My Tennessee Mountain Theme Park


Dolly Parton’s globetrotting world tour will be making its way to Australia in December, but it kicks off in about a week’s time in her home state — which, happily enough, is where The Big Issue has found itself for a few days. Sadly, we’re too early to see Parton in the flesh — but in the end, that doesn’t really matter, because there’s absolutely no lack of Dolly Parton in East Tennessee.

Dolly’s everywhere in this part of the world, which owes its tourist dollar to two main drawcards: the 210,000-hectare Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the fact that Dolly  was born right here in this very Sevierville County. The genuinely stunning old-growth landscape of the Park has underpinned the County’s tourist trade for decades – today it attracts some 10 million visitors a year, but America being America, only 6% of these actually get out of their cars and go hiking, so the rest need some entertainment to go with their car-bound nature-lovin’.

The majority of said entertainment is to be found in the town of Pigeon Forge, which has evolved over the last 50 years from an obscure Appalachian hamlet into an alcohol-free mountain version of Las Vegas. It’s a tourist town that’s home to a half-scale replica of the Titanic, the Wonderworks Upside-Down Mansion (which is, yes, an upside-down mansion), an Elvis museum, about a gazillion churches, some 5,000 tourist-accommodating log cabins, and many, many things named after Dolly Parton.

Including, of course, the main attraction: Dollywood. The USA is full of many, many strange things, but even so, there can’t be many more quintessentially and bizarrely American ideas than that of a Dolly Parton-themed theme park. Honestly. An entire amusement park based around the personality of the woman who during the 1980s transformed the terminally hokey genre of country music into a lumbering, chart-destroying commercial behemoth. Apparently, it’s the most lucrative US theme park outside Florida. Of course, we have to visit.

To outsiders, the whole idea of Dollywood seems both amazing and hilarious. A couple of years back, the Financial Times in the UK sent a reporter to Tennessee to answer the question “Is Dollywood one big kitsch joke?” – as far as loaded questions go, this is laden with several Imperial tons of preconceptions, but in all honesty, The Big Issue finds itself wondering something similar as our minivan winds its way up through the forest toward the carpark (which appears to be the size of a small European nation).

Curiously, and unexpectedly, the answer is a definite “No”. The place is nothing like you might imagine it to be – there’s no life-size reproductions of Kenny Rogers, no water attraction called “Islands in the Stream”… not even any references to “Tennessee Mountain Home”. (Nor is there a “titty jumping castle”, much to the disappointment of a friend of The Big Issue who insisted that such a thing just had to be a key attraction.)

Instead, it’s an amusement park, plain and simple – and quite a good one, as far as such things go. Along with the other assorted members of the press visiting today, we’re met at the gate by a professionally exuberant park representative who shows us around the main attractions. She leads us to the Thunderhead, a giant wooden rollercoaster (“Voted #1 in the USA”) which The Big Issue braves in the interests of journalistic adventure, and leaves us feeling queasy for the rest of the day.

It turns out that the Thunderhead is child’s play, though — the main thrillseekin’ attraction is something called the Barnstormer, a hellish giant pendulum type thing where you’re swung back and forth through the air at “speeds of up to 45mph and 230º of rotation”, the latter statistic meaning that you rise 15º above perpendicular to the ground at the apex of your trajectory, and thus get to stare down at the pavement as it rushes up to meet you from exactly 81 feet below. Woo, and, indeed, hoo.

We take one look at the thing and decide to skive off in search of what we’ve really come here to find — genuine Parton-esque kitsch. But curiously enough, there isn’t a great deal to be had.  Apparently, the park’s designed to emulate the feeling of the country fair coming to Dolly’s home town in the 1940s – as such, it’s laid out as a faux-Appalachian village, decked out in a surprisingly dark and subdued palette of alpine greens and browns instead of the bright primary colours you might normally associate with theme parks.

There’s piped bluegrass music everywhere, along with arts’n’crafts demonstrations (which are actually really fascinating), southern food aplenty, an on-site chapel, an on-site theater (where we’ll later see a rather excellent show — apparently the park “prides itself” on its entertainment, and it shows) and the Dollywood Express, which is a genuinely vintage steam train that consumes five tons of genuine coal and 5,000 gallons of genuine water a day as it ferries people from one end of the park to the other, producing much genuinely noxious smoke en route. But as far as glitter and such things go, the sole concession to kitsch is Chasing Rainbows: The Dolly Parton Museum™, a surprisingly pokey cinderblock building in the park’s southeastern corner.

It doesn’t look like much from outside, and you could easily miss it, but Chasing Rainbows™ is the Parton motherlode, home to a wealth of Dolly-related memorabilia – old photos, costumes, movie posters, magazine covers, awards, along with plenty of homespun wisdom about life, family, and God. Lots about God. There are some genuinely interesting insights, such as the fact that Parton’s grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher, and that you could “feel the fires of hell” every time he unleashed a particularly militant sermon. And there’s enough sequins and sparkles to satisfy the most ardent fan. There’s even a pokey ancient proto-touch screen computer where you can take pixelated photos of yourself in Dolly’s wigs. Charmingly, the material’s presented with a genuine sense of affection and reverence, as if it comprised precious ancient Egyptian archaeological relics instead of pop star paraphernalia.

Like everything about Dollywood, the museum’s inherently strange and yet played with a completely strange face, bizarre but curiously normalized. And perhaps that’s the strangest thing about Dollywood: it doesn’t seem strange at all. After a day there, the idea of a Dolly Parton theme park seems like the most normal thing in the world.

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