It’s taken nearly 60 years of growth for Dollywood in Pigeon Forge to become the elite, award-winning example of theme park excellence it is today. Looking back to 1961, it’s certainly hard to comprehend the evolution. So, let’s take a look at the Dollywood theme park before it became Dollywood.
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What is the history of Dollywood?
Dollywood began as a park called Rebel Railroad in 1961. Dolly Parton was just 15 years old when a pair of enterprising Robbins brothers from Blowing Rock, North Carolina, expanded their railroad-related mountain tourism business to Tennessee. The Pigeon Forge theme park was modeled after Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock. The main attraction was a coal-fired steam engine. That locomotive is still in operation at Dollywood today as Klondike Katie. Rebel Railroad’s entertainment also included a working blacksmith shop, a saloon and a general store. The park continued to operate through the mid-1960s when it would undergo what would be the first of many transformations to come.
Rebel Railroad becomes Goldrush Junction
There is inconsistent reporting on when Rebel Railroad changed its name to Goldrush Junction. Some reports indicate it was in the mid-60s. However, the Dollywood website says it was 1970. That’s when the park was purchased by Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell. It makes sense for Modell, who was seen as a progressive NFL owner, to be the one to change the name. Under Modell’s ownership, the park added a log flume ride, an outdoor theater and the Robert F. Thomas Church.
Goldrush Junction becomes Silver Dollar City
Modell’s tenure wasn’t long. The park sold again in 1976. At that time, it was rechristened Silver Dollar City. This made it a sister park to the new owners’ park in Branson, Missouri. Under the 10-year solo ownership of Jack and Pete Herschend, the park grew substantially.
When did Dolly Parton buy Dollywood?
In 1986, Dolly Parton got on board. Queue the harps and angel choir. According to the Dollywood website, the change was because of an interview between Dolly and Barbara Walters. Dolly talked about her dreams of building a theme park in the Smoky Mountains. Reportedly, the Herschend brothers offered a partnership, not wanting to compete with the local legend. This new partnership gave the park an immediate boost from humble beginnings to national recognition.
It’s quite hard to overstate just how omnipotent Dolly Parton was to the culture in the early 1980s. Yet, nobody thought of her as the next Walt Disney. The Hubris. The Gall. Dollywood? Is she for real? Friends, she was. She is driven by the desire to help the location of her childhood home grow. Over the next 30 years, Dolly’s imprint on the park itself – as well as the amusement park industry – is undeniable. Dollywood is now a household name.
How much does Dolly have to do with Dollywood?
A lot. Her presence serves as a giant umbrella, looming over park management and her continued partnership with the Herschends. Her presence is so ubiquitous that many, including my wife, operate as if Dolly herself is leading boardroom meetings. Some folks picture Dolly hand-selecting rides and approving day-to-day operations. I swear my wife thinks of Dolly as if she’s Santa Claus. Hard-working amusement park elves operate the rest of Dollywood.
To this day, Dolly makes appearances at the park, most often for big announcements, expansions and season openings. Make no mistake, Dollywood’s success is driven by the people who work mostly behind the scenes. However, it was Dolly’s arrival, name recognition and continued cachet that allowed the park to thrive.
What was Dollywood like in its early days?
During my first visit to Dollywood in the mid-80s, I was a young Hoosier. East Tennesseans vacation at Myrtle Beach. Hoosiers vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains. 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.
At the time, I thought the park was a tad boring. Still a northerner at heart, I decried Dollywood as inferior to Six Flags, King’s Island, Cedar Point and other tourist attractions. But over the years, I matured and embraced my East Tennessee home. Dollywood grew more charming. It grew and expanded. And eventually, a trip to the theme park became less of a chore.
Does Dolly Parton still own Dollywood?
Today, Dolly Parton has a continued partnership with Herschend Family Entertainment. So, she owns part of Dollywood. And her presence is still ubiquitous throughout the park. Dollywood is where you can find a replica of her childhood home, see her former tour bus and more. Her company also expanded with Dollywood’s Splash Country water park, massive resort hotels and hints of expansion all over the horizon. The theme park company continues to grow to this day, as evidenced by the new Heartsong Lodge and Resort and new rides like Big Bear Mountain.
Dollywood still has a strong impact on Sevier County
Overall, Dolly’s powerful presence led to success. Those successes led to more money. More money led to more investment in the park, and without it being immediately obvious, Dollywood became a titan. Today, Dollywood welcomes around 3 million visitors each year. The park has both children’s rides and thrill rides that rival some of the biggest parks in America. The park is even home to the country’s largest presentation of non-releasable bald eagles.
And yes, you can still a coal-fired steam train, the Dollywood Express. It’s actually operated by two steam engines, Cinderella and Klondike Katie. With rides, thrills, music, mountain crafts, cinnamon bread, annual festivals and events, if you go to Dollywood and don’t have a good time, it’s your fault. Or possibly the fault of your hot and whiny kids. Today, Dollywood collects Golden Ticket awards like Charlie Bucket and Uncle Joe. Dolly looks like the bright, blonde and brilliant successor to Walt Disney. Dollywood, like its namesake, is an amazing American success story.
Do you remember Dollywood before it became Dollywood? Let us know in the comments.