Pigeon Forge, Tennessee – a once small town nestled in the US’s Smoky Mountains – is a family-friendly leisure destination in and of itself. Its main street feels like a mini-Las Vegas for families – bright lights and signs advertising everything from bumper cars to treetop adventures and dinner theatres strangely themed around family feuds.
The town itself has about 6,200 permanent residents, but visitors boost the daily population to more than 50,000 – a fact that made itself abundantly clear in the amount of car traffic on the town’s roads.
A gateway city to the nearby Smoky Mountains National Park, the area has exploded in recent years, due in large part to the popularity of Dollywood – a theme park named after country singer Dolly Parton. It’s wholesome American fun – the kind many families return to every year – and is particularly attractive to the millions of Americans who are within a day’s drive.
The Dollywood effect
Dollywood, which first opened in 1986, and hosts around 2.5m visitors annually, is Tennessee’s number one ticketed attraction, so it’s a big deal when a park of this nature opens its biggest expansion yet.
At US$37m, Wildwood Grove represents Dollywood’s largest-ever investment and is the first new area to be added to the park in more than a decade. The expansion has been inspired by Parton’s childhood memories of growing up in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and features 11 new family-friendly experiences themed around wildlife and nature.
“When I was a little girl growing up in the hills of the Smoky Mountains, I’d often let my imagination just run away — something I still do now — dreaming these big dreams about what it’d be like to venture off with a family of bears into the woods or how fun it would be to hitch a ride with the butterflies and dragonflies,” says Parton. “All us kids would splash and play in the creeks and ponds around home and have these daydreams about the world around us, and that’s what’s so special about Wildwood Grove. We’ve been able to create a new area to allow families to experience those dreams we had when we were little.”
The area neatly attaches to the existing park, and its themes slot in nicely with other Smoky Mountain-themed areas focusing on mining adventures and eagle rehabilitation. Park officials call it “the new standard for Dollywood,” and president Craig Ross said the expansion will help make room for guests as the park continues to set new attendance records.
Nearly US$1m has been invested in Wildwood Grove’s landscaping, with more than 400 trees and 2,300 shrubs creating a natural atmosphere, including plants like butterfly bushes, echinacea and black-eyed Susans that attract butterflies. The landscaping still feels quite new, but will become lusher in just a few seasons. The theming is solid, with details like butterfly-shaped pretzels and a Wildwood Creek area, which offers pop jets and splashing pools, as well as the central Wildwood Tree, which includes 650 lighted butterflies that come to life each evening. Music is central to Dolly Parton and to Dollywood, with areas set aside for children to play “instruments” and piped in regional fiddle music helping to lift the atmosphere.
Rides are designed for the whole family, with a nice range of tame rides for the littlest children, including Black Bear Trail, a Metallbau Emmeln Pony Trek ride, and the Frogs & Fireflies, a hopping ride that races around a lily pad from Zamperla Jump Around. Stepping it up a notch, the Treetop Tower from Zamperla Samba Tower sits riders in giant acorns that spin around an oak tree before gently drifting back down.
The visitor experience
I visited with my husband and two children, aged 12 and 13. While Wildwood Grove offers plenty for little kids, my two older ones didn’t feel out of place and still had plenty to ride. It’s a nice detail and will allow families with children that span different age ranges to comfortably spend a chunk of time at Wildwood Grove.
The kids first went for the Great Tree Swing, a ‘leaf boat’-themed version of Zamperla’s Galleon. As someone who suffers from motion sickness, this is my worst kind of nightmare, so they went on it alone, and I was able to witness the broad range of ages all enjoying the up-and-down thrills. Next, they took on the Mad Mockingbird – from Larson Flying Scooter, and themed around Tennessee’s state bird – which sees guests flying in a high-speed circle around a tall tree. This can be a gentle ride for younger children or risk-averse adults but can be amped up a notch, as the birds can be spun around different directions by moving a sail.
The area’s signature ride, the Dragonflier, is Wildwood Grove’s highlight. Billed as a family ride, the Vekoma 453m (1,486ft) suspended coaster delivers enough thrills for older kids and adults, and is a great introduction for younger children or the rollercoaster averse. My 12-year-old daughter is a rollercoaster junkie who wanted nothing more than to ride the Wild Eagle, a wing coaster that soars 21 stories above the park, which opened in 2012. But she was also excited about the Dragonflier and willing to wait in the long lines to try it.
On a sweltering day, the high-powered fans in the waiting area were a welcome necessity, and the fiddle music and bird sounds playing helped set the stage and make the time go by a bit faster. But the Dragonflier was where the only hitch in our visit occurred: after waiting 45 minutes, we reached the front of the line, only to find the ride had to be suspended for maintenance. No one could give us an idea of how long it would take or even if the Dragonflier would reopen that evening, but we were told we were welcome to continue waiting or check back later. It seems to me that there should be something park employees are empowered to do in this situation, particularly for guests in the very front who’d already waited in long lines – a card for the fast-pass lane on return, for instance. There were lots of disappointed faces as people slowly gave up and peeled away, having wasted close to an hour of their park time in a line to nowhere.
Luckily, the ride did open again, and when we returned at the end of the day we were able to try it out. It took quite a long time to load – each harness was checked by a cheery employee who came around and said “Hands in the air! Now give me all your money!” – and there was enough time in those few minutes for my son and I to both feel a few butterflies in our stomachs. As the ride crept up the first steep hill and we hung suspended, we exchanged a quick nervous look, and then we shot down all at once, sweeping underground for a few seconds, before being flung out from one side to the other as we dipped and darted, skimming over the ground and up and down again, much like the chaotic flight of a dragonfly. The ride was mercifully short, but packed a real punch – my legs were wobbly as I walked away. As for my rollercoaster-averse son? He hated it, of course. But he also loved it – and isn’t that the perfect first rollercoaster experience?