A great feature of a trip to the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge, TN area is that it has a little bit of everything: there’s scenic beauty and hiking and general outdoorsiness if you’re into that, or there are overpriced cheesy tourist traps if that’s more your speed.
Or there is the third way, the way of perhaps overpriced but not cheesy outside the national park tourism, and that’s the direction we went with for this trip.
We actually had annual passes to Dollywood once, a few years ago, although we only went there twice during the year we had them. We went once for the big Christmas lights thing they have every year, and that was really fun, and chilly and not too crowded….and I can’t figure out where my pictures of that trip have gone. And then we came back the next summer, on our way up to Cape Cod. I was pregnant, and I couldn’t ride anything, so that was terribly sad for me. But it looks like the kids had fun:
We live less than an hour from a Six Flags, but we haven’t been there in years. Too many trips to nicer, more themed parks like Disney World and Dollywood have spoiled us, I guess.
Dollywood has a respectable collection of big roller coasters and other thrill rides, but it also focuses on having a really nice looking park with great theming and on its shows.
Dollywood has a deal where you can buy tickets after three one day and use the same tickets to get in free the next day. We actually ended up going two evenings in a row this way, because it was so hot that we couldn’t face the idea of a whole day in the park. Also there were other things in the area that we wanted to do. Also we figured we were unlikely to be able to get there early enough in the day to beat the crowds and heat, so our best bet was to get there later instead, when people were starting to leave and the sun was starting to go down. So we spent two fairly short and relaxed evenings at Dollywood. On one hand, this was way less overwhelming than trying to go all day would have been. On the other hand, we spent a ton of money getting in, and it was hard to fight the feeling that we should be doing MORE to get our money’s worth. I halfway wanted to go ahead and upgrade to annual passes to feel like it was a better deal, but Dave talked me out of it. Our travel plans for the next year are pretty fixed already, and I think having those annual passes that needed to get used hanging over heads might be stressful. Maybe another year.
Tickets aren’t quite at Disney level pricing, but they’re not cheap, either. Adult tickets are $65 plus tax, and adult pricing starts at 12, so that meant we bought four of those. Kids 4-11 are $52, and kids under 4 are free (yay!). So all told we spent well over $300 for our two Dollywood evenings. Having four kids is expensive. Go figure.
We parked in Pigeon Forge and took the trolley to Dollywood instead of parking there, to save some money and some hassle. I can highly recommend doing it this way. There’s a big, free parking lot right off the strip in Pigeon Forge (it’s right next to a big KOA, which looked way busier and less relaxing than Imagination Mountain, where we were staying, but if I were doing a trip that included Dollywood again, that location might be hard to resist) where you park and then catch the trolley for a short ride to the park. It’s 50 cents per person, and I believe parking is $12/car at Dollywood, so you can save enough money to buy yourself some fried dough or something at the park. And it drops you off right by the entrance gates (whereas if you parked at Dollywood, you’d be looking at a long walk to the gates or….a different trolley ride).
A theme park with our assortment of kids was a little complicated. The older kids, at least, were able to go off on their own some of the time, so that helped a bit. At one point, we somehow managed to split up into four separate groups, all doing different things. So big kids rode big rides and little kids rode little rides, for the most part.
Louis and Abe played on a conveniently located playground while the older kids rode Thunderhead, a great wooden coaster that we all remember fondly from previous visits:
Abe just barely squeaked by the height requirement for Firechaser, one of the newer roller coasters, so it was his first “big” coaster. He liked it….okay when he was on it, but he definitely didn’t want to go again.
I got in trouble for (I guess) leaning over too far to take this picture when we rode these cars. They made an announcement that everyone could hear telling me to put my camera away. How embarrassing! I wish the picture were better, after all I went through to get it:
Abe and I waited for a very long time to ride this train and then, just before it was finally supposed to leave, they closed it down because there was lightning in the area. Boo!
The woman at the ticket counter was very excited to tell us about how Dolly’s Coat of Many Colors was actually there in the Chasing Rainbows museum that tells Dolly Parton’s life story. I was sort of surprised to find that it didn’t really have all that many colors. It kind of looks like something I might buy for Abe off of Etsy, in fact:
There is much for the RV enthusiast to enjoy at Dollywood. You can go inside Dolly’s old tour bus:
Or you can buy some Dippin’ Dots ice cream out of an Airstream:
Incidentally, back when Dave and I worked at a movie theater in the mall in college, there was a Dippin’ Dots place right outside of the theater. Back then they called it “the ice cream of the future.” I guess they had to stop, because the future got here and the vast majority of ice cream is still not in dot form.
I’d like to go back sometime when Abe is older and it’s not as hot and we can make better use of our time. We didn’t see any shows! Not even the one where dogs do tricks and jump really high! But when we were walking around on our first evening there, Amy confided that she’d wanted to go to Dollywood ever since it first opened when she was a kid, but she’d never made it there before. So I’m glad we were able to fulfill her decades long dream. And it came with the whole coat of many colors bonus opportunity, too!
Our next outside of the National Park adventure was rafting on the Lower Pigeon Gorge with the Nantahala Outdoor Center. They have several locations, but the Pigeon River one was only about 20 minutes from our campground. When I say “our adventure” I really mean those people you see in the photo up there. Abe woke up in a very bad mood that day, and we decided it might be better for everyone if I stayed at the campground with him and bought him ice cream instead. And Ari opted to stay with us.
We didn’t have any intention of rafting when we were planning the trip, but the inescapable brochures from rafting companies all over the place sucked us in. The Lower Pigeon Gorge is a relatively tame trip that kids 3 and up can go on; to do the rougher Upper Pigeon, everyone needs to be at least 8 years old and 70 pounds. Louis is only seven, so the Lower Pigeon it was!
My information is second hand here, of course, but I’m told everyone had a great time (although Louis’s patience was wearing thin by the end). The trip lasts about three hours and includes a couple of stops to swim and explore. Prices range from $24.99 to 29.99 per person. There are a few small rapids (you have a guide with you in the raft), but for the most part the water is very tame. My kids report that it was really fun, but that they wouldn’t have minded some more intense rapids. They still rank rafting as the number one water activity of the three they did this summer, though. Dave, Milo, and Gus all say rafting first place, then kayaking, then tubing. Sorry, tubing: you lose.
Luckily for those of us left behind, NOC takes lots of pictures of your group and gives you a disc of images at the end. I’m told this involved a woman whose job it is to run along the shore and take pictures of everyone.
For a surprisingly large number of the photos, they were told to make funny faces: