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The Grist Mill at the Dollywood theme park.

Dollywood Theme Park Turns 30

Time certainly flies when you’re having fun! Believe it or not, the famous Dollywood theme park turned 30 years old in May of 2016! To celebrate the park’s big birthday, Visit My Smokies is taking a look back at Dollywood’s incredible history. Read on to learn how Dolly Parton created one of the country’s most popular vacation destinations.

Before Dollywood…The Dollywood Express pulling into the station.

While Dollywood may be 30 years old, a theme park has been operating in its location for over 50 years! Here is a quick glance at the three attractions that came before Dolly Parton got involved with the park:

Rebel Railroad was launched in 1961 by the Robbins Brothers from North Carolina. The centerpiece of this small-scale park was a coal-fired steam train, known as Klondike Katie. Today, visitors to the theme park can still ride the same rails on the Dollywood Express!

Goldrush Junction became the park’s new name in 1970 when Rebel Railroad was purchased by Art Modell, the owner of the Cleveland Browns. In addition to a variety of new attractions, a chapel dedicated to local doctor Robert F. Thomas was added to the park in 1973. This proved to be a happy coincidence, because Dr. Thomas was the physician who delivered Dolly Parton!

Silver Dollar City was the theme park’s final pre-Dollywood incarnation. The original Silver Dollar City opened in 1960 in Branson, Missouri. When the Herschend family purchased Goldrush Junction in 1977, they opened a sister park in Pigeon Forge. If you love Dollywood’s delicious cinnamon bread, you can thank Silver Dollar City for building the park’s grist mill!

(See Also: 5 Pigeon Forge Attractions You’ll Never See Again)

Dolly Parton waving to the crowd at her annual Homecoming Parade.Dolly Dreams Big and Silver Dolly City Takes Notice

Dolly Parton famously grew up in a two bedroom cabin in the Smoky Mountains, the fourth of 12 siblings. When she became a country music superstar, Parton never forgot her roots. In an interview, Dolly explained:

“I always thought that if I made it big or got successful at what I had started out to do, that I wanted to come back to my part of the country and do something great, something that would bring a lot of jobs into this area.”

Parton announced her intention to start a theme park in the Smokies during a 1982 interview with Barbara Walters. When Silver Dollar City’s General Manager heard the news, he immediately reached out to Dolly to suggest that they join forces. Dolly accepted the offer, and the Dollywood theme park was born!  

Dollywood Opens and Defies ExpectationsThe Dollywood sign and butterfly flower arrangement at the theme park's entrance.

When Silver Dollar City made its transition to Dollywood, no one anticipated how big a success the new theme park would be. Experts estimated that the change would only increase attendance by about 100,000 guests. People Magazine sneeringly referred to Dollywood as Parton’s “$20 million hillbilly park.”

Dolly would prove them all wrong. On May 3, 1986, the park’s opening day, 1.3 million people showed up! This was more than double the numbers Silver Dollar City had recorded the previous year.

Dollywood was completely unprepared for the massive turn out on its first day. Lines for food were two hours long, so the park’s staff started making bologna sandwiches for the guests! Bathrooms were also in short supply, with Port-A-Johns scattered throughout the grounds. Learning from this experience, Dollywood built plenty of restaurants and restrooms for the following season.

The Rest is History

Over the past 30 years, Dollywood has grown by leaps and bounds. The size of the theme park has tripled, from 50 acres to 150 acres. Additionally, the Dollywood brand has been extended to a water park, cabin rentals, and the new DreamMore Resort. About 2.5 million people visit the park each year.

Dollywood is Sevier County’s largest employer and the most popular ticketed attraction in the state. The theme park also has the honor of being the most Instagrammed location in Tennessee!

A concert at Dollywood.What is the secret to Dollywood’s unprecedented success? Dolly Parton of course! The country star doesn’t just lend her name to the theme park; she takes a very active role in developing the park’s attractions, entertainment, and atmosphere. Parton’s unique artistic vision is baked into every facet of the Dollywood theme park. It is this attention to detail that elevates Dollywood from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

Buy Dollywood Tickets

Visit My Smokies offers free cancellation on any Dollywood ticket purchases when you buy your tickets with us. Click here to buy your tickets and start planning your vacation today.Cilck here for Tickets to Dollywood

If you’re planning a trip to everyone’s favorite theme park, check out these 15 Tips and Tricks for Saving Money at Dollywood!