Home » Why Dollywood is The Best Theme Park You’ve (Probably) Never Been To

Why Dollywood is The Best Theme Park You’ve (Probably) Never Been To

To an outsider, the notion of visiting Dollywood sounds ridiculous. It’s named after an almost cartoonish country music legend, one who claims that she married the only man who knew the color of her eyes. It’s hosted in a part of the south that’s a shameless tourist trap with literally hundreds of businesses constructed basically on top of one another. And it’s a logistical nightmare to visit due to the constant road traffic.

Despite all the negatives, Dollywood has a hard-earned reputation as one of the best theme parks in the world, and you should be looking at flight information and hotel reservations to go there right now. After all, a theme park tourist with any semblance of self-respect will want to check this park off their bucket list. It’s an odd but somehow perfect blend of kitschy, wholesome, and wildly entertaining, much like the park’s namesake. Here are six reasons why you’ll love a Dollywood vacation.

The views

Dollywood offers one of the most scenic backdrops of any theme park in North America. Situated in the Smoky Mountains, it has a reputation of one of the most beautiful theme parks ever built. That’s odd since it came from such humble beginnings. Silver Dollar City was lovely in its own way, but Dolly’s focus as owner is accentuating the strength of the land.

Several of the most recent attractions at Dollywood empasize the mountain scenery. Dollywood is about 1,500 feet above sea level, and its land is uneven. The park’s planners lean into this “problem” by using the higher spots for peaks of coaster track, while the lower ones become the valleys. The construction phase of ride design is quite challenging at Dollywood for this reason, but theme park tourists benefit from this forward-thinking strategy.

Watch the video above of the Tennessee Tornado. Built in 1999, this steel roller coaster is a magnificent achievement in plot placement. The early climb showcases the foliage surrounding the coaster tracks. Then, the ride plunges through a forest of gorgeous trees and other vegetation, much of which construction workers dutifully protected while laying the tracks. It’s one of the most serene views you’ll ever enjoy on a roller coaster, and it’s possible due to Dolly’s edict to make the landscape one of the key selling points of each new attraction. The Smoky Mountains have always been a popular tourist destination due to the scenery. Dollywood entwines it with fabulous roller coasters.

The people

As a native East Tennessean, I’m admittedly biased here. I’m of the opinion that southern hospitality flows through the hearts and souls of most of the residents here. That goes double for the citizens of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, the tourist cities that bookend Dollywood.

The Dollywood family is shamelessly proud of their park, and they love to show it off to strangers and returning visitors alike. They go out of their way to make guests feel like they’re coming home, not like they’re away from home.

If you think I’m exaggerating or showing too much pride in my area, I’ll point you to the Golden Ticket Awards, the theme park industry’s most respected awards. Dollywood won the Golden Ticket for Friendliest Theme Park in 2016. And 2015. In fact, it’s the reigning champion in the category for five years running. When you visit Dollywood, you’ll feel like the workers care about you and want you to have a wonderful vacation. It’s a personal touch that will remind you of Disney in all the best ways.

The park options

One of the problems with a family theme park visit is finding entertainment for everyone. Kids want to get on rides and have fun. Older theme park tourists want to sit down as often as possible since the walking is brutal. It’s an issue even at the smallest parks in the world. At larger ones, the constant movement is a grueling way to spend a vacation day.

Walking at Dollywood isn’t as trying as, say, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but the Tennessee park’s 150 acres are 65 more than Disneyland. And here’s the crucial difference. Dollywood’s on the side of a mountain. Its executives are aware of this fact. They also know that grandparents love taking their grandchildren to theme parks. That’s why Dollywood has so many shows and other interactive exhibits that give older people an excuse to get off their feet for a while. Dollywood has so many entertainment options that the year before my octogenarian father died, he spent a full July day at Dollywood. And he was so proud of himself afterward. We met for dinner that evening, and he relayed all the things he was able to do to pass the time while the grandkids rode everything.

At Dollywood, you can enjoy 27 different rides, eight of which are roller coasters. Alternately, you can spend the day watching the shows. These are so collectively great that the Golden Ticket Awards has also named Dollywood the best park in the world for shows. It has wet rides to cool you off on those scalding summer days, and it has rides like the Barnstormer that will sweep you into the air and show you the Smoky Mountains in a way that no one ever should see unless you’re a professional pilot.

All theme park tourists understand that a day at the park is a prolonged negotiation. Everyone has to compromise about what they want to do. At Dollywood, these discussions are quick because all park guests can find something entertaining to do.

The water park

A suggestion I’d offer for Dollywood is that you should purchase a season pass. In most instances, it’s the same price as two days of standalone admission. You can also upsize this package to include access to Splash Country, the beloved water park adjoining Dollywood.

Open seasonally during the warm Tennessee summers, Splash Country offers 27 different water slides, a ridiculous total. I would describe 15 of their options as true water park rides. Ten of them have height requirements, and most are multi-person.

The best of the bunch is River Run, a four-person toboggan ride that won Best New Water Ride at the 2014 Golden Ticket Awards. River Run’s a water roller coaster that sweeps you uphill through the Tennessee mountains before plunging you four stories downward into a face full of water.

Personally, I’m less about the rides and more about the lazy rivers at water parks. If you’re like me, you’ll love the Downbound Float Trip. It’s a wonderful way to get a tan AND a nap. Splash Mountain is a wonderful option if you plan to visit Dollywood for three days or more.

The constant updates

Many parks try to add something new each year. This strategy is a marketing ploy as much as anything. With something new to offer, the advertising crew has something to sell. At Dollywood, the park’s going to do brisk business no matter what. Still, Dolly demands constant improvements, and her loyal employees do an amazing job of honoring the request.

Over the past few years, Dollywood has constructed four absolutely amazing new attractions. The Barnstormer was the first of them, arriving in 2011. Technically, the proper term is returning since the park had a Barnstormer until 2004, albeit a much different one. The new version is what the industry terms a Screamin’ Swing, albeit one that swings guests to the top of a mountain. It’s also the subject of the legendary “Never Again, Grace!” viral video meme.

In 2012, Dollywood added Wild Eagle, a wing coaster that delivers one of the most unique ride experiences in the world. They followed that in 2014 with FireChaser Express, the best themed ride at Dollywood since the legendary Blazing Fury. FireChaser Express tells the story of a fireman trying to prevent fireworks from going off on the mountain and thereby sparking like wildfire, a premise that sadly proved prophetic.

Dollywood’s most important recent addition is Lightning Rod, the reigning champion at the Golden Ticket Awards in the category of Best New Ride. As you can tell from reading this, the voters at Amusement Today love them some Dollywood. It’s the current winner in four different categories (Best Christmas Event is the fourth) out of 21 possible categories. That makes it THE most dominant theme park in terms of Golden Ticket Awards voting.

Lightning Rod is a wooden roller coaster that goes 73 miles per hour. If that sounds like a large number, it should. As of publication, it’s the fastest wooden roller coaster ever built. Any self-respecting adrenaline junkie HAS to go to Dollywood to ride Lightning Rod. It’s the current alpha in the wooden roller coaster industry.

The owner

Before Dolly Parton arrived, this business was called Silver Dollar City. It was fine but generally viewed as inferior to other theme parks in the same general region, particularly Six Flags Over Georgia and Opryland USA. How important was Dolly to the improvements? Well, Dollywood is now the most popular tourist attraction in Tennessee, even surpassing Graceland, the mansion and estate of the late Elvis Presley. Opryland USA went out of business in 1997. Dolly Parton purchased a portion of the business 1986. After only 11 years of ownership, she didn’t just surpass her main competition in the state of Tennessee. She put them out of business entirely.

Dolly’s more than just a shrewd businesswoman. She’s also kind beyond words. I’ll offer two examples, one of which is personal. My freshman year of college, I attended a religious institution close to Dollywood. Many of the students there had grown up in Sevierville, the city where many Dollywood employees live. Dolly offered a college scholarship to every one of these students. The official program is called the Buddy System.

Many of the early participants of the Buddy System later joined Dollywood in a professional capacity. When you visit the park, you’ll discover the friendliest employees this side of Disney. For that matter, you might find them even more personable. Dollywood is the reigning winner at the Golden Ticket Awards in the category of Friendliest Theme Park, beating Disney at their own game.

The other example I’ll note is that Sevier County suffered a tragedy in late 2016. A sudden fire outbreak in the mountains destroyed numerous businesses and homes. The estimated property damage was $500 million. Dolly started the My People Fund to help those in need in a time of great tragedy. She also pledged to pay $1,000 per month to each of the 900 families who lost their homes in the fire. Later, she upped that amount with a final bonus, giving each family a total of $10,000. That’s $9 million she personally donated as a simple act of generosity and kindness to people living in her hometown. 

Dolly’s the absolute best. You should come visit her park.