Hello, Dollywood: Fourteen years ago, Dolly Parton unveiled plans for a theme
park as grand and showy as the star herself.
Encore Column (July 16, 1999)
by Josh Wolk
With her towering wigs, harlequin makeup, and, of course, always-accentuated
twin trademarks, Dolly Parton has never been one for understatement. So when
the country star decided to commemorate her down-home upbringing, you knew
she wasn't just going to mount a plaque.
Still, even Parton's faithful were surprised when she announced, on July 22,
1985, plans for a theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., to be called (what
The planned park was ambitious in scope. Country stars had long been known
for plastering their names on self-aggrandizing museums or restaurants
(Johnny's House of Cash and Twitty City, both in Nashville, to name but two).
But Dollywood, which officially opened for business the following May, was on
a whole different scale. Spread over 400 acres, Dollywood's attractions
included a museum featuring her handwritten lyric sheets and childhood
corncob dolls; a restaurant called Aunt Granny's Dixie Fixin's, after her
nieces and nephews' nickname for her; and a replica of the log cabin in which
Parton and her 11 siblings grew up. For added authenticity, Dolly employed
real Partons: Members of her family staged a musical revue, and her mother
and oldest sister decorated the reproduced cabin (built by Parton's brother).
Though cynics wondered how much interest there'd be in such a one-note
enterprise, Parton confidently sank $6 million of her own money into the
park's construction. "My family was supportive and thought it was a great
idea," says Parton, 53. "But my accountants, they thought it was a very bad
idea." They needn't have worried. Tourists flocked to the hokey-but-homey
extravaganza. In its first season, Dollywood attracted 1.3 million visitors.
Through the years, a number of popular features were added, including a bald
eagle sanctuary, a radio station, and the $8 million Tennessee Tornado roller
coaster. This year, attendance will hit 2.2 million, and by one estimate,
Dollywood pulls in over $30 million a year in profits.
Yet its success has irked some Nashville purists. With country music enjoying
more mainstream exposure, many are unhappy to see the crass flaunting of
Dollywood's backwoods charm. "The industry is torn between its hoedown
Southern roots and its L.A. and New York sophistication," says country
historian Bruce Feiler.
None of that fazes Parton, who's taken the park's success as a charge to set
her sights even higher. While efforts to erect a park in Japan fell through,
she still hopes for EuroDollywood...and beyond. "You know how big I dream,"
she says. "Today Pigeon Forge, tomorrow the world!"