In Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Dollywood kicks off its 37th season

Visitors pose for photographs in front of a sign at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., in March as the park kicked off its 37th season. (Photos by Jacob Biba for The Washington Post)
Visitors pose for photographs in front of a sign at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., in March as the park kicked off its 37th season. (Photos by Jacob Biba for The Washington Post)

A crowd many bodies deep stood behind a white line, waiting. Hands of varying sizes and manicure styles gripped pink pompoms and paper butterflies on wood stems. A woman rested her encased phone in the crook of her thumb and forefinger, the image of Dolly Parton poised to meet the real Dolly Parton.

“She’s coming! She’s coming!” heralded a parade attendee positioned by a Dollywood sign near the entrance to the Tennessee theme park.

A loud cheer swelled up, then faded out. False alarm.

Minutes later, a pair of elfin women in butterfly costumes fluttered by. Then some official-looking men in button-down shirts. And finally what we had all been craning our necks to see: the matriarch of Dollywood in full sparkling splendor.

“Woo-hoo!” screamed the fans. “Woo-hoo!” replied Dolly, raising her bangled arms up high as if she were careening down a roller coaster.

The processional starring the “dreamer in chief” in her DeWitt convertible signaled the reopening of Dollywood, a highly anticipated event in eastern Tennessee and the wider theme park universe. “We’ve been coming here for 20 years, since our daughter was 2,” said Darryl Collins, a season-pass holder from McMinnville, Tenn., who was indulging in a post-pageant loaf of cinnamon bread with his wife, Regina. “We’ve watched the performers grow up.”

The park is closed for several weeks between New Year’s Day and early March; however, it has been much longer since Dolly last appeared at her namesake attraction. The co-owner of one of Tennessee’s top destinations, who often clears her calendar for opening weekend, missed two years because of the coronavirus pandemic. This season, not even the threat of getting stuck in a snowstorm in rhinestone heels could keep her away from the ceremonies.

“We’re just getting out of covid and feeling like we’re free again,” Dolly said in her tour bus, which was parked outside her DreamMore Resort and Spa in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. “This is like the season of deliverance, in a way. It’s like life is going to start anew again.”

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In addition to the parade, a long-running tradition, Dolly kicked off the 37th season with a surprise performance of her latest single, “Big Dreams and Faded Jeans,” for season-pass holders. (The song inspired by her collaboration with novelist James Patterson on a thriller was added to the playlist piped into the park, so regular ticket holders shouldn’t feel too left out.) She also dropped a few reveals.

“You can stay in Suite 1986,” she excitedly announced, referring to the motor home she has used since about 2010 to cruise around the country. “The bus ain’t that old.”

For its second career as a slumber-party site, the Gypsy Wagon will permanently reside at DreamMore. Though rates and dates have not yet been released, it’s safe to assume that you can’t take your bedroom out for a spin around Pigeon Forge. Dolly also shared details about the HeartSong Lodge & Resort, a companion property to DreamMore that is scheduled to debut in fall 2023. The difference between the neighbors: DreamMore is a love ballad to Dolly, whereas HeartSong is a serenade to the Smoky Mountains.

“This is one of the most beautiful places in the whole wide world,” Dolly said across the bus’s dinette table. “I was born and raised right here. I grew up with my family not very far from the [national] park. The people are great, the water’s good, the air’s so clean.”

Because of Dolly’s deep connection to Tennessee mountain culture, Dollywood feels personal, even biographical, a claim that most theme parks can’t make. (Sorry, kiddos, but Mickey is not a real mouse who grew up in Florida.) “We have a little theme, like something that has to do with my childhood, something that has to do with my life,” she said. “We try to keep it as down home as we can, but you have to have roller coasters. We do name them appropriately, though, like Wild Eagle. The names kind of relate to something in my childhood.”

On the park map, a white butterfly symbol designates the “Dolly Attractions.” Outside Hickory House BBQ, I approached an employee with a salt-and-pepper goatee, languid Southern accent and name tag that read “Bruce Celino.” I asked Bruce for the most direct route to Dolly’s Tennessee Mountain Home, a reproduction of her childhood cabin that her brother Bobby built and her mother, Avie Lee Owens, decorated with a keen eye for verisimilitude.

Instead of simply relaying the directions, he escorted me to the structure, through Craftsman’s Valley to Rivertown Junction, two of the park’s 11 themed districts. Along the way, we stopped by the railroad tracks to inhale the scent of cinnamon bread wafting from Grist Mill. The aroma must have activated his appetite, because, for the remainder of the walk, he listed all the foods I had to try: turkey legs, chicken wings, barbecue ribs, pork rinds, pulled pork and the foot-long corn dogs and curly fries at Dogs N Taters. “Mendy hand-rolls the corn dogs,” he said, clearly impressed with his colleague’s handiwork.

A butterfly also perches (at least on paper) on Dolly’s Home on Wheels, the tour bus that preceded the one at DreamMore. While I waited in line to board, a benevolent Dolly grinned down at me from the facade of the DreamSong Theater, where the previous headliner was a band featuring two of her nieces, a cousin and a family friend. Inside the 45-foot-long motor home, I had exactly five minutes to snoop around. I peered into her bathroom (monogrammed hand towel, standard white toilet paper), closet (fuzzy pink slippers, leopard-print blouse) and bedroom (Bible, framed family photos, guitar strewn on the bed). The glove box was not part of the tour, but even if it had been, I would not have found what I was looking for. According to a sign out front, none of her drivers ever received a speeding ticket.

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With the exception of opening weekend and video or movie shoots, Dolly rarely performs at the park, because of her overstuffed schedule. However, every day throughout the year, musicians of many persuasions — country, bluegrass, Americana, gospel — belt out tunes at indoor and outdoor stages sprinkled around the property. Over two days, I caught enough snippets of the Wild Roots Band, a trio at the Showstreet Gazebo, to qualify as a full-fledged concert. At the Back Porch Theater, A Brighter Day’s rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” put a skip in the step of laggard feet. The Tones, an a cappella group that harmonizes at the Village Depot Stage, caused many passengers to nearly miss their train.

“Dollywood is more than just the rides,” said Linda Peek, head usher at Showstreet Palace Theater, home of the Kingdom Heirs, the house gospel quartet. “A lot of our season-pass holders never go on the rides. They come for the shows. They come for the entertainment.”

Between acts, the park is a symphony of ambient music: the toot-toot of the coal-fired steam engine, the pitter-patter of dripping wax at Old Flames Candles, the rhythmic creak of swings, the hammering percussion at Valley Forge Blacksmith. Even the birds of prey at Eagle Mountain Sanctuary contribute to the soundtrack, the whoosh of their wings redolent of woodwind instruments.

“Everybody loves seeing America,” Carly Hamilton, a presenter at the “Wings of America” show, said of its biggest star, the 34-year-old bald eagle. “The stage is his comfort space, and Dollywood is his home.”

Despite the steady babble, the park was uncharacteristically silent on March 12, the official opening day. (The day before was reserved for season-pass holders and journalists.) For the first time in its history, management had to keep the gates shuttered because of severe winter weather. At DreamMore, the staff scrambled to distract the adults with no backup plans and the fidgety children whose parents had packed swim trunks but not snowsuits. Employees served us doughnuts and hot chocolate and scheduled shows by a young female guitarist who sweetly sang “Jolene” in this Temple of Dolly and a keyboardist whose voice soared to the highest reaches of the atrium.

I took advantage of the unexpected downtime to explore the resort, setting off on a scavenger hunt of Dolly treasures. Opposite the Song & Hearth restaurant (found the stone soup!) and along the wall of album covers, I located her first record, “Hello, I’m Dolly,” which was released in 1967. I also unearthed her last — and possibly postmortem — song, which is sealed inside a time capsule called the Dream Box. Her instructions forbid any ears to hear “My Place in History” until her 100th birthday, on Jan. 19, 2046.

Wondering whether Dolly was also stranded in the snow, I decided to swing by the Dolly Parton Suite, where she has been staying since her tour bus was decommissioned. I asked a housekeeper for the floor number. She cut my quest short, informing me that Dolly had departed the premises.

“In this weather? In those heels?” I asked incredulously.

“She has people who help her walk,” the housekeeper assured me.

During my wanderings, I ran into a few familiar faces, such as Dolly’s stylist and a three-generation family who had driven nine hours from Mississippi. I had originally met the grandmother, mother and 9-year-old daughter, Rylee Kate, at the resort’s Bedtime Stories. The public readings, which typically attract an audience of pajama-clad kids, feature titles from Dolly’s Imagination Library, the nonprofit program that sends children free monthly books until they turn 5. When I bumped into Rylee Kate on our snow day, she was empty-handed, which had not been the case the day before.

“She carried her guitar around all day, hoping Dolly would sign it,” said Jessica Strebeck, her mother. “I was a desperate mama trying to get my girl’s dream to come true.”

And come true it did. Jessica had noticed a member of Dolly’s security team outside the tour bus and asked whether he could pass along the guitar to Dolly. Later, the family heard a knock on their hotel room door. An employee delivered Rylee Kate’s instrument with the looping inscription: “To Rylee. Love you, Dolly Parton.”

One dream accomplished, and the season had only just begun.

  • 2525 DreamMore Way, Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
  • 800-365-5996

DreamMore is a full-service resort near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Amenities include the Song & Hearth eatery (breakfast and dinner buffet from $18.95 and $32.95, respectively; children 4 to 9 from $8.95 and $13.95, respectively), spa and fitness center, pool complex, Dolly-themed shop and free activities, including live music, a s’mores campfire and bedtime reading with books from her Imagination Library. A free shuttle transports guests to Dollywood and Dollywood’s Splash Country, a water park, which opens May 14. Average rates from $169 a night; two-night minimum on high-season weekends.

  • 2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd., Pigeon Forge
  • 800-365-5996

Dollywood has rides, live music, craft demonstrations, plus special festivals and celebrations. The theme park usually opens at 10 a.m., but closing hours vary. The Flower & Food Festival (about $35 tasting pass), which features floral creations and Dollywood’s Umbrella Sky, a “ceiling” of umbrellas, runs April 22 through June 5. Check the schedule for live performances and “Heartsong, the Movie” showtimes. One-day park ticket costs $84 for ages 10 to 61, and $74 for those 4 to 9 and seniors 62 and up. General parking $22.80.

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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