My trip this spring to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, serendipitously coincided with the opening of a new area of Dollywood, the theme park owned by the one and only Dolly Parton. While the park is not far from where Parton was raised in Sevier County, the iconic performer, businesswoman, and humanitarian lives in Nashville and doesn’t make frequent appearances. Fortunately, a $37 million expansion of the 150-acre park warrants a visit, and I got to meet her.
While it was a brief encounter, it was long enough to stoke my fangirl flames. She was witty, sparkling (her dress and her personality), and kind. It made touring the museum on her life and career more fun. Alongside rides, craft demonstrations, and theaters with live entertainment at Dollywood is the Chasing Rainbows museum, filled with "behind-the-scenes collections, stories, and memorabilia," according to the website. There are shelves of awards and glittery costumes, plus sentimental pieces from her early days.
With one of the most-visited national parks next door, Sevier County is the busiest gateway to the Smokies. Its three main cities flow into each other: Northernmost Sevierville is home to the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport; Pigeon Forge has Dollywood, Tennessee’s most-visited commercial attraction, and the area’s most lodging options, including large-scale resorts; while Gatlinburg is a couple miles closer to the national park entrance.
I suggest basing your stay in Pigeon Forge, which has just 6,000 residents yet the infrastructure to handle as many as 50,000 taking in the restaurants, shops, and attractions along its parkway each day. On your way in or out of Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport, be sure to allot time for the Tennessee Museum of Aviation. The warbirds hangar displays about a dozen vintage military aircraft, most airworthy. The museum typically has two airworthy Republic P–47 Thunderbolt aircraft.
Capitalizing on the large numbers of visitors to the national park, many attractions have sprung up, looking to give visiting families or groups plenty to do outside the park. Here are some of the unique options in Pigeon Forge.
The Titanic museum attraction is one of two permanent Titanic museums in the United States shaped like the RMS Titanic and built half-scale. They are owned by Mary Kellogg-Joslyn and John Joslyn, who in 1987 led the dive to explore the famous ship’s wreckage, retrieve artifacts, and film its remains. Considered a living theater, the attraction allows you to walk up an exact replica of the ship's grand staircase, touch a real iceberg, and sit in an actual-size lifeboat. You’ll also see more than 400 artifacts valued at more than $4.5 million, from a rare letter written aboard the ship and mailed at the last port to dishware and a deckchair.
Within a block of the massive Titanic structure is what looks like an upside-down White House. This is one of six national WonderWorks, science-focused indoor amusement parks with about 100 hands-on exhibits combining education and entertainment. Across the street is a massive pair of hands holding a camera; walk through the lens to enter Beyond the Lens, opened in May and the first of its kind. It’s a new breed of museum designed with selfies in mind and ever-changing content based on coverage in the long-running U.S. tabloid National Enquirer. Some exhibits are based on decades-old stories and tell the story behind how National Enquirer writers and photographers got the story.
One of my favorite attractions was a first for me: riding a coaster built into the side of a mountain. At one mile long, the family-owned Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster is the longest downhill track in the United States. It’s a quick and surprisingly smooth ride down at 27 mph, but the best part was the slow 1,385-foot uphill lift through the forest.
Pigeon Forge Snow, the country’s first year-round indoor snow park, opened here in 2018 with a play area for building snowmen or snow forts and a hill of snow tubing lanes.
Thrill ride inventor Stan Checketts, credited with the Big Shot on top of the Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas along with 20 major patents, has designed a new ride scheduled to open in August 2019. Mountain Monster offers three rides from one 200-foot-tall drop tower.
With so much new coming into Pigeon Forge, it would be easy to miss the Old Mill historic district. Don’t make that mistake. The town began here on the banks of the Little Pigeon River, and the 1830 mill still operates today. Wander the square to see artisans at work at Pigeon River Pottery, Old Forge Distillery, The Old Mill Candy Kitchen, The Old Mill Creamery, and Iron Mountain Metal Craft, where you can also participate by signing up for a lesson. There are also restaurants and shops.