Hey there fun seekers, I’m Neil Dandy and welcome to the DANDY FUN HOUSE, the home of your favorite frivolities! If you’re reading this right now I’d like to let you know that this is episode number one of the Dandy Fun House where we explore all things amusement. This can be carnival games, board games you play at home, inflatable attractions, toys both modern and retro, amusement parks, weird and wonderful destinations, you get the idea. And today we kick off episode one with a family trip to… (dramatic pause) … DOLLYWOOD!

What’s Dollywood you ask? Is it a spooky forest filled with dolls that come alive after dark and chase you with maniacal laughter!? Not exactly. Dollywood is a major, and I mean MAJOR amusement park located in Pigeon Forge Tennessee nestled between the mountain getaway town of Gatlinburg and the city of Knoxville in the eastern Tennessee Appalachia! This isn’t Six Flags, Universal or Disney. In Dollywood, there is no mouse king, but there is a Queen. In fact THE QUEEN of country music, Dolly Parton for whom the entire amusement park is themed around. Not overly so mind you. There’s just a touch of Dolly in everything about Dollywood. 

This trip happened in the early stages of reopenings from the Covid19 pandemic shutdowns where the wearing of masks were required in most public settings that were fortunate enough to be open for business. We visited on July 27th, 2020. And since we live about 3 and a half hours away in beautiful Murfreesboro, Tennessee, we had to wake up at around 5:30 in the morning because not only is it a pretty good drive from where we live but our state of Tennessee is also split in half by the Central and Eastern time zones and we lose an hour going there, but of course we gain it again on our way back which is nice. So I started my day around 5:30am groggily sitting on my back porch pouring coffee down my throat trying desperately to wake up so I’m not a road hazard behind the wheel while I’ve got my family’s life in my hands as well as others. 

Our Dollywood gang for the day included my lovely wife Michele, our ten year old son Evan and our dog, Emma-Lou. While you can’t take your dog into the park, they do have a day kennel named what else… DOGGYWOOD for a very reasonable price might I add. We didn’t feel comfortable leaving her home alone for the 18 hours or so that we would be gone since she’s a bit of an older dog at the age of 11, so we had to make the choice of which stress level would be more tolerable. We felt that her getting to take a nice ride and a large chunk of the day with the family and spending 8 hours in a cage in an air conditioned building with a walk break in between was better than being locked in the house alone for 18 hours without being able to do her business. Thus we opted for Doggywood.

You might be thinking in the context of major amusement parks like Universal, Disney, Six Flags etc, how big can a Dolly Parton theme park possibly be (no pun intended, kids don’t ask your parents what that means)? Well let me tell you, this park is major. And I mean… MAJOR. As with most major theme parks, once you drive into the main gates and get past the initial parking toll booths, it’s a good little drive to get to the parking area and from there you get onto trams in order to get to the main gates of the actual park. 

Once we exit the trams and just outside the main park entrance we get to Doggywood which means that in order to walk the dog in the middle of the day you do have to technically exit and re-enter the park but honestly that wasn’t a problem and security doesn’t shake you down too hard in the process. Check in at Doggywood was very easy since we made reservations in advance and we were allowed to walk her back to the cage ourselves and give her a few parting hugs. One really nice thing I would like to say about the attendants at Doggywood is that they were so nice. We forgot to bring Emma-Lou’s blanket from the van, which you’re supposed to do as they state on their website that they do not provide the padding. And instead of making me take the tram all the way back to the parking lot to retrieve her pad, the wonderful lady there brought us out one and was just absolutely accommodating. 

Main entrance of Dollywood
Dollywood entrance!

And now we enter the park. The first thing that strikes you is sort of an old-timey town vibe with Antebellum style houses, perhaps a bit of New Orleans type of feel. The big Dollywood sign with a butterfly in place of the W. A little bizarre seeing all these people walking around wearing masks, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. 

As we start getting into the park we come across this beautiful and unique art piece of multicolored umbrellas hanging over the walkway. And of course candy shops, gift shops and vendors of various types ready to take your hard-earned cash with a smile at every turn. I stopped to admire a classic taffy pulling machine as well as some popping candy with some really fun-looking packaging in the shape of a child’s head with explosions going off inside their open mouth. Outside we find a stand with pink and blue toy swords (blunt thankfully) as well as butterfly-shaped princess wands that produce bubbles. Butterflies are sort of a re-occurring theme in Dollywood. 

Evan Smith posing in front of a butterfly landscape sculpture at Dollywood
Evan checks out a cool butterfly landscape sculpture!

And after about 10 minutes of walking past gift shops, craft shops and food stands we finally start arriving at some rides. The first one we encountered was a white water rafting ride which had about a 45 minute wait due to lowered capacity for the purposes of social distancing during the pandemic which is understandable, but we didn’t feel like waiting that long or getting drenched so we moved onto the Dollywood Express which is an old-time steam-powered locomotive that takes you up into the mountains. Someone in my hometown told me we needed to ride this, so it’s the first thing we decided to do. The line was a bit long and they were only seating every 3rd row due to the required distancing but still we got right on.

We take off and go up just a bit into the mountains. You get to see a few nice views, some old-timey mountain shacks, smoke houses, cabins and other artifacts reminiscent of what life was like maybe a hundred years ago in rural appalachia. It was nice. Nothing breath-taking but still a nice little excursion that the whole family can enjoy.

Walking further up the path, we pass some  thrill rides, roller coasters and things like that. Dollywood has a pretty good selection of roller coasters if that’s your thing. My wife and son don’t really do thrill rides and me personally, while I love thrill rides, since I’ve reached my 50’s, my physical tolerance for them has greatly diminished and after one or two, my equilibrium is so thrown off that I simply can’t ride any more even if I wanted to. But like I said, if you are a coaster enthusiast and especially if you love the old-style wooden roller coasters like I do where it feels like you’re in a never-ending car accident the whole ride, Dollywood will certainly not disappoint you in that department. But I did overhear someone saying they waited 2 hours to get onto one of the coasters, probably due to the lowered capacity during this precautionary time. So my advice is that if you want to visit Dollywood and enjoy the big thrill rides, spend a little extra for the express line pass that gets you in the shorter preferred guest lines, otherwise your entire day is going to be standing in lines to only enjoy a few things. 

Walking further up the path, we pass all types of various artisans, glass blowers, leather workers, wood burning and I really loved this old-timey upright piano that was turned into a fountain with water cascading over the keys. 

Evan Smith posing in front of the giant bald eagle sculpture at Dollywood
Evan tempting fate with a giant, iron bald eagle!

There was also a special feature saluting American Birds of Prey such as hawks, turkey vultures, owls and of course the American Bald Eagle. They have an enormous Bald Eagle art piece for lack of a better word where it looks like it’s swooping down to pick up its prey above a Dollywood sign. It’s definitely one of those photo-opp areas and like typical tourists we stopped and did a photo opp. And we didn’t always remember to remove our masks while take family pictures, so we, like probably many others came away with quite a few strange submissions for the family album. Along this same theme, there is also a live show with the birds of prey which my wife and son took in while I went and broke our furry family-member Emma-Lou out of doggy jail for her midday break, so unfortunately I didn’t get to experience that personally, but apparently our son, Evan got to pet a bald eagle at the end. 

Towards the rear of the park is a relatively new area that I believe opened up perhaps just a year or so before our visit called Wildwood Grove. It’s got sort of a magical nature adventure feel to it but it sort of felt more like the kids area, meaning that it seemed to be comprised mainly of gentler kid friendly rides although there were a few roller coaster entrances nearby. 

The Dandy Family squeezing into a flying acorn in Dollywood's Wildwood Grove
The Dandy Family squeezes into a flying acorn!

We all three squeezed into a flying acorn, and by squeezed, I mean it was so tight in that thing that it almost didn’t happen. But after a bit of creative maneuvering, we all managed to get in and it was fun. There were some bouncy bears that go around a path with saddles on them that both adults and children could ride. We then rode the Frogs and Fireflies ride where you basically get into a bouncy frog and go around in circles. I could barely fit into my frog but alas, I did fit and I did bounce along with various parts of me that don’t usually like to bounce. Afterwards we had fun at another nearby photo opp area where it looks like you’re in the nest with some baby owls. 

Michele and Evan inside a giant owl nest with baby owls. Photo opp area inside Dollywood's Wildwood Grove
Michele and Evan waiting on Mama bird to return!

And making our way back towards the front of the park as we’re winding up our day, we come across what I can best describe as 50’s town. It probably has an actual name, I just don’t know what it is. You know, it has old timey cars, retro burger and malt shops, 50’s rock and roll playing. I just love this stuff. And as you come out of 50’s town you find yourself in a section of Dollywood that is themed to what else, the life of Dolly Parton. There is a theater showing a presentation called Chasing Rainbows, The Dolly Parton Story which I’m guessing obviously tells her life story. It was closed at the time of our visit I assume as a precaution to the pandemic as well as Dolly’s tour bus that during normal times you could walk through and see how the Queen of Country travels. Although I highly doubt Dolly does a lot of traveling by bus these days. I’m guessing she flies into town, stays in a nice hotel and gets chauffeured to her performances. I can’t really imagine her squeezing into a bunk in a bus although I’m sure that would have been very common earlier in her career during the days she was with Cole Porter. 

Michele and Evan poking their heads through fake retro glamor bodies in Oldtown Dollywood
Goofing off in Oldtown Dollywood!

A couple of other items of interest I’d like to note while I wrap this up that I really loved about Dollywood is the music playing throughout the park is mainly well-known popular songs that most people know and love, but instead of just the normal songs themselves, they are bluegrass-styled remakes of them. It just sets the perfect fun, upbeat ambience for everything this park is trying to convey, which is it’s appalachian mountain vibe if you will. Also one other item of note is that Dollywood is not shy in the least about putting faith on display which is very refreshing as a person of faith myself. There is a chapel right smack in the middle of the park and near the front entrance is a building I didn’t really even notice until we basically had one foot out the door, but the outside of it says that it is the Southern Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame and if we had noticed it earlier and had it been open I would have absolutely loved to have gone through and toured it to see all these famous Southern Gospel legends that I have absolutely no idea of who they are! Also, there are music groups performing throughout the day, bluegrass of course, that are absolutely top-notch. 

Anyway, you exit the park oh so cleverly through an enormous gift shop which once, we made our way through, stopping to play with some cork-popping toy rifles (political correctness isn’t exactly a big thing here although they did bend the knee a bit by changing the name of a dinner show they have which used to be called Dolly’s Dixie Stampede and now is just called Dolly’s Stampede), we collected our dog Emma-Lou, made our way to the tram and bid adieu to a wonderful day at Dollywood in beautiful Pigeon Forge, Tennessee!

Y’all come back now, ya hear!

Neil Dandy is the creator of The Dandy Fun House and the alter-ego of Neil Smith, the Big Cheese at Neil Smith Entertainment and Productions, musician, DJ, Emcee and author. Aren’t you impressed?