Have you seen the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee? They are magnificent, and yes, they really appear to “smoke” especially in the morning. Pigeon Forge, TN provides the perfect backdrop to enjoy views, and is home to Dollywood. I first visited the Smoky Mountains and Dollywood in 2012 and wrote this post below. Since then, my family and I have returned to this beautiful area many times.
Cross one off my bucket list! My family and I enjoyed a wonderful weekend in the beautiful Smoky Mountains and found it to be an ideal weekend destination. I had always wanted to visit Dollywood, and now that we are living in the Mid-Atlantic, we planned a weekend visit and drove to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee in just a few hours. We planned to stay 2 nights and pack as much in as we comfortably could, taking an overview of the area with excursions in Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and the Smoky Mountain National Park. We found an affordable hotel with a kitchen and pool about a mile from the park for under $100 a night that was clean and comfortable, but we didn’t spend much time there!
There are lots to see at Dollywood and if you arrive at after 3 PM, you can come back the next day free. That’s exactly what we did and we arrived Friday late afternoon which gave us a few hours to explore the park, and then return for a full day Saturday. Depending on what time of year you visit, Dollywood might be open until between 6 and 11 pm, but even with extra time, we still did not see the entire park! Dollywood is sprawled over 150 acres and offers much more than just amusement rides. You’ll find award-winning shows, restaurants, local craftspeople at work, and even a 30,000 square foot aviary and the nation’s largest sanctuary of non-releasable bald eagles.
What I appreciated immediately is the slower pace of this park. I have visited hectic parks that frankly were more stressful than enjoyable, but Dollywood is filled with families leisurely strolling around rather than racing from ride to ride. This is achieved through historic attractions, live shows, plenty of benches and places to sit, and artisans located throughout the park who encourage you to stop and chat. Guest are encouraged to watch and meet craftspeople working with wood, metal, glass, leather, food, slate and more. You can dip your own candle, have a custom baseball bat made, or even select a wagon for your horses! Multiple stages offer award winning musical and theatrical entertainment that rotate regularly and you’ll get a schedule of the day’s entertainment on your way in the park.
For the children, the highlight of Dollywood was the Lucky 7 Mine Shop. We purchased bags of sand ($6.99) and the children learned how to pan for gems by washing them in a running stream. Each bag is filled with gemstones or arrowheads I was impressed how many there were. The woman working at the mine shop was great with kids and very knowledgeable and gave them cards to help identify the rocks. Later in the hotel, they classified them and traded with one another. We also purchased sling shots ($8.99) at a woodworking store which was a big hit and a fun souvenir.
My husband’s favorite attraction was Adventure Mountain, a two-acre course where guests walk through a series of cables, platforms, and ropes. Unlike other adventure courses we have tried, this one gives you four options at all times, one of which is a simple bridge to walk over. This means little ones and the family chicken can keep up with the family daredevil. This course is also the first I’ve seen that allows you to back up and try another course if you change your mind, due to a well-developed cable track system. Depending on the tracks you choose, it can take anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour to complete, and my son liked it so much he walked it both days. You’ll need closed toe shoes for this, but Dollywood has some available for your use.
The highlight for me was Dolly’s personal museum Chasing Rainbows, and Dolly fans will not want to miss this. Chasing Rainbows is filled with Dolly’s humble childhood belongings, photographs, and artifacts from her fascinating career. She has worked with everyone in show business and achieved so much in her career and you’ll see pieces from movies, television, recordings and even the coat of many colors Dolly’s mother sewed for her. Dozens of elaborate costumes she has worn over the years are on display, and Dolly has the tiniest little waist! Chasing Rainbows has a variety of interactive exhibits including clips of Dolly explaining what guests are viewing, people who inspire her, and even poking fun at herself and I felt like Dolly was an old friend after the tour. The museum ends with an optional walk-through of Dolly’s old tour bus.
Dollywood offers a variety of rides, but roller coaster fans especially will appreciate the multiple coasters. Our first ride was Thunderhead, a huge wooden coaster with speeds of 55mph. (Insider Tip: If you turn left inside the park you’ll immediately come to Thunderhead). Other coasters include Mystery Mine which has you in the dark, the Tennessee Tornado with a triple spiral and speeds of 70 MPH and the new Wild Eagle, America’s first wing coaster and winner of the Golden Ticket’s Best New Ride. I was terrified to go on this coaster, but six guests insisted it was the smoothest coaster they ever road (and each literally used the word “smooth”). I gave it a try and was glad I did. The Wild Eagle is twenty-one stories high, and you ride beside a track with only air above and below you, feet dangling, so it may be the closest to flying you can get. A harness system secures you against the seat and there is literally no bumping around and everyone was right- this coaster is incredibly smooth.
There are many musical shows to see including country, gospel, and Dolly’s Family Reunion where many of Dolly’s relatives perform. We didn’t choose to see a musical show this visit but did enjoy the Wings of America Show Birds performance, where some of the many non-releasable eagles Dollywood has rescued were on stage. Last year alone, Dollywood released over one hundred eagles born at the park, which is an impressive testament to the care these birds receive.
A coal powered steam engine can take you on a leisurely five-mile ride around the mountain when you are ready for a rest, and Miss Lillian’s Chicken House offered us a delicious lunch served cafeteria style with all you care to eat at a reasonable $13.99 for adults and $7.49 for children. If chicken is not your thing, you’ll find many other choices including a variety of southern favorites. Dollywood typically earns a Golden Ticket award for best food and you’ll find vegetarian and gluten free options. Dollywood does a good job of providing ample shade, seating, and play places for the littlest ones to run around. I was also impressed by the friendly staff. Everyone seems to really enjoy their job, and we learned Dolly herself had been there the weekend prior and appeared in the parades and mingled a bit.
For the holidays Dollywood will string four million lights and add a variety of holiday shows. For the past five years, they have been awarded Best Christmas Event in the Golden Ticket awards, and we plan to return to see it. Now that we’ve seen how close Dollywood is, season passes are on our wish list. My friend has season passes and tells me the fall Gospel and Harvest Celebration and Christmas lights are not to be missed so we’ll have to plan to return and see all Dollywood offers.
Pigeon Forge happened to be hosting the Grand Rod Run this weekend, which is a car show where thousands of muscle and antique cars line the main strips and tens of thousands of fans admire, buy and trade vehicles. We enjoyed poking around, and after looking at the price of some of these cars I could understand why my father kicks himself for selling his 1959 Cadillac El Dorado convertible and why my brother wished he never got rid of his 1969 Mustang Mach 1. My first car was a ’76 Mustang Cobra like Farrah drove in Charlie’s Angels, and I also owned a ’79 Trans Am, both of which would have fit in better than my current Prius!
Saturday night we headed out for dinner theater fun with the Lumberjack Feud Dinner and show. The youngest child in our group was five, and the show kept everyone’s attention. Dinner was chicken and ribs served in fun little picnic boxes, and it was excellent. I was amazed to see how fast those guys can climb up a tree, and plenty of audience participation will have you engaged. Tickets with dinner are $42.95 adults and $19.95 children or see the show only for less. You’ll find discount coupons all over town for this show and others including the town favorite, Dixie Stampede so I suggest you not get tickets in advance.
On Sunday we drove through the Smoky Mountain National Forest which is about 15 minutes from Dollywood, depending on Pigeon Forge traffic. There are numerous ways to see the park including camping, hiking trails and short paths, and even scenic driving loops, and I’d suggest you consider stopping at the Visitor’s Center for a map and custom suggestions from park staff and volunteers. We only took a quick peek that day and headed on to Gatlinburg where our first stop was Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. If you’ve never had the opportunity to visit a world class aquarium, add it to your bucket list. I was spoiled growing up near the New England Aquarium and have visited Portugal’s amazing Oceanário de Lisboa so I was not expecting to be impressed, but this is a great aquarium. More fish live in this aquarium than people live in the town of Gatlinburg! The facility is gorgeous and was designed with children in mind, with small caves and paths that invite curiosity and closer looks.
The Discovery Area offered multiple hands-on exhibits including interactive horseshoe crab and stingray tanks. The museum’s Tropical Rainforest exhibit is excellent, and an underwater tunnel allows you to travel on a moving sidewalk through a tank filled with sawfish, twelve-foot sharks, sea turtles and more. This aquarium is home to permanent penguin exhibit and is dedicated to penguin conservation. At this time of this visit, they were expecting multiple baby penguins. The gate price is $24.95 adults and $5.99 and $11.99 children, but you can find discount coupons around town, and by bundling tickets to your aquarium visit with other Ripley’s attractions. My family loves visiting Ripley’s oddity museums almost too much, and Gatlinburg offers seven Ripley’s attractions to choose from. After the Ripley’s Odditorium, we walked over to Ripley’s Moving Theater and watched two 3-D films that had us laughing and bouncing along in our seats. Next, we visited the Ripley’s Haunted Museum, a walk through exhibit. My seven year old lost her bravery about 30 seconds into it, and an employee quickly led us outside an escape door where the staff did a great job in explaining they were just actors and offered us 2 tickets to enjoy the Ripley Mirror Maze instead. The Maze was a better fit, and she enjoyed laughing her way through just as much as her brother enjoyed being scared at the Haunted Museum! Ripley’s Mirror Maze is fun for all ages and children under four are admitted free with adults.
Johnny Rockets opened this past year in Gatlinburg which is good news for burger and milkshake fans. There are two Johnny Rockets in Providence, RI where I used to live, and they are always voted “ best milkshakes” in reader polls. We could not pass up the opportunity to enjoy the 50’s style restaurant again. Other chains you’ll find in Gatlinburg include The Melting Pot, Mellow Mushroom, and my beloved Dunkin Donuts coffee. The Smoky Mountain area takes pancakes very, very seriously and there must be over a dozen pancake houses on each main strip. Other tourist attractions you’ll find in the area include miniature golf, petting zoos, zip lines, dinner theater, shopping outlets, go carts, laser tag and the Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community, an 8-mile loop featuring over 100 artists and craftspeople. One could easily poke around for a good week or so and still not discover all the area offers, but it was time for us to hit the road and head home. In the car, we discussed our highlights of this trip, and the kids asked if we could move to Tennessee.
Keep the Smoky Mountains, Dollywood and other area attractions in mind as you plan your next adventure. I’m sure you’ll find it offers something for everyone in your group.
Note: Since this writing, Dollywood has added 2 new coasters- Lightning Rod and Fire Chaser and removed the Adventure Mountain course. Additionally, the Dollywood Corporation has purchased Lumberjack Feud, and it is now a dinner theater production called Dolly Parton’s Lumberjack Adventure. We went on to purchase season tickets several times and there is always something new to experience. We’ve stayed in multiple hotels, but our a favorite way to visit this area is to rent a cabin with another family.