Hooray for Dollywood!

Sick of Smoky Bars? Try the Smoky Mountains

By Dan Matthews

OUT Magazine (July 1999)

"Did y'all see Dolly float by on that cloud?" asked the gal behind the counter of the Hillbilly Village Gift Shop. "We see her all the time 'round these parts. I could take you to her house right now if I wanted." My eyes grew wide. "Of course, there's a big gate, and it'd be locked," she added. The gum-chewing check-out girl tried to play it cool, but listening to her, you would have thought that she was claiming multiple sightings of the Virgin Mary, not Dolly Parton.

In Pigeon Forge, Tenn., the two are almost equally revered, especially in the spring when the singer comes home to open Dollywood, a sort of Disneyland in the Smokies. Nothing could keep me away from the opening weekend extravaganza. And since I work at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals headquarters in Virginia, it's just a nine-hour trip to my Festiva. The motels in the "Capital of Homespun Fun" are as cheap as they are cute. You can get a room for $30, but my beau, Richard, and I splurged for the Homestead House, where a fancy room with a canopy bed, fireplace and balcony overlooking a creek costs just $99. And they didn't much as lift an eyebrow when we two dudes asked for just one bed.

We barely unpacked before rushing down to "Dolly's Route," where gaggles of wind-bonneted grandmas were jockeying for position in eager anticipation. The parade for "Sevier County's favorite daughter" featured marching bands, majorettes twirling flaming batons and a "drug-free clown troupe." Then down Pigeon Forge Parkway rolled the cloud that carried our favorite honky-tonk angel. "Howdy!" Dolly hollered, amid deafening shrieks, paying special attention to a cluster of excited queens waving roses. "Throw 'em!" Dolly yelped, but the nervous Nellies from Knoxville couldn't pull a pitch together before the star drifted down and out of range.

Dolly's heavenly cloud was barely out of sight before a sinister storm approached: antigay crusader Anita Bryant, straddling the hood of a convertible and touting the opening of her gospel show at a nearby theater. My head spun faster than a lazy Susan in a Thanksgiving episode of "Eight is Enough." "Oh, no. What are you going to do?" Richard asked. "You mean, what are we going to do?" I corrected before bellowing, "Hey, Anita!" The former orange juice shill looked right at us as we smooched before God, country and the stunned Southern Baptists around us. Glancing back, mid-lip lock, I saw the hand that had been waving now covering her gaping mouth.

Our spirits high, we entered the park, sprinting through the stampede to the "Tennessee Tornado," a new roller coaster with double 360-degree spirals that Dolly declares are based on her figure. The inaugural run was reserved for 30 Parton impersonators (all but one of whom returned with wig in place), but we weren't far behind. Later, when it started sprinkling, we sought refuge in the Heartsong Theatre, where, via a 20-minute musical movie, Dolly takes visitors on a fantasy trip, and I mean trip, through the local sights and sounds that inspire her music. As a little girl danced in the grass to the delicate strains of "Love is Like a Butterfly," big mechanical butterflies fanned out over the audience. In the storm sequence for the gospel rave-up "He's Alive," the audience is misted with water. And during "God's Coloring Book," as children wandering on a hillside marvel at the colors in everything around them, it struck me that, if you loosen up a little, you can enjoy the most twisted times in the straightest environments.

Dollywood (423-428-9488 or www.dollywood.com) is open through October and on selected weekends through Christmas.

Copyright 1999 Out Publishing Inc.