Dollywood reopened its doors with strict health and safety precautions in place. Here's what it was like on opening day.

By Julie Tremaine
June 18, 2020
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Credit: Julie Tremaine

If you haven’t been to Dollywood, you may picture the theme park as one giant ode to Dolly Parton’s stardom. And to be sure, there are parts of the experience that match her outsized public persona. For example, there are a lot of bedazzled garments for sale, some of which might make you question the fabric’s ability to withstand that quantity of sparkle per square inch. But to assume that Dollywood is the entertainment equivalent of one giant rhinestone is to misunderstand both the park and Dolly herself.

In the tiny town of Pigeon Forge, in the Great Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee, Dollywood is a tribute to the world that was, recreating turn-of-the-century Appalachia. There’s a Craftsman's Valley where artisans make things like leather goods, candles, and pottery using old-fashioned methods. You can see a woodcarver whittling away at carvings of Smoky Mountain wildlife, or a blacksmith hand-fashioning horseshoes. The park has a bald eagle sanctuary that, at one million cubic feet, is the largest in the country. It’s also home to a 1938 coal-burning steam engine train that takes people on a scenic ride through the Smoky Mountains, and heaping plates of Southern fried chicken and biscuits if you’ve worked up an appetite on the journey. Dolly’s music plays in some parts of the park, but you’re much more likely to hear old-time bluegrass than modern country, and to see musicians around the park picking on banjos and dulcimers.

Credit: Julie Tremaine

By showing you where she comes from, the culture that shaped her, and what those roots mean to her, Dolly Parton is trying to make you understand who she is — who she really is, inside the celebrity who fires off boob jokes at her own expense and is the pop culture patron saint of drag queens and sequins. I love that person, too, but that is not the person you’ll find at the park. Here, you can walk through a replica of the two-room Tennessee Mountain Home, where Avie Lee and Robert Lee Parton had 12 children. It was built by Dolly’s brother, Bobby, and decorated by her mother, plus it has her sister Willadeene’s recollections on the wall from the winter before Dolly was born. At the Chasing Rainbows Museum — the one place in the park really devoted to her career and stardom — the Coat of Many Colors, which inspired Dolly’s iconic song, is on display. Her uncle, Bill Owens, has been known to be there, guitar in hand, telling stories about how he would drive Dolly to Nashville when she was a teenager to try and get her foot in the door of the music business.

Credit: Julie Tremaine

Dollywood is dedicated to the world that was, but it no longer exists there. When the park reopened on June 17, it was a different place than when it closed for the season just after the new year, because the world was a different place then. That world allowed for indoor entertainment, for strangers to sit next to each other on rides, and for servers to bring you food without leaving it at the end of the table for you to distribute yourself.

But that doesn’t mean that Dollywood has lost its Southern charm. Far from it, in fact. I was there for opening day, and the park was both exactly the same as I remembered it, and completely different. Its 160 acres are built into and around the mountain landscape, so things are already fairly spread out. That inherent distancing is allowing Dollywood to operate at slightly over 40 percent capacity right now, which is more than other, larger parks. The safety protocols and social distancing requirements changed the experience, but I still felt comfortable and enjoyed myself so much that I was among the last dozen or so people to leave the park, nearly an hour after it had closed for the night.

In Pigeon Forge, people are largely acting as though nothing is different. I saw hundreds, if not thousands, of people without masks, walking around outside on crowded sidewalks and shopping inside stores. Tennessee does not require face coverings, but the state is asking people to take the Tennessee Pledge to practice safe distancing and wear masks. (I felt so unsafe seeing those crowds that even though I had intended to shop and explore, I didn’t get out of my car.)

At any of the Dolly Parton properties, though, you aren’t even allowed in the door without careful screening. To enter Dollywood, its water park Dollywood’s Splash Country, or any of the dinner attractions like Pirates Voyage or Dolly Parton’s Stampede, guests must have their temperature checked, and answer four questions about their health and potential exposure to COVID-19. At Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort, I had to sign a form verifying that I wasn’t sick, and that I acknowledged the inherent risk in staying at the hotel.

Credit: Julie Tremaine
Credit: Julie Tremaine

I was glad for all of it, though, because even though I had to wear a mask and make sure I was standing on the six-feet-apart markers on the ground, I felt safe. Dollywood has implemented various safety procedures, like requiring hand sanitizer before getting on any ride or entering any restaurant, and leaving one or two open rows between groups, depending on the distance. Six mask-free relaxation zones have popped up in areas where attractions had to be paused because they didn’t fit current safety guidelines. Dollywood has 250 “sanitation stations” dispensing its own private label hand sanitizer, and 50 standalone sinks are at the ready for handwashing. Over 6,000 signs outlining the safety protocols have also been installed across the properties.

Credit: Julie Tremaine

While all of the rides are operational, and largely have reasonable wait times, there are still parts of the experience that you won’t have if you decide to visit during Phase 1. There’s currently no indoor entertainment, which means some of the shows aren’t happening. Plus, you can’t go inside the museum to be greeted by a holographic Dolly Parton or to see her most iconic movie costumes and performance outfits. Many of the restaurants and shops are also currently closed because the square footage doesn’t allow for adequate social distancing. You can’t have the delicious barbecue at Miss Lillian’s Smokehouse right now either, but you can still enjoy the pulled pork and fried chicken with all the fixings at Aunt Granny’s, the park’s oldest restaurant — named after what Dolly’s nieces and nephews call her. While it used to be a buffet, the spot now offers family-style dining with as many helpings as you’d like. (Trust me, you’ll want more.)

The real upside of the modified park experience, though? No lines for Dollywood’s iconic cinnamon bread, the most beloved snack at a park famous for its excellent food, which is worth the wait even on a busy day. Try it for yourself and you’ll see.