She's come a long way, baby

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

"No, Dolly isn't here today." That's the answer to the most-asked question at Dollywood Smoky Mountain Adventure theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. "But she's here every now and then."

When my family and I were there in June, Dolly Parton was nowhere to be found, although there were photos and even a huge sand sculpture of the famous country singer and entrepreneur. But she was very much around when the park was being designed.

The theme park had been in the same location since the 60s and had changed hands twice. Dolly got into the act in 1986 and a park with only so-so success became the number one ticketed attraction in the state of Tennessee.

The park occupies 130 acres in the beautiful Smoky Mountains and is close to a state park. It has a great variety of rides, all inspired by the area's history. Just as Disney World is divided by "lands," Dollywood is split up into geographical areas, all with a mountain theme. There's the Tennessee Tornado, the Smoky Mountain River Rampage, Mystery Mine, and dozens of others. There's even a 20-minute ride on the Dollywood Express to get to and from the areas.

We rode the train on our Dollywood excursion and saw the beautiful country-side, along with Dreamland Forest, Rivertown Junction, Craftsmen's Valley, Country Fair, Jukebox Junction and Adventures in Imagination. Two steam-powered locomotives, one built in 1938 and one in 1943, pull the train itself. The seven cars carry 550 people.

Country and gospel music shows and non-musical performances take place throughout the park, timed so something is going on all the time. Our favorite was the magic show. My grandson Michael is fascinated by magic and has his own show: "The Almost Amazing Michael." He often performs at birthday parties and street fairs and he's always on the lookout for new tricks. He picked up a few from the magician onstage at Dollywood and as soon as the show was over he went immediately to the magic shop located just across the way.

In Rivertown Junction, we saw a replica of Dolly Parton's two-room childhood home. It had no electricity or running water, but as the brochure reads, "Love was abundant in this tiny little mountain house that Dolly and her family called home." Try to imagine Dolly as a child living in that house. I tried it, but the image just wouldn't come clear. But, the advertising slogan, "You've come a long way, baby," popped into my mind right away.

If you're even a lukewarm country music fan you have to visit Adventures in Imagination where you can see Chasing Rainbows, a state-of-the art interactive museum filled with Dolly's costumes, awards, and artifacts from her many-faceted career as singer, song-writer and movie star. You can perform onstage with Dolly and her former duet partner Porter Wagoner. Or, see what you look like in one of Dolly's famous wigs. Listen to her most popular songs as you retrace Dolly's footsteps from her humble east Tennessee roots to superstardom.

Parked outside the museum is Dolly's real tour bus in which she traveled at the beginning of her singing career. Its opulence will amaze you. It features hand-tooled German leather, a spacious living room, two bathrooms and her own bedroom where three clocks are set on Los Angeles time, Nashville time, and Dollywood time.

For a really amazing experience, get tickets to the Dixie Stampede. It is Dolly's own creation based once again on a remembrance of her childhood. She said she wanted a recreation of "the family fun of my childhood when we'd gather for a friendly competition and enjoy a more-than-filling meal." The venue seats 1,000 people in a 35,000-square-foot-arena. There is a four-course southern dinner that I can tell you from experience is indeed more than filling.

During the meal, you can hear the sound of hooves getting louder and louder. Suddenly, a herd of buffalo stampedes into the arena. They do not look happy. The crowd is shocked into silence at first, but soon break into wild applause as the extravaganza begins. The next performers are 32 horses, dozens of cast members in elaborate costumes, ostrich races, special effects, and magic acts. At the end of the arena is a huge screen showing Dolly singing in front of the American flag.

I have never seen anything like it. The Dixie Stampede, located just outside the park, is a separate entity. If you miss it in the Smokies, you can see it in Branson, Missouri and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

There's a Christmas Festival in Dollywood that would be ideal for a trip during the holiday break. Read all about the park on its website: It's one of the most info-packed websites I've ever seen.


Fun at Dollywood near Knoxville, Tenn.

Dollywood Trivia

(As if anything could be trivial about Dolly)

Tennessee's most-visited attraction is located deep in the Smoky Mountains at Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Just so you won't forget who is responsible for the 13-acre extravaganza, photos and posters of Dolly Parton are everywhere. The park has the requisite water park, shows, and rides, all rooted in the long history of the Smoky Mountains.

Possibly the most historic is the steam-powered locomotive that leaves the station every 45 minutes, rain or shine, carrying seven cars and 550 passengers. It's the Dollywood Express. There are two engines, both with a life of service to the country. It seems somehow appropriate that the train is spending its golden years providing fun for Dollywood visitors.

  • Both engines are genuine 2-8-2 Baldwin Steam Locomotives. They were built by the Baldwin Manufacturing Company located just outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
  • The two engines, named "Klondike Katie" and "Cinderella," were built by Baldwin in 1943 and 1938, respectively.
  • The two engines were originally built for the U.S. Army, and both engines were used in Alaska on the White Pass Railroad during World War II to haul troops and lumber. Both engines were used to build the Alcan Highway in Alaska.
  • The original engine number for "Klondike Katie" was #192, while "Cinderella" was #70.
  • In one day, the train burns five tons of coal and drinks about 5,000 gallons of water. It weighs 110 tons.

Along the route, there are scenes of cabins and ancient machinery that were probably common sights for "Katie" and "Cinderella" during their working lives.

Mildred Moss has been in journalism for 19 years. A mother and grandmother, Mildred has been writing for Columbus Parent Magazine for several years and is the publication's travel writer.