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Why to visit Dollywood, America’s coolest theme park

Simon Calder’s Travel

Topping up my plastic cowboy boot-shaped cup with yet another glug of sweet tea, the server is curious about my accent. “You’re from England?” he hazards a guess, raising an eyebrow. “That makes sense. We’re getting a lot more Brits coming to the Smokies. They mostly come for Dolly”, he concludes with a deep Southern twang, dropping a glistening rotisserie chicken onto my plate. All around, the arena jostles with 1,000 Parton fans squeezed thigh-to-thigh onto wooden benches, hungry for both the boot-stomping entertainment and the four-course barbecue feast currently being dished out.

I’m dining at Dolly Parton’s Stampede Dinner Attraction in Pigeon Forge, a Wild West extravaganza involving star-spangled cowgirls on horseback leaping fearlessly through blazing rings of fire, quirky comedy skits, glitzy stage numbers, and, slightly bizarrely, a nail-biting race between two miniature piglets wearing tiny colourful jackets – which just happens to coincide with the serving of the hickory smoked pork loin course.

This rootin’, tootin’ riot of a dinner attraction forms part of musician Parton’s ‘Dollyverse’, an extensive entertainment portfolio that encompasses themed supper shows and the family-focused Dollywood DreamMore Resort hotel complex, situated in the Great Smoky Mountains, around 30 miles from Knoxville. But the headline act around here is really Dollywood, Parton’s Appalachian-flavoured theme park that opened in 1986. Tucked into the foothills of the ancient mountainous landscape where the Tennessee Songbird was raised, near the gateway to the natural wonders of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Dollywood attracts a staggering three million visitors a year.

A little white chapel at Dollywood

(Robert F Thomas)

This year, that number looks set to rise further still, following the recent opening of Dollywood’s HeartSong Lodge & Resort, a 302-room cabin-chic hotel that brings a touch of luxury to the Smokies. Within the Dollywood theme park itself, there’s also a bedazzlement of new attractions, including the unveiling of Big Bear Mountain, its longest rollercoaster. In May 2024, the Dolly Parton Experience, an interactive museum showcasing Parton’s razzle-dazzle life story, is also due to swing open its doors.

The following morning, I drive back through the kitschy holiday town delights of…

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