You could argue that Dolly Parton now fills the pop-cultural role once occupied by Mickey Mouse. After all, both figures are beloved, theme park–affiliated, and easy to recognize by voice or silhouette alone.
But actually Parton probably has the edge on the Mouse, and not only because “Jolene” slaps infinitely harder than Mickey’s whistling in Steamboat Willie.
Unlike Disney, with its cash-grabby tendencies, Parton has maintained a pretty much unblemished record when it comes to dispensing joy and kindness, starting with her music and carrying into philanthropic efforts such as her literacy-promoting Imagination Library and her humanity-sustaining financial support for the Moderna Covid vaccine.
On the theme park front, Parton’s Dollywood, located near where she grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee, has been quietly gaining on the competition in Florida and California for several years now.
Well-regarded roller coasters have launched. The 300-room DreamMore Resort & Spa began welcoming overnight guests in 2015. And the park’s footprint has enlarged to include new attractions and themed lands such as the 6-acre Wildwood Grove, which debuted in 2019.
The industry has certainly taken note. Earlier this year, Dollywood took top honors at Amusement Today’s annual Golden Ticket Awards, otherwise known as the Oscars of the Tilt-A-Whirl set.
(Dollywood sign in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee | Credit: Joseph Hendrickson / Shutterstock)
And Dollywood is far from finished with its plans. This fall, a second 302-room hotel, the HeartSong Lodge & Resort, opened for business. “I’m a chain!” announced Parton at the opening, echoing her character in the Steel Magnolias movie and thus compelling me to report with regret that the new hotel’s earth-toned colors are not, by any stretch, blush and bashful.
By the end of the 2020s, you can expect two more resorts (including a family campground), more new rides, a renovated DreamMore, and improved infrastructure—all part of a $500 million investment in the park from business partners Herschend Family Entertainment, the privately owned company that also operates Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, and several other tourist attractions.
Speaking of infrastructure, at the HeartSong opening in early November Parton put in a (seemingly unscripted) plea for better roads in Sevier County, where Dollywood is located and traffic congestion has long bedeviled visitors and locals alike. For that reason, the latter have “probably wanted to kick my country butt for a while,” quipped Parton.
Next up in Dollywood’s multiyear strategy for world domination: In May 2024, the park will get a new interactive Dolly Parton Experience designed to immerse fans in the singer’s life and career via high-tech exhibits, a trove of memorabilia, and a riot of rhinestones.
Following the opening press conference for the new HeartSong property, I sat down with Parton for a quick Q&A to discuss her role as Dollywood’s “dreamer-in-chief” as well as the park’s future plans and driving ethos.
I was under strict orders from the star’s P.R. reps to stick to the subjects of theme parks and tourism, so we’ll have to wait till our next encounter to discuss other important issues such as the 77-year-old icon’s skin-care regimen, why Little Sparrow is her best album, and my mother’s opinion that my home state of Arkansas is underappreciated as an incubator of country music talent (shout-out to the Wilburn Brothers).
An edited transcript of my chat with Parton follows, along with some annotations for context and clarity.
(L–R: Dolly Parton portrait and Dolly Parton herself at Dollywood’s HeartSong Lodge & Resort in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee | Credit: Zac Thompson / The Dollywood Company)
FROMMER’S: Starting about a decade ago, Dollywood began really amplifying its presence in the tourism world, introducing critically acclaimed roller coasters and huge new resorts and announcing new additions like the upcoming interactive Dolly museum. What prompted all this expansion and what’s the big vision driving things?
DOLLY PARTON: I have been blessed with wonderful partners in the Herschend family, and they’ve always been great about bringing wonderful people in to help head the park up. And so different people all through the years have brought new and different ideas and as my career has grown, I think I’ve brought a lot of attention to the park and to the area. And of course we have to feel like we’re in competition with everybody, certainly with ourselves, so we want to be bigger and better all the time. When I grow in other ways with what they call “my brand” [big air quotes], you want to do greater and better things all the time. If we’re smart, we’ll make the most of everything, making hay while the sun shines so to speak.
[You definitely can’t accuse Parton of loafing in the haymaking department. Apart from the projects already mentioned, recent and upcoming ventures include cake mixes, perfume, a possible wig line, a 30-track rock album, several television plans, and I wouldn’t put it past her to make a few more indelible contributions to the American songbook, either.]
Even amid all the growth and the investment, Dollywood seems to maintain a strong connection to the local landscape and community, from paying employees’ college tuition to using the Great Smoky Mountains as inspiration for the décor of the new HeartSong Lodge. What is Dollywood’s commitment to eastern Tennessee?
PARTON: We want to be a force in this part of the country. This is where I was born and raised. It was my dream to have a park. I used to come to a park, Rebel Railroad and Goldrush Junction, [which] then became Silver Dollar City, [operated by] the same people, the Herschend family. When I decided I wanted to build a theme park, then it made sense for me to go in business with them. It’s about doing things to make the whole area great, to provide work for the whole community, not just for us. We’re known for being good people—my partners, all the people I work with, which is why we have the Dollywood Foundation and the Imagination Library. We try to do good things. We don’t just take. We try to give as much as we take. Sometimes we give more than we take. It’s a good balance to have things we like to think are worthy of our principles and our values and the things that matter to us.
[First of all, do I detect an allusion to the line in “9 to 5” about how some jobs are “all takin’ and no givin'”? In any case, other examples of Parton and Dollywood exhibiting compassion for the community include her huge donation to rebuilding the area following devastating wildfires in 2016 and the theme park’s pioneering addition of a calming room for sensory-sensitive guests—a feature that has since been introduced at many other similar attractions.
HeartSong Lodge’s “elevated rustic” aesthetic pays tribute to the Smokies with features such as a huge lobby hearth, abundant windows showing off the woodsy surroundings, video displays of mountain scenes in the elevators and behind the front desk, and murals in the guest rooms depicting black bears, forests, and fireflies. Outside, there are fire pits for evening sing-alongs and nightly marshmallow-roasting sessions, cloyingly dubbed “Roasties.”]
(King room at Dollywood’s HeartSong Lodge & Resort in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee | Credit: The Dollywood Company)
What specifics can you share about the interactive Dolly Parton Experience opening in May? What can visitors expect—and do we get to try on wigs?
PARTON: [laughs] You’re gonna get the wigs, you’re gonna get the clothes. We’re gonna have the Behind the Seams: My Life in Rhinestones [incidentally, also the title of Parton’s new coffee-table book—in stores now!]. Of course we’ll have a lot of different clothes. We’ll change things out now and then as well. But it’s gonna be done well. It’s gonna be very colorful. It’s gonna be a big experience with a lot of the new technology. There’s gonna be bigger, wonderful, more exciting, more entertaining things to do that will keep the essence of me. Keep the emotion and what my life was really about. But people want more. They get more everywhere and life is bigger than it used to be. So it’s gonna be bigger, it’s gonna be better. But hopefully more interesting and more entertaining.
[Dollywood public relations director Wes Ramey later told reporters that the new attraction, which will supplant the former Chasing Rainbows Museum at the park, will begin with a simulation of Parton’s bus ride from the foothills of the Smokies to Nashville and early career benchmarks such as her stint on The Porter Wagoner Show. A room dedicated to Parton’s film appearances will contain her desk from 9 to 5 and other props. A ticker will count off how many Imagination Library books have been donated to kids (we’re currently at 200 million and counting). A “duet tunnel” will highlight musical collaborations. Video boards will delve into her family and childhood. And, of course, there will be a gallery with rotating exhibits displaying costumes, shoes, wigs, and other sequin-studded accessories.
According to a publicist, you will not, in fact, be allowed to try on wigs. More’s the pity.]
One thing that’s always important to our readers is budgeting for vacations. Dollywood admission prices are significantly more affordable than at rival attractions in Florida, where prices are soaring. Will that remain the case as Dollywood expands?
PARTON: We try very hard to remember that we are a family destination. We realize that everybody don’t make fortunes. A lot of people work hard jobs, 9 to 5 jobs. They get a vacation once a year, and we want to feel like they’re not gonna destroy all their savings to get to go on a vacation. So it will always be important to us to try to cater as best we can to the families and the family needs, and when they come here to feel like they’ve been entertained and they go away feeling like they got their money’s worth, no matter how much money it is they spent. We try to be as reasonable as we can be that makes business sense at all. We’re more apt to go lower than a lot of people because we know what it’s like. I grew up that way so I understand how hard it is just to make it, much less to even be able to go on a vacation. We’ll always be mindful of that.
[As Atlanta magazine recently pointed out, the cost of a 2-day Dollywood ticket is $119 per person—just $10 more than the STARTING price of a ONE-day ticket to Florida’s Walt Disney World. When Disney Parks announced a fresh batch of price hikes in October, our own Jason Cochran noted that some of the worst increases were more than double the rate of inflation.
And did you clock that direct mention of 9-to-5 jobs in Dolly’s answer? You can almost hear the song’s acrylic-nail percussion, can’t you?]
(Future site of the Dolly Parton Experience at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee | Credit: Zac Thompson)
What are your favorite things to do at Dollywood? I saw something that said you avoid roller coasters.
PARTON: I don’t ride the roller coasters. First of all, I have a tendency to have motion sickness and I’m a little bit claustrophobic. I don’t like being trapped anywhere. I don’t like that speed. I always joke I’m afraid I have too much to lose—like my hair and my shoes or whatever else might fly out or fly off.
I enjoy the foods. I enjoy the shows. That’s what great about Dollywood. There’s something for everybody to enjoy. I love the arts and crafts and shopping, going through the stores and all that. That’s why it’s great for couples, the empty nesters that come here, the grandmas and the grandpas. You can bring your kids. You can bring your teenagers. We have something for everybody at the park. I don’t get a chance to do much except to promote it and to dream it and to get in with whatever we’re working on next. But there’s so much to enjoy. There’s something for everybody.
For more information on the park and its resorts, to buy tickets, or book a stay, go to Dollywood.com.