I spent last weekend running around Dollywood, the amusement park created by country singer Dolly Parton. In addition to having a ton of fun, I learned a ton when I was there—not just about Parton, but about the area, too. Here's a sampling.
1. Dollywood is in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, which was named for an iron forge owned by Isaac Love in the 1820s. The forge, in turn, was named for the Little Pigeon River, which got its name from the flocks of passenger pigeons that used to live in the area (the birds are now extinct).
2. The park wasn't always Dollywood. It originally opened in 1961 as a small tourist attraction called Rebel Railroad. In 1970, it was purchased by Art Modell—then owner of the NFL's Cleveland Browns—and renamed Goldrush Junction. Herschend Enterprises bought the park in 1976, and renamed it Silver Dollar City. Ten years later, when Parton came on board, the park was dubbed Dollywood. (You can see the first visitor's guide at the Dollywood Facebook page.) "I always thought that if I made it big or got successful at what I had started out to do, that I wanted to come back to my part of the country and do something great, something that would bring a lot of jobs into this area," she said when Dollywood celebrated its 25th operating season in 2010. The park is the #1 employer in Sevier County
3. The park is located on 150 acres near Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and is themed around the history of the Smokys, life there, and preservation of the mountains. There's even a "multi-sensory musical experience" dedicated to the area, called Heartsong.
4. On some of the days soon after its May 1986 opening, traffic to get into Dollywood stretched for six miles down U.S. 441. The park had its one millionth visitor just five months after opening; during the first season, it had 1.34 million visitors. (These days, Dollywood has 2.5 million visitors annually.)
5. Dolly grew up in Sevierville, Tennessee, the fourth of 12 siblings. "We had two rooms, a path, and running water, if you were willing to run to get it," she once said. There's a replica of the two-room cabin at Dollywood, filled with many authentic items from her old home. The cabin was built by Parton's brother, and her mother helped recreate the interior. The original cabin still stands.
6. There's a museum called Chasing Rainbows, devoted to Dolly's life, in the park; it features replicas of the room where she went to school, items from her childhood, costumes from her movies and performances, the numerous awards she's won, and walls upon walls of photos of the entertainer with actors, musicians, and presidents—many of them signed. (Former Home Improvement star Jonathan Taylor Thomas wrote on his photo with Dolly, "It was an honor meeting you. You are so very special! Love, Jonathan.")
7. In 1973, a chapel was built in the park and named for Sevier County doctor Robert F. Thomas—the very same doctor who delivered Dolly. (Parton's father, a tobacco farmer, paid Thomas with a bag of oatmeal.)
8. Dollywood has a total of 27 rides. Seven of them are rollercoasters and four of them are water rides. Unfortunately, Dolly can't go on many of them—she suffers from motion sickness! "My daddy used to say, 'I could never be a sailor. I could never be a miner. I could never be a pilot,'" Parton once said. "I am the same way. I have motion sickness. I could never ride some of these rides. I used to get sick on the school bus."
9. You can't bring your pups into Dollywood (unless they're service animals), but you can leave them at Doggywood.
10. Dollywood hosts a number of festivals, including one devoted to BBQ and bluegrass, Great American Summer, National Southern Gospel & Harvest Celebration, the Festival of Nations, and Smoky Mountain Christmas. During last year's Smoky Mountain Christmas, the park put on Dollywood's A Christmas Carol, which featured a hologram of Parton as the Ghost of Christmas Past. “When they told me they were going to make a hologram out of me, I thought they were crazy,” Parton said. “But when I saw how real it looked on stage, I couldn’t believe it. I’m not sure this world can handle two Dolly Partons, but I’m excited folks will be able to see ‘the other Dolly’ reminding families that it’s not what you have but who you have, just like ole Scrooge figures out in the end.”
11. Though it was built fairly recently (in the early 1980s), the park's grist mill operates just as one would have in the 1880s—and it was constructed that way, too. According to the Dollywood website, "The roof shingles were split by hand, and all the door hardware was created onsite by the park’s blacksmiths. The structure’s round logs were hewed by hand in front of the building site with holes drilled in the logs by hand using different size augers. The architectural shingles on the side of the building and all lumber were milled at the park’s sawmill ... The window panes were made by the park’s glassblowers, and each window frame was made onsite using steam engine power to operate the five-in-one machine which is now located in the Valley Carriage Works wagon shop." Construction took six months; these days, the mill grinds corn and wheat into flour every day.
12. Dollywood has a number of bald eagles—deemed "non-releasable" because they wouldn't be able to survive in the wild on their own—and a few other birds, including an owl and a raven that has toys in its enclosure. (They're smart!).