Dolly Parton
Seattle Times
July 21, 2002
Dollywood is a goofy, down-home good time
By Mark Price

PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. If Dolly Parton and her Dollywood theme park could be summed up in a single moment, it happened recently when Parton herself popped out of nowhere in one of the park's courtyards, smack in the middle of 300 stunned tourists.

Not one to be inconspicuous (her dress was the color of a solar flare), Parton seized the moment by jumping onstage with a nearby steel-drum band and launching into a Caribbean version of her hit song "9 to 5."

It was surreal, particularly when Parton concluded by saying anyone who didn't enjoy the 100-acre theme park could "kick my butt and I'll fix it."

Yet it was also indicative of how seriously Parton takes the park, which has evolved over 17 seasons into an intentionally goofy blend of high-tech thrill rides, Southern-themed amusements and mountain-culture tributes.

From the very start in 1986, Parton says she intended "Dolly's woods" to be something other than a Smoky Mountain tourist trap.  It would be a preserve for traditions and culture she knew growing up on a rundown farm in nearby Locust Ridge.

What resulted is larger than life and tacky as all get-out, but also charming, fun and very unpredictable like Parton herself.  And make no mistake, this is about Dolly Parton.

If that isn't obvious on the way in, as you turn by a giant billboard of her bushy head onto a road called Dollywood Lane, it's clear in the new museum where guilty pleasures include being digitally implanted into one of eight bouffant Dolly wigs.

Go ahead and laugh, but last year, 2.5 million people visited Dollywood.  That's more than showed up at Elvis' Graceland estate or the legendary Grand Ole Opry.  It's now one of the 50 most popular parks in the world.

Dolly Parton admits there are many places in the world where she doesn't fit in, but an amusement park is not one of them.  Therefore, she comes to Dollywood often, including times when she sneaks in and watches live shows featuring her relatives.

"I'm like a cartoon character," says Parton, explaining why the idea of a Dollywood works better than a Janefondawood or Britneyspearswood.

"People don't take me as seriously as they would Jane Fonda or some of those people.  I have the kind of fun, outgoing personality to pull this off, yet still have the park taken seriously and the business taken seriously."

And now, a Dolly museum

A $10 million addition called "Adventures in Imagination" recently opened, and much of it revolves around her, including a bumpy video simulator ride over the Smoky Mountains and an interactive museum based on her.

Steve Summers helped create the museum, and he was stunned to find Parton's memento collection fills 10,000 square feet of storage.  Inside her "attic," he found items ranging from her first royalty check for $1.02 to the costumes she wore in "The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas."

Hundreds of items were put on display, but Parton insisted it not be a typical museum.  Quirky touches were added, like a video gimmick that superimposes fans into a prerecorded duet with Parton, and the digital cameras that fit viewers into her wigs.

Dolly Parton is 55 and looks 30.  She's prettier in person than on TV, with a waist the size of a jar of pickles and hair that is big, delicate and all over the place, like a Christmas wreath.  Her personality is a cross between Betty Boop and Santa.

At first sight of her and her famous full bosom a couple of questions come to mind.  The one that's safest to ask is what on earth she needs with an amusement park.  It's not like she's broke after a 40-year career that has produced 27 No. 1 songs and several hit films.

So why is she here in Pigeon Forge, back where she started?

"This has been a dream a lot longer than you'd think," says Parton, noting she looked 10 years before buying into the property in 1986.  At that time, the site was home to a financially withering park called Silver Dollar City.

"When I first started being successful, I got to thinking of things I could do to make money and things that would be good for this area.  I wanted jobs for the people and jobs for my family.  Word got out I was looking, and God put me and this park together."

It's a family affair

Today, Dollywood is the largest employer in Sevier County (2,000 at the height of the season), with a dozen of Parton's close relatives working as performers and dozens of "distant" relatives working in other jobs.

Beyond jobs, though, Parton was looking for a way to preserve Smoky Mountain heritage, which had been dying out since World War II.

Areas in the park were set aside for demonstrations of skills such as wagon-making, grain-milling, blacksmithing, broom-making and leathersmithing.  A school was also established.  Traditional mountain music is also featured, along with such homey foods as grits, sawmill gravy and fried bologna.

"People who come here are really seeing deep into my heart," says Parton, noting an exception.  Though the park is filled with thrill rides, including the country's highest and fastest waterfall ride, she won't ride them.

"I don't like to get wet, and I don't like to get my makeup messed up," she says, with a grin.  "These shoes?  These false eyelashes?  That's no good."