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The first time I set foot in Pigeon Forge was 1987.
A 12-year-old Hoosier, I came south with my aunt and uncle. We played mini-golf, stayed in what was then a nice hotel (it’s gone significantly downhill, being ranked among the worst in America a couple of years ago) and did other things popular with tourists in the region at the time.
I don’t remember any desire to go to Dollywood, even though certainly I knew who Dolly Parton was – chiefly through her movies playing over and over again on HBO. In fact, HBO is the reason I thought Dabney Coleman was the biggest actor in the world.
Dollywood would have only been a year old at the time – having converted from Silver Dollar City in 1985 – and was still making its mark on the national scene. The idea of a Dollywood was still kinda strange. I mean Dolly was a big star but she wasn’t exactly Walt Disney.
Four years later my step-dad got transferred to East Tennessee, and Pigeon Forge went from being an exotic – for Hoosiers – vacation locale to basically my backyard.
In the intervening years, Dollywood had already made great strides, beginning a 30-year journey from curiosity to legitimately great theme park. And while Dollywood executives have made fantastic improvements – seriously – in park management, attractions and events, there are still a few tips only the insiders know that can make your trip more fun.
1. The traffic
The traffic. During peak hours, traffic in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg can steal tiny pieces of your soul. Did you go on vacation for mind-numbing hours of debilitating gridlock? Oops. Sorry. Sevier County officials, and presumably the Tennessee Department of Transportation, have done a lot of work to open up the entrances and help move people through but there are still plenty of times it’d be quicker to walk the length of the main drag than try and drive it.
Depending on where you’re coming from, there are some short cuts. The best way to get to Dollywood when the traffic is bad is to take Highway 411, which you can access from the east or north from I-40 at Newport or from the south or west by taking the Chapman Highway exit off I-40 in Knoxville.
Either way, take 411 to the intersection with Veterans Boulevard. This used to be a little known backroad, used only by locals, but the road has been widened and provides a bunch of lanes heading to the park. More people know about it, more people use it, but it is still vastly superior to taking the parkway. This shortcut is useless if you’re staying in Pigeon Forge proper, use Teaster Lane, if you can get to it. It runs parallel to the Parkway and connects to the other end of Veterans Boulevard. It won’t help if you’re on the Southwest side of Pigeon Forge or coming from Gatlinburg, but it’s still a useful road to know to bypass some of the Parkway traffic.
2. The parking
So yeah. The whole building-upon-an-already-existing site was great except for some of the transportation logistics. There’s plenty of parking at Dollywood but the tram system to and from park to parking lot is truly one of the closest things to a disappointment you’ll find. The drivers are mostly great and friendly but it’s just an outdated way to move people. At the end of the night around Christmas, you and 5,000 of your best friends can cram in a disorganized queue and freeze to death waiting for an open-air ride back to the car.
There’s a fairly easy way to avoid all that mess. Straight cash, homey. Standard parking is $15. Preferred parking is $25. You’re already laying down serious cash just to get in the park and enjoy the day. The $10 damn dollars to park close, avoid the queue crush and not have to ride the tram, is the best deal going.
One word of caution, the preferred lot is on top of a damn mountain. The walk down to the exclusive entrance is a bit rough on the knees but the climb back is brutal if you have mobility issues. For an additional $13 you can get the valet service and avoid mountain climbing at the end of a long and weary day.
Photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com
3. Be ready to walk
Be ready to walk. Look, many amusement parks have the good luck and/or foresight to be built on a relatively flat piece of land. One of Disney’s best ideas was building his park on the flat second story. You walk up a little at the entrance and then never realize the Magic Kingdom is set on a roof.
Dollywood ain’t that, chief. There are hills. There are mountains. There are dips, dives and hollers. Plan your footwear accordingly. If you have mobility issues, they have scooters for rent but on busy days they can get a little scarce. If you’re wondering whether or not to bring your chair or rent one, I’d say bring it.
4. Stay hydrated
If you’re at Dollywood, there’s a good chance it’s hot and humid. For those of us from the area, it’s part of life in the South, but it you’re visiting from somewhere with a less sticky thick summer environment, it can be a bit of an adjustment. Throw in the walking up and down hills and hollers and you’re going to need to replace some sweat. Dollywood recognizes this and also knows it’s not a fantastic look to have patrons dropping left and right from heat stroke. As such, the park offers complimentary cups of water at all park restaurants and most food outlets, all you have to do is ask. Also, water fountains are located near all restrooms. Let’s stay safe out there, people.
Photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com
5. The little things (cubbies vs lockers)
There’s a reason Dollywood is known as the “Friendliest Park in the World” and a large part of that reason is the little things like ride cubbies. Yes, Dollywood offers lockers in which you can store your valuables for a price near the entrance like every other park in the world. But unlike others – I’m looking at you Universal – Dollywood recognizes that you might have stuff you need throughout the day that you’d rather not take on a ride or store in a locker. And so Dollywood offers ride cubbies – places where you can store your stuff. They’re not necessarily secure (honor system is in play here), so if you have the Hope Diamond on you, keep it in your pocket. But still, it’s nice to be able to ride without clutching your sunglasses, or purse or whatever throughout.
6. Seeing Dolly in the park
This is the big one. Dolly will occasionally make appearances at the park to announce the latest big show or ride or something. Those are hard to pinpoint in advance and just come down to the luck of the draw. The best shot to see Dolly is early in the year. There’s a media day at which Dolly (schedule permitting) kicks off the new year with a little show and song. During the show, she also celebrates season passholders and makes several appearances in the park (weather permitting) including riding in the daily parade. If you want to see Dolly, this is the best way to do it. Ask park officials when the passholder celebration is and you’ll have a good chance to see Dolly.
Photo by John Gullion/TheSmokies.com
7. Dolly in the wild (incognito)
Over the years, I have become friendly with several people who work at the park, both on the operations side and in the entertainment side. All have told me it is the gospel truth that Dolly has been able to take off her persona – wig, makeup and fancy outfits – and take in the park without being noticed. I have been told by many reliable sources this is true, but I’ve never heard of someone successfully spotting an incognito Dolly riding the Tennessee Tornado. Still, it’s probably worth keeping your eyes peeled for a little Where’s Waldo action Dollywood style.
Location: 2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd, Pigeon Forge, TN 37863
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