Dolly Parton on Dollywood's Growth and What's Next — Including a Half-billion-dollar Expansion
“I just really think that our whole park just screams out ‘bring your family, everyone can have fun!’”
Dollywood — one of the country's best theme park resorts — is about to get even better. Today, the Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, theme park destination announced a half-billion-dollar, 10-year investment campaign starting with a new resort — Dollywood's HeartSong Lodge and Resort, set to open in 2023. Ahead of this exciting project, we talked to owner and country music legend Dolly Parton about why she got into the theme park industry and Dollywood's incredible growth.
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Since the 1980s, Dollywood has entertained guests with its rides, attractions, and of course, plenty of music. Since that opening, Parton says, "We have come a long way, baby! This was always my dream, of course, and I remember when we first opened, I was worried that nobody was going to show up, and now we're worried too many [are] going to show up... That's why we have to always keep expanding." So, what made the country music legend want to get involved in the theme park business? Dolly Parton teamed up with Herschend Family Entertainment in 1986 to transform what was Silver Dollar City into Dollywood. According to the Tennessee native, it was all about legacy, family, and bringing jobs to the area. She says, "I just always wanted to have something special to leave behind, and jobs for my people — there are so many of them — the ones who like to pick and sing, there's a place for them, and the others who like to work, there's a place for them… It was about bringing jobs to people in this area."
And Dollywood has certainly delivered, with millions of annual visitors who flock to experience the theme park resort. Dollywood's family focus has made it unique from the beginning, according to Parton, because there is truly something for everyone. Parents can bring "their little ones, their middle ones, and even their teenagers" and enjoy attractions and rides that cater to all ages. She adds, "I really think that our whole park just screams, 'Bring your family, everyone can have fun!'"
And that doesn't just mean there are rides for all heights, ages, and thrill levels; Dollywood wouldn't be the park that people know and love without all the musical influences and performances. "That's what I'm all about — we've got to have the music. That would be kind of crazy, wouldn't it, for us not to do some of everything. And I love the fact that since I do all sorts of music — from country, mountain, bluegrass, gospel, and rock n' roll, I've done some of everything — we have some of all that in the park," says Parton.
As far as choosing a favorite attraction, event, or park area, Parton loves it all: "It's all near and dear to me — it's like having kids — you have some [that are] prettier than others, but you love them all and you think they're all pretty, right? I love everything about the park, so it's hard for me to pick out one particular thing."
Parton and the Dollywood team are constantly coming up with new experiences for guests, including the new Intel Drone Light Shows during Dollywood's Sweet Summer Nights and the new upcoming resort. The show will include nearly 400 drones and fireworks for a spectacular event during the park's Summer Celebration.
Parton is excited about this new resort — the first step of this half-billion-dollar expansion — saying guests can expect fun, family-family experiences in a beautiful, rustic lodge-inspired setting. Dollywood's HeartSong Lodge and Resort will offer 302 rooms tucked away in the Great Smoky Mountains and a reimagined lodge experience where guests will be inspired to find and nurture their own "heartsongs," according to a statement shared with Travel + Leisure. High ceilings, exposed beams, and natural textures across the hotel's five stories will complement the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains, and spacious family suites and bunk rooms will provide fitting accommodations for couples, families, and multigenerational groups of travelers.
There will even be themed suites and loft rooms for those looking for a unique place to stay at the theme park resort. Other features revealed today include an atrium with four-story, lantern-inspired windows, indoor and outdoor pools, and an outdoor cove with gathering spaces, a communal fire pit, and a screened-in porch.
Dollywood's HeartSong Lodge and Resort will be the ultimate, family-friendly Smoky Mountain getaway, the perfect addition to the growing destination. Since 2010, the Dollywood Company invested over $220 million into its properties, including new rides, attractions, and Dollywood's DreamMore Resort and Spa — already ranked among the best hotels in the South, according to T+L readers.
Elizabeth Rhodes is an associate digital editor at Travel + Leisure who loves all things theme parks. Follow her adventures on Instagram @elizabetheverywhere.