A First-Timer’s Guide to Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s Theme Park in the Smokies

Before you head to the famous theme park, there are some things to keep in mind.

Dollywood sign in gold script near the entrance to the theme park in Pigeon Forge

Dollywood covers more than 150 acres and includes more than 50 rides and attractions.

Photo by Chad Robertson Media/Shutterstock

Singer, songwriter, actor, philanthropist, and style icon Dolly Parton was cut from a coat of many colors. It’s fitting then that her theme park, Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, stands alone in blending family entertainment, Smoky Mountain traditions from cooking to crafts, and genuine down-home hospitality.

As Tennessee’s top ticketed attraction, the 160-acre park—famed for its seasonal decorations—draws 3 million visitors a year. Here’s how to be the smartest among them.

1. Consider a season pass

If you’re visiting the park for more than one day or coming back within the calendar year (to catch its famous Christmas or fall decorations, for example), it’s worth it to buy a season pass. A one-day ticket costs $92 while the cheapest season pass costs $159. Pass perks include discounts on lodging, area attractions, and one-day tickets for friends and family, plus two free tickets for companions.

2. Dress for a hike

The hills and hollers of the Smoky Mountain region aren’t limited to the wilds. Dollywood was built into a mountain, and paths usher parkgoers up and down the terrain. Choose comfortable shoes for all that walking. If your party includes anyone with mobility challenges or kids who tire easily, get the lay of the land with the Dollywood Express train, which provides an overview of the park.

3. Plan using the app

Before you enter the park, download the free Dollywood Parks & Resorts app to your cell phone. The useful tool includes maps to help you navigate, shows schedules, and gives details on rides that may have long wait times, like the 21-story-high winged coaster Wild Eagle or the 55-mph wooden coaster Thunderhead.

Black engine of train ride going through forest at Dollywood

The Dollywood Express is a 20-minute ride that travels through Great Smoky Mountain scenery.

Photo by PT Hamilton/Shutterstock

4. Jump the lines

Life is short but the lines for Dollywood’s best-loved rides can be long. For $60, a one-day Dollywood TimeSaver pass allows holders to skip the line at 5 of any of the 13 participating attractions and get priority seating at some shows. At $80, TimeSaver Plus offers unlimited line-jumper access to participating attractions.

5. Unite and conquer

Designed with families in mind, Dollywood mingles mild and wild rides so groups don’t have to divide by age to conquer. Even kiddie-focused Wildwood Grove, the park’s newest neighborhood, recently added the thrilling coaster Big Bear Mountain, its longest at 3,990 feet of track.

6. Queue up for cinnamon bread

Satisfying Southern staples like fried chicken and barbecue ribs served at restaurants, including Aunt Granny’s and Hickory House BBQ, ensure no one leaves Dollywood hungry. Whatever you eat, don’t miss the cinnamon bread. Join the line inevitably snaking from the giant Grist Mill, which produces the legendary loaves. Skip the icing and order it “naked” the first time around to see what the fuss is about.

7. Learn a Smoky Mountain craft

Linger in the Dollywood area known as Craftsman’s Valley to learn from Smoky Mountain artisans, including blacksmiths at the forge, leatherworkers creating belts and hats, and candle makers hand-dipping tapers. Make your own iron, leather, or wax creation, or blow your own glass Christmas ornament—popular throughout the year—at Mountain Blown Glass.

8. Count the eagles

Once you spot your first white-headed bald eagle in Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, it gets easier to spot another 20 in the 30,000-square-foot aviary spanning a forest that climbs a mountainside. Members of the nonprofit American Eagle Foundation manage these disabled birds of prey—with names like Hero and Independence—that wouldn’t otherwise make it in the wild and often star in the attraction’s Wings of America show.

Green trees on mountain under white clouds during daytime

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States.

Courtesy of Wes Hicks/Unsplash

9. See the Smokies

In her recent interview with the podcast Travel Tales by AFAR, Dolly Parton said one of her favorite places in the area is Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Only 13 miles south of Pigeon Forge, it’s a quick day trip to hike to a waterfall. Beat the crowds with an early morning visit to catch sunrise over the hills.

10. Check out musical Pigeon Forge

Ten musical theaters and venues in Dollywood ensure a foot-tappin’ good time in the park. Seek out more music in Pigeon Forge, beginning with Puckett’s Restaurant, a spin-off of the original grocery store in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee, that dishes live music and Southern fare. The Listening Room Cafe devotes its stage to songwriters performing original work. At the gimmicky Frizzle Chicken Café, animatronic hens with names like Dolly PartHEN and Jimi HENdrix break into song while you eat pancakes.

11. Bunk with Dolly

Overnight guests have a lot of hotels to choose from in Pigeon Forge. But the park’s own resorts, including Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa and the new Dollywood’s HeartSong Lodge & Resort, which are less than two miles away, provide guests with valuable freebies, including complimentary trolley service to the park, a free TimeSaver pass, and the opportunity to enter the park an hour before it opens every Saturday.

Elaine Glusac is a freelance writer, the Frugal Traveler columnist for the New York Times, and on Instagram @eglusac.
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