Dollywood launches new season Roller coaster debuts, tree house to follow

April 17, 1999

By Terry Morrow, News-Sentinel entertainment writer

PIGEON FORGE -- With a new Southern Gospel Hall of Fame and roller coaster debuting today at Dollywood, Dolly Parton is on to her next dream, building a giant tree house.

A $4 million tree house, taking up three acres and being held up by four posts made to look like trees, will debut at Dollywood next season, Jack Herschend, the Branson businessman who co-owns Dollywood with Parton, said Friday.

The structure will be able to accommodate 1,000 guests at a time and include children's games, "water elements, softballs ... and some musical things that kids can learn from," he said.

Like other Dollywood attractions, the tree house, part of Dollywood's latest five-year plan, is based on a concept from Parton.

"Dolly has always had a tree house everywhere she has lived," Herschend said.

Dollywood has 300 acres, "a rough piece of property," Herschend says, that is undeveloped to date. Parton told the media that Dollywood's long-range plans include creating "new sections of the park, like they have at Disneyland."

Parton's partner was among the crowd of onlookers and reporters attending Dollywood's annual media day Friday.

The theme park, the most popular in Tennessee, opens for its 14th season at 9 a.m. today.

Before the season ends, close to 2.3 million visitors are expected to pass through its turnstiles. Since opening in 1986, Dollywood has had more than 20 million visitors. Its season runs from mid-April to the end of December.

Parton traditionally visits Dollywood for media day and during opening weekend to spark a large opening turnout. Close to 12,000 guests attended opening day in 1998 despite area flooding.

Dollywood officials estimated 35,000 spectators on Friday night showed up for the Pigeon Forge parade in Parton's honor.

During a press conference, Parton quipped that the curves in the new $8 million Tennessee Tornado roller coaster is based on her world-famous figure. While talking about its 360-degree spirals, she stuck out her chest and declared: "They called them 'loops' now. I guess it's all right. They've called them everything else."

Other Dolly-isms from media day:

* Parton dismissed the notion that Hollywood may have a bias against her idea for a situation comedy with gospel music and religious overtones. "It just hasn't been the time," she says.

"When it is time for me to have a gospel series .. it will happen in God's own time."

Parton said she will star in a CBS movie next year based on her idea called "Heavens to Betsy," in which she'll play a singer who gets a second chance to do good deeds after an accident.

* Parton recalled that her Tennessee Tornado ride is partly based on an incident from her childhood when a storm swept by her family's home. "As it was coming, Mama told us kids, 'Let's pretend a tornado is coming to the house,' and we turned over the couch and got under it and prayed," Parton said. "(Mama) made it a little game so we wouldn't be scared.

"Sure enough, (the storm) came through. We were OK, but it tore up everything but our house."