An Insider's Guide to Taking Kids to Dollywood
If you've decided on a theme park destination for your next family vacation, you likely have Florida on the brain. But as someone who has spent a large chunk of my life at theme parks (no shame), I'm here to share one more destination you may have not considered but deserves a spot at the top of your list: Dollywood.
Tucked away in the East Tennessee Smoky Mountains just an hour east of Knoxville, Dollywood theme park is the brainchild of iconic performer and humanitarian Dolly Parton. The park opened in 1986 and has since expanded to include luxury cabins, a water park, and a 4-star resort and spa, aptly named the DreamMore Resort & Spa. While Dollywood is home to globally recognized roller coasters, there are also two entire lands dedicated to little ones, daily concerts from national acts, and my personal favorite, award-winning cuisine. (Not to mention mountains as a stunning backdrop and a dash of Southern hospitality.)
"It's important to us that Dollywood is a getaway everyone in the family enjoys," says Amber Davis, public relations for Dollywood. "We're very intentional about our park appealing to the young and young-at-heart. Dollywood is a place your whole party can get excited about. When you spend the time and resources to take a trip, it should be something you can all look forward to."
Another perk of a Dollywood vacation? It's much easier to plan for and navigate than most theme park resorts. Here's everything you need to know while planning your family's vacation to Dolly Parton's crown jewel.
Things to Consider Before You Book
Significant adjustments due to COVID-19 remain in place based on guidelines from the CDC. Due to limited capacities, visiting guests are required to make an advanced reservation for the day of their desired visit via their online park reservation system. Enhanced health and safety protocols include temperature screening before entry and the proper wearing of face masks throughout the park for all guests 2 and over unless actively eating.
As the demands for more outdoor options increases, Dollywood has added even more outdoor seating areas as well as additional outdoor concert series. Socially distanced mask-free break zones are also available for visiting guests. At the water park and pool areas, guests are required to wear a mask when entering any indoor location, like restrooms.
Dollywood Tickets and Reservation Tips
Dollywood tickets range from 1-day to 3-day theme park tickets, with packages that also include admission to the adjoining water park, Splash Country, as well as packages you can bundle with on-site hotel reservations. Dollywood also happens to offer one of the most affordable season passes in the realm of theme parks that's ideal for a family who plans on visiting the resort more than once in a year. The benefits for this pass include free parking, early park entry on select days, and discounts on food, merchandise, resort accommodations and premium park experiences.
After clocking in many visits over the years, I would suggest at least 2 days if you want to soak in a bit of everything that the Dollywood theme park has to offer. If you're also looking to visit Splash Country, Dollywood's water park, that deserves an entire day to itself. In order to maximize your time in the park, I highly recommend the TimeSaver line management add-on. The standard version allows for expedited entrance to 8 attractions while you can ride until your heart's content with the unlimited version.
Dollywood Schedule: The Best Time to Go
School holidays and work vacation time will likely play a major role in deciding when to visit. While Dollywood and Splash Country are open seasonally, the DreamMore Resort, Dollywood Cabins, and dinner shows operate year-round. No matter when you visit, Dollywood embraces the sights, sounds, and the tastes of the seasons throughout the year. Here's a season-by-season snapshot:
Each Spring, Dollywood's Flower & Food festival brings to the park a half-a-million blooming flowers in the form of elaborate topiaries and stunning plant structures. Outdoor food kitchens are a highlight of the festival and feature global cuisine.
Summer Celebration features later nighttime hours and a new 30-minute, multi-sensory production. With the Great Smoky Mountains playing backdrop, hundreds of drones will fly in the air creating animations synced to music and a choreographed fireworks show.
Fall is a fan favorite time to visit complete with cooler temperatures and lesser crowds. The annual Harvest Festival is a day to night experience taking over the entire park that features live entertainment and the evening experience, Great Pumpkin LumiNights, where thousands of jack-o-lanterns light up the park.
Insider mom tip: "I love Dollywood in the Fall, especially during the Great Pumpkin LumiNights," says Megan Doran, mom to two girls ages 7 and 4, who shares tips as part of the Dollywood Insiders. "You have the backdrop of the Smoky Mountains and all the changing colors of the fall leaves, the crisp cool fall air, and the amazing pumpkin displays that make for a fun (not-so-spooky) time for families."
The can't miss Smoky Mountain Christmas fills the park each Winter with themed food, traditional entertainment, and décor, including over five million holiday lights.
Dollywood Rides and Entertainment
Dollywood is home to 9 world-class roller coasters, including kid-friendly coasters, like the must-ride and incredibly well themed FireChaser Express for kids 39 inches and up. There are also two separate areas dedicated to small children --- County Fair, which features classic carnival-style rides, and Wildwood Grove, the newest addition to the park. I, personally, love Wildwood Grove and the imaginative story behind the fairy-tale like land that is home to plenty of attractions that can be enjoyed by the younger (and older) ones in your group.
Doran calls Wildwood Grove "one of our family's favorite places to go because it has rides for all levels of thrill seekers. The girls love to ride Black Bear Trail and my absolute favorite ride in the park is Dragonflier, a family-friendly roller coaster."
Insider mom tip: "Head left when you pass through the main entrance of Dollywood and there you will find a centralized measuring station. Your child will be measured and receive a color-coded wristband. This will help you to quickly identify which rides they are tall enough to ride," shares Doran.
Entertainment is a cornerstone of the park with multiple stages home to full productions throughout Dollywood, including performances from Parton's own family. You could spend the entire day at Dollywood without ever stepping foot onto a ride. Some of my favorite places in the park include a replication of Dolly Parton's childhood home and a peak at her home on wheels, her tour bus. There are also opportunities to take home unique souvenirs with hands-on experiences for all ages, like hand blown glass making, and learn more about wildlife from The American Eagle Foundation's exhibit.
Dollywood's Water Park: Splash Country
Located next door to the theme park is Dollywood's water park, Splash Country. This is unlike any other water park I've ever visited as the theming is spot on (it's an ode to Parton's time spent in the mountain's swimming holes) and it's large enough to make an entire day out of it. You may also be surprised to learn there's plenty to do for kids of all ages.
While there are some serious slides for the thrill seekers, there's nearly 10 attractions and play areas that little ones can partake in. The Cascades is a hidden gem in the back area of the park that features an interactive, 8,000 square-foot lagoon-style pool and play area with plenty of chairs and trees offering a bit of welcomed shade. Other kid-friendly areas include Mountain Waves and Little Creek Falls.
Where to Stay
Dollywood Hotel: The DreamMore Resort
Dollywood is home to its very own 4-star hotel, The DreamMore Resort, which could not be any more convenient as it sits just adjacent to the theme park and water park. The best part about staying here? The amenities. In addition to receiving a complimentary TimeSaver good for your entire stay (including day of check in and check out), you also have your very own trolley shuttle that provides door to door service to the theme park and water park.
The resort itself is cozy and welcoming, complete with a sprawling outdoor and indoor pool, tranquil gardens, on-site coffee shop, several dining options, and plenty of Dolly Parton memorabilia. The rooms are pretty standard, albeit meticulously clean. Creativity meets fun in the resorts activities that are geared to the younger guests. Camp DW provides daily indoor and outdoor activities like a nightly s'mores campfire, Dolly's pink lemonade hour, and bedtime stories. Plus, adults can unwind at the resort's spa or visit the lounge and nibble on regional bites while enjoying their impressive beverage program.
Insider mom tip: "I would tell any parent to splurge and book the DreamMore Resort," says mom Rachel Combs who visits the resort often with her 3-year-old daughter."It's worth every penny when traveling with children to be able to walk out of the room and onto a trolley and be dropped off at the door. Then when you're tired, you can get a ride straight back to the door of the resort and go take a nap!"
The Dollywood Cabins
If you're looking for a more off the beaten path experience, Dollywood operates 80 luxury cabins tucked away in the mountains. This is perfect for a family looking for a more low-key experience or when bringing the extended family along. There are a variety of options for size, with many cabins providing full size kitchens as well as private jacuzzis and even game rooms.
Insider mom tip: "It is really the best of both worlds for a Smoky Mountain vacation because we felt like we were in a cozy cabin tucked in the woods," says Doran. "But we also weren't more than a few miles drive away from Dollywood."
Planning Where To Eat
Now, we've made it to the literal meat and potatoes, the food. There's a reason Dollywood consistently ranks as some of the best theme park food in the United States. Its culinary delights are both affordable and accessible to the palates of all ages while being executed exceptionally well. The highlights of their Southern-inspired cuisine include an award-winning barbecue pork sandwich, a banana pudding from Dolly's own family recipe, and their most famous offering: the iconic cinnamon bread.
I promise you the cinnamon bread is worth the hype and an absolute must for any visitor. Served in pull-apart style, the dough is soaked in a mixture of butter and cinnamon before being baked. One loaf is more than enough for a family looking to avoid a potential sugar crash. Part of the fun is entering the park's Grist Mill where you can watch firsthand the creation process before indulging in it yourself.
Kids will also love Dollywood's butterfly-shaped pretzel, an ode to the park's mascot, found throughout the park. Funnel Cakes are a staple of theme park food and Dollywood's Crossroads churns out some of the best, with seasonal flavors like Oreo crumbles and Fruity Pebbles. Even the less adventurous eater will be more than satisfied with a classic cheeseburger from the 1950's style Red's Drive-In or a foot-long corndog and tater twirls from Dogs N Taters. If your visit includes a stop at Splash Country, while the food there is mostly standard theme park fare, they do serve BeaverTails, a pastry-donut hybrid that originates in Canada.
Since your appetite doesn't stop when the parks close, there are also two family-friendly dinner shows just down the road, the long-running Dolly Parton's Stampede and Pirates Voyage.
Insider mom tip: Book at least one of the dinner shows during your trip. "I grew up going to Dolly Parton's Stampede as a child and now I get to visit as a mom with kids of my own," says Doran. "Between the delicious dinner, the live animals and beautiful fancy dresses, it's a dinner show our family really enjoys. Pirates Voyage is so full of surprises, too, and mind-blowing athletic performances. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, and my girls were so excited to see the mermaids."