September 06, 2022
Have you ever been to Dollywood and wondered what makes this place so wholesome? Why is this theme park so special? I know now.
In my work as an educator, I have collaborated with many leaders in the past 21 years. Some have been exemplary, and some have not. I have seen firsthand how an effective leader can create an incredible culture within an organization.
From the first time I stepped foot into the park, I wondered about Dollywood’s culture. The atmosphere seems light and easy, so I suspected that the leadership is strong. To dig in and glean what I could, I asked for time with a couple of Dollywood’s frontline leaders.
Dollywood is on mission to “Create Memories Worth Repeating,” and I wanted to look beyond the surface to find how leadership creates the magic that I feel every time I step into the park. Tara Benger serves as the Director of Attractions on Dollywood’s Operations Team. She started with Dollywood in 2005 when park recruiters came to her college—and she’s been with them ever since! She started at Imagination Cinema, and from there she has worked in various positions throughout the park. Because of this experience, Tara understands the big picture and can support many aspects of operating Dollywood.
Tara stops by to help out in Dollywood's Centralized Measuring Center.
Shana Tharan serves as the Director of Rooms at Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa. She has an extensive background in the hospitality industry, including opening and serving as the General Manager for several hotels. Through many twists and turns, life has brought her to work at the resort, and she could not be happier to call Dollywood home now.
Shana pauses on her way to check on her teams.
While they may not have traveled the same paths to get to Dollywood (one “grew up” at Dollywood as she moved up through the ranks from front line host to a director, and the other moved around professionally until she saw her opportunity to land at Dollywood in a management position), both leaders exemplify the values of Dollywood in their leadership roles.
Both women agree no two days are the same in their job, and they both firmly believe that it is the work of the greater team that makes Dollywood successful. When I asked what makes Dollywood so special, it was an easy answer: “It’s the people!”
Both leaders shared story after story about the people on their teams who create Dollywood’s wholesome family experience. They named intangible characteristics such as diligent work ethic, being a team player and heartfelt desire to serve guests as the reason behind the Smoky Mountain theme park’s charm and success.
Shana told me, “To be part of this [Dollywood] family… that’s not something we take for granted. They have a spirit to serve that can’t be taught.” With so many things on the to-do list, it would be super easy for these two ladies to stay in their offices, but that just is not how things happen at Dollywood. The team leaders often are seen working alongside the people they lead. As Shana says, “No one works for me. They work with me.”
For Tara, a day might consist of walking the park supporting members of her team at the front gate, the Ride Accessibility Center and other parts of the park, attending meetings, planning for future Dollywood attractions, or providing support for Dollywood hosts. On any given day, you will find Tara helping keep the park clean with her bedazzled trash grabber, on a “hydration tour” bringing water to Dollywood hosts, or coordinating with her fellow leadership team members to relieve front line attraction hosts so they can have lunch together. All of these actions are part of her leadership philosophy. Tara told me, “I work to lead by example. We work best working side by side.”
For Shana, you may find her working with resort guests checking in or out, supporting the staff of Pokeberry Lane (the retail shop) or The Spa, helping the housekeeping and laundry team, teaching a class on best practices in hospitality to her staff—all while developing plans for the newest addition to Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa, Suite 1986.
One commonality between these amazing leaders is their work to empower the people they lead. Whether it is helping them work through a challenge or supporting them as they make decisions, both of these leaders mentor others to be leaders in the work that they do each day. They also both believe in the power of helping their teams stay anchored to the Dollywood values of making a difference in the lives of others. Tara and Shana both tell me that the result of investing in the people they lead is a culture that makes Dollywood authentic and charming. It produces hosts who genuinely care about guests and making connections with them. And, this kind of culture celebrates people who have a heart to serve. These are a few reasons Dollywood is wholesomely different. It is the people. From leaders like Tara and Shana to every host in the company, the Dollywood charm truly is its people.
All Insiders Behind the Scenes
All Insiders Behind the Scenes