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It’s taken nearly 60 years of growth for Dollywood to become the elite, award-winning, industry-leading example of theme park excellence it is today.
In fact, looking back to 1961, it’s almost hard to comprehend the evolution that’s taken place starting from a kitschy, lost-in-the-past-relic, built to capitalize on the 100-year anniversary of the American Civil War.
The 1960s theme park known as Rebel Railroad
Dolly Parton was 15 years old when a pair of enterprising brothers from Blowing Rock, North Carolina, looked to double down on their railroad related mountain tourism business.
Straight out of an episode of “Bonanza,” Rebel Railroad featured a steam train ride that saw riders attacked by train robbers, Union soldiers and “Indians.” Modeled after Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock, the riders were protected by Confederate soldiers – convincingly played by local actors sweating it out in heavy wool uniforms.
The park also featured a blacksmith shop, a saloon and a general store.
From our vantage point, all this seems at best painfully quaint with questionably bad taste, but it’s important to remember the late ‘50s and early ’60s were, in many ways, a cultural wasteland filled with people who gave themselves far too much benefit of the doubt looking back through rose-colored glasses.
These were the same people who thought the “Ballad of Davy Crockett” was a real banger and “Leave it to Beaver” was quality TV. It’s as if mayonnaise was left in the sun so long it came to life and created a culture in its own image.
Rebel Railroad changes its name to Goldrush Junction
There is inconsistent reporting on when Rebel Railroad changed its name to Goldrush Junction. Some reports indicate it was in the middle ’60s while others point to 1970 when the park was purchased by Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, because why the hell not?
It would make sense for Modell, who was seen as a progressive NFL owner for his open recruitment of Black players, to have been the one to change the name. But, as a noted capitalist, Modell was also the one who moved the Browns to Baltimore causing random drunken Ohioans to risk arrest by peeing on his grave.
Let’s say Modell is currently viewed historically as a bit of a mixed bag.
Under Modell’s ownership, the park added a log flume ride, an outdoor theater and the Robert F. Thomas Church.
Goldrush Junction turns into SIlver Dollar City in 1976
Modell’s tenure wasn’t long. The park sold again in 1976, was briefly named Goldrush for a season before being rechristened Silver Dollar City, making it a sister park to the new owners’ park in Branson, Missouri.
Under the 10-year solo ownership of Jack and Pet Herchend, the park grew substantially, but if we’re being frank, was still corny as hell.
Dolly saves the day in 1986
In 1986, Dolly Parton got on board. Queue the harps and angel choir.
Dolly’s arrival gave the park an immediate boost of national recognition. It’s hard to overstate just how omnipotent Dolly was to the culture in the early ’80s. But nobody thought of her as the next Walt Disney.
Dollywood? Is she for real?
Friends, she was.
Driven by the desire to help her hometown grow, Dolly led the way for an unprecedented expansion that surpassed anything imagined outside of Orlando.
Over the next 30 years Dolly’s imprint on the park itself, as well as the amusement park industry, is undeniable. Her presence serves as a giant umbrella, looming over park management and her continued partners in the Herschend Family.
So ubiquitous is her presence that many, including my wife, operate as if Dolly herself is leading boardroom meetings, hand-selecting rides and approving day-to-day operations. I swear my wife thinks of Dolly as if she’s Santa Claus and the rest of Dollywood is operated by hard-working, successful amusement park elves.
But while Dollywood’s success is driven by the people who work mostly behind the scenes, make no mistake it was Dolly’s arrival, name recognition and continued cachet that allowed the park to thrive.
My first Dollywood experience
Dollywood’s creation coincided with my first trip to Sevier County. Then a young Hoosier, I followed the traditional Indiana Rite of Summer with a vacation to the Smokies.
Long ago, it was carved into stone tablets that East Tennesseans vacation at Myrtle Beach and Hoosiers vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains. Ever will it be so.
At the time, I had no idea I’d be moving to East Tennessee in a couple of years. My memories of that trip are vague. I remember Dollywood being fairly cheesy and somewhat boring. When I returned in the early ’90s, I still found Dollywood to be a bit of a chore. Part of that was youth but part of that was – as was oft explained to me – Dollywood was a theme park, not an amusement park.
I wanted amusement. Dollywood gave me theme.
Still a northerner at heart, I decried Dollywood as inferior to Six Flags, King’s Island and the holiest of holies, Cedar Point.
Over the years, I matured and embraced my East Tennessee home. The corniness of Dollywood grew more charming and, as it presented an excellent opportunity to flirt with tourist girls, a trip to Dollywood became less of a chore.
Dollywood’s impact on Sevier County
There was something else going on, akin to a snowball rolling down a hill. Dolly’s powerful presence led to successes. Those successes led to more money. More money led to more investment in the park. More investment in the park led to more success and, without it being immediately obvious, Dollywood went from being a kitschy little industry to a titan.
The rides got bigger and better. New roller coasters started popping up nearly annually and new sections of the park began opening and growing every year or two.
By the time Wildwood Grove opened just over a year ago in 2019, Dollywood was completely transformed into the image of its namesake. From rides, to annual festivals and events, if you go to Dollywood and don’t have a good time, it’s entirely your fault – or possibly the fault of your hot and whiny kids.
Now Dollywood collects Golden Ticket awards like Charlie Bucket and Uncle Joe and Dolly really looks like the bright, blonde and brilliant successor to Walt Disney.
There’s a waterpark, a massive resort hotel and hints for expansion all over the horizon just as soon as we get past this COVID-19 business.
Dollywood, like its namesake, is an amazing American success story.
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