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Tennessee travelblog: Hooray for Dollywood

Trish the Dish (right) rides a Dollywood mini-coaster alongside Sadie, with Tinley and Riley in the car in front. (Photo by Berry Tramel)
Trish the Dish (right) rides a Dollywood mini-coaster alongside Sadie, with Tinley and Riley in the car in front. (Photo by Berry Tramel)

I once liked rollercoasters. Didn’t love them. Don’t get the wrong idea. But I liked them just fine. Until they didn’t like me.

Twenty-one years ago, during a trip to San Antonio’s SeaWorld, I hopped on the Steel Eel. My 15-year-old niece wanted to ride the ‘coaster, no one else in the group was willing to board, so I said sure. Didn’t seem like any worse of a rollercoaster than any other. But when I walked off, I felt funny.

Then as we continued through the park, I felt worse. Queasy. Just a shade disoriented. Finally, a massive headache hit me. I didn’t complain too much, and we were on the downside of the day anyway, and eventually we headed back to the hotel.

I got to the Holiday Inn Express and laid down. Tried to sleep it off. Laid there an hour with no improvement. Then I walked to the bathroom and was sick for a full half hour. I threw up every couple of minutes for what seemed like forever.

Then I stood up and felt fine. We went to dinner and I ate great.

But I’m convinced I had a concussion, courtesy of the Steel Eel. My brain felt jumbled. I wrote off rollercoasters. When you transition into your 40s, then speed into your 50s with the 60s in clear sight, rollercoasters lose their allure anyway, whether the Steel Eel has gotten the best of you or not.

Then came Wednesday, when we went to Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Grandchildren will prompt you to do the strangest things, and darned if I didn’t ride four rollercoasters. The girls are not daredevils; Sadie, 9, has an adventurous spirit, but Riley, 13, and Tinley, 8, are not so bold.

Still, enough chances arrived that my services were needed. J.J. rode most of the wild stuff with Sadie, but a few times I needed to ride with one of the others, or I helped talk them into trying something that was not too crazy.

So I ended up on four rollercoasters, all of the mild variety compared to the wild stuff. I skipped the Lightning Rod and Tennessee Tornado and Wild Eagle and Thunderhead. I boarded the Mystery Mine, Blazing Fury, FireChaser Express and Whistle Punk Chaser.

I’ve made peace with rollercoasters. I won’t board them unless I must, and only a select few people in the world can make that happen, but if necessary, it’s OK.

And Dollywood is more than OK. We had a fantastic day. The girls loved it, and the amusement park was the best. I’ve been to a few. Six Flags, of course. Frontier City. SeaWorld. Disneyland. The late Opryland back in the day. Bell’s in Tulsa – is Bell’s still open? I looked it up; nope. Closed in 2006. That’s sort of sad.

Of course, Dollywood had the advantage of hosting me when I had Riley, Sadie and Tinley. The world is always better with Riles, Sades and Keenshine. So I’m not ranking amusement parks. I’m just telling you how much fun I had.

Just about everything about Dollywood was excellent. The setting, nestled in the Smoky Mountains, is spectacular. The cost wasn’t crazy -- $74 for adults, $61 for kids, plus J.J. got a military discount. Best of all, the lines weren’t long.

We didn’t arrive until between noon and 1 p.m., and we parked in Lot C, which is the third-closest out of six massive lots. Parking cost $15, but trams take you right to the Dollywood gates. Our tram driver told us it would be a good day; if you’re parking in Lot C that late, the park was not crowded and the lines would be short. He was absolutely right.

The worst thing about amusement parks is long lines, and Dollywood had none. The longest wait we had was probably 10 minutes, most of our waits were less than five minutes and some rides had no wait at all.

Here’s how great Dollywood was. We wish we had purchased the two-day pass, which is only $10 more. Or heck, even the three-day pass, which is only $20 more. We didn’t come close to seeing it all and doing everything available.

Dollywood originally was the Smoky Mountain version of Silver Dollar City. Dolly Parton became a majority investor in the 1980s, and her enterprise turned it into Dollywood. You can see Silver Dollar City – the Branson, Missouri, staple – in the older parts of Dollywood. Lots of rides, but also lots of shops and attractions like a grist mill, Dolly’s Tennessee Mountain home, a working blacksmith, live-music theaters, that sort of thing. The newer parts are more ride-oriented.

But the whole place was just great. Amusement park concession prices can choke you, but Dollywood offered a couple of perks that made the day much better. First, free ice water at any concession stand. On a hot day, that’s a lifesaver. Plus, a $10 souvenir cup with refills available throughout the day at any concession stand for $1. We bought four to share, they came with convenient handles and it kept us hydrated all day.

The food prices weren’t crazy. We didn’t eat a meal, but they Dollywood had several dining options that seemed OK. Aunt Granny’s long has been a Dollywood staple, and it offered a $16.99 dinner buffet of fried chicken, ham and roast beef, with the various fixings.

We settled for snacks. A robust Nathan’s hot dog with a bag of chips was $5.99, which seemed fair, and the hot cinnamon bread from the grist mill was $8.99 and worth $89.99, especially if you added icing. We waited to eat until on our way back to the cabin; stopped at a Mexican joint, No Way Jose’s, in Pigeon Forge that a woman on our tram recommended. Tennessee Tex-Mex can be dicey, I assume, but it was solid.

The day was just great. We didn’t come close to seeing all of the park. The only bummer was that a few things closed at 7 p.m. – the park closed at 8 p.m. – and we didn’t make it. The Dish and Haley would have liked to see the Dolly Parton Museum, and Haley wanted to see the Southern Gospel museum and hall of fame. Haley is like my mom; they like(d) their gospel Southern.

We hit as many rides as possible for the girls, and in the final hour, we discovered the Country Fair section, which had all kinds of intermediate rides the girls loved. Even stumbled upon the bumper cars at straight up 8 p.m., and the Dollywood attendants were in no hurry to run us out of the park. They let the girls jump into bumper cars at closing time and take one final ride.

When I was a kid, Six Flags seemed like a mecca for kids in the Southwest. Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Upper Louisiana. Maybe New Mexico, too. It was our Disneyland. Well, my impression was that it’s the same for Dollywood for kids of the South. Southern culture was everywhere, and rich Southern accents were abundant. You knew that all kinds of families had made their pilgrimage to Pigeon Forge. That strikes me as quite charming and cool.

If we ever come back to the Smokies, we’ll do more than make it to Dollywood. We’ll make it twice. If not thrice.

Like I said, I’ve been out of the amusement park business for more than two decades. Maybe all the theme parks have gotten this good at accommodating customers. And we were fortunate that we didn’t go on a particularly busy day. But Dollywood gets two thumbs up from me.

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Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›