I went to Dollywood for the first time. These 7 things surprised me.

  • I visited Dolly Parton's themepark Dollywood in Tennessee for the first time.

  • I didn't have many expectations of the park but had always wanted to visit.

  • These seven things really stood out to me.


When I, an Englishwoman living in New York, told my friends in the UK and the US I was going to Dollywood for the first time, their responses were all variations on the message above.

Of course, Dolly Parton is a global superstar. She's a multimillionaire known not only for hit country songs, including "9 to 5" and "Jolene" (most recently covered by another legend, Beyoncé), but also for her philanthropy and her theme park, Dollywood. She's an icon, from her big blonde hair to her prolific musical career.

Still, the strength of people's responses across the board to my planned trip surprised me. While I'm nowhere close to being a theme park expert, I happened to visit Universal Studios in LA last year, and people were significantly less curious about it (no shade, Universal!). This level of enthusiasm certainly has a lot to do with people's love for Dolly herself, but is also possibly due to Dollywood's location in rural Tennessee — close to where Dolly grew up in the Smoky Mountains but certainly not a big tourist hot spot. In fact, only a few people I know have visited Dollywood compared to the well-trodden paths of Disney or even Six Flags.

So when I got the chance to go, I jumped at it. And while I'd read a little about the park, I wanted to experience it without preconceptions. So, armed with our $92-per-adult tickets, four friends and I went in search of a Dolly good time on a sunny April day.

Here are seven things that surprised me about Dollywood.

There was less, well, Dolly than I expected.

A cartoon of Dolly Parton on a big screen.
There was a cartoon image of Dolly on a big screen at a singalong event, but not many images of the star herself apart from in certain stores.Clementine Fletcher/BI

As we followed the GPS instructions in the car through the local city of Sevierville, one of my friends turned to me and said, "Are you sure you have the right address? I've only seen one sign to Dollywood so far."

And while we were actually on the right road, it seemed to illustrate a theme: I'd expected a LOT more Dolly Parton imagery at the park than there actually was.

To be sure, it has Dollywood branding throughout (including a lot of images of butterflies, which are beloved by Dolly) and musical performances in various venues at various times. We caught a Dolly Parton singalong, for example.

And there's also plenty of Dolly merchandise for sale, though not in every store. But aside from that, images of Dolly herself were few and far between, and we barely heard any of her music in the park apart from the singalong.

I'm sure if we'd taken in some shows we'd have heard more; we also visited too early in the year to see the Dolly Parton Experience, a soon-to-be-opened "interactive area" that will provide "an in-depth look at an iconic career through multiple attractions."

Dollywood feels less about Dolly herself and more about showcasing how her native Tennessee has influenced her and what it has to offer. That fits, given the work of the Dollywood Foundation, which was started two years after the park opened in 1986 to inspire the children in Dolly's home county to achieve educational success.

There's a church, a replica of Dolly's childhood home, and some really beautiful features.

A replica of Dolly Parton's childhood home (left) and Dollywood's chapel (right)
The replica of Dolly Parton's childhood home (left) and Dollywood's chapel (right).Clementine Fletcher/BI

One sign Dollywood isn't like many theme parks: there's a church. In fact, the Robert F. Thomas chapel (named for the doctor and preacher who delivered Dolly) had a full service on the Sunday we visited.

Another homage to Dolly's childhood can be found in the recreation of the home she and her 10 siblings grew up in. The house is the inspiration for many of her songs, like "Tennessee Mountain Home." Many of the items inside the replica are originals from the actual home.

I was also struck by how beautiful parts of the park are — planters full of flowers, water features, old-timey-feeling shopfronts — as well as the surrounding hills.

There were more birds than I expected.

Two screech owls.
We met screech owls Buster (left) and Gimli (right) at the Wings of America bird show.Clementine Fletcher/BI

Yes, birds. Dollywood has the US's "largest presentation of non-releasable bald eagles," and you can catch a glimpse of many of them pretty close to where the chapel is located. Plus, the American Eagle Foundation, which looks after the birds at Dollywood, gives regular avian shows and meet-and-greets (all the birds are disabled and wouldn't be able to survive in the wild). I didn't expect to learn about falcons at the theme park or meet a flightless crow that accepts donations of dollar bills in its beak, but every day is a learning day.

The rollercoasters are great!

Dollywood's Tennessee Tornado rollercoaster.
Dollywood's Tennessee Tornado rollercoaster.Clementine Fletcher/BI

While rides were something I did expect at Dollywood, I was impressed by how good some are. We were also lucky as the park wasn't busy, so the queues were short.

We particularly enjoyed the Wild Eagle, though we mistakenly missed out on Lightning Rod, which is apparently well-known in the roller coaster community. There's also the enjoyably idiosyncratic Blazing Fury ride, which the Dollywood website describes thus:

"An out-of-control fire is just minutes away from engulfing this 1880s town, and chaos ensues as the town's residents, a cast of characters ranging from firefighters to gunslingers and damsels in distress, hurry to escape the blaze."

You can also go on the Dollywood Express, an actual coal-fired steam engine if you prefer your rides to be slightly closer to the ground.

It's really family-friendly.

Dollywood's Showstreet
Showstreet at Dollywood has lots of amenities, including a pink glittery canopy for ample selfie opportunities.Clementine Fletcher/BI

While there appeared to be plenty of children brave and tall enough to go on some of the bigger rides, there were also many less challenging rides and amusements for smaller kids. We spotted families with children in strollers and older people in mobility vehicles, adding to an accessible atmosphere. There's also a very useful app for planning your trip.

There's lots of Dollywood merch, but also lots of independent restaurants and stores.

Dollywood-branded popcorn
There was plenty of Dollywood popcorn for sale.Clementine Fletcher/BI

While there were Dollywood-branded food items throughout (like popcorn buckets), we didn't spot any overt branding from big chains, though the concessions did sell Starbucks coffee and Nathan's hotdogs, plus well-known soda brands.

There are plenty of independent-looking restaurants, like Aunt Granny's (named after the nickname Dolly Parton's nieces and nephews gave her), plus some more casual-looking food trucks and stands. The park is also dotted with little stores selling clothing or artwork, and the Craftsman's Valley area has people making and selling "authentic handmade crafts" from the area.

There's also a year-round Christmas store, though — disappointingly — there were no Dolly Parton tree ornaments to be found. We checked.

The cinnamon bread is worth the hype.

Dollywood's famous cinnamon bread (left) and t-shirt homages to the bread (right).
Dollywood's famous cinnamon bread (left) and t-shirt homages to the bread (right).Clementine Fletcher/BI

"You can't get alcohol at Dollywood, so save the calories for the cinnamon bread," one of my few friends who had been to the park said. He wasn't wrong. For about $15, you get a hot, sugary loaf, and it was great. In fact, it's so popular you can buy T-shirts talking about it. While we didn't get a top, we did definitely consider getting another serving of the bread for our journey home.

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