Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee is a theme park with a few serious thrills and a lot of Southern charm. My family visited several years ago during our summer travels through the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. We were very pleasantly surprised by all the offerings for families with younger traveling kids like ours.
As with all theme parks, having a successful visit is often best achieved with a little planning and preparation. Knowing the lay of the land and the best tricks, shortcuts, and hacks saves you time and frustration. I’m always on the lookout for these little logistical things that make a big difference.
Because it had been awhile since my family’s last visit, I recently tapped the person I know and trust most in the world – my sister, Elizabeth Fetzer – to visit and help update this post on all things Dollywood in 2022. Elizabeth traveled with her husband and kids, ages 8 and 4, to the area and spent two full days in the park in mid-October 2022.
The result of our combined experience is the following roundup of Dollywood tips and tricks for families, fully updated and fact-checked for 2022. Here are all the secrets you need to know to master Dollywood with kids too!
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Dollywood is a theme park located in Pigeon Forge in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. It is named, of course, for America’s most beloved singer, Dolly Parton, who grew up in the area and co-owns the resort with Herschend Family Entertainment.
The resort includes one theme park and one water park, Dollywood’s Splash Country. The theme park is open from March to December. Most months, it is open close to daily, but is closed some weekdays (often Mondays or Tuesdays). Splash Country is open in summers only.
The resort also includes one hotel, Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa, additional lodging in Dollywood cabins, and a dinner show – Dolly Parton’s Stampede Dinner Attraction.
Most visitors to Dollywood come from drive markets, but some (like our family) travel from longer distances necessitating a flight. Unfortunately Dollywood isn’t super easy to reach via plane. Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS) is the closest commercial airport and is about an hour drive away. You can also fly into Tri-Cities (TRI) or Asheville (AVL), both also regional airports close to 2 hours away. Atlanta and Charlotte are the two closest major international airports (both approximately 4 hour drives).
15 Tips for Visiting Dollywood with Kids
1. Make a Beeline for Country Fair & Wildwood Grove
Most theme parks have a section or land that is best for younger visitors. In Dollywood, that area for a long time was Country Fair. The rides are a little bit carnival and little bit Fantasyland mixed together: a ferris wheel, rotating swings, bumper cars, spinning teacups, flying elephants, and more. If you have young kids not quite ready for the coasters, this is where you should plan to spend a bit of time to ride a lot of attractions at once.
In 2019, Dollywood underwent a major expansion, building a new area called Wildwood Grove. Like Country Fair, this area has a lot of attractions perfect for little ones now as well. Many of these have no (or low) height minimums and mild thrills, ideal for younger kids just getting started with theme parks.
See this guide to the best rides for kids at Dollywood from my friend Sarah of On the Road with Sarah for more ride recommendations.
2. All Aboard the Dollywood Express!
So many theme parks have trains but Dollywood has the real (historic coal-powered) deal – the Dollywood Express. If you have train-loving kids, it is a can’t miss.
The train’s schedule can be a little unpredictable. On our visit, it ran just once an hour and didn’t usually run until the park has been open for an hour or two. Times are posted at the station, so be sure to check early and plan carefully so as not to miss your chance to ride.
The train is very popular so visitors begin queuing early. In fact, we saw dozens of people in line more than a half hour in advance. We found we were able to walk up just a few minutes before the departure time and still get on, but no guarantees. On peak days, give yourself more time just in case.
I’d recommend not being at the very front of the train, especially if you have younger kids. The coal engine produces serious ash and you don’t want that getting in the eyes of your little ones. You can still see the sights wherever you sit further back.
3. Use the Dollywood App
I was impressed to discover before my 2016 visit that Dollywood had its very own smartphone app. Only a few theme parks did at the time, so it was a nice convenience and an indication the park was working hard to make navigation and finding information as easy as possible for guests.
In 2022, the Dollywood app has improved that much more. It’s still not quite as robust as competitor apps from places like Disney or Universal parks, but it gets the job done for providing accurate wait times for the major thrill rides. It lists the ride height requirements for every one of the park’s 50 plus rides for a quick at-a-glance reference. There’s a map in the app helpful for navigating the parks without needing to carry around a paper version. You’ll also spot menus for dining locations, descriptions of shops and crafts, and showtimes for the many musical acts for which the park is known.
4. Evaluate Your Parking Options Carefully
Dollywood charges for parking (unless you are a higher level season passholder or staying in on-site lodging). Consider your options carefully in terms of both logistics and cost!
Standard parking at Dollywood is $25 and requires being shuttled separately to the front gates and ticket booth. The resort also offers preferred parking for $45 that is closer and doesn’t require a shuttle ride.
Since we were traveling with a toddler and a stroller, I didn’t want the hassle of getting my younger child in and out of the stroller to get on a shuttle. We opted to pay more for Dollywood’s preferred parking that is within super-close walking distance of the gates. It was money well-spent, and I’d definitely recommend it to families with kids of stroller age. We especially appreciated it at the end of the day when we were worn out and ready to head back to our hotel for a rest as quickly as possible. An additional bonus? It turns out the preferred parking also allows you to enter through a side entrance that has a dedicated ticket booth and no lines whatsoever.
Elizabeth’s kids were just beyond stroller age when she visited, so she opted to park farther away and take the shuttle to save money. She recommends pre-purchasing parking to expedite the process. Her family found that when arriving around 11 (the park opens at 10 a.m.), it only took about 15 minutes to park and take the Dollywood shuttle from the parking location to the front entrance of the park.
5. Hit the Play Areas
Both my sister and I commented that one of our favorite features of Dollywood were the play areas tucked in between coasters, restaurants, and other attractions throughout the park. Younger kids definitely need time for free play – even at a theme park – and Dollywood has really thought out the experience for toddlers and young kids well. These play areas are ideal for entertaining kids while parents trade off riding the coasters too.
When my kids visited at ages 2.5 and 7, they adored the playground in the shadow of the Thunderhead coaster, Lil’ Loggers Landing. Also a hit were the three play areas (one of which was a water play splash pad) near Mountain Slidewinder: Granny’s Garden, the Pig Pen, and Lil’ Pilots Playground. For the ultimate water play experience in warmer months, Firehouse Fun Yard is also a can’t-miss.
My sister recommends Hidden Hollow in Wildwood Grove, which is a very large indoor softplay area for toddlers and children. Both of her kids played for at least 45 minutes while she and her husband got to rest on the seats inside. This spot is also a great break point for younger kids while their older siblings ride on the larger rides as well. There are several characters floating nearby for photo opps.
6. Stay Hydrated & Sunscreened!
It probably goes without saying that many visitors to Dollywood will have to deal with some Tennessee heat and humidity during a visit, especially in summer months. My family was there in late July during a heat wave that sent temperatures soaring north of 95 degrees with humidity to boot. We really appreciated the fact that Dollywood provided free cups of ice water at restaurants and snack bars. It was a small gesture, but one that was crucial to keeping my family cooled off and not always searching for a water fountain.
During my sister’s visit in mid-October, she expected relatively cool weather but was greeted by an unseasonably hot 82 degree day. The kids even got a touch of an unanticipated sunburn. The following day it was only 70 degrees and much more overcast, and they all needed light jackets on and off throughout the day due to the breeze. Go figure!
The bottom line? Be prepared for nothing but a wall of heat in summer and variable weather in shoulder seasons. And pack the sunscreen no matter what time of year.
7. Bring a Change of Dry Clothes
Dollywood features quite a few water rides and water play areas. After all, you’ll need them to beat the heat! Bring a change of clothes if you intend to do these rides and play areas early in your day.
We saved water rides until late in the day so we weren’t uncomfortable walking around the park. That was smart, as I was drenched on Mountain Slidewinder (a bobsled style ride that is refreshingly old-school and tons of fun – don’t miss it!). Consider putting the kids in something other than sneakers too – Crocs or water sandals will keep them from squishing around in wet socks and shoes. Or throw a pair of flip flops in your backpack and switch shoes before hopping on a ride that will get you soaked.
8. Parent Swap
Like many theme parks, Dollywood offers a parent swap option for major thrill rides with height minimums. If you have a kid too small or too scared to ride, use the benefit to minimize wait times.
The principle is pretty easy to understand – one parent waits in the ride’s line once and then the other parents gets to skip the line as the two trade off child care duties. Ask the employees as you get in line how to use it for each attraction. The good news is that the lines were generally so reasonable during our visit that we didn’t really even need to use the parent swap option – win-win!
9. Watch Indoor Shows Mid-Afternoon
Dollywood has a lot of live entertainment – more than you’ll find at every other theme park, perhaps outside of Disney. We found the show quality very impressive. Best of all – many of them are inside, which means air conditioning! Leave the shows for mid-afternoon when you need to get off your feet and cool down. Many of the shows change out seasonally so check the website to know what will be offered during your visit.
10. Arrive Early or Stay Late
Being the first in or last out of a theme park is always a smart strategy to beat crowds, but both early risers and night owls will do particularly well at Dollywood. Both my sister’s family and mine arrived after 11am on 10am park opening days to find the park still quite empty. If we had arrived even earlier, every ride would have been a walk on.
Similarly, my family stayed until 8pm on a night when the park closed at 10pm and it was virtually deserted at that hour too. Depending on the sleep habits of your kids, plan to either arrive early or stay late to take advantage of shorter lines during these windows.
11. Get Younger Kids a Height Check Wristband
Dollywood has a number of different rides with varying height minimums. Elizabeth’s four-year-old just reached the 42 inch height requirement for several of the more moderate thrill rides, and she found the attendants would continually check his height before allowing him on all of the rides for his safety. While certainly appreciated for safety, being measured repeatedly took extra time.
But she soon figured out a shortcut! She noticed other young kids with wristbands, discovering that she had unknowingly bypassed a service at the entrance to the park where kids can get officially measured. They are then issued a wristband marking their height, so that they do not need to be rechecked prior to embarking on each ride.
If you have kids close to some of the height cutoffs, get this measurement done to save time and avoid the surprise of them being excluded from a ride.
12. It’s Okay to Bring Some Drinks and Snacks
Dollywood checks bags upon arrival, and their official policy is no outside snacks or drinks other than one bottle of water per person. But Elizabeth noticed employees often allowed food from outside as long as it was a reasonable amount. She and her family saw many kids with lunch boxes near picnic areas, so on their family’s second day (after they spent a bundle their first day on three snack breaks before lunchtime alone!), she substantially increased the supply of kid-friendly snacks in their backpacks.
So, don’t be afraid to pack in some snacks to get you through the day and save a little money, especially if you have a kiddo who is a picky eater. And this is certainly true if your child has any special dietary needs.
12. Visit During a Seasonal Event
Like a lot of theme parks in recent years, Dollywood has added to and expanded its offerings outside of peak summer season, adding a number of special events to the calendar. My sister’s family visited during Dollywood’s Harvest Festival, an autumn-themed exhibit that runs from late September to the end of October.
The Harvest Festival has its own themed dishes and drinks, displays of some of the state’s largest pumpkins weighing nearly two thousand pounds, and themed decorations throughout the park. When the sun sets, the Harvest Festival glows with more than 12,0000 illuminated pumpkins – an experience known as the award-winning Great Pumpkin LumiNights.
For visitors who want view the nighttime spectacle, Dollywood even offers a cheaper “nighttime features only” ticket for entry between 5:00-10:00pm.
If you are interesting in visit during a special event as well, here’s the lineup for the rest of 2022 and all of 2023:
- Dollywood’s Harvest Festival (Featuring – GREAT Pumpkin LumiNights) – September 23 – October 30, 2022
- Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas – November 5, 2022 – January 1, 2023
- I Will Always Love You Celebration – March 11 – April 8, 2023
- Dollywood’s Flower & Food Festival – April 21 – June 4, 2023
- Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Summer Celebration (Featuring Sweet Summer Nights Dance and Drone Show) – June 17 – August 6, 2023
- Dollywood’s Harvest Festival (Featuring – GREAT Pumpkin LumiNights) – September 22 – November 4, 2023
- Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas – November 11, 2023 – January 6, 2024
13. Skip the TimeSaver Pass
Dollywood offers a skip-the-line pass like a number of theme parks. Called TimeSaver, it allows guests to pay their way out of long lines for some of the most popular thrill rides. Two versions are available:
- TimeSaver ($60+ per day): access at expedited entrances eight times a day (repeating rides is permitted) and unlimited show reservations at participating theaters (included for free for all on-site hotel guests)
- TimeSaver Unlimited ($80+ per day): unlimited access at expedited entrances at all participating attractions and unlimited show reservations at participating theaters.
Both my family and my sister’s decided not to purchase TimeSaver. Most other travelers with younger kids likely should skip it too. There are currently 13 attractions offered on it, but the majority of them are thrill rides with 48 inch or higher height minimums. Young kids won’t be tall enough or ready for many of these rides. Travelers with older thrill-ride loving kids or teens may find more value.
But the good news about Dollywood is that both of our families found it was possible to get a lot done even without TimeSaver, thanks to the park’s shorter lines and many non-ride things to do. Elizabeth marveled at what her family accomplished on just day 2 of their Dollywood adventure: “We each rode an astounding 14 rides in one day, enjoyed the train, the Dollywood Express, played in the softplay area and watched an a cappella show! From my experience at other parks, accomplishing this many rides would have been beyond an impossible feat without the help of a FastPass.”
14. Compare Ticket Options Carefully for the Best Deals
Dollywood has a number of ticket options available, so it’s important to compare your options carefully before purchasing.
Day tickets are $89 for adults (12-59) and $79 for seniors (62+) and children (4-9). But going for two or three days doesn’t cost much more than a single day so a longer ticket may allow your family to do Dollywood for more time in a more leisurely fashion without paying much more. Two (2) day tickets are just $109 for adults, and 3 day adult tickets are $119. There are additional options that include the water park, Dollywood’s Splash Country, in warmer months. Note that prices will increase in 2023 – $100 for 1 day adult tickets ($89 child/senior), $123 for 2 day tickets, and $134 for 3 day tickets.
While you should purchase tickets in advance, be aware that Dollywood doesn’t let you purchase super far in advance either. As of late October 2022, tickets are only released for visits through the end of 2022. Park reservations are not required, but single day tickets are valid within a 5 day period of the date selected when purchased on Dollywood’s website.
In the past, it was sometimes more economical for guests coming for multiple days to purchase one of Dollywood’s season passes. Prices and benefits for 2023 passes have just now been released, and that is probably not the case anymore unless you plan to visit four or more days in an operating season. Because Dollywood’s Gold Pass ($214/adult) includes $25 parking and also entitles visitors to food and merchandise discounts, it may make financial sense to have a single adult in your party purchase a Gold pass for three day visits as well. See this very helpful guide to season passes at Dollywood for all the details.
15. Go Before Your Child Turns 4 (or 10)!
One more ticket trick to consider. Most theme parks charge admission for kids when they turn 3, but you get an extra year free at Dollywood. That’s right – Dollywood doesn’t charge admission until your child’s 4th birthday! So if Dollywood is on your travel radar with younger kiddos, definitely consider scheduling a visit when your child is still free.
And if you have older kids, Dollywood now begins charging adult ticket prices as soon as they turn 10. Go while your kids are still 9 and under to take advantage of child discounts.
Where to Stay Near Dollywood
Dollywood is enough of a destination that most visitors come and stay a few days and do the parks and other area attractions. Where is best to stay? There are plenty of family-friendly hotel and condo options in the Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Gatlinburg areas to choose from. Here are a few of our recommendations.
For the most convenience: Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa
Guests with bigger budgets who want the ultimate in convenience should consider Dollywood’s only on-property hotel, Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa. It’s located in the immediate vicinity of both parks. It has shuttle service to the parks and other on-property perks like included TimeSaver and Early Entry with theme park ticket purchases. Rooms start at about $300/night.
The only challenge with DreamMore is the demand for it! Both my sister and I considered staying there on our family’s visits, only to find it was already sold out for our travel dates by the time we were planning our vacations. If DreamMore is on your travel wish list, plan to make plans early, especially if you are traveling on peak school holidays and weekends.
A new on-property resort, Dollywood’s HeartSong Lodge & Resort, is scheduled to open in Fall 2023, which may help meet some of the demand and make rooms more available.
Elizabeth recommends: Courtyard Marriott Pigeon Forge
Courtyard Marriott Pigeon Forge is a big step above your average Courtyard property. It is only 15 minutes away and includes an indoor and outdoor pool, outdoor hot tub, lobby games such as Connect 4, cornhole and two large fire pits. We highly recommend this resort for a great family value, lots of walkable restaurants and entertainment (including Pirate shows like Pirate’s Voyage, Paula Deen’s Kitchen, and Hatfield & McCoy’s Dinner Feud) nearby in addition to the hotel amenities and good food.
Prices start at about $200 a night and standard rooms included 2 queen beds. The hotel also has 2 queen rooms with sofa beds that can sleep families of 5.
Leslie recommends: Wilderness at the Smokies
Located about a 15-20 minute drive away north of Dollywood in Sevierville, Wilderness at the Smokies is home to multiple on-property waterparks. This hotel is similar in style and layout to a Great Wolf Lodge, featuring a ton of kid-friendly activities from rope courses to blacklight mini golf all under one roof. If you plan to be at Dollywood all day every day it’s probably not the best place to stay because you’ll miss out on the activities. But if you plan a longer visit to the area and partial park days, this is a kid’s dream come true.
Prices start at about $200 a night (when the resort fee is added) for suites in the River Lodge building that include 2 queen beds and at least a studio style kitchenette. Hotel rooms are available sometimes for less at Stone Hill Lodge across the street, but you’ll need to take a shuttle to come and do more of the activities that are centered more in River Lodge.
Final Thoughts on Dollywood with Kids
So is Dollywood worth your time and money to visit with kids? These two moms say yes!
Elizabeth says: My husband and I noted the friendliness of the entire staff from information stations to cashiers and cleaners. My youngest child tipped over his entire bag of newly-bought popcorn, and the cleaning attendant who witnessed the spill, made it a point to walk with us to get it refilled for free. The general atmosphere was extremely kid-friendly with easy access to many bathrooms throughout the park which was crucial for my young son. I even noticed they had an abundance of family restrooms, lots of accessibility options for those with disabilities and even a calming room for kids with sensory challenges.
Leslie says: We visit a lot of theme parks in our travels, and Dollywood truly stands out as one of the best we’ve ever visited. The park is exceptionally clean and intricately themed and decorated. The entertainment is top notch as well. We can’t wait to go back!
Have you been to Dollywood? Any other tips for traveling families you would add?
Disclosure: Dollywood provided complimentary admission for my family for review purposes in 2016. All other trip costs were at my own expense. As always, all opinions are my own.
About the co-author: Elizabeth Neeland Fetzer is a well-traveled mom of two kids from Davidson, North Carolina. She’s a former marketing and communications professional with a masters degree in Journalism from the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications.