Dollywood’s History and Timeline
Since 1986, visitors from around the world have become well acquainted with the Dollywood name and experience. However, the entertainment park actually traces its roots back to 1961 when Rebel Railroad first opened on the site that, over time, has expanded and grown into Dollywood.
Rebel Railroad was a small-scale attraction operated by the Robbins Brothers from neighboring North Carolina. Rebel Railroad featured a coal-fired steam train named Klondike Katie, a general store, a blacksmith shop and a saloon for visitors to enjoy. The Robbins Brothers had indeed created a winning formula. Visitors were intrigued by the Smoky Mountain way of life, and vacationers were eager to catch a glimpse of what Rebel Railroad had to offer. Little did the Robbins Brothers know that they were laying the groundwork for what would later become Tennessee’s most-visited attraction.
In 1970, Rebel Railroad underwent a change in ownership and name when it was purchased by the late Art Modell, then owner of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns. Under new ownership, Rebel Railroad was renamed Goldrush Junction and was touted as “Tennessee’s Million Dollar Fun Attraction.” Though the name had changed, the experience was unaltered; actually Goldrush Junction began to expand. Visitors still enjoyed the five-mile train ride into the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, complete with mock Indian attacks and train robberies.
New attractions including a wood shop and a saw mill were added in a nod to the area’s rich history as a logging community. Further additions included an outdoor theater, log cabins, a campground, and several children’s rides. Goldrush Junction visitors could pan for gold, stop by “The Lady Gay” saloon which featured live entertainment, and ride the Log Flume which had been relocated to Goldrush Junction from the New York World’s Fair. In 1973, the Robert F. Thomas Church was constructed. Named for a well-known doctor in the Sevier County area, the Robert F. Thomas Church represented the strength and devotion of this Appalachian community to its Christian values. Later on, the Robert F. Thomas Church would have a strong link to a very well known Sevier County native.
Visitors continued to flock to this attraction located just outside the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains. For a single season in 1976, Goldrush Junction was known simply as Goldrush. In 1977, the park would undergo yet another name change as well as a change in ownership. Jack and Pete Herschend of the Branson-based Herschend Enterprises purchased Goldrush, and it would now be known as Silver Dollar City, Tennessee.
The Herschend Family wasn’t new to the attractions industry. Brothers Jack and Pete along with their Danish immigrant parents Hugo Herschend and his Chicago-born wife Mary often traveled to Marvel Cave—Missouri’s deepest—which had been opened to tourists in 1894 by the Lynch Family. In 1950, the Herschend Family entered into an agreement to lease Marvel Cave from the Lynch Family. They quickly cemented their commitment to expand the area with an early 1950s purchase of 640 acres around the cave. Hugo and Mary continued with plans to transform Marvel Cave into a major tourist attraction. Although Hugo passed away in 1955, Mary, Jack and Pete moved forward and began work on a cave train project. In 1958, their hard work was rewarded with the inaugural run of the world’s only underground passenger cable train at the time.
On May 1, 1960, what had previously been known as Marvel Cave now marked its opening day as Silver Dollar City in Branson. The themed park featured five frontier-style buildings—a blacksmith shop, general store, ice cream parlor, doll shop, the Stage Coach Inn—as well as two reconstructed log buildings, the Wilderness Church and the McHaffie Homestead. Local entertainers played hillbilly music while the “Hatfields and McCoys” revived their legendary feud on Main Street. Employees costumed in 1880s attire became the “citizens” of Silver Dollar City. As for the theme park’s name, it traces its origin to the 1960s when folks paid for everything in cash. The Herschends were encouraged to use silver dollars as change for transactions in the park. Thus, when vacationers spent the coins elsewhere and were asked where they had gotten the coins, they would reply “Silver Dollar City.” The Herschends took the advice, appropriately coining the phrase “Silver Dollar City.
With Silver Dollar City Branson up and running, the Herschend Corporation expanded into other themed entertainment ventures including White Water water parks; the Showboat Branson Belle, an exquisite paddle boat featuring dinner and entertainment; and the Grand Village shopping complex in Branson.
The Herschend Family was the proud owner of a winning concept. They captured the very heart and soul of the late-1800s Appalachian mountain people and their communities while also preserving the history and traditions of the area. With the success of Silver Dollar City Branson well in hand, the Herschend Brothers looked eastward to their next endeavor.
Upon acquiring Goldrush in 1977, the Herschend Brothers contributed more than a million dollars in improvements on the way to opening Silver Dollar City Tennessee in Pigeon Forge. Intent upon showcasing the craftsmanship of the Smoky Mountains region, guests entered near the park’s train trestle, passed under the train tracks and entered Craftsman’s Valley. The area was filled with talented artisans including blacksmiths, wood carvers, leather smiths and lye soap makers who showcased their crafts while demonstrating their trades. The park experienced significant growth over the next decade of operation including the addition of rides, shops, more craftsmen, shows and attractions like the Silver Dollar Grist Mill which was completed in 1983 and became the first working grist mill built in Tennessee in more than 100 years. The Herschend Brothers never compromised their commitment to the preservation of the Great Smoky Mountains’ heritage and traditions.
In 1980, the park broadened its appeal as it expanded beyond Craftsman’s Valley and the train depot with the addition of several rides. Silver Dollar City enjoyed steady growth in attendance and new additions to the park were made throughout the early 1980s. However, the Herschend Brothers soon welcomed another much-loved and recognizable East Tennessee tradition to the mix. Singer, songwriter and actress Dolly Parton, a Sevier County, Tenn., native and entertainment superstar, joined the Herschends in the theme park business in 1986. Not only would Dolly share her entertainment expertise and her love of the Great Smoky Mountains, she would also share her name as what had been Silver Dollar City opened in 1986 as Dollywood.
Since 1986, Dolly Parton and Herschend Family Enterprises have remained partners in Dollywood, Tennessee’s most-visited tourist attraction. Dollywood also ranks in the Top 50 most attended theme parks worldwide. The park has more than doubled in size, now encompassing 150 acres. An entirely new area, Rivertown Junction, was added for Dollywood’s first season. Included in this area were Aunt Granny’s—still Dollywood’s most-visited restaurant—Dolly’s Tennessee Mountain Home; the 450-seat Back Porch Theatre and the Smoky Mountain River Rampage.
Dollywood also experienced tremendous increases in attendance, drawing 1.3 million visitors in 1986, an increase of approximately 75 percent as compared to Silver Dollar City’s last season in 1985. Dollywood consistently entertains more than two million visitors annually (a 54 percent increase over its inaugural 1986 season and a 160 percent increase over its 1985 attendance.)
In the years since the Dollywood name has graced the theme park’s main entrance, more than $168 million in expansions and additions are now visible as a result of Dollywood’s ongoing commitment to offering guests something new each season. And, several favorites continue to welcome guests, both old and new, including Klondike Katie, a 110-ton coal-fired steam train built in 1943 that still roams the tracks through the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. And, the Robert F. Thomas Chapel remains but its significance to the park grew stronger after Dolly joined the family. It was Dr. Robert F. Thomas, the local Sevier County doctor, who one day delivered the fourth of twelve children to Lee and Avie Lee Parton—Dolly Rebecca Parton.
In recent years, Dollywood also has claimed its spot among industry award winners, including the 2010 Applause Award, an international honor in recognition of foresight, originality and creativity, plus sound business development and profitability in the theme park and attractions industry. In 2012, Dollywood swept Amusement Today’s Golden Ticket Awards, the theme park industry’s leading honors, with five wins: Friendliest Park, Best Shows, Best New Attraction for the Wild Eagle wing coaster, Best Food and Best Christmas Event. Wild Eagle topped Amusement Today’s 2012 Best Steel Coaster list while the Thunderhead wooden coaster placed fourth on the Top 50 Best Wooden Coaster rankings. Thunderhead ranked first in this category in 2005 and 2006. In 2007, Mystery Mine was awarded best new theme park attraction by Theme Park Insider magazine. The same year, Dollywood was selected as Amusement Today’s Publisher’s Pick for Best Park.
Dollywood is a five-time winner (2008-2012) for Best Christmas Event and four-time winner for Best Shows (2009-2012). In 2006, Dollywood won the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) 2006 Heartbeat Award, bestowed upon the ‘50s and ‘60s musical revue Dreamland Drive-In that opened that same year. In 2007, Dollywood claimed its second Heartbeat Award for The Great American Country Show. Dreamland Drive-In repeated in this category in 2008. Dollywood claimed its fourth consecutive Heartbeat Award in 2009 for Sha-Kon-O-Hey! With 21 IAAPA Brass Ring Awards for Excellence in Live Entertainment, Dollywood has won more than any other theme park in the world.
Visitors from across the country and around the world flock to the Pigeon Forge entertainment park to experience the heart and soul of the Great Smoky Mountains. Dollywood prides itself on Creating Memories Worth Repeating™. By offering a blend of thrilling rides, spectacular shows and master craftsmen in the Great Smoky Mountain and presented by employees with a genuine interest in the guest’s experience—all sprinkled with Dolly’s own special brand of charm and appeal—Dollywood more than delivers.
For more detailed information about yearly additions and expansions, please follow our year-by-year timeline.
Since Dollywood’s official opening in 1986, additions to the entertainment complex through 2013 (not including the $20 million investment in Dolly’s Splash Country) represent a total investment of $142 million.
2013: Dollywood’s Splash Country welcomes Tennessee’s first and only water coaster in May with the opening of RiverRush, a $6 million attraction that stands four stories tall and spans 1, 175 feet in length. At Dollywood, the stunning shows Cirque Shanghai and Mystic India headline springtime’s Festival of Nations (March 23-April 22) while The Great American Summer (June 22-Aug. 4), including a nightly fireworks extravaganza entitled Dolly’s Nights of Many Colors and daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. operating hours, celebrates summertime. An all-new The Great American Country Show returns May 10 while My People—Dolly’s Letter Home, written by Dolly Parton, features her amazing story told through song and story by her family, opens May 10, too. Dollywood’s A Christmas Carol, an original production of the Dickens classic, headlines the park’s annual Smoky Mountain Christmas festival (Nov. 9, 2013-Jan. 4, 2013).
2012: Dollywood adds the $20 million Wild Eagle, the first wing coaster in the U.S. Reaching a top speed of 61 mph, Wild Eagle looms 21 stories above Dollywood in the park’s Timber Canyon area. The steel coaster’s 3,127-foot track’s highest drop features four inversions and a 135-foot first drop. Spirit of the Dance headlines Dollywood’s Festival of Nations while KidsFest features Chris Perondi's Stunt Dog Experience. Dollywood’s Splash Country marks its 11th season of operation.
2011: Dollywood adds the $5.5 million Barnstormer, a 32-passenger family thrill ride in a newly themed area called Owens Farm, which takes its name from Dolly’s mother’s maiden name. Samaia: Georgian Legend headlines Dollywood’s Festival of Nations while KidsFest features The Gazillion Bubble Show. Back by popular demand, Barbeque & Bluegrass returns (Aug. 19-Sept. 5). Dollywood’s Splash Country marks its 10th season of operation.
2010: Dollywood marked its 25th anniversary season in 2010, which culminated with winning the prestigious Applause Award, the highest honor bestowed upon a theme park. The new Adventure Mountain, the country’s largest challenge course, rises above the landscape in the park’s Wilderness Pass area. Designed exclusively for Dollywood, the one-of-a-kind two-acre attraction is unmatched universally in size and scope and features more than 140 interactive outdoor elements. Dollywood Festival of Nations welcomes three new shows—Nova Scotia’s DRUM!, Peru’s Jallmay, and Trinidad’s Invaders. For the first time, KidsFest features an all-new lineup of shows with a new headliner every week of the festival. Slick Rock Racer, a $1 million multi-lane mat slide, joins the water park’s lineup of adventure slides.
2009: Dollywood’s entertainment lineup expanded to welcome Sha-Kon-A-Hey! Land of Blue Smoke, the most elaborate musical production in the park’s 24-year history. Opening May 9, 2009, in DP’s Celebrity Theatre, the show tells the heartfelt story of the last family to leave the area that would become Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2009. No story about the Smoky Mountains would be complete without Dolly, who wrote the eight new songs featured in Sha-Kon-A-Hey! Le Grand Cirque’s Imaginé headlines Dollywood Festival of Nations and features a premier cast of world champion acrobats and performers from 15 countries and acts including pole climbing, contortionists, hoop diving, unicyclists, silk ropes, the diablo, and much more! Dollywood Vacations was launched, for the first time offering guests overnight accommodations in luxurious mountaintop cabins as well as vacation planning that includes the Dollywood properties and area attractions.
2008: Dollywood welcomes the new family water adventure ride River Battle, a $5 million attraction in the park’s new Wilderness Pass area, adjacent to Timber Canyon. River Battle features nine, eight-passenger rafts, each armed with soaker guns. Passengers navigate a 500-foot channel featuring more than 100 targets along the way. River Battle engages riders as well as unsuspecting onlookers on the banks for a uniquely interactive experience. At Dollywood’s Splash Country, it’s a rush of white water fun on the new $1 million SwiftWater Run. The exciting tubing bowl ride offers double- or single-passenger tubes that take passengers through a 54-inch diameter tunnel that propels them into a large bowl feature. After multiple revolutions, passengers then encounter a corkscrew before navigating a downward chute that plunges into the landing pool.
2007: The season unveils the largest capital investments at both parks. Dollywood’s $17.5 million Mystery Mine steel coaster occupies a one-acre expansion in Timber Canyon. Passengers encounter the ruins of an abandoned mine while traveling a 1,811-foot track which includes a hair-raising 95-degree, 85-foot vertical drop, just the first in a series of amazing maneuvers. At Dollywood’s Splash Country, relaxation and tranquility combine with adventure for The Cascades™, a new $2.8 million 8,000-sq.-ft. leisure pool. A rock grotto with intertwined slides, a geyser with 20-foot sprays, a 24,000-sq.-ft. tiered deck space and eight new Waterside Retreats make The Cascades a family favorite at the water park.
2006: In 2006, Dollywood’s Timber Canyon area opens, welcoming Timber Tower™, the only ride of its kind in the U.S. Lumberjack Lifts, Lil’ Loggers’ Landing, Beaver Creek Boat Float and Beaver Creek round out the new offerings in the action-packed adventure area. In addition, the new 150-seat LumberCamp restaurant greeted hungry guests. New entertainment offerings include Dreamland Drive-In, a ‘50s and ‘60s musical review in the Pines Theatre, plus the much-anticipated Dollywood’s Babes in Toyland, the centerpiece of the Smoky Mountain Christmas festival. In addition, Dollywood launches its fifth festival—BBQ & Bluegrass—featuring entertainment by Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, the Del McCoury Band and more. At Dollywood’s Splash Country, Fire Tower Falls™ changes the landscape as the twin speed slides become the park’s tallest and fastest slides ever, rising 70 feet.
2005: A 3.5 acre, $5 million renovation in Dollywood’s Country Fair area brings 10 new family rides to the park. In addition, the park’s fall season introduces the new National Music & Harvest Celebration featuring 38 days of free concerts performed by country, bluegrass, Southern gospel and Americana artists. At Dollywood’s Splash Country, a four-alarm soaking awaits guests at the new Bear Mountain Fire Tower,™ a $2 million multi-level interactive water attraction.
2004: Dollywood added The Thunderhead™ wooden roller coaster. A $7 million investment, The Thunderhead—the wildest ride in the wood, opened to great reviews and received several Top 10 rankings among coaster enthusiasts. At Dollywood’s Splash Country, guests took the plunge—the Big Bear Plunge, with the addition of the exciting white water rafting adventure ride.
2003: Dollywood introduced KidsFest, the largest kids’ festival in the South, which included two new stage shows for children—VeggieTales® and Garfield’s® 25th Anniversary Birthday Party—and the Purina® Dog Chow® Incredible Dog Team and ASA Extreme Sports shows. The Buddy Baxter’s Bandstand USA rock ‘n’ roll show premiered in the Pines Theatre on May 24 and Randy Parton starred in the new Randy Parton Country State of Mind country show in the Celebrity Theatre. Dollywood’s Festival of Nation’s returned with the addition of the Dollywood International Food Faire, a 7,000-square-feet of foods from around the world. At Dolly’s Splash Country, a $1.5 million, two-acre expansion called Raintree Hollow opened featuring Soaker Springs, a large interactive water attraction for children and Mountain Twist, a multi-slide complex.
2002: Adventures in Imagination opens at a cost of $10 million. New attractions include Smoky Mountain Wilderness Adventure, the world’s largest Turbo Ride® Action Simulator Adventure; Clovis’ Wilderness Corner retail shop; Chasing Rainbows, a state-of-the-art interactive museum collection that chronicles Dolly rise to fame from her humble East Tennessee beginnings to her multi-faceted career as an award-winning singer, songwriter and actress; and the Doughnut Factory.
2001: Dollywood introduced its popular Festival of Nations, a monthlong celebration of dance, food and culture from around the world featuring more than 300 performers and artisans. Dolly’s Splash Country, a $20 million waterpark, opened on May 19. Situated on 25 acres near Dollywood on Middle Creek Road in Pigeon Forge, Dolly’s Splash Country features a 25,000-square-foot wave pool, a family raft ride, a lazy river, an interactive children’s area, multi-person tube rides, two “extreme” body slides, shaded lounge areas and a restaurant.
2000: Dreamland Forest opens. This $5 million attraction features 15,000 square feet of interactive games, gadgets, and gizmos for children of all ages including the world’s largest interactive tree house; a three-story bee hive, a "wet and wild" area called Bullfrog Creek, Ranger's Cookhouse restaurant, and a nature-themed gift shop.
1999: Dollywood adds the $8 million Tennessee Tornado, the world’s first spiral-loop coaster featuring back-to-back 360-degree loops. Dollywood also became headquarters for the Southern Gospel Music Association's Hall of Fame and Museum honoring the genre’s legends with interactive displays, more than 350 artifacts and a recording studio.
1998: Paradise Road: The Life and Songs of Dolly Parton, a major Broadway-style show chronicling the superstar’s amazing career, debuted on April 18. Dollywood’s 13th season also marked the addition of Daredevil Falls, a unique waterfall ride featuring a 63 mph free fall.
1997: Additional entertainment offerings marked Dollywood 12th season with the addition of American Dream, a country music show starring Randy Parton; Country Treasures, a dynamic production show highlighted by performances by Grand Ole Opry legends; Shenani-Guns, a comedy show and U Pick Nick, a Nickelodeon®-themed high-energy kids show. Imagination Station introduced one of the world’s largest LEGO® play areas. In the fall, an expanded Harvest Celebration and Southern Gospel Jubilee opened.
1996: Dollywood Boulevard, an $8 million expansion, anchored the park’s 11th season. Based on the classic 1957 Robert Mitchum film, Thunder Road, a $5 million state-of-the-art simulator ride was added and at the time, was the world’s largest Turbo-Ride® Action Adventure featuring a contour-flair screen measuring 55 feet high and 70 feed wide. A themed restaurant and merchandise attraction completed the area. Also in 1996, Dollywood introduced the popular Southern Gospel Jubilee during the park's fall Harvest Celebration. The country's largest Southern Gospel event featured gospel greats J. D. Sumner & The Stamps, the Lewis Family and the Kingsmen.
1995: Dollywood unveiled Jukebox Junction, a $6 million seven-acre 1950s themed area featuring the 1,000-seat Pines Theater, Red’s Diner, the Rockin’ Roadway, a ride featuring classic replica cars. Entertainment included Let the Good Times Roll, a tribute to rock ‘n’ roll. A variety of merchandise locations offering classic memorabilia and nostalgic items completed the area.
1994: Heartsong, a film narrated by Dolly, debuted in the Heartsong Theater. Conveying Dolly’s fond memories and feelings for the Smoky Mountains, Heartsong’s powerful story is driven by Dolly’s music. Incorporating 70 mm film and specially created animation, Heartsong provides unique outdoor sensory experiences through theatrical lighting, sound and special effects.
1993: The Country Fair area opened, adding a new feature to Dollywood's skyline with the 60-foot Wonder Wheel ferris wheel. Other popular modern-day midway rides were added including the Tennessee Twister (also known as the Tilt-a-Whirl) and Twist and Shout (also known as the Scrambler). Nostalgia-themed additions included old-time games and a variety of "blue ribbon" foods.
1992: Dollywood’s seventh season welcomed Showstreet, a seven-acre, $6.5 million expansion including the 1,000-seat Showstreet Palace Theatre featuring the new show Fire on the Mountain; WDLY, a fully functional radio station; Friendship Gardens and Starwalk, a gardenscape area featuring more than 35,000 flowers and plants; a full production bakery plus a variety of entertainment, food, attractions and merchandise.
1991: In 1991, Dollywood welcomed the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, a 1.5 million-cubic-foot natural outdoor aviary, home to the largest presentation of non-releasable bald eagles. Also added next door was the Wings of America theatre and the Birds of Prey Show. The 400-seat Valley Theatre also opened in Craftsman’s Valley providing yet another stage to showcase entertainment.
1990: Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas celebration debuted during November and December of the fifth season. Festive holiday entertainment, attractions and foods all set against a backdrop of more than two million twinkling lights. Also added this year was Imagination Station, an interactive children’s play zone in the Country Fair area.
1989: The $8 million Thunder Express roller coaster was added for the fourth season. (Thunder Express was retired in 1998, making room for the Tennessee Tornado which opened in April 1999.)
1988: The new 1,739-seat DP’s Celebrity Theatre opened its doors and the first Showcase of Stars concert series debuted featuring performances by the biggest names in country music. (In 1990, the Country Music Association named DP’s Celebrity Theatre Theater of the Year.)
1987: Dollywood introduced another major ride, the Mountain Slidewinder, a water toboggan thrill ride (named the best non-roller coaster ride in the country by Amusement Business magazine). Daydream Ridge, themed around an 1890s logging community and featuring a children’s play area, was introduced this year featuring a toy shop, a playground area, the Daydream Diner, the Rainbow Blown Glass Shop and the Sweet Dreams Candy Shop.
1986: In its first year of operation, Dollywood unveiled an entire new area called Rivertown Junction featuring the park’s most-visited restaurant Aunt Granny's (named for the nickname by which Dolly's nieces and nephews call her); Dolly's Tennessee Mountain Home; the 450-seat Back Porch theatre (home of the popular Kinfolks Show); and the Smoky Mountain River Rampage, a thrilling white water rafting adventure ride.