Sharon and I have developed a certain fondness for the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg area. It was only a few years ago when we visited Pigeon Forge to meet some friends at the local “Jeepboree”. Sharon had just purchased her new purple Jeep and had stuck up friendships with other Jeep owners. As fortune has it, the following year we visited nearby Alcoa, TN for a large birthday gathering.
On both trips, we visited the nearby Dollywood theme park. Just last year, when we were taking so many trips that I ran out of vacation time, Sharon took an additional trip to the area when she visited the Land of Oz attraction in North Carolina. When she returned from that trip, we made up our minds that the next time we visited it would be for Christmas. 2020 was out because we were already planning to go to Japan in November, but maybe we could visit in 2021.
Then 2020 happened. I had more vacation time in the bank than ever before and nowhere to go. In July, I started planning possible trips, knowing that we might not go on any of them. Over time, our tour of the southeastern United States started to look like the winner. We’d just finished our first AirBNB cabin stay, which worked out so well that we were willing to do it again. But instead of northern Georgia, we’d rent a cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains and visit Dollywood for Christmas.
If you weren’t aware, Dollywood has won the Golden Ticket Award from Amusement Today magazine for Best Christmas Event every year for over the past decade.
That meant beating out Walt Disney World and Universal, which is no easy feat.
We knew that Dollywood is charming, so we needed to check out what Christmas there was all about. Since we were visiting in 2020, we understood that the experience would not be the same as if we visited any other year.
Getting to the park was much the same as our other trips. However, even in the parking lot, you could notice the changes. Before getting on the parking lot shuttle, we had to line up for a temperature check. After passing, we were given wristbands that would allow us to bypass the check stations at the main entrance. There were also announcements on the tram about the requirements of wearing masks while visiting the park unless eating, drinking, or in a “Mask Free Break Zone.”
Not saying that all of the guests were willing to adhere to these rules during our stay, but the park did make the attempt to strongly encourage the activity. In areas of the park where guests might gather, there were reminders to keep social distancing between parties.
Everywhere you looked, there were reminders to mask-up.
Dollywood is, in essence, two different parks that are smashed together. The front part of Dollywood is the older part of the park. It mainly consists of show theaters, some rides and the Dolly Parton museum. This is the part of the park where you’ll find the coal-powered train, rides you’d see at a state fair and most of the places to eat. It’s also amazingly cute. Set within the trees, you have to walk along winding paths to get from place to place.
The back half of Dollywood is where you’ll find almost all of the thrill rides. There’s plenty of them and they’re all good. I’m enjoying what may be the twilight of my rollercoaster years by riding these behemoths as much as I’m able. For coaster enthusiasts, there’s plenty to see here. Hot Rod is one of the best coaster experiences I’ve had (but it’s been closed the last two times I visited) and Thunderhead is a classic wooden coaster that’s all about speed and hills.
But we can visit Dollywood at any time and ride the coasters. What about Christmas?
Part of what makes the park great for the holidays is entertainment. Unfortunately for us, many of the shows were happening at indoor theaters. Even with rows blocked for safety, we didn’t want to sit inside for 45 minutes surrounded by strangers who may or may not be wearing their masks in the darkness of a theater venue.
Some of the shows were in outdoor theaters, and we took the time to see them. One of our favorites was the Appalachian Christmas show which featured bluegrass versions of well-known carols and original songs. I think the “new guy” in the show has only performed at Dollywood for 6 years.
For the holidays, Dollywood opened for the day at 2 PM. That meant that it’s wasn’t long until the sun started to set behind the mountains and the lights started to turn on. Let me say, I can see why the park has won so many awards. It’s absolutely stunning at night when it’s all lit up.
Dollywood kept their Santa meet & greet, with changes for 2020. Instead of meeting Santa, you could stand in front of a window while he was keeping his list of who’s naughty or nice. Of course, there was a photo op if you wanted to remember 2020.
One of the major attractions at Dollywood is the train. Unlike past years, to ride the train you need a reservation, which is provided by one of the conductors at the station. When arriving for your departure, parties are scattered about the platform on dots to keep spacing while waiting for the train.
Unlike most of the rides at Dollywood, there were no empty rows on the train. Instead, there was a clear sheet of plastic hung between rows. While this may help with safety, it did severely diminish the view as you could only see directly to the right or left of your row at nighttime. That’s not to say the views weren’t great, just not great to take pictures at night from a moving train.
When you really get to appreciate the park is when you’re just walking around.
The entire back section of the park is called Glacier Ridge. There are several places where they do shows, like the “Northern Lights” or “Wonderful Christmas”
The latter features a 50ft tree with programmable LED lights that puts on a show every 30 minutes. The one we saw told the story about a polar bear and its black bear cousin and how one Christmas they were able to meet.
As with everything at our park, we love theming. There is a story behind this show. The storyline involves a polar bear who has a black bear cousin in the Smoky Mountains. You’ll see both polar bears and black bears in the Wonderful Christmas show. At first, polar bear is sad because he longs to visit his cousin, but can’t make the trip south because it’s too warm in Tennessee. But then, polar bear hears that an historic ice storm has frozen over part of Dollywood (you know it as Glacier Ridge), so he jumps in his sled and races to see black bear. It’s the best Christmas ever because he spends it with family. You can read more about it on the story board posted in The Plaza.
There were two things we couldn’t miss out on during our trip to Dollywood. The first was a re-do of a picture from a previous trip, but with a 2020 twist.
The second was a stop to pick up some of Dollywood’s famous cinnamon bread. If you’ve never tasted it, you don’t know what you’re missing. It’s worth every calorie and carb down to the crusty, sugary, cinnamon covered bottom of the tray.
After seeing Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas in 2020, we’re wanting to see it again when things are back to “normal.” While most of the activities were the same, there was still an overhanging feeling of things not being the way they should be, which is exactly the way things should be in 2020.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary