By: Victoria Bekiempis/Newsweek.com
The main parkway through Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, population 6,036, is lined with dinner theater venues and theme-based museums. The Titanic Museum, for example, looks like the doomed ship, and Jaws, a big-box gift shop with a great-white-shaped entrance, promises LIVE SHARKS. Inside, there is indeed an aquarium where creatures that look like sharks can be seen behind the fingerprinted glass. Gatorland, meanwhile, promises LIVE GATORS, but during a recent visit a piece of lined notebook paper stuck to the gummy glass with duct tape explains: “Gatoz is sick Will come back in a week.”
Those looking for a much more authentic tourist destination need only take a short drive from this Smoky Mountains town to—Dollywood.
For the uninitiated, Dollywood is owned by Dolly Parton, and on the surface it’s simply a themed amusement park that is something of an homage to the entertainment legend. But it goes well beyond that.
Dollywood turns 30 this year, and it is already the largest employer in the county. Parton recently opened Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort, which is adjacent to the park and her Dollywood’s Splash Country water park, and that is expected to create some 2,500 jobs. The 300-room resort reportedly boasts multiple pools and waterfalls, as well as a salon and spa. The luxe accommodations make up a large part of a 10-year, $300 million capital investment plan announced in August 2013.
“The whole resort is kind of tailored towards family, with the big old front porch where families can get together, like we used to back in the old days,” Parton tells Newsweek in her trademark Appalachian twang, even though she’s speaking from Los Angeles, where she’s producing a Christmas movie for NBC. “At least half the rooms have bunk beds and little divides where the parents can have their privacy and the kids can have their area.”
Given Parton’s upbringing, her interest in family-friendly entrepreneurship isn’t surprising.
She is one of 12 children, and her father was a “dirt-poor” tobacco sharecropper. Parton routinely credits her success to her family, even though they lived in a one-room cabin that could have stifled the talent that led to numerous accolades in the country music world and well beyond.
The Wild Eagle
“I’m very family-oriented, period,” Parton says. “I’m very into kids, so you just kind of watch and see what people need and you think, ‘Well, this would be great. A family would love this.’”
Speaking of her inspiration for this atmosphere, she says, “You just keep your eyes and your heart open, and it usually comes.”
Dollywood attracts some 2.5 million visitors per year, and that number hits 4 million when combined with other Dollywood properties such as the water park. That’s almost a third of the up to 13 million people who visit the Smoky Mountains region annually.
And yet the emphasis on family doesn’t seem to fully explain Dollywood’s appeal. In fact, figuring out why Dollywood is still so popular takes a bit of work.
Many people visit because they love Parton—be it her music or her feminist, LGBT-friendly “Be yourself!” persona—but most patrons do not consider themselves obsessive superfans. Even a 30-year employee couldn’t give satisfying, concrete answers as to why the place is such a draw, only a general overview of Parton’s positive qualities. “I’m old, and Dolly treats you right,” she says.
“In the summertime we get plenty of water. She wants everybody to be hydrated,” the woman, who declined to give her name, as she was not authorized to speak to the press, explained. “She’s down-to-earth. She’s just one of us. She’s probably a multimillionaire, but she don’t act like it.”
Top attractions include the Tennessee Tornado roller coaster, which simulates a Smoky Mountains natural disaster—a twister—hitting “an old Tennessee Mining Company,” and the Barnstormer, a swing ride that travels at 45 miles per hour and reaches 81 feet in the air. While fun, they also beg the question: Are these attractions really that different than those at other parks?
Dollywood’s primary appeal became apparent only after walking around for several hours and speaking with patrons. Unlike other “theme” parks with their vague or purely commercial motifs, Dollywood has a definitive theme that extends far beyond the decor and ride design: the Smoky Mountains.
Dollywood is carved from the rock of the region, nestled at the bottom of a ridge. Two creeks course through the park, and great stone shelves flank its edges. That’s why a visit to Dollywood entails meandering between somewhat hidden attractions: Rather than flatten or straighten the hills and dales, Patron and her partners built around the landscape.
This topography lays the stage for Dollywood’s unusual mix of ecotourism and NRA-friendly patriotism. Shingled placards flag regional trees like the American chestnut, explaining with a map the ecological and commercial importance of the blight-threatened breed. Eagle Mountain, billed as “the world’s largest exhibit of non-releasable American Bald Eagles,” celebrates the impressiveness of America’s national symbol with a prominent aviary and show. Equally prominent, however, is information on eagle preservation. A sign warns of the dangers that DDT poses to these birds, for example. Since opening in 1991, Eagle Mountain has released into the wild 100 bald eagles that were born to non-releasable birds in the facility.
“Dollywood is unique because it is the only theme park in the world that is themed around a woman—and not just any woman but the queen of country music, Dolly Parton,” explains Helen Morales, a classicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of Pilgrimage to Dollywood: A Country Music Road Trip Through Tennessee.
She adds, “Its sense of place is extraordinary, artfully melding the natural and the cultural to create an homage to rural Tennessee and its history. The park is built into the Smoky Mountains, whose beauty can be appreciated from the steam train that chugs through it and the roller coasters that soar over it. The park makes physical what has been a repeated theme of Dolly’s songs—a love of the Appalachian countryside and its people.”
Morales adds, “The park, like the songs, celebrate the natural beauty of Tennessee, the craftsmanship and resilience of rural families, and a love of America. We are invited to reflect on what it means it be home.”
Further in keeping with this motif, the one-room Calico Falls Schoolhouse “offers visitors a view of how many schools appeared in East Tennessee during the 1890s” and “clearly reminds us all of a simpler time when slate boards took the place of pen and paper.” The tchotchkes are also Great Smoky-themed. A blacksmith and foundry, staffed by actual master craftsmen, is a nod to the material needs of regional pioneers, as is a handmade candle shop.
Even the exhibits that are supposed to be about Parton are more about the Smoky Mountains. In “Heartsong,” a 20-minute “multisensory” video experience with a Rainforest Cafe vibe, cricket audio clips chirp in the background. Tiny lightbulbs in the wings pulse to simulate fireflies. A mist descends on the audience, conveying the Smokies’ mystery through gray fog and rain. Fast-moving shots of foggy mountaintops flash across the screen, giving the sensation of flying over the range.
When Parton appears on screen, she splits her time telling her life story and singing. At one point she chants, “And now this Smoky Mountain girl has been all around the world…. But it makes no difference just how far I roam / I still cling to that part that is so dear to my heart / My faith in God and memories of home.” This makes it very apparent the Smokies are a far greater part of her identity, and the park’s, than a mere birthplace.
At other theme parks, patrons typically avoid such informative attractions, or patronize them merely to get out of the sun. At Dollywood, these attractions are packed. But Dollywood isn’t alluring because of these Smokies-themed attractions on their own. In a changing, often uncertain America, people want what these attractions provide—a steady sense of place.