With vaccinations in the United States just now tipping past 50%, and Covid case numbers dropping, my fully vaccinated family decided to finally dip our toes back into the theme park world after a much-too-long, Covid-induced hiatus. We opted to try something new and headed off to the breathtaking Smoky Mountains and hopefully hang out with Dolly.
Although the icon herself didn’t arrive to greet us personally (boo!), we did find a gorgeous park and a memorable food festival. While my colleague James Koehl already did a better review of the park than I could, hopefully I can offer a bit of insight into Dollywood’s 2021 Flower and Food Festival.
As the name implies, the festival focuses its attention on providing guests with some impressive floral creations and tasty concoctions. Overall, I felt the quality of the food to be much better than average theme park fare but the organization left much to be desired.
Visually, the flower creations were top notch and added a very vibrant colorful element to the theme park experience.
The food offerings ran the gamut from Blood Orange Lemonade to Mountain Paella. Heavy crowds prevented us from trying all the offerings but we did get a chance to nab a few. One highlight was a tasty Cuban Sandwich with a small side of plantain chips with a mango salsa.
The chips were the sleeper hit of the day and were gobbled up by the party faster than any other single dish. Desserts were plentiful and included some very pretty flower cookies and cupcakes as well as some stellar liege waffles covered with edible flowers, fruit and whipped cream.
Each of the dishes cost between $5.99-7.99. Most patrons, us included, opted for a sampler pass which cost $30 and granted five portions.
Although the food was of good quality, with the exception of the plantain chips, nothing stood out at as particularly incredible or noteworthy. The venerable Cinnamon Bread, which is a constant feature at the park, was far and away the tastiest dish of the day, but it was not actually part of the food festival.
The biggest issue, however, was the lack of efficiency. Dollywood, while visually impressive, does not handle crowds particularly well, as many of the venues where food was available were narrow. The food kiosks would offer between one to three of the food festival items as well as their regular menu, and each line was rarely less than 45-60 minutes. Interestingly enough, the lines for the thrill rides like Wild Eagle and Lightning Rod were often less. Hoping to avoid huge crowds, we opted to visit the park on a Monday, but it was to no avail. I do not know if we simply visited on a particularly crowded day or the festival is always that congested, but it was a challenge navigating the crowds.
And of course as any good theme park aficionado knows, if you can only visit a park for one day, it will either rain or be abysmally hot. We got the latter. This created a strange situation. Water fountains throughout the park were unavailable due to covid restrictions. Any food stand would happily give you a complimentary cup of water but you had to wait in line. Probably one-third of all the patrons in each of the food festival lines were there just for drinks. Much of this congestion could have been solved by providing water stations. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and I heard more than one person complain about this issue standing in the sun-soaked lines with their pre-paid food vouchers. Since nobody wanted to throw away their vouchers, everyone committed to waiting in the sun as the long line winded through the crowded street, all so they could get a cupcake and a sip of water.
At the end of the day, aside from my above grumbles, we all enjoyed our visit. We were able to ride what we wanted and tried several different food offerings. Although the weather topped 90 degrees, we were surrounded by the lush Smoky Mountains, which is truly one of the prettiest parts of the country.
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