Dollywood is now an award-winning theme park. But it wasn’t always thus. When country superstar Dolly Parton took the place over, it was a corny, dilapidated amusement park on the outskirts of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Parton remade the place, but it wasn’t easy. And it all started with a dream Parton had of giving back to her community.
Dollywood: The Dream
“In 1986 we started Dollywood, but I’d been dreaming about that long before,” Parton explained to Vanity Fair. “I used to think early on in my career, ‘If I ever get to be the star I want to be, as successful as I want to be, I want to do something great for my people, back home. And I want to honor my father and mother, as it says in the Bible.’”
“I didn’t leave home because I wasn’t happy there,” Parton added. “I loved the Smoky Mountains and I loved my family, but I wanted to do more.”
Parton came up with the idea for Dollywood based on her own childhood memories. She was a poor child growing up, she said, and a visit to the local county fair was the event of the year for her.
“So I thought, ‘Well, when I can, I would love to go back, and I would love to have a theme park, a place where people can go to have fun,’” Parton said. “’Cause I remember, as little poor children ourselves, you know, even the county fair that we would maybe get to go to every year, for a little bit, that was the greatest thing on Earth.”
The Park Becomes Reality
In Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, about 35 miles southeast of Knoxville, there was an amusement park known as Silver Dollar City. It had previously been a minor tourist attraction called Rebel Railroad, according to Tripster.
Parton worked with the Herschend family, who owned Silver Dollar City, to remake the park.
“Based on what my thoughts and dreams were, we incorporated that, and really have made a multimillion-dollar business through the years,” Parton recounted. “And it’s a park that gives back. Because we have the Dollywood Foundation, where we have the Imagination Library, where we give books to children. From the time they’re born ’til they go to school. We just have all sorts of programs for children, high school students, we have scholarships, we have all sorts of things through that. So we’re not just a park that makes money, money, money.”
The theme park now boasts more than 3,000 employees, making it the largest employer in Sevier County.
For now, the park remains open during the pandemic. But its website these days sports a pointed warning about the risks of contracting Covid-19 from exposure to public places.