By Duane Gordon

Dollymania (Aug. 14, 1999)

With classic Dolly blaring through my CD player, my Ford Escort affectionately known by friends as "The Dollymobile" last Thursday began the nine-hour drive through Meridian, Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Chattanooga to the oasis called Pigeon Forge nestled in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee.

Even though it was night by the time we arrived, my companion wanted to take the "scenic route" road into town, convinced it would shave some time off the trip. Although I knew a winding mountain road would add an hour or so, I obliged. Tip: I found out on a sharp curve that it is very wise to follow the speed limit on those roads! Luckily there wasn't a car coming in the other lane for me to hit when I took one a little too fast.

We finally arrived at the hotel for a rest, to wake early Friday morning to get to Dollywood shortly before it opened. Driving in the gates, my heart fluttered. A Dolly fan all my life, I had never been to this wondrous land which to most Dolly-manians our Mecca. We parked and walked up to the tram with its cute Dollywood-logoed panels for the short ride into the park.

Your first sight is a gorgeous floral butterfly before entering the park itself. When you first walk in, on Showstreet, all you hear is Dolly music playing through speakers disguised as rocks. Beautiful trees line the walkway, flanked by giftshops and crafts. The tree-canopied star walk offers a nice little stroll.

Continuing onward, you see a fountain spurting before the sign denoting Dolly's radio station WDLY, which broadcasts from the park. (It's great to listen to while you're there. They play new and older country and an average of one Dolly song per hour.) The lake in Rivertown Junction provides a glimpse at HUGE catfish and other aquatic life in a small lake. Again, crafts abound with a glass blower, candy makers, hand-carved bats and more. You can take a tour of a replica of the cabin in which the Parton family lived when Dolly was a child, enjoy a snack at Applejack's Deli or ride the rapids on the Rampage.

Continuing on, be sure and stop at Dolly's Museum. The items on display include several costumes from album covers and films, her gold and platinum albums awards from around the world, several other awards she has won, her high school yearbooks, her band uniform, the original laundry tickets on which she wrote "Coat of Many Colors" along with the coat, and you can watch television clips from throughout her career. Below the museum is the Lucky Seven Mine, where many rocks and gems can be purchased. You can even sift your own mine ore to try and find a unique souvenir.

Heading on to Daydream Ridge, you can see the Dollywood Grist Mill and even buy a real buggy to hitch up to your horse at home, if you have a horse. You can enjoy a meal at Miss Lillian's Chicken House or snack on some ice cream. And make a point to ride the Mountain Sidewinder, voted the best non-roller coaster ride in America, although be prepared to get soaked!

Ahead is Craftsman's Valley, where you can watch blacksmiths hammer out red-hot iron, check out someone making lye soap or stop by the Robert F. Thomas Chapel for some quiet time. Then head on to Daredevil Falls, the highest and fastest water ride in the nation, where, again, you'll get soaked as the boats screech down a mountainside at 50 m.p.h. There's also the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, where bald eagles sit perched on logs and tree limbs in the nation's largest presentation of non-releasable bald eagles. Adjacent to the sanctuary is the Wings of America Theater, which shows off birds of prey. There's even a reproduction of an old-time one-room schoolhouse.

Next on the stop is Blazing Fury, a Disney-type theme ride through a burning town on an indoor roller coaster. A big splash of water ends the trip. (This was the only ride I didn't find very exhilarating.)

Finally at the far end of the park, there stands the Tennessee Tornado (even though we went here first), the world's only 360-degree spiroloop roller coaster. (I have no idea what that means, but it was fun!) The ride starts off on a slow incline after you pass through loud wind sounds. Then you plunge down and around and spin! Plummeting straight down 137-foot drop into a pitch black mountain tunnel at 63 m.p.h. gives you the feeling you're floating. Then its back up for the spin of the double "butterfly" 360-degree loops before coasting to a quick stop. It's one of the best coasters I've ever ridden, so we took this one in several times!

Then its back down the valley toward the other end, where you can ride around on the five miles of tack of the Dollywood Express, a real steam engine train. David Tallent has a comedy show there as well as a magic show, and the grand carousel offers a stark contrast to the shrieks on the Tornado. Then walk into the Heartsong Theatre for a treat. The 20-minute show is presented in a unique "nature round" theater with trees and waterfalls on each side of the seating area. The film tells the story through Dolly's songs of her love for and inspiration derived from the Smoky Mountains. As kids frolic in a mountain stream, water shoots up into the audience. As a girl dances to "Love is Like a Butterfly" with a troupe of animated lavender butterflies, recreations of the creatures "fly" about on a track along the trees. Smoke pours along the waterfalls for the morning fog. During a barn dance sequence following "Applejack," the banjo-picker playing Applejack actually comes out to the audience to play along with the film. In the storm scene prior to the riveting "He's Alive," the lights flicker as lightning, and rain falls onto the audience. It's a true multi-sensory presentation.

Just below The Village stands the Country Fair, but that area's mostly for kids, with children's rides, so we didn't stop there.

Jukebox Junction is a treat, a world returned to the 1950s. Vintage cars line the streets, and you can stop for a bite at an old fashioned diner, browse Uncle Bill's Guitar Shop or even waltz through an old-time toy store as you pass The Pines Theatre (where Dolly's brother Randy has a show) and enter Dollywood Boulevard. Here, there's the world's largest Turbo Ride Action Adventure, where you're placed in a film about federal agents chasing a moonshiner. During the car chases on the screen, your seat jerks back and forth and side to side to realistically coincide with the action taking place in the film.

Then its back onto Showstreet, where the show "Paradise Road" is performed in the Celebrity Theatre. This great musical revue takes the viewer from Dolly's childhood in the Smokies to her superstardom, all the way listening to the talented actors performing her greatest songs, from "Tennessee Mountain Home" to "The Seeker" to "9 to 5" to a screen-projected Dolly singing "I Will Always Love You" herself. There's even a hilarious Q&A the "screen" Dolly performs with actors playing tabloid reporters to "I'm The Queen of The Sleazy Tabloids." Along the sides of the stage, great archival footage from her career is broadcast. And the dance sequence and costumes for "Two Doors Down," amid the sparking "DOLLY" logo from her mid-70s television show, alone is entertaining enough to see the show for. So are the great Porter & Dolly scenes.

Well, there's much, much more to see at Dollywood, including the Southern Gospel Hall of Fame and Musuem, other stage shows, many more craftsmen and shops, crafts lessons, other rides and exhibits, but time was running late, so we had to go. Of course, on your way out, you pass through the largest gift shop, The Butterfly Emporium, which features a wide variety of Dolly and Smoky Mountain items as well as a butterfly exhibit (although I didn't see any butterflies in there when I stopped by).

On Saturday, we drove down to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. America's most popular national park, with more than 10 million visitors annually, it holds spectacular views of the lush mountains and valleys. On the way in, we also stopped in Gatlinburg to eat, look in a few shops and tour the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum.

In the national park, we hiked down a trail and found a secluded area to catch a private swim in one of the FREEZING mountain streams. We stopped to admire the sights of the mountain tops. We even made a stop at the adjoining Cherokee reservation on the North Carolina side. Late in the day, we made the very difficult half-mile trek on a 45-degree angle up Clingman's Dome, at 6,642 feet the highest point in Tennessee and second-highest site east of the Mississippi, to catch a beautiful sunset over the peaks of the cloud-draped Smokies and rest in the cool low-50s air.

On Sunday, we drove out to Sevierville to see the statue of Dolly on the lawn of the county courthouse before heading home. We thought about staying another day to return to Dollywood, but we knew we needed to get back to Mississippi. However, I know we'll return soon for another glorious time in Dolly's land!