Dreamer in Chief
This spring, as the sun shined brightly upon a lush valley nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains, Parton greeted the crowd assembled at Dollywood in her charismatic way. Dressed in a shimmering, form-fitting, self-described “butterfly suit” (complete with wings), the country music legend celebrated the opening of Dollywood’s new Wildwood Grove expansion with a butterfly release.
“Release your dreams. Let them come true!” Parton says while on stage. When one of the insects appears hesitant to fly away, Parton doesn’t miss a beat.
“I think he is lazy. He’s a musician … he wants to stay here and sleep late!” Parton exclaims much to the glee of the crowd assembled.
Rising attendance, booming holiday events, and higher-than-anticipated occupancy at Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort have led to the opening of a new 6-acre master-planned expansion of the Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, theme park. This spring’s debut of Wildwood Grove, with its 11 new rides and attractions, represents four years of development and a $37 million investment.
“We needed to open the park up more because on busy days, like the Fourth of July, when we have 20,000 to 30,000 people, it’s really hard to get people to areas where they have some elbow room,” Parton explains. “Some of the additions come out of necessity, but then you put your dreamin’ cap on and think: ‘What are we going to do to make all of us happy?’”
The 73-year-old recording artist (a nine-time Grammy Award winner) and songwriter (nominated for two Oscars) plays a role in Dollywood’s creative, business, and musical direction.
“They talk about wearing different hats—I wear different wigs!” Parton proclaims with her trademark laugh.
Parton sat down with Funworld for an exclusive look at Dollywood’s creative process, one that’s rooted in her dreams and guided by her loving touch.
Greatest Thing Ever
Born and raised just east of Pigeon Forge in neighboring Locust Ridge, Tennessee (a recreation of Parton’s one-room childhood home remains popular with Dollywood guests), Parton’s humble beginnings grounded her, leading to feelings of wanting to do more for her community.
“I used to think when I was younger, and I saw I was going to make it, I thought: ‘I want to go home and build a park or theme park that will provide jobs for the local people, my family, my neighbors, and my friends to help the local community,” Parton recalls. She did just that in 1986, when Parton partnered with Missouri theme park owners, and IAAPA Hall of Fame members, Peter and Jack Herschend. The brothers changed the name of their Pigeon Forge park, formerly known as Silver Dollar City (not to be confused with their theme park of the same name in Branson, Missouri) to Dollywood.
“The Herschend family was doing business in this field long before I came along,” Parton says. “They are people with morals and values, and it’s important to them to have something everybody can be proud of.”
With the knowledge provided by Herschend Family Entertainment and Parton’s infusion of energy and bright ideas, the partnership blossomed.
“We are blessed to have an incredible creative force at our helm—Ms. Dolly Parton herself. We refer to her as our ‘dreamer-in-chief’ as her experiences inspire our work every day,” says Merrill Puckett Miller, chief creative officer at Herschend Enterprises.
More than three decades later, Parton continues to direct the progress at Dollywood.
“I am very involved in all of it. I don’t just want my name on something, I have to know it’s right—something I can be proud of,” Parton says. “Dollywood is one of the greatest things ever for me—having this place in my hometown.”
Inside the Dream Team
Parton benefits from a stable of trusted colleagues, like Puckett Miller.
“Dolly Parton is the most wonderful creative collaborator,” Puckett Miller says. “As a boss, she listens, provides thoughtful feedback, but best of all, she trusts.”
That trust is generated through sharing ideas and listening—whether it be at meetings held at Dollywood, or on the road at recording studios and the set of her new Netflix series, “Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings.”
“We have our ‘Dream Team,’ as we call it,” says Parton. “We throw ideas out, and some of them we decide are not worth the risk or the money involved. But if the majority agree that this is the thing to do, then that is the attraction we go with next.”
And when they don’t agree? Parton says it’s best to stay open and honest.
“We often talk about that. If there is a whole bunch of people at the table, some will say ‘Maybe that’s not the best idea.’ Or, ‘Maybe we’re a few years shy of that.’ Or, ‘Maybe we need to do more in this area,’” Parton shares of the closed-door meetings.
“She is candid. It comes from a place of always wanting the best,” says Amy Owenby, Dollywood’s vice president of product and planning. “It’s part of her mantra of ‘Be more, do more, dream more.’”
Sometimes, it’s Parton who comes up with an idea for Dollywood’s 150 acres. Other times, it’s her team.
“We kinda work it both ways,” Parton says of the creative process.
“The atmosphere is always collaborative and never stuffy,” says Puckett Miller.
For instance, when Parton wrote and recorded a new re-lyricized version of her song “Love is Like a Butterfly” to become the anthem of Wildwood Grove, her dream team accompanied her to the studio.
“We met at a homey, unassuming Knoxville studio rather than a slick production house,” says Puckett Miller. “For me, the ability to produce such authentic experiences is something as creators we all value—and ultimately, so do our guests.”
Into the Woods
Creating memories worth repeating takes research by the dream team. On a late spring day in 2016, Owenby crawled inside a crowded white Chevrolet Suburban with more than a half-dozen other members of Parton’s dream team for an expedition into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The group headed down the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a 5.5-mile-long, one-way loop known for picturesque views of mountains, streams, and trees.
“We went through and looked at the shades of the greens and the color of the barks, how the water flowed, and how the light comes through and dapples in the leaves,” says Owenby, a 32-year veteran of the park, who first worked in concessions during high school.
The natural canvas provided the team with the visual inspiration needed to bring Parton’s vision to life for what would become 2019’s expansion.
“When you go in with that lens, I think it just opens your mind’s eye. While we were driving around, all the senses got activated,” Owenby says.
However, one thing was still missing: the story that would shape Wildwood Grove.
“We’ll say, ‘Dolly, tell us about a time in your life,’ and then she’ll feed in a story,” says Owenby.
Parton didn’t disappoint; she shared her daydreams as a child. The bears, butterflies, dragonflies, frogs, and birds that Parton found near her childhood home have become Wildwood Grove’s characters.
“When I was a little kid, I used to trail off and get lost in the woods, and Momma was always aggravated because she’d be scared, thinking I was lost forever—and I got in trouble for that,” Parton recalls.
Taking Parton’s tale, the dream team crafted a story about a little girl named Rebecca (Parton’s middle name), who daydreams about her animal friends in the Smoky Mountains. “As we shared our concept with her, midway through the presentation Dolly exclaimed, ‘That’s [about] me!’ and giggled unmistakably,” Puckett Miller says. “Wildwood Grove is her story; we are simply telling it.”
Playful by Design
Using the story as a guide, designers shaped Wildwood Grove to unfold like a daydream. Upon approach to the new land, visitors feel as if they’re leaving Dollywood behind as they pass through a portal of what appears to be a fallen, hollowed-out tree. Just inside awaits an attraction that appears to be its own theme park, nestled along a meandering pathway.
“We were very purposeful to put some rides up front that are very approachable for mom, and we have our food and beverage very intentionally placed at the entrance,” Owenby says. “We want mom to feel like, ‘My needs are taken care of.’”
Owenby explains taking care of a mother’s desires—whether it’s finding coffee on a cool morning or getting cold water on a warm afternoon, and having a place to sit while her children are in a controlled environment—will lead to feelings of satisfaction of how time and money are spent at the park.
“It’s just as much about time now, than it is money,” Owenby believes.
Therefore, the dream team identified a purpose for each of the 11 new attractions inside Wildwood Grove.
“We’ve been very thoughtful—we searched around the globe to find the right attractions and experiences so that families can spend more quality time together,” says Craig Ross, president of the Dollywood Company.
That meant selecting rides from several manufacturers with lower rider height requirements. The result is a collection of attractions where children and adults can ride together.
“These are all things the entire family can do together—from toddlers all the way up to grandparents,” Ross says. (See p. 54 for more details on the 11 new rides and attractions.)
"Wildwood Grove represents the heart of Dolly Parton and the memories she has.” —Craig Ross, President, The Dollywood Company
A recreation of a flowing waterfall found along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail now flows in the middle of Wildwood Grove. Rock features allow water to gracefully cascade under a bridge that appears to flow into a sensory area at the base of the new area’s centerpiece, the “Wildwood Tree.” The gently moving current allows children to splash, while a nearby playground includes several oversized instruments to make music, like xylophones.
The “Wildwood Tree” is covered in 9,000 leaves and 650 colorful butterflies. After dark, the tree sparkles as the butterflies appear to dance and glow, thanks to thousands of LED lights.
“If you look at what the butterfly represents, it’s the evolution of Dolly’s life,” Owenby says. A butterfly emerging from a cocoon is much like how Parton spread her wings, Owenby explains.
In total, the new area adds 20% more guest space to the park, along with providing 250 new jobs to local residents.
“You see it on paper is one thing, and then you walk into the land, and it’s real—it’s almost overwhelming how great they did,” says Andrew Wexler, CEO of Herschend Enterprises.
“We identify an idea, and then we flow it into Dolly. Now, there are times she is noodling an idea, and she floats it our way. So the information share goes both ways.” —Amy Owenby, Vice President, Product and Planning, Dollywood
While the rides and “Wildwood Tree” command attention, the detailed landscaping adds to the story. With a price of almost $1 million, newly planted trees, bushes, and perennial flowers will only continue to immerse guests in nature as they grow.
“We needed to provide more respite, more comfort, and the guests were telling us that,” Owenby says. “We’ve learned people will extend their stay if they have these moments where they can refresh and recharge.”
Landscaping barriers crafted from the stone found in east Tennessee double as park benches. Covered shade structures provide shelter from the sun’s rays.
“The No. 1 risk to any outdoor experience is weather,” says Wexler. “Last year was the wettest on record in east Tennessee, according to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).”
On days when Mother Nature does not cooperate, Wildwood Grove’s gymnasium-sized “Hidden Hollow” attraction will come to the rescue. To create a balance in experiences, Wexler believes “Hidden Hollow’s” massive indoor playground is perfect for children with excess energy—and their parents. Comfortable lime green sofas face the play structure, allowing parents to rest in a climate-controlled environment, while keeping an eye on the action.
Back outside, many of the new rides feature boarding stations and queues where recessed heating units will provide warmth during the cold shoulder seasons.
Dolly’s Not Done
Six years ago, Ross and Parton shared the stage and announced Dollywood would invest more money in expansions during the next 10 years than the park did in the previous 25.
“We’re working with Dolly to continue out the vision. We have a lot of great things on deck,” Wexler says.
When asked, Parton proudly drops hints a second resort will join the DreamMore Resort, which first opened three years ago, and target business guests. Dollywood’s collective progress continues to impress Parton: “I’ve flipped my wig a few times!” she says with a laugh and that trademark smile.
Straight Talk: Dolly One-on-One
Funworld: What motivated you to get into the global attractions industry?
Dolly Parton: Anytime we got the chance to go to the county fair as little kids, I just loved that whole feeling there. And I thought, “If I do make it big, I would love to go back home and build a park just to provide recreation and fun for families, but also provide jobs for the people in this area.”
FW: How do you top yourself season after season?
DP: You never know if you’re going to top yourself; you just always hope that it’s going to do good. I was smart enough to go into business with people who know the attractions business.
FW: How special is your business partnership with the Herschend family?
DP: We’ve been wonderful partners. They trust me; I trust them. There’s never been any of those egos like, “You’re getting too many ideas!” or, “You’re not giving enough!” or, “This ain’t all about you!” It’s all about us. We all sit and talk, and agree to agree, before we start any kind of new project.
Funworld Video: Dolly in Her Own Words
Funworld sits down with Dolly Parton in an exclusive interview to talk about Wildwood Grove, Dollywood’s future, the global attractions industry, and her next album. Watch online at http://bit.ly/2EQHEN5.
Wildwood Grove Adds 11 New Attractions
Dollywood’s new experiences cater to the entire family.
“Wildwood Tree,” from LifeFormations, comes to life each evening during a unique nighttime experience produced by The Imagination House.
“Dragonflier,” a Vekoma suspended roller coaster, dips underground and over gushing geysers.
“Black Bear Trail,” made by Metallbau Emmeln, allows riders to hop on the back of friendly bears for a leisurely trek.
“Great Tree Swing,” from Zamperla, simulates a leaf cascading from a tree.
“Treetop Tower” places guests inside giant acorns to climb nearly 40 feet in the air on this Zamperla Samba Tower.
“The Mad Mockingbird” is a Larson Flying Scooter themed to the Tennessee state bird.
“Frogs & Fireflies” features frogs that chase each other around the lily pad on this Zamperla Jump Around.
“Hidden Hollow” is an indoor play space with a multilevel structure from Soft Play, with sofas for adults to sit and watch.
“Wildwood Creek” features pop jets and a splashing pool by Fountain People, as well as musical instruments.
Flit, Flutter, and Benjamin Bear are costumed characters and Wildwood Grove’s ambassadors.