Originally published in the June 1, 2015 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
Every once in a while, a young dreamer and her many siblings were treated to a day at a tiny East Tennessee theme park, then known as Rebel Railroad, tucked away in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Over the years, the quaint attraction changed names—turning into Gold Rush Junction and later Silver Dollar City—but the girl from Sevier County never strayed from the name her parents gave her: Dolly Parton.
In 1986, that iconic country star partnered with the owners of Silver Dollar City to rechristen the establishment as Dollywood. This year marks the 30th season for the joint venture, which has won dozens of industry awards for its appealing music, Southern cooking and true hospitality.
“I was actually going to be doing a park of my own in the area and the Herschend family that was running Silver Dollar City said, ‘Well, why don’t we just get together and we’ll make it bigger and better?’” Dolly recalls. “So, that’s how it came to be. And 30 years later, they’ve turned out to be the best partners anybody could ever have.”
Today the park remains an annual pilgrimage spot for thousands of families and fans, yet Dolly is eager to make a positive impression on every first-time visitor who walks through the gates.
“I just want them to feel like they’ve had a personal visit with me. And gotten more of an insight, because I come across as just a big- mouth, a big ol’ frilly person with big hair and big boobs and all that,” she says. “But I think if you take a trip through the museum, you get a chance to see in depth. And also in the show, My People, where my family’s there, it’s a story of our early days before I made it big. I think the music in the park is great, all the music. I think the food’s great. We love the festivals, the arts and crafts. There’s something for everybody, really.”
You can’t visit Pigeon Forge without feeling Dolly’s vivid presence. She’s peeking out from pamphlet racks and smiling down from roadside billboards no matter how you drive into town.
However, if impressive roller coasters are the obvious priority, the kids won’t feel like she’s an overbearing aunt who’s popping up around every corner. Instead, she’s the fun relative with a swimming pool—actually a whole lot of them—in her backyard, aka Dollywood’s Splash Country. And when it’s time to eat, she’s got you covered with Dixie Stampede, a freshened-up theater where families dine while cheering for pioneers racing across the American West. And by the way, they don’t bring forks or spoons with dinner. What kind of kid wouldn’t like that?
On the first Friday in May, Dolly returned to Sevier County and boarded a birthday cake-inspired float for her hometown parade, a yearly tradition that also turned 30 in 2015. Like a bubbly homecoming queen, Dolly rode through Pigeon Forge alongside cast members, musicians and magicians from the area’s multiple tourist attractions.
“I can’t believe it’s been 30 years we’ve been climbing on that float! It’s getting harder to climb now,” Dolly says with a giggle, just before a round of interviews inside her Chasing Rainbows Museum inside of Dollywood. Over the course of a few days, she’ll spend time with her family, perform a private show in the Celebrity Theatre for local business owners and wave enthusiastically at awestruck visitors on a short afternoon ride through her theme park.
In conversation, she’s cheerful and friendly without ever losing her focus. At one point, she’s chatting about her fondness for front porches, as though she was visiting with a neighbor rather than an out-of-town reporter. But she’s always attuned to her surroundings and isn’t shy about hushing the room when she needs to—even in midsentence.
“I’ve got a porch everywhere I am,” she starts to say. “Two things I have to have in all my houses—everybody be quiet back there!” Instantly the room snaps to attention. Then she politely continues, “I have a porch and I have a chapel. Because when I have to cuss somebody out like that, then I have to pray and ask forgiveness!”
This summer, Dolly will unveil her latest venture—Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort, a family-friendly destination with fire pits, a farmhouse restaurant and innumerable front porches.
“When it would get too hot on the front porch, you’d go to the back porch, but you always had your porches,” she continues. “Some people had a wraparound porch, where you could walk all the way around it. But everybody gathered on the porch because it was too hot and dark in those little ol’ houses that we had to live in. That was just where you had to go in to sleep, cook and eat. But on the porch, everybody would gather, visit, play music, whatever.”
Of course her spiritual side is represented at Dollywood, too. The modest Robert F. Thomas Chapel is named for a respected missionary who was sent to the Smokies to care for its poorest residents. It was Dr. Thomas who delivered Dolly Rebecca Parton in 1946 in a sharecropper’s shack on the banks of the Little Pigeon River and was compensated with a sack of cornmeal.
That bygone mountain heritage is a huge part of Dollywood. In addition to its welcoming nature, it’s also quite beautiful, especially in the fall when the natural backdrop explodes in red, yellow and orange. Even at 150 acres, it feels homey.
“We tried to keep as many of the trees and the bushes as we could. Of course, you’ve got to cut down some of the trees in order to get the space you have, but we’ve tried to keep it really scenic, with views where you can still appreciate the mountains,” she says.
“Same with our resort. We wanted to build that in a place where you had scenic views to where you could appreciate the nature. We tried to create rides and things that have to do with my childhood, like the old swimming hole. I’m very involved in saying, ‘Well, why don’t we build a swing here?’ Or ‘Why don’t we do a fishing hole here?’ Even outside of the resort, and inside, we tried to carry the traditions of what my early life was like.”
Perhaps the most famous story from Dolly’s childhood is “Coat of Many Colors,” a classic country narrative with a message that still resonates. The song serves as the basis for her first NBC movie of the week, slated to air around Christmastime this year.
“I thought that would be a great gift to give to people at Christmas. It’s a great holiday, because you’re always giving something, and that is the most important thing to me,” she says. “And I think in this day and time, we’re pulling away from family. Everybody’s got their head stuck in a phone or a computer and we don’t take a lot of time for family. And a lot of the young kids these days don’t even realize what it was like back before the technology. When I was growing up, we didn’t even have a television at that time, in my very early years, so I’ve come from the Stone Age to a new age! It’s really amazing.”
She continues, “That song touches people because it’s also about bullying, and we play that up. There’s a little song I wrote called ‘Don’t Do It’ and it’s about bullying. I do a lot of voiceover and some singing-over in montage scenes [in the film]. It’s about bullying but it’s about the love of family and it’s about celebrating people for their differences, not making a mockery or fun of people.”
Rather than modernize the tale, she’s framing it around her own family history, up to that point.
“It’s about a little brother that we lost that was going to be ‘my’ baby,” Dolly explains. “Mama had so many kids that she passed down and you had to take care of them, to help. So she’d always give one and say, ‘This is going to be your baby’—and my baby died. So that’s what [the screenwriters] used as the base, because I was so grief-stricken with that. And so Mama made me this little coat to kind of ease some of that. It’s just about the whole family, but it is about our folks.”
When guests visit the ambitious Chasing Rainbows Museum, one of the first displays is a hand-sewn jacket. Although it’s not the original piece from Dolly’s childhood, it is authentic to the song’s lyrics.
“Mama remade that coat after I wrote the song, as best she could remember, because I’m certain the real coat got torn apart and made into something else, or given to another kid, or made into curtains or a bedspread or whatever,” Dolly says with a chuckle. “In her memory, she was trying to think of what all she did. I remember it having a lot more colors than that, certainly in my mind.”
Also on display are the song’s poetic lyrics, scrawled on a dry cleaning receipt that was attached to another coat of many colors—the late Porter Wagoner’s stage jacket.
“When we were traveling out on the road, one day that song hit me and I didn’t have any paper and pencil, and I went and jerked the tag off his cleaning and I wrote it,” she recalls. “And he kept that and years later he donated it to the museum.”
Fabled Opry star Porter, her celebrated duet partner, is fondly remembered in a special exhibit inside of the museum, nestled among others featuring Dolly’s famous friends and family members. There’s also an exhibit about her Imagination Library, which provides free books to children around the country and across the ocean. In August, she’ll return to the park for four benefit concerts on behalf of the organization. Artists like Kenny Rogers will also perform their own shows this fall to support the initiative.
Dolly could write a bestselling book on business someday, but in the meantime, she’s happy to reveal one of the secrets to her success. She wakes up early. Like, really early.
“I don’t require a lot of sleep,” she says. “I’m usually up to watch the national news when it comes on at 2:30 in the morning in Nashville, and that would be 3:30 up here. But I am usually always up by 3 o’clock. I get up and do a lot of my work. Everything is quiet and calm and still. I get more work done between 3 o’clock and 8 o’clock than most people do all day because I’ve got the time to do it. I do a lot of my spiritual work there, too. Scriptures, dreaming, thinking and planning.”
There’s no lingering in bed either. Before the light of a clear blue morning, her day is underway.
“When I wake up, I’m ready to go. I like to have my coffee! I do some of my prayers before I get jacked up on caffeine,” Dolly says, laughing, “because I don’t like to get my mind racing to where I don’t feel like I can communicate. So as soon I get my initial prayers and spiritual work done, then I go have some coffee, then I finish up with some of my readings, then I get into my work.” CW
The Fantastic Five
You can literally spend all day at Dollywood. But we suggest you don’t leave without experiencing these five fun and fabulous attractions.
RIVER BATTLE. Like to play with soaker guns? Then this is the ride for you. Jump in one of the River Battle rafts, armed with powerful soaker guns, and take aim at any one of the 100 targets along the way. But careful! Some of the targets shoot back.
RIVER RUSH. It’s Tennessee’s only water coaster, combining hairpin turns, dark tunnels and lots of rushing water. It’s four stories high, so you’re in for the ride of a lifetime.
TENNESSEE TORNADO. This triple-spiral-looping coaster makes you feel like you’ve landed inside a funnel cloud. And for you thrill seekers—the coaster zooms down a 128-foot drop at around 70 miles per hour. You might want to forego the macaroni and cheese before you ride.
CHASING RAINBOWS. This state-of-the-art museum features stories, award collections and memorabilia from Dolly’s amazing career. You’ll learn all you need to know about the superstar behind the theme park.
SKY ZIP. You’ll fly like an eagle over Dollywood and experience the Great Smoky Mountains in breathtaking fashion. There is an extra charge for this attraction.