It was only a matter of time.

In mid-June Dollywood came out of “hibernation” as Dolly put it, though not entirely. Not all venues within the park would open, but what caught our attention was word of “40% capacity crowds” and timed-entry reservations, and a park event described as a “Flower and Food Festival.”

As is my protocol with any day outing, long weekend, or full-length holiday, I researched. Thinking ahead and doing the ticket price math, we purchased annual passes, the cost of which will be recovered should we return to the park for either the autumn Harvest Festival or the Smoky Mountain Christmas. If not, well, whatever. A day away from the madness of the outside world was worth it at twice the price.

I consumed an excess of the Dollywood Insiders blog and read far too many listsicles about what to eat, from the latter concluding that outside of the “Food” part of this particular festival the cuisine would be Appalachian homestyle-centric. One should expect no less. Enlightening ourselves about Dolly Parton herself was part of our prep, as well. Beyond how she figures in popular culture and a couple of songs, we knew little else. We are now more learned, and have concluded that Dolly Parton is a National Treasure.

During my research I also came across an article by a high brow Big Apple writer for Travel & Leisure who visited Dollywood on its opening after the hibernation, but some of her writing seemed cliché or perhaps co-opted from promotional material. “…there are parts of the experience that match her outsized public persona. For example, there are a lot of bedazzled garments for sale, some of which might make you question the fabric’s ability to withstand that quantity of sparkle per square inch.” Yes, of course Dolly’s Store (byline: “Her Style. Your Size”) had plenty of sequined clothing but nothing I saw would even come close to passing Dolly’s personal outsized sparkly standards. And, while the author was correct in that Dolly’s Coat of Many Colors is indeed on display at the Chasing Rainbows Museum, the museum itself is closed, like all of the indoor attractions.

“Reentering the world is definitely a little bit scary, but nothing was going to stop me from being at opening day of Dollywood,” the author also wrote in one breath, while tsk-tsking over the many people in Pigeon Forge proper not wearing masks in another breath and how it kept her from shopping. Seemed more like a not-so-subtle dig at persons living and recreating in the eastern fringes of flyover country, as there would have been no one stopping her from donning her PPE and shopping her heart out.

But I digress. A good decade and change has passed since we last visited Disney World. We had Prater in Vienna, but to there I trammed only occasionally to meet Tony for lunch at Schweizerhaus. On Dollywood Day we dressed for the forecast 33C temperature, sprayed ourselves with sunscreen and a healthy misting of patience and flexibility, and pointed the wagon east, the “B is for Butterfly” parking lot our goal (the closest to the entry, as “A” is reserved for handicapped guests) with a stop for a “light” breakfast of chicken and waffles at a quirky place called Frizzle Chicken.  The restaurant interior resembles a hen house, with animatronic hens roosting above each booth, all with punny names like “Hens Solo;” “Feather Locklear;” “Henifer Anniston”…and of course, “Dolly Part Hen.”

We ate our pretty-okay chicken and waffles and headed out. Thanks to reduced capacity and timed-entry, the car was parked (B lot!) and we were queued for a temperature check before boarding the tram to the park entrance in good order. Easy-peasy.

The mountainscape setting added to the enjoyment of the visit. Dollywood felt more like visiting Appalachia and less like an amusement park. The wisdom of Dolly is all around the park in quotes here and there, but nothing about the park is all-Dolly-in-your-face. A recreation of the two-room cabin in which Dolly, her parents and 11 siblings (!) lived, and filled with personal effects is available to peek at, or study on, depending.

Tony and Anna Grace are the two daredevils in the family, so while they were off soaring like birds of prey (“There’s nothing above you and nothing below you. You can fly like an eagle” at 61mph on the Wild Eagle Coaster) and whipping along at 4G on the Tennessee Tornado, I stayed grounded in the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, the largest non-releasable sanctuary in the country and tucked into a steep wooded hillside.

I parked myself on a bench in front of the “Pick-A-Mate” enclosure, where the eligible bachelors were fluffing themselves up in search of a bachelorette. No voyeurism, though (this is Dollywood after all and not the zoo); when two eagles decide to pair they are upgraded to a private enclosure.

The Smoky Mountain River Rampage was especially refreshing on a summer day. While awaiting our turn, though, we noticed quite a few people exiting the ride who were upset that they had gotten wet. What part of “water ride” might they have misunderstood?

There is a working chapel at Dollywood, named for the Doctor who delivered Dolly (and her siblings) in that mountain home. Dolly’s father paid the Doctor with a bag of grain, as that was all the family could afford.

The “Flowers” part of the festival did not disappoint. The Tennessee State Animal, the Trash Panda was on display, along with the unofficial mascot of the Smoky Mountains and Dolly’s signature creature, the Butterfly.

As I was snapping this floral arrangement of The Coat of Many Colors, a family walked past the description and commented that it looked like a mermaid. Art is open to interpretation, I suppose.

With an 1100 entry we were in the park during the heat of the day and so did not sit for lunch until almost 1500. That was our folly. High hopes abounded for the “Foodtruck” part of the Festival, but most of the trucks were closed. Remember, though we had misted ourselves with flexibility, and so gave the Front Porch Café a go. Looking around at fellow restaurant goers (from a safe distance, of course) we concluded that we three should just share two entrees.  We all agreed on the “Meatloaf Stacker,” homemade meatloaf piled on Buttercrust bread, topped with mashed potatoes (and gravy, natch) served with a side of green beans and a garlic cheddar biscuit; and a simple dish of chicken tenders, also served with green beans. When the dishes arrived Anna Grace remarked, “The green beans have bacon in them!”

And? Delicious. Not something we would want to eat regularly, but we justified it as we had wandered close to 8km in the park when all was said and done.

On the subject of all being said and done, we had planned to visit Wildwood Grove but the folly of sitting for a homestyle meal when we had had sapped a little too much energy, so we flexed again and walked over to the Dollywood Express…just as the train was pulling away. With skies beginning to darken anyway we called it a Dollywood Day and headed for the exit. And just as we were exiting the park the skies opened and we slogged through the kilometers of kitsch that separates Dollywood from the Interstate toward home.

Two weeks later we returned to see the sections of the park we had missed, enjoying a carousel, another coaster, and a ride on the Dollywood Express.

We loved every moment, and look forward to returning. 🦋