New season, new attractions

Dollywood's March 23 opening ushers in tourist time
Mar. 18, 2013 @ 12:03 AM

On Saturday, March 23, Dollywood opens its gates for the season to fans of the theme park’s rides, entertainment, food and events.

It will be a big day for the local economy.

“We’re always excited when Dollywood opens,” said Leon Downey, Pigeon Forge director of tourism. “It’s basically the kickoff of our tourist season.”

The park is, Downey noted, “the most ticketed attraction in Tennessee. We’re blessed to have it here in Pigeon Forge.”

“Dollywood’s impact on the hospitality industry in Pigeon Forge, and all of Sevier County, and all of East Tennessee, is huge,” said Pigeon Forge Hospitality Association chairman Ken Maples. “They’re a very vital part of our industry.”

Dollywood opened in 1986, when Sevier County native Dolly Parton and the company now called Herschend Family Entertainment rebranded Silver Dollar City, which was then a Pigeon Forge theme park.

“We had a robust market prior to Dollywood, and Silver Dollar City was a big part of that,” Maples said. “But they further enhanced the Sevierville-Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge market, probably tenfold, when they switched to Dollywood.”

Parton and the theme park share more than her name.

“What we provide in experiences for families is directly allied with the values Dolly Parton holds so dear,” said Dollywood president Craig Ross. “It starts with Dolly.”

This will be a year of changes for Dollywood. Every year is.

“They’re really good at planning for the future,” said Brenda McCroskey, CEO of the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. “If you notice, they roll out something every year.”

“You have to keep it fresh,” said Ross, who last year succeeded longtime president Ken Bell. Ross has worked in the theme park industry for over 35 years.

The most prominent change will be at Splash Country. The park is debuting River Rush, which is billed as Tennessee’s first water coaster. Splash Country opens May 11.

New at the Dollywood theme park are several shows, including “My People: Dolly’s Letter Home.”

“‘My People’ is a show about Dolly and her influences,” said the park’s entertainment director Paul Couch. “It’s a chance to celebrate what it means to come from a musical family. It features several of her family members.”

The show “comes as a result of guests telling us that they want to feel a closer connection to Dolly and the values she stands for,” Ross said. “My People” opens May 10.

Also new is “The Great American Country Show,” which opens May 11. It is a collaboration with the cable channel Great American Country.

“It’s a contemporary, cutting-edge country show, with six live singers and six musicians,” Couch said. “Large-format video screens are synced to show GAC’s on-air personalities and current country stars.”

Christmas 2013 will see the debut of “Dollywood’s A Christmas Carol.” Based on Charles Dickens’ story, the musical features    songs by Parton.

“She is an accomplished Broadway show writer,” said Couch, alluding to Parton’s 2009 musical “9 to 5.” “We’re fortunate that she’ll bring that part of her creativity to help stage this.”

Other Dollywood shows include “Country Crossroads,” “Dreamland Drive-In,” and the international performances featured in Festival of Nations, which runs March 23-April 22.

Dollywood’s emphasis on live entertainment has earned plaudits — including, for the past four years, Golden Ticket Awards for Best Shows. Golden Ticket Awards are presented by the trade publication Amusement Today, which last year gave Dollywood top honors for Friendliest Park, Best Food and Best Christmas Event. The park likewise earned a Best New Ride nod for its Wild Eagle roller coaster.

Parton’s music also will be featured in “Dolly’s Nights of Many Colors,” a nightly fireworks display. Along with expanded park hours, the show is part of Dollywood’s new Great American Summer promotion, which runs June 22-Aug. 4.

“What guests told us is, they’d like to see more access to the park,” said Ross. “So we’re closing at 10. Folks will have the opportunity to ride the Wild Eagle at night, a unique experience in itself.”

Few theme parks besides Dollywood are so closely associated with a single personality. (There are those Disney properties.) The park reflects Parton’s commitment to Sevier County.

“I’ve heard her say that it means a great deal to her, offering opportunities for jobs and families here,” said Maples, who in the 1980s worked in Dollywood’s marketing department. “It all ties back to this being her hometown. She loves this area and wants it to do well.”

“We employ several thousand people here,” said Ross. “We feel a huge responsibility to them. By supporting them, we’re supporting the community.”

Dollywood is “very ingrained in the community,” said Downey. “Not just Pigeon Forge, but Gatlinburg and Sevierville, too. They’re a great partner for all of us.”