“You’re going to Hollywood for Christmas?!” my neighbour asked, slightly baffled. No, Dollywood; as in the theme park owned by country singer Dolly Parton, in her birthplace of the Great Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee, I explained. “I had no idea that Dolly even had a theme park” she laughed, before adding, “Just don’t forget your cowgirl hat!”.


I’ve been visiting Dollywood regularly for over a decade now, and am used to explaining the concept to friends back home in the UK. Dollywood forms part of an entertainment empire owned by Parton, which includes theatrical supper shows, a family-friendly hotel called DreamMore Resort and Spa, and a sprawling 160-acre theme park, nestled into the woodland of the Great Smoky Mountains. Dollywood opened back in 1986 and now attracts an impressive 3-million visitors each year, although for many British visitors it still flies under the radar in comparison to America’s other big-name amusement parks.

Dollywood HeartSong Lodge & Resort, TN
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Dollywood HeartSong Lodge & Resort, TN
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Dollywood HeartSong Lodge & Resort, TN

But all that looks set to change in 2024, as Dollywood steps into the international spotlight with the grand opening of a new hotel, the HeartSong Lodge and Resort, plus the unveiling of Big Bear Mountain, the park’s longest rollercoaster. Music fans are also in for a treat, as the Dolly Parton Experience, a museum crammed with Dolly’s more-is-more costumes, opens to the public at Dollywood in May 2024.

From the UK, the easiest routes to Dollywood are either flying directly to Nashville and driving east for three-hours, or a flight to Knoxville with one change, then a 30-minute journey. We opted for the later, and made our way to check in at Dollywood’s latest hotel, the HeartSong Lodge, situated near the entrance to the theme park, with regular shuttles running between the two.

Checking in, my daughters, aged six and 12, were thrilled to hear from the woman behind the front desk that black bears are regularly seen in the area, and vowed to spot one during our stay. This wilderness theme continues across the hotel’s interiors, with images of furry bears, fireflies and forests woven throughout. Our spacious family suite, which included bunkbeds for the kids, featured a mural of the Appalachian landscape running across the wall. There were also some nice additional touches, such as a white noise machine that played soothing sounds of rainfall and birdsong.

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A quick glimpse around the lobby revealed the resort to be popular with multigenerational families, as grandparents and youngsters chatted around the crackling fireplace. The kids took a dip in the indoor swimming pool, while outside I spotted an open-air pool with a cascading rock waterfall feature, perfect for the warmer months, plus firepits for roasting s’mores at night.

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Bunk Beds at Dollywood HeartSong Lodge & Resort, TN

The resort is also home to Camp DW, a space for families to engage with organised craft activities. We spend a relaxed afternoon painting Christmas decorations before tucking into hearty plates of refined Southern cuisine at the onsite Ember & Elm hotel. Ambling back to our room through the lobby, we admired cases of Dolly’s bejewelled stage wear and musical instruments along the way.

Rested, the next morning we were up with the larks, courtesy of jetlag, and excitedly heading towards the entrance of Dollywood. As somebody prone to motion sickness, my happy place at a theme park is typically waiting at the bottom of a ride, patiently holding my family’s bags while they loop-the-loop. But Dollywood, much to my delight, offers something for everyone.

For those interested in the local Appalachian culture, there’s a section of craftspeople showcasing time-honoured traditions such as candle dipping and glassblowing. A continuous programme of theatre shows runs throughout the day, musicians perform alfresco concerts on the stages that dot the park, and comfort food is served in seriously generous portions. The cinnamon loaf, a warm hug of sticky, sweet bread, is well worth joining the snaking queue at Dollywood’s Grist Mill for.

Children of all ages are catered for when it comes to the rides, which range from a gentle chug around the park in a traditional steam train and a toddler’s play area, to dare-devil feats such as Mystery Mine, which drops 85ft down a disused shaft, or Thunderhead, a heart-pumping wooden coaster that crosses over and under itself a butterfly-inducing 32 times.

READ MORE >> The best things to do for families near Dollywood in the Great Smoky Mountains

Big Bear Mountain rollercoaster at Dollywood copy
Big Bear Mountain rollercoaster at Dollywood
Environmental Photos of Wildwood Grove, taken at Dollywood on May 8, 2019. © Curtis Hilbun / Dollywood
Environmental Photos of Wildwood Grove. © Curtis Hilbun / Dollywood
March 25, 2011 Pigeon Forge, Tn. Barnstormer Grand Opening of Dollywood's 26th Anniversary Season and Festival of Nations © Curtis Hilbun / AFF-USA.COM
Barnstormer Grand Opening of Dollywood's 26th Anniversary Season and Festival of Nations © Curtis Hilbun / AFF-USA.COM
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Tornado Ride at Dollywood, TN

I plucked up the courage to test out Big Bear Mountain, Dollywood’s newest coaster, which hits a top speed of 48 mph, maintaining that momentum for almost two-minutes of twists and turns. To the soundtrack of a roaring bear, we whizzed around the park, through a tunnel and the light mist of a waterfall. It was surprisingly good fun, so much so that I even returned for a second ride.

Those interested in Dolly Parton will also find much to love here, from the many shops crammed with merchandise to the replica of her humble childhood cabin. Astonishingly, 12 Parton siblings and Dolly’s parents squeezed into this tiny two-room hut, which has been painstakingly recreated using original items, including patchwork blankets thrown over iron bedframes and vintage Parton portraits hung on the walls. There’s also a reproduction of the dinky schoolhouse that Dolly attended and a pretty white clapperboard church, where a gospel choir regularly perform.

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Robert F Thomas Chapel at Dollywood

As night fell, we stocked up on Dolly gifts and headed towards the exit, as the inky sky filled with a spectacular drone show of lights. It was a timely reminder that we had found the most inclusive and magical theme park in the US. Hollywood can wait, it’s Dollywood that keeps us coming back for more.

Zoey Goto with Dolly portrait at Dollywood's HeartSong Resort copy
Zoey Goto with Dolly portrait at Dollywood's HeartSong Resort

How to do it:

America As You Like It (call 020 8742 8299) offers a seven night holiday to Tennessee from £4410 in total, based on a family of four (two adults and two children, 2-11yrs), including return flights from Heathrow to Knoxville on American Airlines, seven days car hire, three nights at the Heartsong Lodge and four nights at the DreamMore Resort.


>> For further information on visiting Tennessee, see: https://www.tnvacation.com