Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Dollywood is growing.
Since May of 1986, when Dolly Parton partnered with the Herschend family to put her name on the former Silver Dollar City, the park’s unofficial mission statement has been to make big plans and then make them come true.
As Dollywood’s 40th anniversary is approaching, the idea of well-planned growth and expansion still fires operations at the Dollywood Company.
In fact, the Dollywood theme park has transformed from a kitschy mid-level regional attraction to one of the world’s preeminent theme park destinations.
In Pigeon Forge, the Dollywood parks are a close second in popularity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park itself.
Is Dollywood going to expand?
That’s like asking if the sun is going to come up. Yes, Dollywood is going to expand.
In 2021, officials announced a $500 million expansion plan. In total, the plan will include four new resorts, a campground and the recently-announced coaster, Big Bear Mountain.
You can be assured that over the next decade there will be new ideas, new rides, new experiences and new places to stay.
The expansion plan that includes a third, fourth and fifth resort hotel, whose names have not yet been announced, will cater to Dollywood guests.
The resorts are in addition to Dollywood’s Heartsong Lodge, the second on-property hotel joining Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort.
What is coming to Dollywood?
Let’s start with what we know, frankly what we have known for quite some time.
For months we’ve been writing about a new attraction, a new roller coaster as part of the expansion of the Wildwood Grove section of the park.
Wildwood Grove opened in 2019. At the time, it was the largest expansion in park history. Catering to younger children and mercifully designed with plenty of shade and restful spots, Wildwood Grove has been wildly popular.
So when Dollywood filed documents with planners indicating a massive new coaster, it was only a matter of time before Dolly, Dollywood President Eugene Naughton and others got together to make the official announcement of the new family attraction.
The newest addition to the grove isn’t exactly a kids’ coaster. However, it won’t be as intimidating as rides like the Wild Eagle or Lightning Rod. The height requirement is a relatively modest 39 inches.
The $25 million Big Bear Mountain ride is a nearly 4,000 ft. long roller coaster. It will allow guests to embark on an unforgettable expedition through the Smokies in search of the elusive Big Bear.
The massive structure hugs six acres of undulating topography. The track runs along the border of Wildwood Grove. Riders will race through the wilderness before soaring high above the forest on the search for the legendary bear.
Featuring a top speed of 48 mph, Big Bear Mountain takes guests through three separate launches, multiple airtime hills, high-speed carousel turns and tunnels, including a pass behind a waterfall.
The coaster, which will be the first in the park with on-ride audio, is expected to open in the spring of 2023.
The new HeartSong Lodge
Also opening in 2023, albeit later in the year, is the new HeartSong Lodge. The lodge is designed to capture the beauty of the Smoky Mountains.
It will also feature the luxury of the mountain lodges that were popular with the nation’s elite who built their own getaways when the popularity of the Smokies was swelling in the years before the creation of the national park.
The 302-room lodge will feature themed suites, loft rooms, spacious family suites and bunk rooms. There will be deluxe indoor and outdoor pools and much more.
“In its simplest form, HeartSong is about the Smoky Mountains and why I continue to come back home year after year,” Dolly Parton said.
“It is the place I recharge and stay grounded. The beauty of the mountains – at every hour and in every season – is simply an inspiration. From the time I was a child, I roamed the hills of Locust Ridge and explored God’s coloring book.”
Construction of the HeartSong Lodge will continue through the end of 2023.
Work on resort No. 3 is expected to begin shortly thereafter with plans already being made for numbers four and five.
Speculation on what’s next for Dollywood
Now, for the fun part. We get to take what we know, what we’ve heard, what we think and what we guess and talk about the next phases for the expansion of Dollywood.
We have long believed a dark ride – possibly one based on fireflies – is the final piece to phase II of the Wildwood Grove puzzle. For decades now, Dollywood has been playing catch-up in the roller coaster department. But now the park boasts an impressively deep roster of thrill rides.
Dollywood competes with most of the best amusement parks in the industry. The park, however, has fallen behind somewhat in dark rides – themed rides that take place inside in the dark. Dark rides can be anything from Small World at Disney to the Transformers Ride at Universal.
They are utilitarian and good for families and kids and frequently people of size.
Dark rides are also air-conditioned for hot days and heated on cold days.
They’re a way the park can keep operating even when the weather is bad. I feel a dark ride in Wildwood Grove is almost a sure thing.
There is a likely spot for another one in Adventures of Imagination but that’s nothing more than a logical inference on my part. I’m basing this on nothing more than looking at the map and seeing where Dollywood could use a ride.
Remember, Thunder Road was down that way years ago and for many seasons was one of the most popular rides in the park.
The spot would also be good for a themed restaurant. A partnership with a celebrity chef or possibly one of Dolly’s country-music friends would be perfect.
Now, let’s set something else up.
Dollywood’s 40th anniversary plan
Dollywood’s 40th anniversary will be in 2026. It is my belief, that park officials will want to mark the occasion with a bang.
We know that Dollywood officials have plans for five resorts around the park. We also know the natural beauty of the Smokies is a thing.
However, Dollywood’s Splash Country water park is only open in the summer, and Dollywood is only open for 9.5 months of the year. Is that enough to justify five resort hotels? Readers, I submit to you the answer to the question is no.
What could warrant the need for that many hotels or resorts? You could speculate that for the 40th year, Dollywood would become a year-round park, but I don’t think that’s it.
December can get rough in the Smokies from a weather standpoint and I just can’t imagine enough business in January or February to keep the park running.
I think Dollywood officials – and this is just a guess – are sniffing around the creation of a third park a la Universal Studios in Orlando. It would be a massive announcement for the 40th anniversary and the natural progression of four decades of well-managed growth.
Certainly, Dollywood would be a player on the national amusement park scene for the next 40 years.
What would be the theme? I don’t know. I’ve run a few scenarios in my head. I’ve tried to identify some intellectual property Dollywood could pursue.
I even had a 20-minute wild flight of fancy when I saw the picture of Dolly riding around the park with Willie Nelson for a Christmas special last week.
Herschend Family Entertainment does operate the Wild Kingdom in Valdosta, Georgia. It’s billed as 170 acres of rides, slides and exotic animals, but I’m not sure that theming would work this far north.
Meanwhile, as you’re planning a visit to the park, guests looking for special offers and packages at Dollywood’s other properties should visit Dollywood.com.
Sometimes you can also find a few deals on their Tripster page.
What do you think is on the horizon at Dollywood? Let us know in the comments!