by Angeliska on August 12, 2012
It has been a dream of mine to visit Dollywood for a long, long time now – and today, I can happily say that my wish has been finally been fulfilled! What’s even more amazing is that my experience exploring the wonders of Dollywood was even more lovely and fun than I ever could’ve imagined. I’m not super into mega-insane amusement parks, really. Even Disney I could really mostly take or leave, as the rampant commercialism and consumerism combined with waiting in long cattle-chute lines in the hot sun and overpriced everything tends to gross me out. I’ll always gravitate towards the weird, creepy side-of-the-road carnivals and family circuses any day. But Dollywood for me is more about my deep and abiding love for the magic and marvel that is Dolly Parton than my desire to gobble candy-floss and trudge around in a sea of mooing humans (and their wailing and shrieking offspring). Wandering around Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg (the two towns flanking Dollywood), I began to become a tad concerned that my dreams of the idyllic butterfly haven I imagined Dollywood to be might really be a morass of tacky trinkets and miserable tourists shuffling around a shabby, faded theme-park. To be sure, there are tacky trinkets galore, but what charmed and surprised me most about Dollywood is how downright gorgeous the park itself is. I suppose that oughtn’t have been a revelation, given that it is nestled in the bosom of the Smoky Mountains, which are insanely beautiful, but truly – I think Dolly went the extra mile in making her domain as sweet and pleasant as possible.
I was reminded as soon as we walked in the gates of Tivoli Gardens, my grandfather’s favorite amusement park in Copenhagen. One of the many things that makes Tivoli so special is that it maintains a sweetness, an innocence that can be soothing to children and old folks alike in a world of entertainment that panders to adolescents (eternal and otherwise) who are obsessed with RAGING BLAZING MEGA MONSTER LAZER type amusements. Both Tivoli and Dollywood have quaint, pastel-painted faux-historic architecture (In D-wood’s case it’s faux-Victorian and old-tyme/hillbilly style) lushly landscaped with native trees, babbling brooks, and loads of lovely flowers growing everywhere you look. Tivoli has no neon to speak of (only specially dimmed fairy lightbulbs!), and no piped-in recorded music is allowed – only live bands playing everywhere! Tivoli also has one of the world’s only full-time pantomine theaters, which was the main draw for my Grampa – he loved Commedia dell’Arte. Sadly, we didn’t get to stay and see Dollywood at night, so I can’t say what the night-time lighting’s like, but you could hear Dolly singing pretty much everywhere you go – which is of course, as far as I’m concerned, incredibly excellent.
“In the big rock candy mountains, there’s a land that’s fair and bright,
Where the handouts grow on bushes, and you sleep out every night.
Where the boxcars all are empty, and the sun shines every day,
On the birds and bees and the cigarette trees,
the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings,
in the big rock candy mountains.”
Something my intrepid traveling companion Brettski and I talked about a lot during our time here was how much Dollywood/Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg reminded us of Pleasure Island from Pinocchio. There’s something really strange about seeing people let loose in districts or areas ordained for pleasure and entertainment. Living in a tourist city like New Orleans, and increasingly now, Austin, this is something I’ve encountered a lot – though it’s always odd to be the tourist rather than the exasperated local. Having waded countless times through the sea of excess that is Bourbon Street, or to a slightly lesser degree, Austin’s 6th Street, I’ve encountered first-hand what happens when you give people license to debauch – provided that they do it in their designated and condoned-off zone, so as not to infect the rest of society with their racket and bawdiness. Seeing the same idea implemented up here, but sans sin, was very interesting. There’s not much alcohol served – very few bars or pubs, and even the naughty sex shops seem tame and oddly, family-friendly. Even the two-foot-tall plastic grenade shaped sippy cups normally reserved for high-octane daiquiris seem to only be filled with frozen lemonade. Kettle corn and old-time candy shops sling the drugs of choice here, and everyone just gets high on Aunt Granny’s homemade fudge and candy-apples instead. Wandering around with a crazy sugar buzz, gaping at Ripley’s wonders and shopping for magnets, t-shirts, country crafts and ridiculous knives seem to satisfy the need for bacchanal in the Appalachians. I guess there’s always moonshine for when the kids have been put to bed. Still, I keep thinking of those wild boys on Pleasure Island who were cursed and turned into donkeys as punishment for their indulgences – hee-hawing and braying in animal grunts of fear, doomed to slavery in circuses and sugar-mines. What happens when your buzz fades, when the hangover sets in and the credit card receipts and glossy unused coupons pile up? I remember riding my bicycle to work through the French Quarter in the mornings and seeing middle-aged secretaries from Ohio passed out drunk in the gutters with their sensible skirts riding up their pantyhosed trotters. What happens when the carnival is over, and we’ve said enough farewells to the flesh? Eventually the glamour peels away, the shine fades off the souvenirs, and the next big attraction is just another tatty shitpile with a for rent sign in the window. You see lots of these up here, right next to the latest, the brightest, the biggest, newest humdinger of a buffet/dinner-show/hotel-motel-resort-lodge/dino-mini golf course. The air-conditioned nightmare is here, and it is us.
Even though we had willingly joined the masses of mountain people on church outings, curious Amish families, and slow-moving rednecks chowing down on fried oreos and funnel cake, we felt like outsiders, observers from another planet – and in truth, we were. So, we felt compelled to don our versions of camouflage, though they probably ended up garnering us more confused looks than had we not . I was hoping to find the perfect trucker hat (or as my dad always called them, “gimme caps”. He wore one habitually through most of my childhood.) I’ve also been wishing, for a long time now, to find an airbrush artist who could make another of my wishes come true – to have a dolphin with a human skull in its mouth emblazoned on my person. I can’t explain the intense satisfaction that having this wish finally granted has brought to me. My only regret is that I didn’t ask for a narwhal. Maybe I’ll remedy that. Also, I think including my full name might make it even more special. Maybe on a tote bag.
Brett is moving to Canada, and thought long and hard about what design and phrase would perfectly illustrate his innate Texanity to his new students and colleagues at the University of Toronto. I think “Guns for Jesus” pretty much says it, don’t you? Unfortunately, this statement did not bat many eyes in these parts.
The very first thing we did upon arriving at Dollywood was ride the beautiful carousel. I got to ride on the goat! SUCCESS! So, basically, everything that happened after this was just gravy on top of my mashed potato sundae – with extra bacon bits.
The Dolly museum is, obviously, a place of intense magic. I barely took any photos in there, because I was just so overwhelmed by how wonderful Dolly Parton is. I’m pretty sure if I ever met her, I would just start crying. Once I just sat and stared at the cover of one of her records for an hour, in awe of how perfect she is. Of course, I feel the same way about Cher. Yes, I am a drag queen. No, I am not ashamed of my passion.
I felt such a frisson of She-Ra inspired longing when I saw these babies. Silvery pink and rhinestones, man. Her boots really did it for me. So much so, that I couldn’t even deal with trying to document the rest of her insane wardrobe. But I did take more photos of her magic boots! I want them all, real bad. If her feet weren’t so goddamn tiny, I probably would have been arrested today for trying to do a serious shoe heist.
Could I be restrained from consuming piles of Dolly kitsch? The answer is no. Do I love having Dolly’s face plastering on my (comparatively meager) bosoms and sipping tea out of my black glitter Dollywood mug? I don’t think I have to answer that one.
The only bummer of the day was that the Mystery Mine was closed for repairs! I was very much looking forward to a ride that involved the ghosts of dead miners and an 85 foot drop into an abandoned mine shaft, but – I suppose this means that I’ll just have to return to Dollywood one day! Also, this animatronic talking buzzard told us really lousy jokes.
Pretty little streams like this run through the park, so walking around all day doesn’t feel like you’re in weird fun-land hell, ever. You can just sit in the shade and watch the butterflies flit around when you get tired of navigating through the crowds of strollers and people carrying stuffed bananas, stuffed banana peppers, stuffed traffic cones and life-size inflatable purple aliens.
Also, when in Gatlinburg, I recommend Ripley’s Aquarium and the Haunted Adventure (even though that one didn’t quite live up to my dream spook-house expectations, sadly.) The aquarium is really quite good, and had a nice big tank of weedy and leafy seadragons, which are one of my major totem spirit animals. SO DREAMY.
In closing, I would highly recommend a trip to Dollywood for both Dolly fans and amusement park enthusiasts. The rollercoasters were fantastically terrifying and exhilarating and gave us crazy shaky jelly legs. It felt good to be forcibly thrown back into my body – I’ve been living in my head so much lately. This adventure made me think a lot about being a child, and having a sense of naïveté about where and how all the cheap tacky junk I craved so intensely was made. Children are greedy, and always want the shiniest, the loudest, the mega-est. I feel like I’ve worked hard to keep my sense of wonder intact, but even at the age of seven, I remember being disgusted and frustrated by how fake and plastic Disneyland was. I feel lucky that I’ve gotten to explore places like Tivoli Gardens and Dollywood as an adult, and still get to enjoy the magic they provide. They aren’t perfect, by any means – but they do try harder to leave that sense of innocence and beauty intact. There’s an appreciation of nature, though I’m aware of the gargantuan waste and profligate destruction that these places cause. It’s a tough one. I think of the abandoned Six Flags in New Orleans – an empty behemoth left to rust and decay and become a playground only for nutrias and rag-tag tribes of lost boys and girls. What will become of all these places when our ecosystem and our economy can no longer sustain them? I can never see places like this without imagining their eventual ruins. It’s how my brain works. On a different note, I’ve also been thinking about some interesting articles I read a while back by a scholar who analyzes and studies Disneyland and amusement parks – they way the lines are designed, the rides themselves – very interesting. I think it was a she, and she wrote a really great piece about the Haunted Mansion that I really enjoyed. I reckon I can dig around Long Forgotten (an amazing UK blog dedicated to scholarly discussion regarding the Haunted Mansion!), but if anyone knows who I’m talking about, holler.
Have you ever been to Dollywood? Did you love it as much as I did? SAY YES. No, really – I’d love to hear your stories (especially if you ever got to go back when it was first opened!) If not, what are your favorite bizarre tourist traps or roadside attractions? Do tell…!