Retiring Dollywood president Ken Bell honored at reception

Nov. 29, 2012 @ 11:32 PM

People who know Ken Bell talk about his humility. When friends, business associates and community leaders gathered Thursday to celebrate his retirement as president of the Dollywood Company, he addressed them humbly.

“I’m overwhelmed anyone showed up at this thing,” he told the group gathered at the Music Road Hotel.

He spoke after remarks from notables including Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary R. Wade, current Dollywood president Craig Ross, Dollywood vice president emeritus Barbara Joines, Pigeon Forge city manager Earlene Teaster, Pigeon Forge mayor David Wear, Sevierville mayor Bryan Atchley and Sevier County mayor Larry Waters.

At the end of the program, State Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, read a proclamation from the Tennessee Senate honoring Bell.

“I got lucky,” Bell said before the presentation. “Great job, great company, great community.”

Bell began his theme park career at age 16, when he joined the staff of Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo. Early on, he worked in the parking lot. “I never thought it was a career,” he said. He rose to become operations manager for the Branson park.

In 1985, Dolly Parton partnered with what is now Herschend Family Entertainment to turn the Pigeon Forge Silver Dollar City into Dollywood. Bell took over as general manager. He has been with Dollywood for all of its 27 years.

“He was a breath of fresh air when he took charge,” said Justice Wade. “It’s so important that he committed himself to our community.”

“I think most of us, 27 years ago, we couldn’t imagine we could grow the park to the size it is,” said Bell.

Bell said his biggest accomplishment is the Applause Award Dollywood received at the 2010 meeting of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.

“The guy’s an innovator,” said Dollywood public relations manager Pete Owens. “He’s been able to grow a brand that Dolly dreamed up, and he has been able to fulfill her dreams.”

Bell oversaw the park’s many expansions, said Owens. “The park has evolved from a very small mountain attraction to a world-class theme park. His leadership fostered that growth.”

Dollywood president Ross said Bell understands balance in management, “from running the business to supporting the hosts who work at the park, to taking care of the park and building a world-class brand. It’s easy to do the financial part. To get it all in balance is hard.”

In his retirement, Bell will play golf. “Twice a week instead of once a month,” he said. He also will spend time with his seven grandchildren and do part-time consulting work.

As for the future of Dollywood, “The park will continue to grow,” said Bell. “Craig’s going to be a great leader. It’s time for new eyes, new ideas.”

Theme parks like Dollywood “give people an escape,” said Bell. “They give people a chance to get away from it all, to be with their families and create new memories. It’s a blessing that we can do that.”