Our family ended up at Dollywood recently by happenstance. We were visiting family in Tennessee. The morning after we had arrived long past the children’s bedtime, we awoke groggily and sought coffee. Quickly provided this necessary brew by my attentive young second cousin, I turned to his mom and said, “Okay, what do you all want to do this week?” She exclaimed, “Let’s go to Dollywood!”
I hadn’t expected that, but we were here to spend happy time with them, and if that’s what they wanted, that’s what we wanted, too. So my cousin spent about an hour calling friends for advice about how best to do Dollywood, then putting together our day trip package.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. My husband and I wouldn’t describe ourselves as theme park people. In fact, I am terrified of rollercoasters; the classic country fair egg scrambler maxes out my ride capacity.
My husband isn’t that emotionally handicapped, but he’s a low-key, easy-please fellow. We mostly go on hikes in the woods or bike rides for family fun, that kind of thing. My idea of a great night out is going somewhere our 15 million (I mean, six) children won’t interrupt our conversation 70 billion times. Add some ice cream or coffee, and that’s my best life now.
So I was a little skeptical, but in the interest of not being a big fat stick in the mud, I determined to be as pleasant and open-minded as possible and just try to help everyone else have a good time. These low expectations were constantly exceeded during our one-day visit. We came away very willing to go again.
Do Dollywood, Not Disney
By contrast, Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California have long been on our “over my dead body” list, and with Dollywood as an option they will most certainly stay there. It’s not just the recent visibility of the longstanding fact that Disney’s post-Walt corporate leadership works to undermine sexual wholeness, but also about the greedy commercialization of the Disney brand.
Even setting aside their recently revealed support for destroying human happiness through sexual chaos, Disney’s products push a lifestyle that doesn’t reflect my goals for family life. I don’t want my kids taught to be whiny brats whose biggest lesson to learn is that all authority figures are dumb or evil. That’s a main message of almost every major Disney property, and it’s very bad for kids.
Other destructive and pervasive Disney messages include that men (especially dads) are stupid and bad, women can do no wrong, women need to validate themselves by beating people up more fiercely than the boys do, celebrity is something to aspire to (instead of being a good person), and “if it feels good, do it.” These are terrible values that can and do destroy people just as much as severing their genitals. I have no interest in supporting these messages with my money or my children’s attention. So we have never been a Disney family, and we never will be.
Dollywood, on the other hand, that I can get into. The only message Dollywood pushed is that people should love each other. Oh, and “Love Every Moment.” Who can feel uncomfortable with that? Here’s a little rundown about what I liked best about Dollywood, what I didn’t, and what worked for our family in terms of logistics.
Perfect Mix of Fun for a Variety of Ages and Abilities
Perhaps the best thing about going as a large family group was that Dollywood had something for everyone. As I mentioned, I don’t do rollercoasters, but the teens and other grownups with us did, and they had a great time. My oldest son, who is 11, tried his first rollercoasters and had the time of his life screaming alongside his aunt and cousins. They spent the entire day going from one rollercoaster to the next.
Those in our group who had recently visited other large theme parks, including Disney World, said the rollercoaster and general park experience was much better at Dollywood. It was less hectic, better organized, less spendy, and more wholesome. We visited on a gorgeous April spring Friday, and the park was humming but not packed. It really was perfect.
For the rollercoaster riders, we did spend the extra for the “Timesaver” add-on that lets you jump to the front of the lines. That almost doubles the ticket price if you get the unlimited pass, but it was worth it. I expect things are even busier heading into summer, so that would make the Timesaver pass even more worth it. (If you want to jump lines but not spend so much, a different Timesaver applies to eight rides only.)
Those of us who don’t enjoy terrorizing ourselves also had plenty to do, perfectly pitched to a variety of ages. The youngest kid we brought was my 22-month-old, who loved the baby rides. It took folding myself into several ridiculously pint-sized seats to discover my little guy could go on several himself, and then I cheered from the sidelines.
I was worried he might freak out because he’s an extremely clingy momma’s boy, but he didn’t scream at or for me, a major win for both of us. I brought a toddler pack to carry him around instead of a stroller, and that also worked well. If it were blistering hot I would have done the stroller instead.
For the six and under crowd, our favorite two theme park locations were Wildwood Grove and the Country Fair. Both had rides throughout. I’d say the latter has more to do in one spot for multiple ages and Wildwood Grove is more pitched to the younger kids. The latter has splashpad-like sprinklers for summer heat, and if I lived in the area I’d bring my toddlers and preschoolers there often on a season pass.
Dollywood also has a waterpark, but we didn’t visit it this time. I would definitely be interested in that for a future summer visit.
Clean, Not Overly Branded, Well-Maintained
One thing I hate about being a mom in the 21st-century United States — and, yes, I know this is a first-world problem — is the insane level of marketing foisted upon me and my kids. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like Disney. It appears to be a dollar-obsessed cult that tries to monetize every flash of your eyeballs.
To me, this weaponizes family life as well as cedes parental prerogatives to strangers, by openly urging kids to whine for cheap, unfulfilling, Chinese-factory-made trash because it has Minnie Mouse’s face on it. I work to reduce my children’s exposure to brands because 1) it’s expensive to care about that meaningless crap 2) it adds unnecessary friction to our relationship, and 3) deliberately exploits children’s immaturity to get more dollars and I believe that is morally wrong.
Dollywood used none of the high-pressure Disney manipulation tactics that upset me so much. There were no characters with backstories and gobs of branded merch, no forgettable and ear-shriveling pop tunes autotuned by embarrassingly sexualized tweens, no morally bankrupt but doe-eyed heroines trying to steal my daughters’ souls. Just good, clean fun.
Speaking of clean, because I also have a four-year-old whose ability to hold her water is very limited, I probably sampled the majority of Dollywood’s bathrooms. I found some a bit dated in style — just cinderblock buildings in a few cases — but they had baby changing stations and were clean, plentiful, and easy to find.
For people like me who hate Covid theater because it is the mark of a ruling class who loves to crush the American people for spite, I will disclose my estimate that I saw masks on maybe one in a few hundred people while we were there. It was refreshing to see that all of America hasn’t been broken by wall-to-wall public health lies.
Go Just for the Music
Another major boost to the Dollywood experience was — of course — the folk and country music piped throughout the park as well as the multiple live music venues. The music was foot-tapping, country folk, wholesome, high-quality, high-class, exuberant, and utterly enjoyable. It reinforced the wholesome Americana feel of the entire park, which emphasizes Dolly Parton’s country mountain roots.
Several of the artists and venues were overtly Christian, with refreshingly no apologies made about that. The park also has a chapel. I’m a high-church kind of gal who cringes at most of what is marketed as Christian music, but this was top-notch music that happened to be Christian, not embarrassing music passed off as good because it warbled about Boyfriend Jesus.
I’ve never been in any public place, such as a mall, with better background music. I would have gone to Dollywood just to listen to the music. It was wonderful to expose my children to that uplifting atmosphere. It constantly boosted my spirits and eased the minor sufferings of walking around all day in the sun on my feet carrying a fussy toddler in a people-filled public place.
Thank you, Dolly Parton. That was the cherry on top, and it was clearly all you.
Assorted Side Observations
Once you’re in Dollywood, you don’t have to keep buying tickets or tokens for more rides. Pay the entrance fee and you get all the rides you can manage. I’d way rather pay one big entrance fee then do the park at my family’s pace than constantly shuffle and shell out for this ride and that and then have no idea how much this all is costing me and where to find some freaking more tokens while my kids whine.
As is clear by now, overall Dollywood was an excellent experience and I highly recommend it for those for whom several hundred or a few thousand dollars are already budgeted for a family vacation. If you haven’t been there yet, put it on your list.
I do have two minor criticisms. The food sold in the park was yummy and of a wide variety. It was, however, what I’d call obscenely expensive. That is probably due to a combination of inflation Dollywood can’t control, the scarcity of workers (one or two of the in-park eateries were closed with signs stating it was due to staffing shortages), and the usual fair-food markup. Also, I don’t often take my kids out to eat in general — I don’t feel the value I get out of that experience is usually equal to the cost. Anyway, we brought most of our own food and had a big meal at Pirate’s Voyage midday, so that worked out fine.
The second thing was that for some reason I never saw a water bottle fill-up station. They must have been somewhere but I didn’t see them, and I was looking. We bring our reusable water bottles everywhere, especially in all-day outdoor environments like this one. Speaking of outdoors, I recommend hats or sunscreen for those who burn.
I’d say if you wanted to visit Dollywood on a budget, a family of four could do it for about $500 without the ticket add-ons and bringing in your own picnic lunch and not staying overnight, but there are certainly also lots of ways to spend more and therefore do more. Obviously different families have different budgets and preferences and it’s part of family life to navigate that.
If you wanted to spend more of a typical American family vacation budget of $1,000-$2,000 (or, if we’re comparing to ridiculous Disney, five or ten), you could do two-day passes (or one day at the theme park and one at the waterpark), spend the extra for the Timesaver passes and premier parking, eat in the park, and stay overnight or for the weekend nearby. By the way, I liked the gift shop, too! One of the better ones I’ve seen.
There was so much to do and see, we could have spent several more days there and still done something new all day, every day. That’s also only in the Dollywood theme park proper — the entire area has enough to do to occupy months, not least of which for me would be the Great Smoky Mountains. Next time.