good day. It's quite possible you hit it on a bad day. As for the rest, Wild Eagle's my favorite of the bunch, with Mystery Mine coming up a bit behind (theming is excellent, the second half is phenomenal, but the first half is a bit dull and jerky), and Tennessee Tornado brings up the rear of the majors but is still a decent ride. With the family/junior coasters added as well, the park really does have one of the more rounded coaster collections out there for a park that isn't all about thrills.

I've always found Dollywood's food on the whole to be good but overrated. It is definitely superior to the average meal at a corporate regional park, but it isn't at the level where I'd consider visiting just because of the food. Granted, I've only done one full service meal in my three visits so that could affect it, but with the praise the park gets I'd expect everything to be well above average and haven't found that to be the case.

Thanks again for sharing this one! As someone who has visited almost every decent-sized park in the country, I enjoy reading reports from first timers.

May 16, 2021 at 4:27 AM

Thanks for such a detailed report James! I've had a bit of a secret desire to do a US road trip one day soon, hitting up a lot of the amusement parks I wouldn't otherwise get around to visiting - and Dollywood's high on that list. So it's great to hear another perspective.

And the Hatfield and McCoy show looks like a blast. Sign me up.

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