by Jeremy Schoolfield
Dolly Parton doesn’t dream little dreams. A quarter century ago, while still living in Los Angeles pursuing her film career, Parton used to look up at the iconic HOLLY WOOD sign and think, “If I could just get up there and change that ‘H’ to a ‘D,’ wouldn’t that make a great name for a park?
“When I had the idea to start Dollywood, my businesspeople in L.A. thought I was making a big mistake—and, of course, I don’t have those businesspeople any more,” she said.
Instead, Parton partnered with Herschend Family Entertainment in 1986 to turn what was Tennessee’s version of Silver Dollar City into her namesake theme park in Pigeon Forge, which this year celebrated its 25th anniversary. In a fitting capstone, Dollywood won the prestigious Applause Award, bestowed by Liseberg Amusement Park, which every other year during IAAPA Attractions Expo recognizes one facility in the world for overall excellence, including outstanding management, operations, and creative accomplishments.
“God just smiles on us,” said Parton, who attended Expo to accept the award. “How appropriate we would win this award this year, our 25th anniversary. We’ve had so many great things happen, and it’s been a dream come true. The fact we won this Applause Award this year made it three times more special than it might have been some other year. This was just perfect.”
“It feels like a culmination of 25 years of work,” added Herschend Family Entertainment CEO Joel Manby. “Dolly’s everything to it. She always brings that energy to our creative meetings and all her involvement. She’ll always do anything she needs to do to make the park successful.”
“This truly unique park shows an outstanding level of quality and originality,” said Mats Wedin, whose Liseberg park in Sweden bestows the award. “The friendliness of the staff and the cleanliness of the park are extraordinary. This, combined with dedicated leadership honoring family values, sets a tremendous example for the whole industry.”
Parton said she’s proud Dollywood is a place where “people can come and have an enjoyable time and go away feeling good.”
“You never know how your dreams are gonna turn out,” she said. “Wishes come false as well as true, but this is a dream that did come true. I love my music, but when you get a chance to do things like this, where you serve so many people in a different way, it makes me proud of something that so many people can enjoy.”
More than anything, though, Parton praised her “wonderful partners” at Herschend.
“They’ve made me look awful good,” she said. “I pray every day that God will lead me and guide me, and I sincerely believe we were put together for a reason.”
“We are so equally meshed from a values standpoint that it’s been almost seamless,” Manby agreed. “We both have a faith element weaved into our parks, and we love people.”