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There’s a science to the great art of amusement parks.
Six Flags, Disney, Cedar Point and, yes, Dollywood, are managed with a statistical mastery of people’s behaviors. They are run with precise technologies that track wait times and dining requirements and character interactions.
On good days, the best modern amusement parks, of which Dollywood certainly is, encounter relatively few surprises.
Things are run if not quite like clockwork, then with an efficiency that was simply not possible decades ago.
They know visitors’ expectations before they walk through a turnstile. Each new shop, every new ride and all new sections are built with a better understanding of the needs and necessities of their patrons than Walt Disney could have ever imagined.
But it was not always so.
It took decades of trial and error, of investment and study to reach where we are today.
And with the benefit of hindsight, the golden glow of reminiscence, we can look back on where we’ve come from.
We can appreciate the progress and, perhaps, mourn for a simpler time when our expectations of entertainment were not quite so high, when our attention spans were longer and more forgiving.
It is largely forgotten in the world outside of the fervent faithful of the Smoky Mountains that there was a park in the days before Dollywood.
Even some of those who remember Silver Dollar City do so with pity, a doomed relic of a previous age that was saved by Dolly’s arrival and park management’s deft transition from a simple mountain theme park, to one of the premier amusement parks in the country.
And while the Dollywood of today is certainly superior to its ancestor, it does a real disservice to forget Silver Dollar City’s many charms; this park was a lot more than a simple placeholder until Dolly came home.
When did Silver Dollar City open in Pigeon Forge?
The first theme park on the spot was Rebel Railroad which opened in 1961 and lasted until Art Modell – owner of the Cleveland Browns football team – bought the property and rechristened it Goldrush Junction.
Modell’s ownership lasted until 1976 when the Herschend family bought the park and renamed it simply Goldrush for a single season.
The Herschends had bigger plans. They already owned a park named Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., one that is still in operation today.
They wanted the co-branding power of familiarity and so they made the Pigeon Forge a sister park to the Missouri facility, calling both Silver Dollar City.
The Herschends invested more than $1 million in Silver Dollar City upgrades and added several attractions to what they had inherited.
The truth is, much of the structure of what was once Silver Dollar City remains today. Blazing Fury, Craftsman’s Valley and the Fun Country area all remain in some form or fashion in the current park. Some Silver Dollar City favorites have been lost to time.
The Log Flume and the Cloud Grabber are long gone as is the Flooded Mine, which is still running at the Missouri park.
The biggest difference between what Silver Dollar City was and what Dollywood has become is the difference between theme parks and amusement parks.
Though the line has been blurred significantly in modern time, back in Silver Dollar City’s heyday, there was a clear distinction, a very different purpose between the two.
In the mid-80s, at places like Cedar Point or Kings Island, the rides were the raison d’etre, the end all and be all. A trip to either was about what you could ride and how many times you could ride it. It was all adrenaline and cheap thrills.
At Silver Dollar City, the rides were something of an ancillary experience and thrills were hard to come by. You came to Silver Dollar City not simply to ride but to experience the shows, visit the craftsmen and to wander the bizarre mountain community.
You came to Silver Dollar City and you (gasp) learned something.
It’s hard to describe the nuanced differences. Painting in broad strokes, it was easier for the kids to be bored at a theme park like Silver Dollar City but there were more opportunities for the adults to actually get to sit down and relax.
I hesitate to present too quaint a picture because while the early to mid-80s were nearly 40 years ago, it’s not like we were Little House on the Prairie folk loosed upon the world.
To me, Silver Dollar City split firmly in half, nearly everything above the railroad track, the Craftsman’s Valley, the shops restaurants and shows were for the more adult in your traveling party.
Everything below the rail, the Fun Country rides and games and the railroad station was for kids.
Honestly, if we could have moved Blazing Fury, The Flooded Mine and the magic show to the South, you could have gone all day without parents or kids having to interact at all.
Like Dollywood, Silver Dollar City has a series of “Special Events” some of which are sorely missed.
The first festival of the year would be the Ramp & Clogging Festival in April. Clogging was never my thing but a ramp festival at a theme park? Sign me up.
For those of you who don’t know, the ramp is a garlicky wild onion that grows wild in the mountains. They are fantastic for grandpas who chomp them raw or cooked with just about anything.
Nearby Cocke County hosts a ramp festival that used to be annual but has been hit or miss in recent years as the ramps have become over harvested.
Still, ramps are great and I love the idea of an entire park walking around with pungent ramp breath. It’s hilarious.
Other popular events included Student Festival Days, Young Christians Day, Older Americans Days and an Indian Ceremonial Rendezvous each august to celebrate ceremonial dancing and native arts.
I especially like the idea of Older Americans Days. “Oh, you’re Canadian? I’m sorry this day is NOT for you.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the park’s commitment to mountain music and comedy.
During Silver Dollar City’s best years, they used to boast that more people saw shows in the park than at Broadway. I don’t know whether that’s true or not but I do know many local musicians have worked their way through school while playing summers at Dollywood or Silver Dollar City.
Ultimately, it’s important to know that Silver Dollar City isn’t gone – except for the free parking, that’s Dodo territory.
And you don’t even have to go to Missouri to experience it. If you want to know what the park was like before Dolly, you just have to look around.
Stroll the shady length of Craftsmen’s Valley. Take in a show. Grab some down-home cookin’ (I couldn’t bring myself to type the word vittles).
Ride Blazing Fury four or five times. Ride the train twice and pretend the open spaces are filled with a train robbery or better yet stage a train robbery yourself (Disclaimer: This will get you thrown out of the park and arrested.)
Play the games in the County Fair and lose a lot – they’ve made it easier to win over the years, you know. Ride the bumper cars and the Ferris Wheel.
Look longingly at the spot where the rickety old Log Flume used to be.
That, my friends, is Silver Dollar City.
When did Silver Dollar City change over to Dollywood?
Silver Dollar City officially changed its name to Dollywood in 1986 when Dolly Parton came on board. Today, Dollywood is jointly owned by entertainer Dolly and Herschend Family Entertainment.
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