Dollywood RiverRushTennessee’s first and only water coaster splashes down with lots of fanfare – not to mention hairpin turns and daring drops. An entire season of new entertainment takes visitors around the world, from India, China and Merry Olde England and back to Tennessee. Ricky Skaggs and other country music superstars perform live. And Dolly Parton herself makes a holiday visit via hologram. In its 28th season, Dollywood throws down fun like nobody’s business.

With her ever-growing, something-for-everyone-in-the-family entertainment empire – encompassing theme park, water park, glittery North vs. South dinner show and luxury vacation cabins – Parton gets props for establishing Destination Dollywood in the picturesque Smoky Mountains in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., a place where you can decompress and enjoy time spent with family.

“This is really what a vacation should be all about,” says the face of Dollywood, country music legend Dolly Parton. “We try to have wonderful things that appeal to the family. There are lots of young kids, teenagers – and parents who still think they’re teenagers – who come to Dollywood and we want to give them each something. And we like to keep things original, do the things we’re good at.”

Destination Dollywood

Dollywood Splash Country2And Dollywood excels at many things. The parks – well-scrubbed, lushly landscaped and bursting with entertainment, dining and shopping options – just keeps getting better. Last year’s new Wild Eagle rollercoaster at Dollywood was a huge success; this year’s new four-story-tall RiverRush at Dollywood’s Splash Country, with its plunging drops, dark tunnels and serious climbs and twists, should find an equally enthusiastic reception. As Parton says, they like to give the older kids (and their parents) something a little wilder.

The Dollywood cabins are top-of-the-line, sumptuously furnished and appointed. They have games rooms with pool and air hockey tables, retro and current video game systems, old-fashioned board games, darts and more. There are sweeping mountain vistas whose colors change with the season – and porch swings, rockers and hot tubs for enjoying said views – plus en suite jetted tubs, flat screen TVs, gas fireplaces and other amenities. It’s the kind of quality one would expect from Dolly Parton – and she does not disappoint, in the cabins or at the parks.

Lots of free family fun

Dollywood Dickens smSeveral new shows join Dollywood’s lineup this season, including two very near-and-dear to the entertainer’s heart: “My People,” starring Parton’s brother, Randy, and her sister, Cassie, showcases the moments, people and events that have defined Parton’s career – the story, as the entertainer says, “about the people who inspired me to be me.”

“They say you can never go home again, but I proved that wrong,” she says. “I’m always welcome home. I’ve always been proud of my home and my people, no matter how ragged we were or how poor.

“There’s lots of my relatives in the show,” she adds. “We really tell the story of the life I led and the kind of people who made me who I am today.”

The lavish “Dollywood’s A Christmas Carol” features eight original songs written by Parton – but that’s not all. Parton herself will be part of the holiday show, though she may be thousands of miles away when it takes to the stage on Nov. 9, by the magic of holographic technology.

“I love the fact that Dollywood grows with the times and we’ll have a hologram,” she says. “I think people will really love that I’m always going to be here.”

As always, big name entertainment will headline the music at the park. In addition to Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent, Marty Raybon and the Willis Clan will perform – and that’s just for the park’s Bluegrass and Barbecue Festival.

“Music is who I am,” says Parton. “I have so many friends in the country music field, it’s a chance to bring in the big artists.”

Like the rides and other attractions in the park – the Chasing Rainbows Museum, Eagle Mountain Sanctuary and more – all the entertainment is free. This includes elaborate and original shows, top-tier musicians, jaw-dropping acrobatic performances, even extravagant fireworks displays. During any given season, there is a wide variety of shows and performers – enough to fill a long weekend plus, and a real value for family vacationers.

Food options are equally plentiful and affordable – delicious, too. This being the South, emphasis is on good ol’ Southern cooking, particularly “Southern food like Mama used to make.”

Parton says her mother was the “best Southern cook in the whole wide world” and park eateries live up to this standard at Aunt Granny’s All-You-Care-to-Eat Buffet (crispy fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, cornbread muffins, pinto beans, chicken and dumplings), Granny Ogle’s Ham N’ Beans, Hickory House BBQ and Miss Lillian’s Chicken House, where finger licking vittles are served and the kooky and colorful crooner serenades, tickles funny bones and occasionally tosses fresh-baked biscuits at diners.

In addition to Dollywood and Dollywood’s Splash Country, there is more Dolly fun to be found on Pigeon Forge’s famously action-packed parkway: Enjoy dinner and a show at Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, a fun night out that kids especially love because of the galloping horses, derring-do and friendly competition. Pigeon Forge is also home to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, the Titanic Museum Attraction and the upside-down WonderWorks, where visitors can also catch a magic show and play Lazer-Tag – all family favorites that can also be enjoyed while vacationing in Destination Dollywood.

If You Go

Dollywood cabins smThose staying in the luxury Dollywood Vacation cabins get some nice perks. You can buy a Length of Stay Pass, which gives you unlimited visits to Dollywood for the duration of your stay for the cost of a one-day park admission ticket. You also get complimentary, reserved parking at Dollywood and discounts on tickets to other area attractions, like Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede.

Another way to save is to plan your visit to arrive at Dollywood or Dollywood’s Splash Country after 3 p.m. with a one-day ticket purchase; use the same ticket to get in free to the same park the next operating day.

Dollywood Randy and Cassie