I still experience a unique sensation of childlike glee whenever I’m in proximity to a Tilt-A-Whirl or a terrifying dinosaur arch of a roller coaster peeking over the horizon.
THERE'S NO ESCAPING DOLLY PARTON. This is what I’m thinking as my boyfriend steers our rental car through the butterfly-clad gates of Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa. Along the winding road leading up to the stately resort, one can read a series of inspirational placards with motivational Dolly-isms: “Who’s not afraid to fly and not afraid to try!” Upon entering the resort proper, one is never more than a few feet away from an image of Dolly, the sound of her sweet singing voice, or some Dolly-themed merchandise. Were it any other celebrity, this level of ubiquitous branding would feel oppressive, but given that it’s Dolly Parton — one of the most genteel and enduringly good-natured people on the planet — this sudden immersion feels like stepping into a warm bath. Among the many gifts she has given us — “Jolene,” “9 to 5,” the actual Moderna vaccine — this resort and its two attendant theme parks are among the most fascinating. Tucked away in the Great Smoky Mountains in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, near her childhood hometown, Dolly’s themed attractions — Dollywood, Dollywood’s Splash Country, the DreamMore Resort, and a variety of wildly-themed dinner theater experiences — are among the most beloved amusement parks in the U.S. Families from all over the country flock to Dollywood every year to ride the roller coasters, eat some of the singer’s signature cinnamon bread, and let their children experience the kind of wholesome country life that is now largely left to myth. These are the same reasons I’ve come to Dollywood, minus the kids.
I should mention that this is not my first time at the amusement park rodeo. Even though I like to fancy myself a fairly erudite traveler — a person known to seek out the bespoke boutique hotels, the Michelin stars, and all things opposite of overhyped, commercialized, or tourist-friendly — I also own my nearly psychotic love for roller coasters, thrill rides, and haunted houses. It’s hard to say exactly where this fascination comes from, but I suspect it was born out of scarcity. As a kid growing up in rural Oklahoma, the nearest amusement park was two hours away and was a place we rarely got to visit. Aside from the occasional traveling carnival that would pop up in the parking lot of a local Walmart, or our annual town fair — whose most thrilling ride was an ancient Ferris wheel — world-class amusement parks were the stuff of fantasy.
As a person with no children and a certain amount of disposable income, I have come to realize that much of my adult life has been spent trying to sate my long-simmering childhood wants. I now live in New York City, own a troubling number of vinyl records and pairs of shoes, and spend a lot of my free time seeking out theme parks, water slides, and haunted Halloween attractions. As someone who has been fortunate to travel the world and traipse through the finest museums, I still experience a unique sensation of childlike glee whenever I’m in proximity to a Tilt-A-Whirl or a terrifying dinosaur arch of a roller coaster peeking over the horizon. In my experience, all of these pleasures need not be mutually exclusive.
So how does one balance the desire for a luxurious getaway with the need to be potentially whiplashed on high-speed scare machines? It’s all about planning. Dollywood is, without question, one of the most beautiful amusement parks I’ve ever visited. Each ride and excursion is carefully curated and uniquely branded. The park itself is Dolly Parton’s persona writ large — her life, her image (for sale on literally everything imaginable), her favorite foods, her music (playing everywhere), and, if you’re interested, a life-sized replica of Dolly’s childhood mountain home.
Given that we have three days in Pigeon Forge, we opt to divide up our time, spending one day at the waterpark testing out the slides, and two days roaming around Dollywood. A full day in any amusement park — even without children to keep up with — is completely exhausting, especially in the middle of Tennessee summer. Rather than burn out trying to do everything in one day, we balanced half-days in the parks with time spent cruising through the Smoky Mountains and seeking out less kid-friendly fare. Having spent half of our first day floating the Downbound Float Trip at Splash Country, we opted for dinner at the Dancing Bear Lodge in nearby Townsend. Tucked away in the hills near Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the lodge’s Appalachian Bistro offers a luxurious farm-to-table dining experience that highlights dishes and ingredients from the surrounding region (seared rainbow trout, soy-braised pork), served up in an idyllic mountain setting. After enjoying what would be the finest meal of our entire trip, we ended our night with a drink outside the lodge beside a perfectly built bonfire, the air illuminated by a million fireflies.
One of the things that you must reckon with if you love thrill rides is that, like it or not, amusement parks are largely meant for children. No matter when you go, children are likely to be present. Lots of them. If you aren’t used to chilling around kids, this can make amusement parks rough going. That said, being childless in the park does have its advantages. Given the price of admission to parks like Dollywood, showing up with a big family is a fairly expensive proposition, even before food, drinks, merchandise, and the various ticket add-ons offered. As a person rolling sans kids, it’s not only easier to navigate the park more quickly (the Dollywood app helped make sure we were always moving in the right direction), but it also makes the cost of priority tickets and experiences feel a lot more manageable. Whether it’s Dollywood, Universal Studios, Six Flags Great Adventure, or one of the Disney behemoths, almost every amusement park has some version of a fast pass or a higher-priced ticket add-on that allows you to skip the long lines and manage your time more efficiently. At Dollywood’s Splash Country, the TimeSaver H20 fast pass comes in the form of a digital wristband that vibrates to alert you when it’s your turn to jump on those slides you pre-selected; at Dollywood the TimeSaver fast-pass option comes in the form of a lanyard worn around your neck, giving you instant access to shorter (or often nonexistent) lines to all of the park’s most popular attractions. For us, this meant not only getting to ride every one of the park’s big coasters multiple times, but also managing to squeeze in one last jaunt on the Mystery Mine (a ride that includes intense vertical drops and actual flames shooting at your face) before heading over to Craftsman’s Valley. This section of the park is dedicated to artisans like candlemakers, leather workers, and metalsmiths. Our own personal glass-blowing lesson yielded us our very own, surprisingly lovely glass ornaments that we made in less than half an hour. These were then conveniently shipped directly to our home in Brooklyn, which meant we didn’t have to worry about breaking them while sprinting over to have our teeth rattled by the Thunderhead, the park’s gargantuan wooden coaster.
When you travel to a place like Pigeon Forge to experience something like Dollywood, getting the most out of the experience also means surrendering to it. For us, this meant staying at a nice hotel, seeking out amazing restaurants in nearby Knoxville, and going on scenic drives through the mountains, while still having the most thoroughly Pigeon Forge experience possible. To that end, we spent time checking out the action on the town’s main drag, which feels like some kind of psychedelic, alternate-reality Las Vegas. It’s complete with approximately 1 million dinner theaters (including a Biblical Times Dinner Theater with holograms), a 200-foot-tall Ferris wheel with glass gondolas, indoor snow skiing, trampoline parks, and a Titanic museum that is the same size/shape as the actual Titanic. We opted to take in the Pirates Voyage Dinner & Show, a Dolly-partnered production that involves pirates, pyrotechnics, mermaids, and non-stop Cirque du Soleil–level acrobatics. While it might not have been the most luxurious part of my Dollywood experience, it was arguably the most memorable. I’m willing to bet that it will be the only time in my life that, while eating fried chicken in view of a fire dancer, a sea lion happens to slide right past me on the floor moments after a trained parrot zooms over my head.
While amusement parks exist largely for the benefit and entertainment of families and those under the age of 16, most parks have figured out that parents also want some amenities of their own. These parks also know that there are people like me who don’t have kids but still want the perks that come with staying on premises. In my experience, springing for the nicer suite on an upper floor and making late dinner reservations proved a good strategy for getting the most out of park-adjacent accommodations and avoiding the peak family rush. Dollywood's DreamMore Resort smartly caters in equal parts to kids and adults. Not only is there a massive pool on-site (with cocktail delivery available to your chaise), but the hotel also offers beautiful suites (including a penthouse apartment suite inspired by Dolly herself), fine dining, and an in-lobby Starbucks. Add to that a full-service spa where, in addition to facials and scrubs, you can request a manicure that includes Dolly’s signature butterflies applied to your fingertips. (I didn’t get them, but only because the spa was closed when we were there). One of the resort’s biggest perks is a shuttle service that will deliver you to either one of the signature parks. Staying here also affords you the freedom to easily dip into and out of the parks as you like, while circumventing parking entirely. And to sweeten the deal, as a guest of Dolly’s resort, you get free fast-pass access.
Thanks to our proximity to the park and its shuttle service, it was easy to head back to the resort for a nap and a dip in the pool before winding our way back down to the park for the requisite last-minute spin. Even though we’d plotted our trip in a way so as not to rush, to avoid the pressure of cramming every possible Dollywood activity into one day, I still fell prey to my last-minute urge to load up on merch. Hello, sensible Dolly sweatshirt (instead of the rhinestone hat) and Dolly mug. And hello, one last visit to my favorite ride in the park. Though Dollywood is home to several big, well-regarded coasters, the Lightning Rod is the park’s crown jewel, and probably the best thing I’ve ever ridden. Ranked as one of the country’s top-10 coasters by USA Today, the ride launches you from zero to 45 mph in a matter of seconds as it whisks you 20 stories up over the side of a small mountain, twisting at impossible angles, before offering, albeit briefly, stellar views of the park and the beautiful Smoky Mountains beyond.
Fine dining and spa treatments aside, as we went flying over the mountain and I heard myself let out an uncontrollable shriek, I was reminded that this was what I had come here for. Being flung skyward at over 70 mph is, for me, just as potent a travel experience as swimming in the Maldives or visiting a Roman coliseum for the first time. For a moment, I was no longer thinking about the news or all the work-related messages I knew were likely waiting for me inside my phone; instead, I felt fully like a kid again, rather than the forty-something man I actually am, whose hat had just blown off and into the Tennessee trees forever.
Early or Late
Even though we were visiting Dollywood during peak season, the best times in the park seemed to be early in the morning, as soon as the gates opened, or very late in the day. There is a kind of hysteria that happens in amusement parks under the peak afternoon sun, a time in which every child enjoys complete overstimulation and/or hunger, equating to the longest stretch of lines. Our most idyllic time in the park was at dusk. As lots of families headed for the parking lots, we found a nice place to watch the sunset over the mountains, just before a fireworks display and drone experience took over the sky (during which the drones zip themselves into the shape of one of Dolly’s signature butterflies).
Pass the Line
If you are going to an amusement park and you don’t have the worry of paying for a gaggle of children, go immediately to the box office and grab the most expensive fast pass available. It will save you time, as well as provide that evil, illicit thrill one gets from skipping a mile-long line.
Get a Cabana
Water parks are not known for having an abundance of high-end perks, but the nicer ones — like Dollywood’s Splash Country — do give you the option of renting private cabanas and lockers on-site. While spending the day at the park, we rented a small, private cabana in one of the park’s less trafficked areas, the toddler pool, which provided some much-needed relief from both sun and sound throughout the day.
Skip the Weekend
During peak summer season, there is essentially no way to avoid the crowds at any top-tier amusement park. That being said, weekends are typically the most harried times to try and visit, so if you have the luxury of time, go on a weekday.
I love a good funnel cake as much as the next person, but eating at amusement parks can be the pits. Long lines, high prices, limited (and profoundly unhealthy) choices, and a general lack of shade and seats can quickly zap the fun out of your day. Plan your day so that you can have a nice meal off-site, and then treat yourself to something decadent. Each day we visited Dollywood, I ate a light breakfast at the hotel before entering the park and hot-footing it to the Grist Mill for some of the park’s famous cinnamon bread.
Invest in the Experiences
I fight my own impulses in a place like Dollywood to simply buy everything. But knowing that I truly don’t need more kitschy t-shirts, key rings, or funky totes, I tried to focus my attention on premium experiences. While not every theme park offers the same bespoke opportunities, Dollywood gives you the opportunity to visit a foundry, a wood-carving shop, or to try your hand at blowing glass or hand-dipping your own candles. Rather than load up on tchotchkes, we pre-booked some of these activities (easy for two adults with no kids) and came out with objects that we actually made, and the memory of doing things that we’ll likely never have the opportunity to do again.
T. Cole Rachel Writer
T. Cole Rachel is the managing editor of Departures. A Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media, his writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Interview, and the Creative Independent.
Jess Rotter Illustrator
Jess Rotter is a Los Angeles–based illustrator and artist. Rotter’s work has frequently featured in the Washington Post. Her clients range from Natalie Portman to Questlove.