Dolly Parton is tired. But you only know it because she admits it if you ask. Her smile is the shape of a crescent, and her eyes never leave yours when she speaks. “It’ll hit me as soon as we’re done today, I think,” she says, leaning into a chair at the DreamMore Resort in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. She is wearing blue jeans and a red sweater with a plunging neckline, her world-famous cleavage forming a perfect upper-case Y. Her blonde tresses are pinned into a ringlet-spooled updo, her makeup newly reapplied. “I’ll probably jump in my bed tonight and be asleep before my head hits the pillow.”
Two hours earlier, the 77 year old had strutted onto a stage at nearby Dollywood in a black, off-the-shoulder dress, her high-heels adding six inches to her five-foot frame. Her hair (or wig, she owns myriad) had been down, and two felt “bear ears” jutted from her headband. She had told the crowd she was looking for a giant bear; in her hand she held an oversized honeypot. She was there to promote Dollywood’s newest and most expensive roller coaster, Big Bear Mountain, inspired by an Appalachian legend Dolly heard growing up in nearby Locust Ridge.
Twelve hours before that, she had been 900 miles away in Frisco, Texas, where she’d hosted the Academy of Country Music Awards with Garth Brooks. Zipped into a tight, bright dress with crisscross cutouts down the sides, she had wheeled a pink wagon carrying a live goat onto the stage after Brooks introduced her as the G.O.A.T.
Dolly has been busy, and yes, she is tired. But it’s not time to rest yet; she wants to talk about Dollywood, the theme park-turned-entertainment complex she founded in 1986 and plans to expand more rapidly over the next seven years than she has in the past 37. She has put the competition on notice: Dollywood is about to seriously up its game. By the end of 2030, she will add four resorts to the one in which she now sits, plus open a high-end campground. She’s also going to unveil Dollywood’s brand-new Dolly Parton Experience, an interactive museum with immersive animation showcasing her life story and an entire wing dedicated to her wardrobe. “Nobody expected me to live this long!” she laughs, shrugging her shoulders. “I’m looking forward to seeing my life laid out—it’s an adventure for me as well. To think, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of life, a lot of years, a lot of stuff, a lot of things to talk about.’”
• • •
Dolly Rebecca Parton was born in 1946, the fourth of 12 children who lived in a one-room cabin deep in the mountains of east Tennessee. Her father was a sharecropper, her mother a singer who taught her daughter everything from gospel tunes to Elizabethan ballads. “My parents will always be precious to me,” she says. “That’s why I’m here, because of them.”
Dolly inherited her mother’s vocal talents, and her uncle, songwriter Bill Owens, took notice. He booked a spot for her on a Knoxville variety show when she was 10; at 13, she appeared onstage at the Grand Ole Opry.
Through these experiences, Dolly saw her future. After graduating from high school in 1964, she moved to Nashville to pursue her dream of becoming a star. Three years later, she got her big break, landing a spot on the syndicated Porter Wagoner Show and a recording deal with RCA. Throughout the ’70s, she released a string of hits, including “Coat of Many Colors,” “Jolene,” and “I Will Always Love You.” Her songs showcased her unique Southern vibrato, as well as her willingness to write bold lyrics that drew from personal experiences.
During the ’80s, Dolly began showcasing her acting chops in films like 9 to 5 (for which she also created the titular single, which shot to No. 1) and Steel Magnolias. She also opened Dollywood in hopes of bringing much-needed jobs to her hometown. It’s now the county’s largest employer, a fact Dolly says makes her proud (“because I grew up in a real poor family, and I know what good jobs mean.”)
Over the decades, the awards and honors came rolling in, and in 1999, Dolly was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Ten years later, she became the first country-music artist to amass nominations for the “Grand Slam of Show Business”—an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. Still, she didn’t slow down, continuing to tour the world to promote all things Dolly.
Legions of new fans fell in love with her, inspired by her positivity and unwavering grit. She inspired a serialized podcast on her boundary-crossing appeal (Dolly Parton’s America), a Netflix anthology (Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings), and viral memes (like the #DollyPartonChallenge). Her Instagram has 6 million followers. Stars like Lizzo and Miley Cyrus, her goddaughter, clamored to collaborate on her first rock album, Rockstar, recorded on the heels of her induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last year. Reese Witherspoon’s clothing line, Draper James, has a dedicated Dolly shop with “What Would Dolly Do?” merchandise—and the question has become a cultural mantra.
So, what would Dolly do next? “Well,” she says, gesturing around the DreamMore. “Dolly would be open to building more resorts.”
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Pete Owens joined Dollywood in 2000, back when the majority of its visitors drove in from nearby Knoxville and Chattanooga. “It was very much a local-regional park,” says Owens, now the company’s vice president of marketing and public relations. He knows plenty of people still think of Dollywood like that—“a quaint little roadside attraction,” as he puts it—but he’s pretty sure none of those folks have visited since 2012.
That’s when Wild Eagle opened, a thrill ride that put Dollywood on the amusement park map. The first “wing coaster” in the country, it seats people on either side of the track, with nothing above or below them so they feel like they’re flying. “Wild Eagle was a game changer for us,” Owens says. Indeed: Amusement Today named it the year’s Best New Ride, the theme park equivalent of a Best Picture Oscar.
On the heels of Wild Eagle’s success, “Dolly stuck a stake in the ground,” Owens says. She announced in 2013 that her company would spend $300 million to build its first resort, the DreamMore, and add a six-acre section to the park specifically for small children (complete with a 50-foot tree featuring illuminated butterflies). Dolly had made up her mind: Her local amusement park was going to become a destination resort complex. “She’s our dreamer-in-chief,” Owens says. “She has these ideas, and we find pieces that fit together to make that dream a reality.”
People from much farther away than Knoxville supported her dream, too. They drove in from Washington, D.C., Birmingham, and Jackson, Mississippi; they booked flights from Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit. “We wanted to have robust offerings for them,” Owens says. So they also added Lightning Rod, the world’s first wooden coaster to start with a launch instead of a hill climb.
After the $300 million was spent (“a lot faster than we thought,” Owens says), Dolly announced in 2021 that her company would invest another half a billion dollars to add four additional resorts by 2030. The first of them, Heartsong Lodge and Resort, opens this fall. “Now I’m really excited about that,” Dolly says. “It has this huge fireplace, the most wonderful entrance you’ve ever seen going into the lobby.” The timing of the opening is a big deal, as Smoky Mountain Christmas is now one of the park’s most popular festivals and there aren’t nearly enough rooms at the DreamMore to satisfy demand. “We were surprised ourselves, to be honest, that the festival became such a big hit,” Dolly says.
Owens says that if all goes as planned, by the end of 2030, more than 1 million people a year will spend the night at a Dollywood property. That’s going to entail a mind-boggling amount of construction and hirings, prompting some to dub the 2020s “the Dolly Decade.”
“But really, every decade is ‘the Dolly Decade,’” Owens says. “I mean, you can go back to the ’70s and it’s ‘the Dolly Decade.’ She just keeps going.”
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Despite how quickly it’s expanding, Dollywood is not Disney. It occupies just one spot on the map with a single theme park open roughly 11 months a year, plus a summer water park. It does not have billion-dollar merchandising operations. It is staffed mostly by locals—including members of Dolly’s own extended family.
That doesn’t mean Owens assumes Disney isn’t paying attention to what’s happening in Pigeon Forge. “I think all of us keep an eye on one another,” Owens says. “I will say that in my tenure, we’re a lot closer to that level of park than we were when I started.”
Which begs the question: Is Dolly as strong a mascot as Mickey? Sitting at the DreamMore, after a night spent hosting a nationally televised awards show and a morning of “bear hunting,” she seems committed to proving she is. “I’m the perfect person for this,” she says. “I’m going to ‘play like I’m this,’ and ‘play like I’m that.’ We used to call it ‘placking.’ I do a lot of placking at Dollywood.”
And unlike Mickey, she comes to the planning table with vision boards and casts the deciding vote in every major decision that’s made. “I have to get out there and represent this place, so I want it to be run well,” she says. “I want to be able to take the same pride in it that I always have.”
Owens is convinced Dolly can stand toe-to-toe with any mouse. “In the sphere of the galaxy of stars, there are few as iconic as she is,” he says. “She is a threat in every category you can think of, from songwriter to singer to actor to producer. And she’s more popular than she’s been in decades. I mean, she is something else.”
And yet, she is something just like us. A flesh-and-blood human, the furthest thing from a cartoon, a woman who started with nothing and worked way more than 9 to 5 for everything she has. Who’s still working at 77—in a pair of bear ears, if the situation calls for it—and proving that one’s prime can always be in front of them. “I really am still having a good time,” she says. “And there’s a lot more fun to come.”
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What Does Dolly Eat at Dollywood?
“You know, I like the junk, like the funnel cakes. We have good junk. When I ride the parade, as I do on an old classic car, one of the things I enjoy most is going through all of the areas and smelling the different foods, smelling the fried onions and the hot dogs. And the cinnamon bread is like a little piece of heaven. To eat it or smell it!”
Why Dolly Loves Her Smoky Mountain Christmas Festival
“The fact it’s so good it’s lasted all these years! It’s become a tradition. Everybody that comes here for the winter season, they have to see the show and feel like they’ve been a part of it. The winter season does almost as good as the whole summer! It’s just amazing. You’ll see why, if you ever come here. It’s just spectacular with all the lighting and the shows and the foods … ‘We’ve got to go to Dollywood for Christmas. We’re going to Dollywood for Christmas.’ I love hearing that.” Nov. 4, 2023–Jan. 6, 2024
Why Dolly Wants To Keep Dollywood Budget-Friendly
Two-day passes to Dollywood are $109 a person. (For comparison, two-day passes to the Magic Kingdom are $218 a person.)
“It’s very important, because I know from my own life, growing up, people don’t have that kind of money to just squander it. So you gotta plan. If you’re gonna go on a vacation and a trip, you want it to be fun. People just need to feel like they get their dollar’s worth. And we go out of our way to make sure that they do.”
This article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of Southbound