Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee is a theme park with a few serious thrills and a lot of Southern charm. My family recently had the chance to visit 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. Here’s what you need to know about mastering Dollywood with kids!
1. Make Time for Country Fair
Most theme parks have a section or land that is best for younger visitors. In Dollywood, that area is 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.
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 only runs once an hour and doesn’t usually run until the park has been open for an hour or two (times are posted at the station). Be sure to plan carefully so as not to miss your chance. Visitors begin queuing early. In fact, we saw dozens of people in line more than a half hour in advance, but we found we were able to walk up just a few minutes before the departure time and still get on. On peak days, however, 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 visit that Dollywood has its very own smartphone app. Only a few theme parks do, so it’s a nice convenience. It’s certainly not as robust as competitor apps from places like Disney or Universal parks, but it got the job done for providing accurate, at-a-glance wait times for the major thrill rides. There’s also a map in the app if you’d prefer not to carry around the paper version.
4. Seriously Consider the Preferred Parking
Most of the parking areas at Dollywood require being shuttled separately to the front gates and ticket booth. Since we were traveling with a toddler and a stroller, I didn’t want the hassle of getting him in and out of the stroller to get on a shuttle. We opted to pay $13 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.
5. Hit the Play Areas
One of my 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.
My kids (ages 2.5 and 7) 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, Firehouse Fun Yard is also a can’t-miss.
6. Stay Hydrated
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.
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 them 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 that is refreshingly old-school and tons of fun – don’t miss it!). Consider putting the kids in something other than sneakers too – Croc’s or water sandals will keep them from squishing around in wet socks and shoes.
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. We arrived after 11am on a 10am park opening day to find the park still quite empty. If we had arrived even earlier, every ride would have been a walk on. Similarly, we 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.
Details for Visiting
- Admission: 1 day tickets are $65 for adults (12-59), $60 for seniors (60+) and $52 for children (4-11). Multi-day discounts are available too, including options that include the water park, Dollywood’s Splash Country. (Note: Most theme parks charge admission for kids when they turn 3, but you get an extra year at Dollywood which doesn’t charge until your child’s 4th birthday!)
- Where to Stay: Dollywood has an official hotel, Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa, but there are plenty of other family-friendly hotel and condo options in the Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Gatlinburg areas. We stayed at Wilderness at the Smokies, which was a 15-20 minute drive away and had three waterparks within the hotel!
- How to Get There: Knoxville (TYS) is the closest commercial airport. You can also fly into Tri-Cities (TRI) or Asheville (AVL), both also regional airports. Atlanta and Charlotte are the two closest major international airports (both close to 4 hour drives).
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. All other trip costs were at my own expense. As always, all opinions are my own.