The Island vs Dollywood: Which Is Better? A Brutally Honest Opinion

the entrance at dollywood vs ole smoky and the wheel at the island side by side

You could spend an entire day at either Dollywood or The Island. So which is better? (photos by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Dollywood’s only real local competition for an all-day attraction is The Island in Pigeon Forge. But how does the Island stack up to the reigning champ?

As someone who has been prioritizing our family’s vacation budget for nearly 20 years, I understand the equation. You only have so much allotted and gas and food are going to take a portion of that. So, when it comes time to decide your itinerary, there are things – attractions, restaurants, shopping – that get pitted against each other. In Orlando, that discussion is usually Universal vs Disney. In Pigeon Forge, it’s Dollywood vs The Island. 

Over the last 40 years, Dollywood has become one of the top amusement park destinations in the world. Various attractions in the region have tried to compete – Anakeesta in Gatlinburg, for instance, billed itself as a theme park in the early years. In Pigeon Forge, there is only one serious challenger to Dollywood’s supremacy. And that’s The Island. 

A view of The Island in Pigeon Forge
Rocking chairs for relaxing at The Island in Pigeon Forge (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

How The Island is better than Dollywood

The Island is a collection of shops, restaurants, hotels and attractions located just off the Parkway in Pigeon Forge. It has a couple of Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville hotels. Restaurants include Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen, the Mellow Mushroom and Dick’s Last Resort. Attractions include the Great Smoky Mountain Sky Wheel, Alcatraz East Crime Museum, and a bunch of small kiddie rides. 

How is it better than Dollywood? Time. Dollywood is an all-day commitment. If you’re going to Dollywood, just mark that day off on your vacation calendar. The Island? You can go hiking in the mountains all day, swing by your hotel room freshen up, then do dinner, and drinks and ride the Sky Wheel to close the day. You can work that Island experience into a morning, afternoon, or evening experience. 

Also? The drinking. Dollywood does not serve alcohol in the park. You can only get alcoholic drinks if you stay at one of the Dollywood signature hotels. 

Big Bear Mountain Coaster Near a Water Feature at Dollywood
One of the newest additions at Dollywood is the Big Bear Mountain Coaster (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

How Dollywood is better than The Island

Pretty much all the other ways. Rides. Games. Shopping. Even food. I don’t consider Dollywood a great foodie park. I think most of the restaurants are just OK. But I think if you’re smart you can eat at Dollywood just as well as you can on The Island, except the Mellow Mushroom. I’m MM ride or die. Maybe if we we’re talking 1986 Dollywood versus today’s Island, you’d argue. But the quality of rides at Dollywood is better. Dollywood has the shows and the games. Certainly, Dollywood has a better matriarch. It’s Dolly Parton vs. Paula Deen? Paula Deen’s family doesn’t pick Paula Deen in that matchup. 

So, if I didn’t make it clear above, my preference is Dollywood by a country mile. That being said there have been many times when we’ve gone to Pigeon Forge and chosen the Island over Dollywood.

Why? It’s the time commitment and price. The Island does not have a cover charge. Single-day tickets at Dollywood – available online at www.dollywood.com – would come to about $500 for my family of five. If we buy those tickets, we’re still paying to eat. We’re still paying to shop. We’re lucky if a day at Dollywood doesn’t cost us $700 or more. And that’s not including any overnight stays. Dollywood is located at 2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd. in Pigeon Forge.

skyfly and the wheel at the island at night
A lot of the attractions at The Island in Pigeon Forge require additional tickets (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Which is a better bang for your buck?

Now, let’s plan a family day at or around The Island. For $50 each, we can get wristbands for the kids. Now, the wristbands don’t include some of the larger attractions like the Alcatraz Museum but if my wife and I aren’t riding, we don’t have to pay just to watch the kids. Maybe we can throw in an hour challenge at the Escape Room, that’s $40 a head so $200 for the family. Maybe everybody wants to right the Sky Wheel, we need three tickets at $17 each – the kids have the wristbands. So, we’ve spent $360 for all-day fun for the kids and a couple of attractions for the adults. Let’s say it’s $150 at dinner and we’re just now at the price walking through the gate at Dollywood would cost us. All of this, including various reservations for hotel and dining are available online here.

Now, honestly? When we go to The Island, we don’t stay all day. I prefer other restaurants and we might go do go-karts or mini golf instead of the escape room. Unless you’re going to the National Park, there’s no such thing as a cheap day in Pigeon Forge. But The Island does give you options to have fun at a more reasonable cost. Less fun? Yes, less fun than Dollywood. But there are economics at play. 

The truth is that locally, nothing can compete with Dollywood. Parton’s world-famous theme park competes nationally with Disney and Universal, with King’s Island, Cedar Point and Six Flags. If you’re choice is a day at Dollywood and a day doing almost anything else in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge or Sevierville, choose Dollywood. It’s the best. 

The Island is located at 131 The Island Dr. in Pigeon Forge. Dollywood is located at 2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd.

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