PIGEON FORGE, TENN.
Hot pink shag carpets the living room of Suite 627. Golden tiles glitter in the shower. Jewellike sequins, silver and pearlescent lily, wink your way from the wallpaper.
The opulence of 627 is a far cry from the otherwise understated decor in every other room in the resort, which feels like a Restoration Hardware catalog come to life. But it makes total sense when you read the plate on the door:
The Dolly Parton Suite.
"We wanted to make it where people really felt like they might be going into the star's room," Parton said by phone from her office in Nashville. "As far as decorating that, and all the little things that go in it, I was all over that, because I love that. It's a little more glamorous and Hollywoody."
It is, in other words, quintessential Dolly.
But then, so is the rest of Dollywood, the 150-acre Tennessee theme park celebrating 30 years in business with its biggest expansion to date. Dollywood's DreamMore Resort, opened in July, is the centerpiece of a 10-year, $300 million investment unveiled in 2013, and the park's first foray into the competitive hotel and resort industry. Lodging is "the future of the brand," said spokesman Pete Owens, as Dollywood competes for guests from all over the world.
For Parton, who turns 70 in January, Dollywood's brand goes hand in hand with her own. The park is unique in that nearly every facet reflects some aspect of her outsized life story — her mountain roots and Southern values; her staggering success as a singer, songwriter and actor; the resolve and acumen that spawned an empire of her own mold and vision. Each investment reflects directly on her legacy, making Dollywood an entertainment mecca like no other.
How many theme parks, after all, are built upon the life of just one person?
There's Disney. And there's Dolly.
• • •
Long before buying into Dollywood in 1986, Parton had dreamed of building a theme park near her hometown of Sevierville, Tenn. — a place to provide security and stability for her family and community. "It could be called Dollywood, U.S.A.," she once said.
However far-fetched the idea must have sounded outside the Great Smoky Mountains, no one living amid those cloud-capped peaks would have flinched. Parton is the closest thing to royalty that rural Appalachia has ever produced, having sold 100 million albums and earned more Grammy nominations than any other country artist in history. She transcended the poverty of her upbringing, becoming an icon of strength and sex and soul around the world, but she never forgot it — in song, in spirit, in her devotion to bettering the region she knew as home.
"People can relate to the inspiration behind coming from those humble beginnings and seeing who she is now — celebrated and successful and extremely, wildly talented," said singer Jennifer Nettles, who plays Parton's mother, Avie Lee, in NBC's upcoming movie about her life, Coat of Many Colors. "She listened to her calling, and she followed it, and she is healing the world by what she has done. Everybody sees that and wants to do that in their own lives, in their own way."
Back then, the park that became Dollywood was known as Silver Dollar City and run by brothers Jack and Pete Herschend, whose family helped put Branson, Mo., on the map. It was 25 years old, and a makeover led by local heroine Dolly Parton made a lot of sense.
"I knew it was a growing area," Parton said. "The Great Smoky Mountains have been there for a long time before we got there. It's the most visited national park in the United States, and that alone made me realize that would be a great place for a business. It was about trying to do something great."
Parton always planned to be more than a silent investor and figurehead. Over the years, she presided over the opening of theaters, roller coasters and many multimillion-dollar expansions — a Southern gospel hall of fame in 1997, a water park in 2001, a museum about her life in 2002, a luxury cabin line in 2009.
And yet it never had a hotel.
"I knew that we couldn't do it right away," she said. "But through the years, I kept saying, 'We need a resort,' because everywhere I'd go, people would say, 'Is there a hotel near there?' Because when people think about coming to that part of the country, if they're from parts of the world or from big cities, they think we're like Deliverance — they're going to go into some country hick sticks. They don't realize how progressive we are down there."
• • •
Progressive is a word few outsiders might apply to Dollywood, a broad, often hokey pastiche of mountain-town life and Old West fantasy. Hop aboard the smoky, sooty Dollywood Express, a 20-minute train ride into the woods behind the park, and you'll spot faux cabins, moonshine stills, even a statue of a bear — relics from the park's early days.
But its gentle Southern charms are endearing. The park is nestled between oak- and pine-tufted hills, the paths linking its attractions rising and falling like outdoor trails. Ducks waddle across the walkways from stream to pond, often with the sound of water wheels spinning or live bluegrass in the background. In autumn, the paths and gardens are dotted with some 4,000 pumpkins. And if you can exit the rustic Grist Mill, a bakery surrounded by pioneer craft shops, without a loaf of fresh-baked cinnamon bread in tow, you have more resolve than most.
When Dollywood opened, Parton's life story was at the heart of the park experience. The centerpiece of the woodsy Rivertown Junction was a partial replica of her ramshackle childhood home, complete with newsprint wallpaper. Later, the park would open a musical revue, My People, starring her siblings and relatives, as well as the Chasing Rainbows museum, an engrossing kaleidoscope of awards, relics and iconic outfits from her life.
Thirty years later, however, Rivertown Junction is the place you walk through on your way to screaming, spiraling coasters like the Wild Eagle, Mystery Mine and FireChaser Express. Dollywood's annual attendance is nearly 2.5 million, making it the most popular ticketed attraction in Tennessee; every year it reaps industry accolades for its rides, shows and service. Next year it will open the $22 million Lightning Rod, the world's first launched wooden coaster and fastest wooden coaster overall.
It has become a balancing act, weaving the narrative of Parton's life into the DNA of her thoroughly modern park and resort.
"We don't want to overkill," she said, "but we want to keep it Dolly."
Here's an example: The gift shop at DreamMore is called Pokeberry Lane, a reference to the wild berries a young Dolly would crush and dab on her lips as play lipstick. It's more than just an oft-repeated story from her childhood — it's a personal memory, as real to Parton as her song Coat of Many Colors, that sentimental chestnut about finding peace and love in poverty.
Pokeberry Lane is evidence that after five decades, Parton's empire still draws inspiration from her childhood. So is NBC's Coat of Many Colors, the first in a planned series of films inspired by her autobiographical songs. It is unabashed family entertainment, designed to unite parents and kids in a "high-tech world," she said, where "it's hard to even do anything together as a family."
At timelessly G-rated Dollywood, that will never be a problem. DreamMore, in particular, feels designed specifically to engender family interaction. There are dozens of benches and rockers spread across its porches; communal fire pits for nightly s'mores; bedtime story sessions for children; checkers, chess and free lemonade in the lobby. Many of the rooms are equipped with children's bunks, and the pool area is equipped with a splash pad and playground.
Near that playground is a bench molded to resemble an open book: The Little Engine That Could. It's a nod to Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, a children's literacy initiative inspired by her father, Robert, a farmer who could not read or write. Registered children receive one new book a month, starting with The Little Engine, until age 5. Over the last 20 years, it has grown from a simple Sevier County service to an international organization encompassing more than 1,600 chapters and nearly 900,000 kids.
"No one ever imagined we'd be where we are today," said David Dotson, president of the Dollywood Foundation, which runs the Imagination Library. "The growth has been beyond everybody's wildest dreams."
It also made Parton a renowned advocate for literacy and education, so much so that in 2009 she was invited to deliver the commencement address at the University of Tennessee, just up the road in Knoxville. "If I had but one wish for you," she told the assembled, "it would be for you to dream more."
And there you have it: the speech that gave Dollywood's first hotel its name.
• • •
In September, Parton was to visit Dollywood for a day of media tours. Her appearance was canceled on short notice with little explanation.
Three weeks later, a tabloid report circulated that she was secretly hospitalized for what could be stomach cancer.
In response, Parton released a statement: "I had kidney stones. I had them removed three weeks ago and I am doing just fine! I am back to work and last week I was at Dollywood filming parts for my new movie Coat of Many Colors. ... There is absolutely no truth at all that I have stomach cancer."
Still, the ordeal raises the question: Will Dollywood always be Dollywood, even after Dolly is gone?
"I don't think any of the plans that she's laid in motion are at risk of ending," Dotson said over coffee at Dollywood's Spotlight Bakery and Sandwich Shop. There is a "succession plan," he said, "imbued with the same kind of values, the same kind of approach, the same kind of appreciation, the same kind of real understanding of what a responsibility it is to carry on her brand and her legacy."
He put it this way: "People will be singing and appreciating I Will Always Love You 200 years from now. People will be seeing and appreciating Dollywood 200 years from now."
In Nashville, Parton owns warehouses containing lifetimes of memorabilia, including thousands of videotapes and nearly every dress she has worn since the 1960s, bagged, tagged and dated. An effort is under way to digitize every document in her collection, every note she has ever sung.
But what then? The Chasing Rainbows Museum can display only so much. Dollywood, said park spokesman Owens, "isn't a 150-acre Graceland, nor do I expect it to evolve into anything like that."
But it will evolve somehow; theme parks always do. There are untold acres of space for expansion within the company's sprawling Sevier County footprint. There's talk of moving the Dollywood Foundation's headquarters into the park, of even building an actual, physical Imagination Library, so the children who learned to read from Dolly's books can pick them up when they visit Pigeon Forge.
"I think that would be a great thing," Parton said. "I could be like Bill Clinton. Everybody has their library. Why can't I have one?"
After 30 years, Parton is happy that Dollywood has become an inexorable part of her legacy. It is, after all, the one chapter that keeps growing like no other, year after year after year.
"I think it reflects who and what I am," she said. "I'm hoping that people will remember me as more than just a singer or songwriter, but someone that really wanted to help. I always pray every day that I can do something to lift up mankind and glorify God."
When she returned to Pigeon Forge in October, Parton filled and sealed a time capsule dubbed the Dream Box, to be opened for DreamMore's 30th anniversary. Inside are personal effects like a piece of the porch from her childhood home and a new song titled My Place in History, whose lyrics address her state of mind approaching 70: I hope I've earned it, and hope you still remember me.
Parton will be nearly 100 when the Dream Box is unearthed in 2045. She plans to be there to crack it open.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.