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Dollywood: celebrating nearly 30 years

NONE Andrew Mellor takes a closer look at one of the most celebrated theme parks in the US.

Situated near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Pigeon Forge, Tenessee, Dollywood's roots go back to 1961 when the venue opened up as a small American Civil War themed tourist attraction known as Rebel Railroad.

The late 1960s saw the property change names to Goldrush Junction and the Civil War theme switched to a Wild West theme.

The attraction was purchased in 1970 by the owner of the then Cleveland Browns football team and now owner of the Baltimore Ravens, Art Modell, and the park was developed further with the addition of a log flume and a number of smaller rides.

In 1976, Jack and Peter Herschend from Branson, Missouri, acquired the park and the following year changed the name again from Goldrush Junction to Silver Dollar City Tennessee, taking it on as a sister park to their original Silver Dollar City site in Branson.

They invested significantly in renovating and transforming the park into a showcase for the Smoky Mountain culture and craftsmanship and the venue saw much growth during this period, along with increased attendance.

It was in 1986 that Dolly Parton partnered with the Herschends in the park and, began its redevelopment as Dollywood. The partnership that began nearly 28 years ago remains as strong as ever.

Since 1986, the site has doubled in size to 150 acres and currently features 10 themed areas -Showstreet, Timber Canyon, Wilderness Pass, Craftsman's Valley, Owens Farm, Rivertown Junction, The Village, Country Fair, Jukebox Junction and Adventures in Imagination.

The park is highly themed on the Smoky Mountain's history and preservation and key attractions include daily demonstrations of turn-of-the-century crafts, one-of-a-kind rides and, not surprisingly, award winning live entertainment.

In addition, the food offering is another major element of the park's overall offering.

Of the various areas that make up the park, the Showstreet, Rivertown Junction, Country Fair, Craftsmen's Valley, Jukebox Junction and Timber Canyon sections reflects the historical eras and culture of east Tennessee.

Adventures in Imagination and Dreamland Forest take a look at Dolly Parton's life and imagination, while many of the park's other attractions focus on the history and culture of the surrounding area, the Southern Appalachian region.

The park's spectacular setting provides an excellent backdrop for the wide range of rides and attractions.

Major roller coasters, water rides, family rides and kiddie rides mingle with one-of-a-kind attractions that place guests right in the heart of the Smoky Mountains way of life.

The latest addition to the ride arsenal is set to open this year in the shape of the Wild Eagle, a winged coaster from Swiss manufacturer Bolliger and Mabillard and the park's largest single investment to date.

With a track length of 3,127ft, a maximum height of 210ft and a first drop of 135ft, the new thriller is located in the Wilderness Pass area and has added yet another type of ride experience to the already impressive selection.

Accompanying attractions in this area include the Adventure Mountain obstacle/ropes course, with four different courses offering differing levels of difficulty and challenge, and the River Battle, the first Splash Battle ride in the US built by Mack.

Also new for 2011 was the Barnstormer, from S&S Worldwide, in the Owens Farm area, a $5.5m investment which sees up to 32 riders seated back to back on one of two pendulum arms that swing up to a height of 81ft back and forth.

And all found in a big red barn themed setting. The Barnstormer sits adjacent to one of Dollywood's most unique rides, the Mountain Slidewinder. A water-boggan ride designed and built in house, it opened in 1989 and remains one of the highest rated theme park water attractions in the world.  

Also among the major rides available are the Tennessee Tornado steel coaster, built by Arrow Dynamics in 1999, the Daredevil Falls super flume from OD Hopkins, which opened in 1998, the Thunderhead wooden coaster from GCI, Mystery Mine, a highly themed indoor/outdoor Gerstlauer Euro-Fighter coaster, the Dizzy Disk from Zamperla, the Sky Rider from Chance and the Smoky Mountain River Rampage, also designed and built by Dollywood.

Younger visitors are also well catered for with a wide range of rides and attractions, some of these being Lil' Pilots Playground, Amazing Flying Elephants, Beaver Creek, Beaver Creek Float Boat, Busy Bees, Lucky Ducky, Lil' Loggers Landing, Piggy Parade and the Shooting Star.

And also on offer for young adventurers is Camp Teachittoomee where Adventure Mountain's youngest visitors become 'ranger recruits' and along the way feel a grown-up sense of achievement as they challenge a collection of ground-based experiences scaled precisely for them.

As mentioned, live entertainment is a major part of the Dollywood offering and numerous shows are held each day covering a host of musical genre.

Just a few of these include Country Crossroads, Dolly's Family Reunion, Dreamland Drive In and the Smoky Mountain String Band, complemented by a variety of individual performers and street entertainment, all found in the various areas of the park.

The park also hosts four annual festivals - the Dollywood Festival of Nations, KidsFest, National Gospel and Harvest Celebration and the Smoky Mountain Christmas, when the park is transformed into a festive wonderland with millions of lights and Christmas decorations and special live shows.

F&B is also a key aspect of a visit and much is made of the 'southern cooking' provided for visitors who can choose from a wide range of eating outlets, from full service dining to fast food locations, including food fresh from the Big Skillet.

Other outlets include such wonderfully named options as Aunt Granny's All-You-Care-To-Eat Buffet, Granny Ogle's Ham 'n' Beans, the Hickory House Campfire Cookout and the Sausage Works, to name but a few.

But there is a great deal more to Dollywood too, which makes the park such a special and unique place. Park publicity notes that Dollywood is the 'home of the Smoky Mountain family adventure, where wonder lives for kids of all ages through rides and attractions in a setting that captures and celebrates the traditions of the mountains,' a claim borne out in many of the non-mechanical attractions and other facilities available.

Among these is the Grist Mill, built exactly as it would have been in the 1880s and the first fully operational grist mill built in Tennessee in more than 100 years when it was built over 25 years ago at the time the park was still Silver Dollar City.

Park employees constructed the building which continues to be a fully operating mill where corn and wheat are ground into flour daily and made available to guests.

The Adventures in Imagination area opened in 2002 and includes a state-of-the-art museum called Chasing Rainbows. This features interactive and behind the scenes collections, stories and memorabilia from Dolly Parton's life and career, with visitors being able to view costumes from her movie career including 9 to 5 and Straight Talk, as well as many of her lavish gowns worn during numerous concerts and other events. Awards, plaques and gold and platinum records are also on display.

The Eagle Complex is a five part complex showcasing the American Bald eagle and incorporates the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, the Wings of America theatre, featuring a birds of prey show, a birds of prey viewing facility, and an eagle breeding and rehabilitation facility, which also includes an eagle medical clinic and nursery not open to the public.

The Southern Gospel Music Museum and Hall of Fame is another non-ride based attraction within the park, as are the Friendship Gardens which showcase Dollywood's natural beauty, a trademark of the Great Smoky Mountains which continues the tradition of the surrounding area.

The history of the area is also highlighted in another element within the park, namely the two Baldwin, coal fired steam trains, Klondike Katie and Cinderella, built in 1943 and 1939 respectively.

Both have interesting histories and today work for the Dollywood Express where they take guests on a scenic five mile journey through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, providing a gentile break from the thrills and excitement offered in other areas of the park.

As well as the 'dry' park, 2001 saw the opening of Dolly's Splash Country waterpark, a 25-acre facility built adjacent to Dollywood's parking lot and available for a separate admission price to the main park.

Our available space here does not allow us to do real justice to the plethora of entertainment, attractions and facilities on offer at Dollywood, suffice to say that the park clearly 'has it all' in every department.

After investing more than $250ms, the Dollywood franchise has grown to include the waterpark, the Dixie Stampede dinner theatres and the Southern Gospel Music Museum and Hall of Fame.

Dollywood also continues to give back to the community, not only via the salaries of the workers, but to various local charities, including the Dollywood Foundation, Dolly's Imagination Library and the American Eagle Foundation.

In 2010, when speaking about the 25th anniversary of the park, Dolly said that she would like to open more Dollywoods across the country devoted to the local culture of the specific area.

So it remains to be seen if other towns and areas around the country will at some point also benefit from a Dolly Parton inspired entertainment facility.