Pros: A big park with loads of stuff to do and see.
Cons: Sometimes smaller is cozier.
Dollywood has been my amusement park stomping grounds for many years. Ive always loved Dolly and her music, and I live about 4 hours from her park. Though Carowinds (on the NC/SC border) is a bit closer, Ive always liked Dollywood better. It is (or was) a friendlier style parkmore like typical southern fare.
Initially, Dollywood was a small park in Dollys hometown providing jobs for locals. When the park opened, Pigeon Forge was a sleepy little mountain town with a few motels and a couple of restaurants. The touristy area was Gatlinburg about a half hour east. Now, Pigeon Forge is the hot area in the Smoky Mountains on the edge of NC over the TN line. Townsend (a little farther west) is a bit calmer, but it is building up really fast too.
Really, I liked the park better when it was small than today with all the up-to-date improvements. I have to go with Jimmy Buffett on this and say that I dont want a 10 pound Nestles Crunch bar. Give me my Junior Mints. Back in the day (dont you hate when someone says that), you could drop by Dollywood and stay a few hours. They had home cooked fries, craft displays (like local quilts) and good shows. The Dolly museum back in the rocks was fun, and they had enough rides to keep kids busy for a while. It was a nice day trip.
Now, it really is a good idea to plan ahead for a big trip to Dollywood the mega park. Its not quite up to Disney World, but it sure rivals the biggest and best parks around. Youll really want to go to the site at www.dollywood.com and case out the park and plan ahead. In fact, you can buy the tickets ahead if you want to. I would not suggest that though, because mountain weather is always iffie at best. At the very least, print out the map at dollywood.com if you think you will visit. If you drop in now, then you will probably be disappointed. This is not a quick stop these days.
The current prices reflect the upgrades. Plan on about $40 each for entry or $60 with the park and water park. That varies by age and with group rates and such. If you are active duty military, then be sure to ask for the discount at the front ticket booth and have your ID ready. Thats about the only break youll get on the cost.
Bring lots more money with you over and above the entrance costs. Parking will go $6 unless you drive an oversized like an RV, which is $9. Food is high. When the boys and I ate last time, it was about $35 for hot dogs, fries and drinks. The fries are certainly not hand cut these days. These were frozen items heated up and not very good to be honest. The buffet is a better bet with kids free for breakfast. They do have some kids meals at around $4 each at some of the restaurants. Be sure to check which ones though. They usually have a moon pie for dessert, which my boys wont touch. We just look around for some big older man who will like those. The souvenirs are typical, but you can get similar items outside the park with better quality and lower prices.
A good money saving tip is to go after 3 pm the day before you really want to do the park. You can get tickets for the next day on the late pass at Dollywood. If you dont get enough the first day, you can also get a second day pass for $15 or so. You need to do that as you are leaving.
One plus is that you can write checks at Dollywood. You need an ID of course, but you can write a check. They also take credit cards and have ATMs. If you get in the spending mood, they will be glad to help you figure out how to get some money. Places are getting slick to that these days.
The music shows are the highlight at Dollywood. Its a good idea to check out when and where the shows are and to plan around the ones you want to see. Some feature Dollys relatives and some local kids with talent. The 50s themed show is my favorite of the productions. The patriotic show with Dollys brother was OK, but I would probably skip it next go round. The shows run about an hour, so you miss a lot of the park if you see all the shows. Be selective.
On the rides, they have added a lot in recent years. The big addition is in the water park area. Really, I dont know why parks add all those water rides and especially in the mountains. Its not all that warm in TN though it can get hot at times. Often it rains in spurts and can go from hot to cold in a flash. It can also go foggy quick as a wink. You can see fine one minute and then be cutting a path the next. Be sure to check your lights when you park, because you can drive in bad conditions and hit the sun and not remember that the lights are on. I know, because I did that. One nice thing about southerners is that they will tell you things like that. Someone yelled Hey lady and told me about the lights. They have help and jumper cables for those who are not so lucky.
If you want to get wet and wild, then check the rules about that. You need to have a swimming suit and then need to rent a locker and change back. They dont allow any buckles on your swimsuit and glasses must have a headband and various things like that. You will look like a really bad parent if you take your kids and then cant use the water rides because you didnt bring the right stuff. Kids love water rides even if parents may not. Im still not sure what is so great about being soggy, but it does seem to sell tickets.
There are some water rides in the main park. Dont ride the water rides before the shows. I did that last time, and I had wet underwear during a show in air conditioning. I about froze and didnt enjoy the show near as much as I would have if I had been dry. One thing I learned is NOT to wear denim material, which takes forever to dry and not to wear socks, which also take forever to dry. Going naked would probably be the best bet, but they have rules on clothing. Dont show up with something obscene on your shirt or with your buttons less than 2/3 up to the top. You will be sent home if you do. Also, dont ride a water ride before getting on the carousel. It has really nice carved horses, and they dont let you on if you are dripping.
One thing I always hit is the museum in the rocks, which I remember from the early days. They have ladies in hoop skirts taking you to the entrance, and they will snap your picture outside in front of the rocks if you ask. You see all kinds of neat Dolly items and some videos. I always enjoy seeing all the Dolly costumes. She does know how to light up a room with sequins.
Another good break when youre exhausted (and you will be on rolling ground) is the train. I always love trains. They put some plastic animals out in the woods on the train tour now, which is kind of tacky looking. Then again, Dolly does like fake eyelashes and big hair. Just dont take pictures of plastic animals, because you can see all kinds of real ones in the area if you get outside the tourist belt.
My idea of a vacation is going out where it is quiet. Though you can stay right in Pigeon Forge near Dollywood, there are lots of neat cabins in the area, which are inexpensive. If you are interested in renting a private house or cabin in the area, then check out my review on North Carolina rentals http://www.epinions.com/content_67704557188 The same by-owner service offers rentals in TN as well, but the NC rentals tend to be less expensive. Most of those rent for a full week at a time, so youll need to plan a full vacation in the Smokies.
Do watch out for the people who will catch you in front of restaurants and shopping centers in Pigeon Forge and try to get you to visit the time-shares. They will tell you that you get free Dollywood tickets and things like that for an hour of your time. The tours really run more like 3 hours and are very hard sell. Time-shares in the area go begging and are not a good idea. Some of those are listed on the cabin rental site, but most are legitimate houses owned by part-time residents.
If you have small children, then you might prefer Ghost Town in the Sky on the park scene. Its a smaller parkmore like Dollywood in the early days. My review on Ghost Town (located in Maggie Valley, NC) is at http://www.epinions.com/content_66425949828 You can also drive to Dollywood from Maggie Valley. In addition to the cabins scattered around Maggie Valley, I would highly recommend Jonathan Creek Inn in Maggie Valley. JCI is right on the river and has an indoor pool. Its a very pretty, clean, and friendly place to stay. Thats where I jumped off to Dollywood last time. It doesnt work out for the after 3 pm ticket and the next day free, but it is quiet and close to the loud and rowdy areas in NC and TN.
Dollywood is a special trip for active travelers. Its a big park with loads to see and do. If you enjoy the all-day parks, then this is a good one. I would suggest looking at 2 days at the park (at least). Check out the Dollywood site and plan what you want to do while visiting. If you stumble in, then you will miss a lot of things that you might enjoy if you checked beforehand.
Visiting Dollywood . . . drive over the border to NC and see these neat places in the mtns of the TarHeel state.
Mt Mitchell State Park
Pisgah National Forest
New River State Park
Hanging Rock State Park
Ghost Town in the Sky
Tweetsie Railroad Theme Park