It’s taken nearly 60 years of growth for Dollywood to become the elite, award-winning example of theme park excellence it is today.
In fact, looking back to 1961, it’s almost hard to comprehend the evolution.
What is the history of Dollywood?
Dolly Parton was just 15 years old when a pair of enterprising brothers from Blowing Rock, North Carolina, doubled down on their railroad-related mountain tourism business.
The park was modeled after Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock.
The park featured a blacksmith shop, a saloon and a general store.
Rebel Railroad continued through the mid-1960s when it would undergo what would be the first of many transformations to come.
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 mid-60s. However, others point to 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 in 1976
Modell’s tenure wasn’t long.
The park sold again in 1976. Then, it was rechristened to 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 was Dollywood opened?
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. Yet, nobody thought of her as the next Walt Disney.
The Hubris. The Gall. Dollywood? Is she for real?
Friends, she was.
Dolly is driven by the desire to help her hometown grow.
Over the next 30 years Dolly’s imprint on the park itself, as well as the amusement park industry, is undeniable.
For example, her presence serves as a giant umbrella, looming over park management and her continued partners in the Herschend Family.
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.
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 the early days?
Dollywood’s creation coincided with my first-ever trip to Sevier County in the mid-80s.
Then a young Hoosier, I followed the traditional Indiana Rite of Summer with a vacation to the Smokies.
Everyone knows that East Tennesseans vacation at Myrtle Beach. Hoosiers vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains.
I had no idea I’d be moving to East Tennessee in a couple of years.
My memories of that trip are vague.
My teenage memories, as teenage memories often do, betray me. I wasn’t as impressed as I should have been. 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 and Cedar Point.
Over the years, I matured and embraced my East Tennessee home.
Dollywood grew more charming, and a trip to the theme park 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 success. 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 became a titan.
For example, the rides got bigger and better.
New roller coasters started popping up nearly annually. New sections of the park began opening and growing every year or two.
From rides to 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 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.
Dollywood, like its namesake, is an amazing American success story.
Do you remember Dollywood before it became Dollywood? Let us know in the comments.
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