© Curtis Hilbun / Dollywood
Every year, millions of visitors flock to Pigeon Forge in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains to visit Dolly Parton's Dollywood. Since the theme park opened in 1986, it has continued to thrive and grow, and today, it's a destination in itself, with Dollywood's Splash Country water park and Dollywood's DreamMore Resort & Spa. With each new development, Dollywood just gets bigger and better, but throughout its changes, it's still unmistakably Dolly.
From the recreation of her childhood home — the Tennessee mountain home she sings about in the 1973 song of the same name — to the nighttime drone show with a number set to "Light of a Clear Blue Morning," the park immerses visitors in Dolly's story and music, as well as the culture of her beloved Great Smoky Mountains.
New this summer, guests can even spend the night on her tour bus (parked outside Dollywood's DreamMore Resort) with the Suite 1986 experience. And there's more on the horizon, including Dollywood's HeartSong Lodge & Resort, slated to open in late 2023. The new, 302-room property, named after another Dolly Parton song, will have touches inspired by the Smokies, family suites, and indoor and outdoor pools.
Courtesy of Dollywood
With Dolly Parton at the helm as the destination's "dreamer-in-chief," Dollywood's growth isn't slowing down any time soon. We sat down with Dolly Parton at Dollywood's DreamMore Resort this June to talk about Dollywood's past, present, and future — and what it all means to her.
Travel + Leisure: Unlike other theme parks around the United States, Dollywood isn't based on any franchise or series. It's about you and your story, and the Great Smoky Mountains, your home. Can you tell us why you decided to include that in the park and how you chose which parts of your life to incorporate?
Dolly Parton: "Anytime you start something, you start with a dream. And, of course, if it starts to come true, it expands, and then you get other ideas. But I always wanted to have a theme park ever since I started dreaming about being in the business. I thought, if I make it, if I'm successful at what I do, I'd love to have a theme park like this in my home to provide jobs for people in the area, but also just to have something wonderful for the home folk. So, when we brainstormed, we thought the Smoky Mountains and theme of my life would be better. That was just a given that it would be about my life, my story, and how we grew with that."
I've had wonderful people seeing my vision and helping me with that through the years. The Herschend family are my partners, they had a park here with Silver Dollar City. And so, we just expanded on the ideas. When I told them I was going to build a park, they said 'no, no, let's just all go into this together.' And then we started Dolly-izing it and expanded on that through the years."
What do you want guests to take away after they visit the park?
"I want them to say that's the best time I've ever had in my life. Those are the nicest people I've ever met in my life. The service is better than anywhere I've ever been in my life. I want them to say, I can't wait to go back. We'll go again next year."
Your musical influence is all over the park as well. Is there a specific song that you think about when you walk into Dollywood?
"When I drive into the area on my way here, when I see the Smokies, I think of my song 'My Tennessee Mountain Home.' And, of course, songs like 'Coat of Many Colors' and things that have followed me through the years. They're scattered around — those memories and different songs I've had. But that's the one that kind of sums it all up, actually. This is my Tennessee mountain home, and everything that's around here is a reflection of that."
And that sentiment of feeling at home, and that nostalgia — is that how you feel when you walk into Dollywood?
"I do feel happy, I feel good. I thank God for it. You know, I'm very humbled by it. To think that so many people have dreams that they never get to see come true, and I've had so many come true. And they just keep going. Thank goodness to all the wonderful people who help and see my vision and my dream. It's very humbling to me, but it's exciting and fun. To think, 'Wow, look at this,' you know the little park, look what we are now since 1986 when we started. But every year we grow, every year we've got something new and different. And we just kind of keep up what we already have, and keep our ears and hearts and eyes open for what the guests seem to want."
The park, like you said, has grown so much over the last 40 or so years. Let's talk about all the exciting things coming to Dollywood in the future.
"HeartSong is our new lodge. We have the wonderful DreamMore Resort that was a success right out of the chute. We'd been wanting a resort for years, and the timing was finally right, so it was a hit right off the bat. People love it, and it stays booked all the time. So, we thought we need another resort... And getting back to that 'Tennessee mountain home' feel, we thought a lodge would be a wonderful way to do it because the DreamMore is a little more glamorous. The lodge is great — it has everything you can imagine and could want. But it has that Smoky Mountain feel of the colors, and the wood, and the greenery. They say, 'bringing the outside in and the inside out.' It's kind of like you are in the heart of the mountains."
Courtesy of Dollywood
And speaking of new opportunities, in addition to HeartSong, guests now have the chance to sleep on your tour bus. Why did you decide to add this to the Dollywood experience?
"We love the idea because we have the Dollywood Suite at the DreamMore Resort, and people love to book it. They pay big money for the suite, and the money we make from that goes to the Dollywood Foundation, which houses the Imagination Library. We already have one of my tour buses over at the Chasing Rainbows Museum area [at the theme park]. People love going to walk through it, but now they can actually experience it. And when I quit touring for the most part, I didn't have a need for [the bus], so Dollywood took it over. And now we're calling it Suite 1986. That was the year that Dollywood opened... I did a little video tour to show people how I lived in it, and what it meant to me. I think they'll enjoy it. And the money for that also goes to the Imagination Library."
(Editor's note: Profits from every stay will be donated to the Dollywood Foundation, a nonprofit created by Dolly Parton in 1988. The Imagination Library is the foundation's signature program, which has sent millions of books to children around the world.)
Is there anything about the bus you think will surprise fans?
"I think they're gonna love it... We've actually left some of my show clothes and instruments in there. And the back where it's glassed in, you can see my show wigs and the way we traveled. Other people like to see that, too, like how I got dressed on the bus and where I put on my miles of makeup for each show. I have my little vanity there. And so, they'll really, truly experience exactly how I lived on the bus."
With that, what do you hope for the continued growth of Dollywood? What do you think the park will look like in 10 or 20 years?
"We own a lot of land, and we're always trying to acquire more. But I just hope that we continue to do more things. I know we're planning to have at least three more resorts…. And so we want to expand in that way. We're going to always want to have new rides, we're going to have things for the family, for kids all ages."
"I always say I wake up with new dreams every day, and so do the dreamers here at Dollywood. But as I am the dreamer-in-chief, we base it a little on what's going on in my life and career at the moment… If I've done a certain movie, or a certain thing that might spur an idea, just like the HeartSong Lodge is named after a song of mine. So, I'm hoping it grows every year long after I'm gone. I hope it's something my family will always be proud of. And that it will be something great for the tourists that come here, but also for the people in our area, providing jobs and giving them a wonderful place for recreation as well."
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.