Pigeon Forge, Tenn.like country music star and local girl Dolly Partonhas attained almost mythic stature. This once-sleepy east Tennessee hamlet has carved out a vacation niche as sweet as hammered chords of a mountain dulcimer.
More than 11 million visitors annually cross the blue mist-covered Great Smoky Mountains in search of Pigeon Forge and all things associated with its famous songstress. Pigeon Forge (named for the nearby river and the passenger pigeons that flocked to its banks in the late 1700s) has become a center for country music theaters. Inarguably, Dollywood, with more than 40 regular live music shows daily, is Pigeon Forges country bandleader.
A variety of showsfrom rocknroll to bluegrass to gospelprovide Dollywoods musical backbone. Add approximately 30 amusement park rides and a variety of mountain craft demonstrations into this mix for days packed with entertainment.
But its not all guitar-picking and fiddling youll find in Dollys land. A troupe of some 400 entertainers from 15 countries will regale opening day guests with songs from around the world. This Festival of Nations weekend (beginning April 7) will feature everything from the clicking of an Irish step-dancers heels to the haunting melodies of an Andean pan flute. The spectacular is one of many special events slated for Dollywoods AprilDecember season.
New attractions at Dollywood include Dreamland Forest, a giant playground featuring a treehouse, interactive games and gadgets. A new water park featuring single and double tube slides, raft ride and wave pool opens this year.
Partons Dixie Stampede, located down the road from Dollywood, fills the entertainment bill at night. This four-course dinner theater has room for 1,000 guests, as well as a cast of 32 horses and riders. The antebellum theme highlights belles and beaus, with beak-to-beak ostrich races.
Find more of Parton, or at least a facsimile of her, along with other musical legends in the tribute shows at Memories Theater. Lou Vutas headliner impersonation of the King shakes Elvis fans up nightly.
Fiddle-playing singer Louise Mandrell portrays herself at her eponymous Pigeon Forge theater. An eight-piece orchestra and nine singer/dancers accompany her in the show.
For additional fiddling around, try the Smoky Mountain Jubilee, billed as the longest running country music show in the Smokies. Entering its 18th season, the variety show includes the gospel music of the Jubilee Quartet, clogging and comedy performed in a 900-seat theater. And the Country Music Association of America has voted Country Tonites musical variety the Best Live Country Show in America. Theaters specializing in homespun comedy and music include the Comedy Barn and Elwood Smoochs Hillbilly Hoedown. Live barnyard animals, incidentally, add to the musical melee on both stages.
Smoky Mountain traditions alive in Dollys Servierville
It may be named for Tennessees first governor, but nearby Servierville, the oldest town in this Smoky Mountain region, pays homage to Parton. A statue of the hometown gal shares space on the courthouse lawn with a memorial to Serviervilles veterans.
Other local landmarks in this riverfront town include Virgils 50s Restaurant (it doubles as Serviervilles bus station) and Temples Feed Store, fondly referred to as the marrying spot. Located across from the courthouse, couples obtain a marriage license and walk across the street to the wedding room inside the store, where owner, Jimmy Temple, performs a ceremony. A one-mile trail along the banks of Little Pigeon River adds more romance to this Smoky Mountain setting.
Musical entertainment includes the Smith Family at Southern Nights Theater. A musical medley ranging from oldies to gospel, the show highlights Southern hospitality, grace and laughter.
And the beat goes on in Gatlinburg
Gatlinburgs Sweet Fanny Adams Theater and Music Hall calls itself the areas oldest professional theater. Its musical comedy shows offer another alternative to the host of Smoky Mountain entertainment. Classic Country Theater features country music hits from the 1950s-70s.
A variety of family attractions, plus shopping opportunities, also are available in Gatlinburg. The new 1.5 million-gallon Ripleys Aquarium of the Smokies features colorful salt water sea life. For more than 40 years, the Gatlinburg Sky Lift has provided unforgettable views of the Smokies from the top of Crockett Mountain.
For dinner, head to the Heidelberg Restaurant (Ramada Inn Four Seasons) where oompah with attitude, along with schnitzel, is the order of the day.
When all the glitter from a round of shows settles, the drama of the Great Smokies beckons. Explore hiking and horseback-riding trails that meander through 800 miles of this national park treasure. This refuge, dubbed shaconage (place of blue smoke) by the Cherokees, is home to more than 1,600 species of native trees and wildflowers as well as a multitude of wildlife. Perhaps nature provides the sweetest music during your Smoky Mountain visit.
Margaret Dornaus is a contributor from Springdale, Ark.