The History of Dollywood

For over 35 years, Dollywood has proudly served as a great spot to create lasting memories with your friends, family, and community. A true Pigeon Forge favorite, this theme park has grown and changed through the years, adding to the magic by leaps and bounds. To understand just how much has gone into creating the park of your dreams, all you have to do is gaze back into its rich history. Ready to dive into this amazing tale? Here’s a glimpse into the history of Dollywood.

Humble Beginnings

Although Dollywood adventures have become a time-honored tradition, the theme park wasn’t always a Dolly Parton production. In fact, the park got its humble start as Rebel Railroad in the early 1960s, starting its evolution toward greatness.

Rebel Railroad

The Robbins brothers started Rebel Railroad by putting down a saloon, blacksmith shop, and general store. Then, they set a steam train in motion around the park. Visitors were plunged into Civil War times at each visit, allowing them to watch in awe as battles raged on all around them.

Goldrush Junction

About 10 years later, Art Modell threw out a not-so-modest sum to own the park, renaming it the Goldrush Junction. During that time, the log flume ride and outdoor theater joined the fun. The Robert F. Thomas Church landed onsite as well, starting the tradition of the weekly church service in the park.

Silver Dollar City  

The Goldrush name came back in vogue in 1976 when Pete and Jack Herschend bought the park from Modell. Just one year later, the park turned into Silver Dollar City Tennessee and then got over $1 million in upgrades. They’re even the ones responsible for building the popular grist mill, which assists in making Dolly’s famous cinnamon bread to this day.

The theme park followed the Silver Dollar City formula for around a decade, paving the way for Dolly Parton to swoop in and make it all her own.

The Dolly Parton Difference

As Dolly Parton made her media rounds through the years, she’d openly dream of the day when she could open up her very own theme park. The Herschend brothers were listening when Dolly shared that desire with Barbara Walters, kicking off a truly rewarding partnership for all involved.

In 1986, Dolly got the chance to live out her dream. She partnered with the Herschend brothers right out the gate, allowing her to change the name to Dollywood. After that, it was just a matter of upgrading key elements in the park to make them all her own.

The church was named for the doctor who delivered Dolly Parton, for example, and the museum exploring her life story came to be. Special events were finetuned to better fit the new heartbeat of the park. This move signaled the end of the National Mountain Music Festival but opened up the doors for their greatest hits, like the Smoky Mountain Summer Celebration.

The rebranding worked its magic nearly instantly, doubling the total number of visitors to the park in just the first year. Visitor numbers have continued to increase since then, too, reaching over three million visitors every day in recent years.

Four Themed Areas Kick Off the Fun

Although it’s hard to imagine Dollywood without Showstreet, it wasn’t part of the original lineup. The park began with just four themed areas, and then grew from there.

The original areas included:

  • Craftsman’s Valley
  • Rivertown Junction
  • Village Square
  • Fun Country

All these themed areas still stand today, although Fun Country eventually became County Fair. But, like the rest of the park, they’ve changed considerably over the years.

The 1990s brought the Dentzel Carousel to the park, replacing the Silver Dollar Saloon altogether. On top of that, they built their incredible 600-seat Gaslight Theater, 300-seat Valley Theater, and Eagle Mountain Sanctuary.

The Park Expands Through the Years

In addition to all the changes made to the original sections of the park, Dollywood expanded its footprint to create a circular path through the park.

Key areas added through the decades include:

  • Showstreet
  • Adventures in Imagination
  • Daydream Ridge
  • Timber Canyon
  • Wilderness Pass

Daydream Ridge eventually became the Dreamland Forest where children can run and play to their heart’s content.

New Attractions, Shops, and Restaurants

All the extra space allowed them to add even more fun attractions, like the:

  • The Wonder Wheel
  • Tennessee Twister
  • Thunderhead Coaster
  • Swingamajig
  • The Barnstormer
  • Amazing Flying Elephants
  • Timber Tower

They’ve made key changes as well, like replacing the original antique carousel with a Chance Rides carousel with a modern flair.

Their restaurant offerings increased as well, allowing them to roll out all the homecooked goodness you could ever want. From stick-to-your-ribs deliciousness at Aunt Granny’s Restaurant to sweet treats at Crossroads Funnel Cakes, you can pretty much find it all in a single trip to the park.

Their shops are equally plentiful, allowing local artisans to sell their wares with ease. Home décor, artwork, clothing, jewelry, toys, and souvenirs galore are available all over the park, allowing you to spend hours upon hours shopping around.

Other attractions have evolved with the times, as have their special events. All along the way, Dolly and the crew have never lost sight of what the park means to all its loyal visitors. Their upgrades and other changes always add to the fun and excitement without taking away from the magic.

Splash Country Adds to the Dollywood Experience

Although the park is never truly done evolving, the addition of Splash Country definitely served as the final touch. By adding a waterpark to the layout, the park transformed into a wonderful place to cool down as temperatures rise.

Adults and kids of all ages can enjoy the many fun attractions across the waterpark, including:

Even more shops and dining venues joined the fun on that side of the park as well, making it easy to get whatever you need in an instant.

Dollywood will undoubtedly continue to change in the coming years. So, get out there and have a great time while taking tons of pictures. You’ll definitely enjoy comparing photos through the years as all the rides, restaurants, and shops come and go. Don’t forget to put their many special events on your calendar as well because you never truly know when they’ll evolve, too.