by Paul Ruben
It had been 22 years since the last time I visited Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. It’s not easy for me to get to, so I kept postponing the trip. But this summer I went back, and I’m glad I did.
It’s changed, of course, but it’s easy to see why it earned the Applause Award in 2010. Dollywood’s theming is beautifully imagined and it is pervasive, one of the best themed parks in America.
Of course there were new coasters to ride, too. Blazing Fury had been there when I visited before, but it remains a favourite combination dark ride and coaster. Great Coaster International’s Thunderhead woodie, the Gerstlauer Mystery Mine, Arrow’s Tennessee Tornado and L&T’s funky VeggieTales Sideshow Spin, a family coaster, were all new for me. VeggieTales was the smoothest and most comfortable, probably because it was the slowest. That’s Veggie Tales pictured behind me.
It was very hot that day, so I thought I’d cool off in one of the park’s air-conditioned theatres. I forget how much good entertainment adds to the theme park experience. Thought I might find a country music show, since this was, after all, Dollywood. I was looking for a show with some country tunes like, Kissed Her on the Lips and Left Her Behind for You or My Wife Ran Off With My Best Friend And I Sure Do Miss Him. Perhaps you’ve guessed by now that I don’t like country music. But I don’t mean to denigrate those who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means “put down.”
But instead I happened upon Dreamland Drive-In, a revue featuring chart-topping hits of the ’50s and ’60s. Nearly an hour long with great singing and dancing, it was the best show I’ve seen in a theme park this year.
I cooled off the next day in Splash Country, Dollywood’s adjacent waterpark and finished with a night of Terry Evanswood’s magic at Wonderworks. Four miles down the road is Gatlinburg, one of America’s premier destinations for kitschy fun. Ripley’s has seven attractions here including the spectacular Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. Mysterious Mansion haunted house is here, along with an observation tower, chairlift, earthquake ride and arcades. Who needs mountain scenery with all this? I love kitsch; who doesn’t?
That night in Gatlinburg I went into a local bar, sat down, and asked a big guy next to me, “Wanna hear a good Tennessee joke?” He looked me over and said, “Well before you tell that joke, you should know something. I’m six foot tall, 200 pounds, and I’m a UT (University of Tennessee) graduate. The guy sitting next to me is six-two, weighs 225, and he’s a UT grad. And the fella next to him is six-five, weighs 250, and he’s a UT grad, too. Now, you still wanna tell that joke?” “No,” I said, “not if I’m gonna have to explain it three times.”