My grandma was a huge fan of country music legend Dolly Parton and even fashioned her big, blonde hair and sparkly outfits after her. I have always wanted to go to her theme park, Dollywood, the #1 theme park in the U.S., according to TripAdvisor’s 2022 Travelers’ Choice Awards.
What better time to visit Dollywood than for Smoky Mountain Christmas, the holiday festivities that include 6 million twinkling lights and won Best Theme Park Christmas Event 14 consecutive times.
What is Smoky Mountain Christmas?
Located in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, not far from where Dolly grew up and close to the Smoky Mountains National Park, Dollywood spans 160 picturesque acres and includes some of the best coasters in the world, mouth-watering food and toe-tapping shows. Given that it’s also south, it can be significantly warmer than back home. My family visited opening weekend of Smoky Mountain Christmas (Nov. 5, 2022) and it was 80 degrees. Pigeon Forge reports a high of 62 degrees in November and 53 degrees in December. Smoky Mountain Christmas runs through Jan. 1.
As my children are now middle schoolers, the bar has been raised even higher to entertain them. Dollywood had them smiling from the moment we entered at 11 a.m. until our tired feet walked out 10 hours later. Thunderhead, a wooden coaster between two mountains that reaches a top speed of 55 mph and drops 100 feet, and FireChaser Express, a steel coaster that blasts forward and backwards, were our absolute favorite rides. Lightning Rod, themed after hot rods from the 1950s, is literally insane. It speeds up to 73 mph and delivers 20 seconds of airtime. There’s also plenty of rides for littler kids or those looking for a gentler ride, including Amazing Flying Elephants, Treetop Tower, Village Carousel, Piggy Parade and more.
The park sparkles with Dolly’s delightful personality, is fluttered with butterfly designs (her spirit animal) and decked-out with glimmering holiday trees. Ride the Dollywood Express coal-fired steam engine for a 20-minute scenic journey around the park. My favorite part was the recorded holiday story Dolly told over the loudspeaker during the train ride.
When she was young, her family was very poor and her mother didn’t have a wedding band. One year, her father asked Dolly and her 11 siblings if they could use the money he would have spent on their presents on a wedding ring for their mama. Dolly’s sweet, heartfelt story concludes with how the gift you give is often the one that makes you the happiest. Dolly says the best gift you can give is love, and we all have plenty of that to share. I have always adored Dolly’s humor, kindness and grace. That one story definitely put me in the holiday spirit.
On Friday and Saturday nights, you can watch colors light up the night sky in the Merry and Bright! fireworks show. There’s a 50-foot evergreen in the Glacier Ridge area of the park that dazzles with a synchronized light show set to upbeat holiday tunes. Santa is at Dollywood, working hard inside a cabin to get ready for the big day. Kids can check the Naughty or Nice List to see where their name falls this year.
Dollywood is also known for its food. Pork rinds, 25-pound apple pie and barbecue sell year-round. The warm cinnamon bread is the park’s most sought-after treat, and let me tell you it’s worth it. Don’t forget the icing. Holiday time brings special fare like gingerbread-dusted funnel cakes and chicken pot pie in a bread cone. There’s a food truck park, too.
Given Dolly’s legendary music career, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the shows are a big deal at Dollywood. There are indoor and outdoor theaters with holiday performances for multiple generations of families. My mom joined us at Dollywood and delighted in the performances and holiday shopping. Smoky Mountain craftsmen create handmade gifts that often can be personalized. Be sure to ask for Package Pickup, a free service that allows you to collect your purchases when you leave instead of having to carry them around the park.
Where to stay
Stay at Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort & Spa for a complimentary trolley ride to the park and TimeSaver passes, which put you in expedited entry for up to eight rides. The King with Bunk room includes twin bunk beds for the kids and a king for the parents. The resort features a game room, playground and pools. Of course, holiday décor is lit with a two-story Christmas tree in the lobby and festive touches around the resort. Holiday meals are served in Song & Hearth: A Southern Eatery. Camp DW offers children’s activities, plus the resort provides s’mores roasting, bedtime stories and other activities.
Dolly is known to occasionally appear at Dollywood, much to the delight of park attendees. While we didn’t see the warm-hearted singer this time, perhaps we will if we return for the opening of Big Bear Mountain, Dollywood’s longest coaster that will feature seats that looks like they’re in SUVs and boast almost 2 minutes of ride time, in spring 2023. The 2023 season also includes the new I Will Always Love You Celebration, honoring the 50th anniversary of Dolly’s iconic song. In fall 2023, Dollywood’s HeartSong Lodge & Resort is scheduled to open.
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, is packed with all sorts of fun family activities and is only a 15-minute drive to Gatlinburg, another town bursting with family experiences. Kids will love laser tag at LazerPort Fun Center and the super-fast go-karts at Xtreme Racing Center of Pigeon Forge.
WonderWorks is the upside-down building that’s full of hands-on entertainment options, including a rock wall, hurricane simulator and a game that measures the speed of your baseball pitch. There’s a Rocky Mountain Coaster; Titanic Museum Attraction, which holds 400 artifacts from the ship; Sky Fly: Soar America, an immersive ride that takes you on a 6-minute sensory-filled journey across America; Toy Box Mini Golf; Paula Deen’s Lumberjack Feud Show & Adventure Park; Pigeon Forge Snow indoor snow tubing and TopJump Trampoline & Extreme Arena, among many other attractions.
Holiday activities in Pigeon Forge include the new Wonder of Lights Walking Trail with one million LED lights of shimmering snowflakes, shooting stars and snow people. Some lit-up displays stand more than 25 feet tall. Weekends in November, visit the Wonder of Lights Christmas Village for holiday shopping from 35 booths of artists and vendors. If you’re looking for a unique breakfast experience in Pigeon Forge, Sunliner Diner has tables inside convertible cars. Order your pancakes or hand-spun milkshake from the retro newspaper menu.
Another place to stay is the new Camp Margaritaville RV Resort & Lodge Pigeon Forge. Deluxe Double Queen rooms at the lodge include a tented area with two twin beds. The kids will get a kick out of their private glamping space, while up to four other family members can enjoy the two queen beds in the other section of the room. There’s also an RV park outside for mobile homes to set up camp, a pool with water slide, lazy river, arcade, duckpin bowling, restaurants and tons of fun recreational opportunities.
Fill your heart with wonder, get your adrenaline pumping and please your belly all in one trip filled with good cheer. As they say, have a holly, Dolly holiday!
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