Christmas in the Smokies at Dollywood

Christmas in the Smokies at Dollywood

We recently visited Dollywood’s Christmas in the Smokies and I wanted to share our experience. Admittedly, I am a theme park aficionado. I know that sounds odd coming from me, however it’s true. But let me clarify that I am not someone who obsesses over every little detail of Walt Disney World or travels the country trying to ride every roller coaster possible. It is more about the joy a good attraction elicits in my family and the memories we make together, which gives me joy.

We live in a time where people value experiences more than possessions. Theme parks have ridden that wave and are experiencing record attendance. Walt Disney Co. saw income rise 18% at their parks in 2018 from attendance and price increases. Universal Studios is building hotel complexes to tie in more multi-day visitors to their parks, and even smaller parks like Dollywood, which this post is about, are planning major expansions in 2019. But where do you spend your time and money? As attendance goes up and destinations begin raising prices, where can you still find value?

Dollywood is a fun place to start. It’s come a long way since it’s opening in the mid 80’s (it was another amusement park before that) and has expanded slowly yet surely over the years. We’ve made it a destination the last two Christmases. Here is how Dollywood stacks up to other amusement parks that I’ve been to and why I would recommend going.

Theming

I love details, and theming is made in the nitty gritty. What is Dollywood’s theme? Of course, there’s Dolly and the park touches on her life throughout it. There is her upbringing in the Smokey Mountains and the music, food, and culture of Appalachia. There are inspirational themes about Dolly’s call for people to “dream and be something” and a celebration of her faith. Of course, given that Dolly is a country music star, there’s music everywhere. And I don’t mean just Dolly songs piped throughout the park in loudspeakers, but lots of very talented performers and interesting shows. The park also rolls it out for the Christmas season, and the two million LED lights and all of the festive decorations make it enjoyable.

Staff

Disney has the best staff, but Dollywood is not far behind. We met a lot of friendly and helpful people. It only takes one rude employee to ruin a visit, but we have not run into that issue here. From what I can tell, many people who have retired in the area work seasonally at Dollywood, so many of the folks working rides and concessions are older, which is like being surrounded by a bunch of grandmas and grandpas.

Attraction Quality

I think overall Universal Orlando has the best attractions and Cedar Fair parks have the best rollercoasters, but Dollywood has a great selection of rides, especially for kids. Most of these are open during the Christmas season and since Dollywood at this time of year attracts an older crowd, you’ll have no problem getting on whatever you want. I would say if you are coming for the rides, you’re better off coming down in the summer when the bigger coasters and water rides are open.

Performances

Although Animal Kingdom has the best performances in my opinion (Lion King and Finding Nemo), Dollywood clearly punches outside of its weight class. Just the amount of indoor theaters available is notable (I think there are at least five). Throw in the outdoor theater spaces (at least three) and you can spend an entire day seeing nothing but very good shows. I can’t explain how they are able to sustain the number of so many quality performances. Maybe because Dolly herself wants it or Pigeon Forge’s proximity to Nashville, but they are blessed with some talent. There are some very good Christmas shows to be had, and no visit is complete without seeing the Southern Gospel Quarter Kingdom Heirs, who have performed at Dollywood for many years.

Note: if you stay at Dreamore (Dollywood’s spa and resort hotel), you will get reserved seating at the biggest shows. This is well worth the money.

Queue Lengths

Dollywood’s queues were lighter during daylight hours and then got progressively busier. We arrived when the park opened on both days of our visit and found normally long lines non-existent. We decided to eat our big meal at lunch and then a smaller dinner to spend the least amount of time in queue. This worked out terrifically for us.

Food and Drink Prices

I felt like prices for food and souvenirs were average for a theme park, although the food is in my opinion much better than expected. I overheard a few people complaining about the charge for the all you can eat buffet. These people have not been to Walt Disney World, where a child’s meal of chicken nuggets, desert, and a drink can run you $48.

Overall Experience

We really enjoyed our time at Dollywood this year and last. My recommendation is to stay at Dreamore, the local resort hotel for Dollywood. The rooms are nice, you get a free ride to the park (and free parking), and it has a great restaurant onsite. You also get a free fast pass for each day you stay, as well as concierge services to help you plan your visit.

Notes

Here are a few things to remember if you do decide to visit Dollywood.

  1. The park gets crowded on weekends when the weather is nice, and more so if there’s a nice day in between some bad weather days. We chose to come during the week to minimize crowds. The good weather day was very busy, whereas we had the park to ourselves during the rain.
  2. Dollywood is trying to work through the crowded lines for shows, but if you stay at Dreamore that’s not an issue for you. If you don’t and forgo a fast pass, there is a ticketing system for those in line who don’t get into a show, so if you stand in line for one and don’t get in, your time isn’t completely wasted.
  3. Make sure you see as many shows as possible. They are very good.
  4. Weather changes quickly in the Smokies. Nights get much colder, so plan accordingly if you have little ones.
  5. Restaurants get really crowded in the evening, so I’d suggest eat lunch at one of the full service restaurants and grabbing a snack in the evening.
  6. Everyone goes crazy for the cinnamon bread at the Grist Mill and the line gets long for it. Get there early and try the apple butter. I’d also suggest eating it warm, it does not travel well.
  7. The Santa Clause at Dreamore in the evening is the best we’ve seen. We get our boy’s Christmas pictures taken with him.
  8. The Dreamore has an amazing breakfast buffet. We can’t say enough nice things about this hotel. It’s a great value.
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