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Dollywood gives families an Appalachian adventure
Kid-friendly fun blends with lessons in country life at theme park
Sofia Morales, 2, on the carousel at Dollywood. - photo by Kristen Morales
Where: 1020 Dollywood Lane, Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
When: Open daily 9 a.m.-8 p.m. throughout the summer
How much: $44.70-$55.90
More info: 865-428-9488

PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — Vacationing with a toddler can be tricky.

Suddenly, breakfast really is the most important meal of the day, because — as seasoned parents could probably attest — dinner while on vacation is usually closely followed by bed. Daily activities need to account for a 2-year-old’s stamina, willpower and an occasional nap.

A day spent at Dollywood, just a few hours north in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., luckily will cover much of these needs. There are plenty of rides suitable for little kids — think a traditional carousel, some 1950s-style cars kids can “drive” on a set track or a treehouse with a sprayground on the ground level.

The park is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with even more special shows and a new adventure-themed attraction, too.

Before you start thinking Dollywood is simply part of the over-the-top, tourist-laden cheese that lines the main drag through Pigeon Forge, stop. Yes, it is an amusement park created to reflect the likes of a country music legend — that in itself is a little odd. But a day spent at Dollywood teaches you that Dolly Parton has a love of family, her roots in the community and, of course, its music. She embraces the mountains, its people and its culture, and respects nature and the environment, too.

At least, that’s the impression I got while strolling up the “midway” at Dollywood. Rather than filled with blinking lights and topsy-turvy, lose-your-crackers rides, it’s lined with shops selling handmade items that are — get this — actually made in Dollywood. At first I was skeptical, but then I saw the carriage shop, with a half dozen or so hand-hewn, four-wheeled buggies of the kind my sister and I drooled over when we had horses as kids. The man gently rubbing the polish wore dirty overalls and was surrounded by special saws and a metalworking area.

If that was a display set up for the tourists coming to the Smoky Mountains, well, the folks at Dollywood sure made it look authentic.

But Dollywood is more than a stroll down memory lane. Carved out of the main walkways are themed areas with rides for all ages. This was my first experience visiting an amusement park with a child who was too small to ride on some rides, but we never felt like we were sequestered into a particular “kiddie” area. Instead, we could wander all over, finding rides my husband and I could enjoy by ourselves, and at the same time Sofia could ride on some with one of us — or, even, ride by herself.

The 1950s cars were a big hit with Sofia, my 2-year-old, along with a buzzing bee ride that allowed Sofia to control its ups and downs. A short walk away was an oversized treehouse where kids could get lost for hours, looking down from their perches on all us grown-ups. And up the hill, in the newer area of the park, the River Battle ride allowed the whole family to float along and be at the mercy of water gun sharpshooters watching from the sidewalk.

The last few years have brought several new additions to Dollywood, making it just as appropriate for teenagers still vacationing with the family, too. Along with River Battle, there is also Adventure Mountain, which is kind of a combination between a ropes course and a canopy treetop tour. And roller coaster enthusiasts can get their fill, too — there’s an old-school wooden one (The Thunderhead, built in 2004), a metal coaster with loops and flips, and an indoor coaster, Mystery Mine.

And of course, there is the music. Dolly wouldn’t be Dolly without her guitar, and she acknowledges that with dozens of live music, comedy and even informative animal shows throughout the day. Need to sit a spell? Jump into a theater and enjoy the music. Toddler not admitting to needing a nap? A visit to the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and its animatronic gospel quartet can solve that.

Or maybe not. If your child is anything like Sofia, they’ll be clamoring to go back and ride the 1950s cars again. And again. And again.

Not such a bad way to spend a day of the family vacation.

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