It was the summer of 1978. I was about to be 5.
My mom and my Aunt Amy loaded into an automobile of the age. In other words, a gigantic steel rectangle with a massive backseat that featured considerably more in car ashtrays than seat belts.
Mom’s parents – Nanny and Papaw to me – had hauled the camper down to Orlando for vacation. We were staying at the Ft. Wilderness campgrounds.
And we were going to Disney.
Today that drive takes roughly 16 hours. Back then? Considerably longer.
We didn’t have iPhones or even a Walkman. In fact, our only source of entertainment was whatever we could find on the radio … and me.
Car seats? Nope. I bounced on the back seat bench like it was a trampoline. I stood. In fact, I looked out the window and over mom’s shoulder while I roamed around in the rolling living room of a backseat.
And I sang. Oh how I sang.
“The Ballad of Davy Crockett.”
Over and over and over and over and over and over.
Down through Southern Indiana and into Kentucky, through Louisville and Nashville and Chattanooga and Atlanta.
From Macon to Warner Robins, to Tifton to Cordele to Valdosta.
Somehow we arrived at the campground before either mom or Aunt Amy smothered me with a pillow.
Disney is a family tradition
At the time, Disney World was still in its relative infancy.
To begin with, the modern science of park planning was non-existent. If you wanted to ride, you waited in line in the sun and nearly had a heat stroke.
We did all the classics, Dumbo and Peter Pan, Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. But I was too small for Space Mountain.
I remember rides that have been gone for decades. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Snow White and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, which I still miss.
Also, we visited the shows including the Country Bear Jamboree, magical and musical animatronic bears, a wonder which opened with a familiar classic, “Born on a Mountaintop in Tennessee.”
My mom groaned loudly.
We stayed a week. It was – and remains – one of the best weeks of my life.
Years later, Disney is a tradition for my own family.
In fact, a few years ago I got to take Nanny for a day – Papaw was already gone.
We rode Peter Pan and visited our beloved Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse.
I got to take my grandmother, my mom, my wife and, at the time, my only child onto It’s a Small World.
And we rode slowly along in that water, listening to the ridiculous ear worm of a song, bumping into the boat in front of us when traffic slowed for loading or unloading up ahead.
Four generations of our family were there.
Also beside us was the spirit of the almost five-year-old version of me with his Papaw, a Korean War veteran who owned a radiator shop in a tiny Indiana town, wearing silly Mickey ears, happy as he could be.
And then there’s Dollywood
Twelve years later, I was no longer a Hoosier. I was a newly minted Volunteer and had moved to the neighborhood of another of America’s great theme parks, Dollywood. Although, it wasn’t that great at the time.
Over the years I’ve watched as Dollywood has grown from a somewhat cheesy regional curiosity to a world-renowned facility with a water park and a hotel – with another on the way.
Dollywood’s transformation during my 30 years in East Tennessee is nothing short of remarkable.
It’s fun and funny and cleverly run. The organization competes with Disney.
Dollywood is a great American success story. We take the kids every year, usually a couple of times.
And we love it.
So, the question comes, which is better: Dollywood or Disney?
It’s like asking me to choose my favorite Star Wars movie or Beatles song or child. But if we must come to answer, we have to break things down scientifically, let’s go to the tale of the tape.
How big is Dollywood vs Disney?
Disney World is much larger than Dollywood. Disney is a giant compound with multiple parks, a massive shopping area and more than a dozen hotels. It is – for all intents and purposes – its own county.
Walt Disney himself snuck around Orlando secretly buying up land for his dream project, which now covers 47.41 square miles.
Conversely, Dolly Parton and her business partners didn’t have such luck.
They purchased an existing facility and remade it into the park of their dreams on 150 acres of land. I do not believe that includes the water park, the hotel or land owned by Dollywood that’s not in use.
One park measures in acres, the other in square miles. So if bigger is better, Disney wins by a mile or dozens of square miles.
In one corner, you have Dolly Freaking Parton, one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time.
Her music permeates the park and uplifts the spirits. She employs dozens of performers each year to bring the music of her life to life.
In the other corner, you have 50 years of professional songwriters led by the Sherman brothers who wrote “Small World,” “Spoon Full of Sugar” and dozens of other classics.
Both set the right tone for their respective parks. Both have brought love and enjoyment to generations of fans.
However, only one wrote “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” on the same day.
Walt Disney was a lot of things: A visionary, a salesman, a showman and also very problematic.
Dolly Parton is a lot of things: A singer-songwriter, an actress, an amazing philanthropist who stands up and lends her voice to support people of all different kinds. She is the opposite of problematic.
Winner: Dolly in a landslide.
In a lot of ways, Dollywood reminds me of Disney; the excellence of planning, improving the science of theme parks, the amazing attention to detail and the focus on a magical founder.
Both offer great food and entertainment. And since Dollywood has spent 25 years beefing up its ride options, both offer a fantastic selection of rides.
What Disney has that Dollywood doesn’t, however, is something that can’t be helped.
The Magic Kingdom, you may not know, is built entirely on the roof of a massive underground facility that is like a small city of its own, allowing employees access all over the park from hidden points below. You walk up an incline to get into Disney and the rest of the day is spent on level ground.
At Dollywood, something like that is simply not possible. For anyone with mobility issues, Dollywood can be fairly exerting.
Winner: I love Dollywood. I love Disney more.
Both Dollywood and Disney offer old-timey steam train rides through the park.
Disney also has the Monorail.
Rides. Food. Fun. Music. What both parks really traffic in is a unique style of nostalgia. Whether it’s Dolly’s love for the 50s or Wildwood Grove which harkens back to a lost time in the mountains, Dollywood is very much about appreciating and remembering the old ways, the old music and the way families used to be.
My favorite bit of nostalgia in the Magic Kingdom, however, is Tomorrowland. It is nostalgia for the idea of a future that never came to pass, the idea of us finding enough peace and prosperity to reach for the stars, to build a better society.
The winner? I first went to Dollywood on a vacation in 1986.
I’ve seen the park grow from its infancy. I love it. However, only Disney has me hiding tears thinking of my Papaw riding a boat surrounded by bizarre animatronic children singing, often in languages I don’t speak.
Is Dollywood cheaper than Disney?
At the time of this writing, adult admission to Dollywood is $84 for a one-day park ticket or $99 for a two-day park ticket.
A one-day standard theme park ticket for Disney is currently $109.
So, yes, Dollywood is cheaper than Disney. That’s two days of theme park fun for less than the price of one Disney day.
Also, when you book your tickets to Dollywood, check Tripster for discounts. Usually, you can save a few bucks off admission.
Is Dollywood better than Disney?
Well, there you have it. We at TheSmokies.com really love Dollywood. I, personally, just love Disney a little more.
Do you have a different opinion? The good news is you’re not wrong. Your favorite is your favorite, and we hope you get to enjoy it as often as you wish.
Do you prefer Disney or Dollywood better? Let us know in the comments.
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