Adult-oriented amusements abound at Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
By Hope S. Philbrick
A few years ago, before I’d ever set foot in the place, if you’d told me that after going to Dollywood I’d be eager to return, I’d have thought you didn’t know me very well. Then I went to Dollywood and was completely won over. It’s no ordinary theme park.
Even after visiting Dollywood on multiple occasions—on my own as well as with various combinations of friends and/or family members—I look forward to returning for more fun and discovery. That’s high praise considering that I’m not what you’d call a ‘theme park person’. But Dollywood—which has been named “World’s Friendliest Park” for five consecutive years by Amusement Today—is no ordinary mash-up of carnival rides and hyper children. There really is something for everyone here, even grownups.
Dollywood For Adults…
Overall, Dollywood has an old-timey laid-back vibe, and it’s comprised of several areas with distinct themes, such as Showstreet (where theaters abound), Rivertown Junction, Owens Farm, Wildwood Grove (the newest area, designed for families with young children) and more. With its wide range of “something for everyone” offerings, a day at Dollywood can be whatever you want it to be. Among the options with adult appeal…
Craftsman’s Valley is a collection of art studios and boutique shops that showcase an array of crafts: leather works, candy making, wood carving, blacksmith, pottery, blown glass, goats-milk soap, candle making, and more. You can see masters at work and buy whatever strikes your fancy. Some items are available consistently, some are seasonal, and new items are frequently added to retail shelves.
“We try to keep all the crafts to the late 1800s era ,” says Wes Ramey, media/public relations manager. “It’s amazing to watch these artisans’ skills. It’s great fun and you don’t even realize you’re learning at the same time. What the master craftsmen are able to do amazes everyone. In fact, lots of times there are more people watching demonstrations than are in lines for some of the attractions.”
You can get in on the creative action in the glass blowing shop and help make a keepsake ornament (for approx. $30). The master craftsman will handle the hot glass and fire, but you pick the colors and then inside a designated safe zone you’ll be handed a tube and clean nozzle and given instructions of when to blow—getting the just-right amount of air going is harder than it looks! You’ll be able to take home your creation after it cools down in a couple hours, along with a certificate of completion to legitimize your bragging rights.
With six theaters, plus additional performers strolling around the park, there’s always something to watch, listen and tap your feet to. With different performances scheduled at various times throughout each day and season, on any given day you could occupy several hours simply by taking in different shows.
Entertainment options include ’50-‘60s, bluegrass, Southern gospel, comedy, country, and more. About once a year, according to Dollywood’s publicist, Dolly Parton herself visits the park to perform.
Some shows are targeted at children, others not; review performance details online or check with an agent at the park for details about any particular show. Admission to shows (except certain special performances) is included in the Dollywood ticket price, so you could spend your entire visit watching shows if that’s your favorite thing.
“Chasing Rainbows” is one venue among dozens at Dollywood, but it’s the one not to miss.
“Are you a Dolly Parton fan?” a staff member once asked me while I was relaxing at The Spa at Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort.
My answer: “How could you not be?”
Because, seriously, whether you love her music or not, her movies or not, her humor or not, it’s impossible not to love what Dolly Parton has done for her hometown—creating an empire of employment opportunities, among other things—and for kids just about everywhere. The woman makes sure kids of all income levels have access to books through her Imagination Library. Even if you sincerely dislike children, it’s impossible not to melt a little when learning about Dolly’s thoughtful, generous commitment to education. (Though, to be honest, if you don’t find her sense of humor downright hilarious you may need to see a doctor about your broken funny bone.)
Dollywood is home to the Dolly Parton museum “Chasing Rainbows,” a must-see stop for fans—and, as we just covered in the paragraph above, if you’re not already a fan visit the museum to be won over. Inside the museum you’ll find recorded interviews and performances, costumes and awards, insights into Dolly’s life story, reports on her charitable works, album covers, quotes, lyrics, and much more.
Enter the museum of all things Dolly and a hologram of Dolly Parton welcomes you. There she is, almost, standing on stage in sparkly clothes chatting away for a minute or so. It’s an impressive feat of engineering…as are some elements of her costumes, which you can inspect up close in several wardrobe displays. Other exhibits showcase awards, interactive video clips, home goods, and memorabilia celebrating the life and career of Dolly Parton.
If you walk through this museum and don’t fall in love with Dolly at least a little bit more, there is something seriously wrong with your heart.
This historic 110-ton coal-fired steam engine travels a five-mile loop around the park in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. The conductor narrates the tour with a mix of American history, Dolly trivia, and homespun humor (with seasonal tweaks to the script). Even when all the seats are packed, I find the ride bumping along on the tracks to be simple fun.
Dollywood Express is an enduring favorite for visitors of all ages.
Eagle Mountain Sanctuary
Dollywood is home to Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, operated by the American Eagle Foundation, the largest exhibit of non-releasable bald eagles in the U.S. (“Balde” is an Olde English word meaning “white.”) The bald eagle, our national bird, is one of some 59 eagle species in the world.
In a netted area that climbs up the side of a steep wooded hillside, the sanctuary is home to bald eagles that are permanently disabled and would not be able to survive in the wild. You can get a good look at these birds any time Dollywood is open, but for an educational look at some of America’s birds of prey take in a Wings of America show at the open-air theater. The show offers an up-close look at eagles, hawks, falcons, owls and vultures along with informative insights from a professional handler.
The park is home to traditional carnival rides, roller coasters, boat expeditions, zip-line, and more, including the world’s fastest wood roller coaster, which opened in 2016.
Among the rides, Drop Line is a 230-foot tall tower: You sit down, get strapped in, and gracefully ride up to appreciate the sights of the surrounding mountains until the ring of seats is dropped more than 20 stories for a thrilling free-fall experience.
For more daring folks, Dollywood offers an impressive assortment of spectacular roller coasters. Ride a coaster to get pulled 90-degrees straight up, tossed 360-degrees around and around, flip 180 upside down, rush downhill, zoom indoors and outside, go forwards and backwards, and more surprises. If coasters are your thing, you don’t want to miss Dollywood’s thrilling assortment, especially Lightning Rod:
Roller coaster enthusiasts have ranked the wooden Lightning Rod coaster as the No. 1 “Top-10 Wooden Coasters of the 2010s” on Coaster101.com.
Coaster101.com writer John Stevenson wrote, “Lightning Rod was undoubtedly one of the most defining moments of the past decade for wooden roller coasters. From having the first launch on a wooden coaster to the world record-breaking speed, Lightning Rod has amassed widespread acclaim from the coaster enthusiast community.
“After reviewing our readers’ nominations, Lightning Rod was the clear frontrunner for the top spot on this list. From its innovative launch to its world record-breaking speed, Lightning Rod has become a favorite among coaster enthusiasts who have ridden it and a must-ride for those who haven’t. The competition was fierce, but our readers overwhelmingly named Lightning Rod as the best wooden coaster of the last decade. It redefined the limits of a wooden coaster and provided thrill seekers a ride like no other.”
Lightning Rod currently is the only wooden launch coaster in the world, meaning riders hit the gas on the hot rod-themed ride as soon as they reach the lift hill. Once at the top of the hill, riders encounter the ride’s innovative twin summit airtime hills before racing down the 165-ft. first drop.
The ride reaches a top speed of 73 mph at the base of the drop. From there, the coaster races along its 3,800-ft. track through the hills and valleys surrounding Dollywood. Thanks to the rolling topography, much of the track is hidden from view inside the park, serving only to heighten anticipation for those waiting to step aboard the thrilling ride.
The article says Lightning Rod is “…short and sweet, but not a single foot of track is wasted following the 40 mph launch. The coaster’s quadruple-down—four consecutive drops down a hillside—provides sustained airtime that must be experienced firsthand to fully appreciate. Lightning Rod represents another redefining moment for the coaster industry we experienced in the 2010s.”
The ride, which is located in Dollywood’s Jukebox Junction, provides guests with nearly 20 seconds of airtime. The coaster train is comprised of 12 cars, carrying two passengers each, for a total of 24 people per train.
How To Get Around Dollywood
Upon entering the park you can pick up a free map. But if you prefer to wander around and discover as you go, that works, too. The main route is a big loop; I haven’t gotten lost yet.
Great news for adults with mobility issues: It’s easy to get around using one of the park’s wheelchairs or Electric Convenience Vehicle (ECV, similar to a scooter but with extra fine-tuned sensitivity so it stops on a dime—essential when navigating through crowds!) The daily rental fee for an ECV is $41 and wheelchairs are $12. The rental station is near the main entrance. You can rent once you’re on site, but if you know you’ll need wheels it’s best to reserve what you need in advance since there is a finite number of them. For more information call 1-800-365-5996.
You may have heard about Dollywood’s new Wildwood Grove, the largest expansion in park history (a $37 million investment). Aimed at families with young children, Wildwood Grove opened in May 2019. It boasts six new ride attractions, a climate-controlled indoor play area, new dining and retail establishments, and a colorful Wildwood Tree that lights up each evening with nearly 650 lit butterflies (orange, blue, yellow, pink and multi-colored) and almost 9000 leaves. Wildwood Grove won the 2019 Golden Ticket award from Amusement Today for Best Kids Area.
Wildwood Grove is excellent news for grownups traveling without children, since it lures families with little kids to that area of the park.
Smoky Mountain Christmas
Dollywood’s seasonal spectacular, Smoky Mountain Christmas, features dazzling lights, a colorful parade, and other themed treats. Hosted annually (typically from early November through New Year’s Day), Smoky Mountain Christmas lifts the theme park to new heights of impressiveness and fun for all ages—yes, even adults.
I’ve visited during Smoky Mountain Christmas on my own and twice with others: My all-grownup family had a blast!
My mom’s travel bucket list included Dollywood, a dream that’s now come true. She adored the visual spectacle of the place, the wide range of entertainment and shopping options, plus chance to learn more about Dolly Parton herself at “Chasing Rainbows.”
The guys were quickly smitten with the place—and, unlike me, they braved the roller coasters, which they described as “fantastic,” “amazing,” and “the best thing ever.” They adored Tennessee Tornado so much that they rode it four times! Still, for its nerve-rattling twists and turns, they ranked Wild Eagle as their favorite.
Part of the fun of a winter-time visit is strolling around admiring all the seasonal décor. During the holiday season, Dollywood is most well-lit in the evenings. “We put lights on everything!” says one publicist. Though the mood throughout Dollywood is always festive, the place is especially charming when lit up.
Once the sun goes down it can get quite chilly, but you can pop into shops to warm up and look for gifts. (I snagged Parton’s first children’s album, “I Believe in You,” for the three-year-old on my gift list.)
Decking Dollywood’s “halls” for Christmas takes millions of lights (four to be exact). The holiday is also celebrated with several award-winning live shows, seasonal flavors on menus throughout the park, and the annual “Parade of Many Colors.”
Dollywood will knock the bah-humbugs right out of even the grumpiest Scrooge.
“There is no time of the year that is more special to me than Christmas,” Dolly Parton is quoted in press materials. “Some of the best memories of my life are from my time spent with family and friends celebrating Christmas together. It’s when we all come together to enjoy sweet traditions and the warm love of family and to have those special experiences we’ll always remember. Now when we were growing up, we never could have imagined millions of Christmas lights or even a life-size Rudolph. But I know the families who come to visit my Dollywood this Christmas will leave with wonderful memories they’ll treasure forever—just like me and my family.”
“Christmas in the Smokies,” the festival’s headline show, features singers, dancers and musicians performing hometown holiday favorites with a mix of secular and Christian-themed segments. Other shows include the acoustic “An Appalachian Christmas,” “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” and “It’s A Wonderful Life” (both based on the familiar stories), and the “Milestones” showcase of standard seasonal songs, among others.
When To Go…
Dollywood celebrates its 35th anniversary season in 2020.
- January 17-18, 2020: The 4th annual Lyrics & Lore event showcases some of the country’s most talented storytellers and songwriters for an unforgettable weekend of music and storytelling at Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa.
- March 14-April 20, 2020: Festival of Nations is a celebration of music, dance, and art that displays the most captivating entertainment from around the world.
- April 24-May 3, 2020: Barbeque & Bluegrass presented by Bush’s Best presents celebrated bluegrass artists and expertly-prepared barbeque.
- May 8-June 14, 2020: NEW Flower & Food Festival will showcase nearly 500,000 flowers plus springtime culinary creations and other signs of spring.
- June 20-August 2, 2020: Summer Celebration features extended park hours, nightly fireworks and exciting entertainment, including The Gazillion Bubble Show.
- September 25-October 31, 2020: Harvest Festival stages Southern gospel, thousands of pumpkins glow at Great Pumpkin LumiNights, seasonal dining, and special products in Craftman’s Valley.
- November 9, 2020-January 4, 2021: Smoky Mountain Christmas
Special Offers and Add-Ons…
- Buy a TimeSaver Pass to bypass the regular lines for rides and shows.
- Smoky Mountain Christmas guests can upgrade a paid one-day admission ticket to a regular season pass for as low as $30 (plus tax when buying four or more). Ticket purchasers receive credit for the value of a regular one-day ticket toward the purchase of a season pass. A season pass purchased during Smoky Mountain Christmas provides unlimited admission to this year’s Christmas festival along with Dollywood’s entire upcoming season. (A one-day ticket is valid for upgrade on the day of visit only.)
More To Do…
- Dolly Parton’s Stampede Dinner Attraction
- Pirates Voyage Dinner & Show
- Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud
- The Comedy Barn Theater
- Smoky Mountain Opry Theater
Where To Stay…
Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort
2525 DreamMore Way
Pigeon Forge, TN 37863
Where To Eat…
There’s no reason to skip a meal: Dining options abound.
DM Pantry at DreamMore Resort is a coffee bar, pastry shop and grab-and-go deli.
Granny Ogle’s Ham & Beans serves Southern country fare inside Dollywood.
Song & Hearth is a country sit-down restaurant inside DreamMore Resort that serves Southern-style breakfast buffet, a la carte lunch, and dinner buffet.
Dolly Parton is an award-winning superstar, and so is Dollywood.
Amusement Today’s Golden Ticket Awards are among the most-coveted awards in the industry, and Dollywood has racked up several:
2019 Golden Ticket Awards Results
- Best Christmas Event (#1)
- Best Guest Experience (#1)
- Best Kids’ Area (Wildwood Grove) (#1)
- Best Food (#2)
- Best Park (#2)
- Most Beautiful Park (#3)
- Best Wood Coaster (Lightning Rod) (#7)
2019 USA Today 10Best Awards Rankings
- Best Theme Park Halloween Event- Dollywood’s Great Pumpkin LumiNights (#1)
- Best Amusement Park Hotel- Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa (#2)
- Best Christmas Event- Smoky Mountain Christmas (#2)
- Best Amusement Park- Dollywood (#5)
- Best Roller Coaster- Lightning Rod (#6)
- Best Outdoor Water Park- Dollywood’s Splash Country (#6)
In its June 2019 issue, Food Network Magazine named the park’s world-famous cinnamon bread as one of America’s “Five Best Theme Park Treats.”
In April 2019, the Themed Entertainment Association honored Dollywood with its Thea Classic Award. The award is given to the top theme parks and attractions that have “stood the test of time.” Past winners of the award include Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland, The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, Silver Dollar City, Madame Tussauds, SeaWorld, Epcot, Europa Park, Disneyland and the San Diego Zoo.
Dollywood’s Lightning Rod also recently earned accolades from Coaster101.com as the top wooden coaster built in the 2010s.
2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd.
Pigeon Forge, TN 37863
@21plusTravel Tip: During Smoky Mountain Christmas, make the most of your day: Plan to arrive when Dollywood opens at 2 p.m. Tour the museum, catch some shows, stroll through Craftsman’s Valley, eat whatever you can’t resist. Be sure to ride Dollywood Express before the sun sets, to take best advantage of the views. Then linger until after dark to see the park all lit up. Before you leave, stop by a sweet shop to treat yourself plus buy some tasty stocking stuffers.
Odds of Encountering Children: Inevitable, but they must abide by the rules: “Children must be 13 years old or older to enter Dollywood without an adult. Children 12 years old and younger must be accompanied by a chaperone 16 years old or older. Unescorted children will not be admitted to Dollywood.” For the best odds of an adults-oriented experience, visit during the weekday when school is in session. Dollywood offers the following recommendations to avoid crowds: “In the spring, Thursdays are less crowded. In the summer, try for Wednesday or Thursday. In the fall, you might consider weekdays. During the Christmas season, weekdays are your best bet.”
– Photos courtesy Dollywood and © HSP Media LLC; click on an image for details about that specific photo
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.
Some portions of this article were previously published in 2015 and 2017.