If you’ve been looking for a reason to make that pilgrimage to Dollywood — the Tennessee mecca of all things Dolly Parton — it’s time to start planning (though truthfully anytime is a good time to pay homage to the “Jolene” queen). The opening of a new rollercoaster and a special anniversary makes it the perfect time to celebrate all things Dolly Parton.
Located in the mountain town of Pigeon Forge, Dolly’s theme park started small in 1986. Since then, it’s transformed the area into a major family recreation destination. At the heart of it all is Dollywood and its adjacent water park, Dolly’s Splash Country. The main park is a 160-acre verdant property celebrating all things Dolly, with rustic-themed rides, live country and folk music, artisanal craftspeople, Dolly-style fashion, food (the cinnamon bread is famous), a replica of Dolly’s childhood home, and even a bald eagle rehabilitation area. A one-day ticket to the park is $89, though you’re probably going to want at least the two-day pass for $109.
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This year at Dollywood is particularly special. When Parton made her annual appearance at the park’s opening day, she announced the opening of a new roller coaster: Big Bear Mountain, which will be the park’s longest at nearly 4,000 feet around the Wildwood Grove section. The new ride is now open to guests, but Dolly herself won’t be partaking. “Y’all know as well as you know my name I won’t be riding that thing,” the motion-sickness-prone Parton cracked.
This year brings a lovely commemorative occasion for the non-riders too: It’s the 50th anniversary of the singer’s unforgettable ballad “I Will Always Love You.” Parton also announced the fall 2023 opening of a major new property, the Smokies-themed, 302-room HeartSong Lodge & Resort.
On your days off from the park, go for a hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Check out the pretty Metcalf Bottoms Trail, which leads to an old schoolhouse and the Walker Cabin, where six “spinster” sisters refused to join their neighbors in selling their property when the area became a national park in the 1930s. It was occupied until 1964 when Louisa, the last surviving sister, passed away.
Where to eat near Dollywood
If you crave the full Dolly experience, you can’t miss Dolly Parton’s Stampede, the dinner theater featuring performances on horseback and aerial stunts, accompanied by a four-course meal. It’s far from your only option in this culinary subgenre, though: Down the road are Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud, Biblical Times Dinner Theater, and Pirates Voyage Dinner & Show.
For a quieter option, head to Sevierville, the Pigeon Forge-adjacent town where Dolly attended high school and is now honored with a statue. Gorge on lobster rolls and cornmeal-fried okra at Pinchy’s Lobster and Beer, whose mission is to combine New England-style seafood and Southern hospitality.
Where to drink near Dollywood
Sevier County is technically dry, but worry not! There’s a city option for liquor sales, much to the relief of frazzled parents and recovering roller-coaster riders all year round. Beer is on tap at nearly all major restaurants (though some of the dinner theaters are dry), but for a truly unique pint, head to Gatlinburg’s Fox & Parrot Tavern. It’s located along the eight-mile loop of the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community, which features a wealth of craftsman shops including pottery, blacksmithing and some delightfully quirky yard art. The Fox & Parrot offers a pub menu and traditional draft beers.
Finding a decent cocktail is a bit more of a challenge, but you’ll be in good hands at Seasons 101, the upscale bistro located in Sevierville’s historic Central Hotel.
Where to stay near Dollywood
The DreamMore Resort and Spa is your most Dolly-centric option. The resort is even home to Dolly’s secret song, entitled “My Place in History,” kept in a locked wooden box set to be opened on the singer’s 100th birthday. And starting in June, the HeartSong Lodge & Resort will begin taking reservations for the fall.
For more countrified accommodations, there are rental cabins aplenty around Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. You can book the Bear Cove Cabins directly through the park, or explore other options on vacation rental sites, like this charmer of a place with a hot tub, a loft bedroom, and a Ms. Pac-Man arcade game.