The Amazing History of Dollywood

The sign and flower arrangement at the entrance to Dollywood.

Dollywood is far and away the most popular attraction in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. Co-owned by country legend Dolly Parton, this awesome theme park is visited by around 2.5 million people each year. For over 30 years, Dollywood has been wowing guests with its thrilling rides, world-class entertainment, incredible festivals, and delicious food. As we approach Dollywood’s opening day in mid-March, we thought it would be fun to look back at how the theme park has changed and grown over the years. So, without further ado, here is a brief history of Dollywood.

Rebel RailroadA steam enginge at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge.

While Dollywood opened in 1986, various theme parks have existed in its location for more than 50 years. The first park to occupy Pigeon Forge was Rebel Railroad, a venture launched by the Robbins brothers of North Carolina. The main attraction at this amusement park was Klondike Katie, a coal-fired steam engine that made its way around the grounds. Rebel Railroad’s legacy remains strong at Dollywood, as the park still features a number of old-fashioned steam engines known as the Dollywood Express.

Goldrush Junction

In 1970, Art Modell, the owner of the Cleveland Browns, acquired Rebel Railroad and renamed it Goldrush Junction. A number of new attractions were added to the theme park along with the Robert F. Thomas Chapel, a church dedicated to a beloved local doctor in Sevier County who would make as many as 1,000 house calls per year. By coincide, Dr. Thomas was the doctor who delivered Dolly Parton back in 1946! The Robert F. Thomas Chapel is still open for services on Sunday mornings during Dollywood’s regular season.

Scenic photo of the Dollywood Grist Mill.Silver Dollar City

Goldrush Junction became Silver Dollar City in 1977 when the park was purchased by the Herschend Family. The Pigeon Forge park was modeled after the original Silver Dollar City, an 1880s-themed attraction that is still in operation in Branson, Missouri. It was during the Silver Dollar City era that the theme park added its famous gristmill. Today, Dollywood’s gristmill makes mouth-watering cinnamon bread and other tasty treats.

Dolly Parton Joins Forces with the Herschend Family

In a 1982 interview with Barbara Walters, Dolly Parton announced her intention to start a theme park in Pigeon Forge. Dolly had grown up in nearby Locust Ridge in a two-bedroom cabin, the fourth of 12 children. Although Dolly had since moved to Nashville and was an international sensation, she never forgot where she came from. For years, Parton had planned on starting some sort of business in her hometown that would help create jobs and stimulate the local economy.

When Silver Dollar City’s General Manager heard Dolly’s interview with Barbara Walters he promptly reached out to the country singer to suggest a partnership with the Herschend Family. Dolly accepted the deal and it was agreed that Silver Dollar City would get a major makeover and a new name. The first chapter in the history of Dollywood was being written.

Dollywood’s Opening DayThe sign at the entrance to Dollywood.

Today, Dollywood is a household name, but back in the 1980s, people weren’t so sure that an amusement park themed around Dolly Parton would be successful. Most experts anticipated that Silver Dollar City’s transition to Dollywood would only net the park an additional 10,000 guests per year. As Dollywood prepared to open, People Magazine mockingly referred to the attraction as Dolly’s “$20 million hillbilly park.”

Dollywood’s critics would live to eat their words. When the park opened its doors on May 3, 1986, 1.3 million people came rushing in, which was more than twice the number of guests Silver Dollar city had seen the previous year.

Due to the conservative estimates from the experts, the young park was not ready to accommodate so many people on its opening day. As food lines swelled with two hour wait times, Dollywood’s staff started making bologna sandwiches for guests to eat! It also quickly became apparent that the theme park was severely lacking in bathrooms. The following year, Dollywood added lots of new restaurants and restrooms to accommodate the big crowds.

A bluegrass band performing at Dollywood.Dollywood Flourishes

From its humble beginnings, Dollywood has grown into the #1 ticketed attraction in the state of Tennessee! In the past 30 years, the theme park has tripled in size, from 50 acres to 150 acres. In 2001, Dollywood gained a new sister park: Dolly’s Splash Country, a 25-acre water park located next door.

The secret to Dollywood’s success is undoubtedly Dolly Parton herself. Dolly takes an active role in developing the park’s entertainment, attractions, and atmosphere. Parton’s boundless creativity and winning personality have made Dollywood a very special place to visit. For information about all of the fun coming to the theme park this season, check out our complete guide to Dollywood for 2018.

Where to Stay Near DollywoodIncredible mountain views from the deck of the Bluff Splendor cabin.

Now that you know the history of Dollywood, it’s time to start planning your vacation in Pigeon Forge! When you stay at Hearthside Cabin Rentals, you will be minutes away from all of the fun at the South’s favorite theme park. With everything from 1 bedroom cabins to 18 bedroom cabins, we are sure to have the perfect accommodations for your getaway. Browse our selection of cabins in Pigeon Forge to find the vacation rental of your dreams!