NASHVILLE, Tenn. – To see the future of Dollywood, you need to borrow the vision of its chief imaginer, Dolly Parton.
In the near future, Parton sees a resort hotel lobby with a three-story window that frames Mount LeConte – one of the tallest peaks in the Smoky Mountains. Guests will be able to book a grand suite in the hotel that the entertainer uses when she stays in the Pigeon Forge theme park that bears her name.
All of that is future tense, but not very far away. The park plans to open DreamMore Resort in 2015. It’s part of a planned $300 million expansion to take place over the next decade.
A new roller coaster, this one aimed at families, is scheduled to open in 2014.
The resort hotel has been Parton’s dream ever since she affixed her name to the theme park 28 years ago.
“The thing we’re most excited about is finally building our resort,” Parton said Friday by telephone from the park in the Smokies foothills.
“We’re starting out with a resort that has 300 rooms,” Parton said. “Some of the rooms will accommodate up to six people in a family.”
There will be a lot of “front porch spaces” at the resort. Parton noted that during her upbringing nearby, people tended to congregate on front porches or in the kitchen.
A fishing pond will be on the property where children can catch their first whopper and there will be fire pits where families can roast marshmallows.
People walking into the lobby will be greeted with a glass of lemonade in the summer and a cup of hot chocolate during winter months.
The total dollar investment in the next decade will exceed the company’s spending on Dollywood so far, said Craig Ross, president.
“In 10 years’ time, we will have spent more than we’ve spent since the inception back in 1986 …” Ross said.
The plan includes multiple additional resorts as well as more rides and shows.
“It’s the bigger scope of these attractions that we'll be adding that’s different,” Ross said.
The first of the new attractions will be Fire Chaser Express, scheduled to open next year. It’s a ride described as exciting, but not as intense as the Wild Eagle or Dollywood’s water coaster, RiverRush. Children of elementary school age will be able to ride it.
Research by Dollywood showed executives the resort will make a difference for many people looking to vacation in the mountains.
A survey showed 80 percent of people asked about visiting the theme park, who had not yet come, indicated having a resort on the property would be important to them.
Dollywood is putting up a new website, www.dreammoreresort.com, to help market the hotel, even as it is under construction.
Leon Downey, executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism, emphasized the importance of the Dollywood expansion.
“We’re basically 100 percent tourism,” Downey said. “It’s the only industry we have.”
On an average day, there will be 50,000 guests in Pigeon Forge – a small city with a permanent population of 5,784. The announcement by Dollywood is exciting for the town.
“It makes all of us in the city smile,” Downey said “Every year Dollywood has a new announcement, but this one is so big it dwarfs all the others.”
The Sevier County where Parton grew up was mostly hardscrabble farming and a few summer forays into selling trinkets to tourists.
She’s proud to be part of the transformation of the mountains gateway community.
Her success as a country music artist and an actress has pulled her to Hollywood and many overseas locations. She is preparing for another European tour now. But the mountains will always be home, Parton said, and she’s glad to bring employment there.
“It is the most amazing feeling,” Parton said. “People say you can’t go home again. Well, I’ve certainly proved that wrong.”
Parton said the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a magnet that has drawn visitors for decades. Visitation to the national park averages more than 9 million people a year.
Dollywood is positioning itself as a tourist destination in itself, even as it shares many of its visitors with the black bears and grand vistas of the Smokies.
“The national park has always been great for campers,” Parton said. “But people come and sometimes they like to say, `Well, let’s get out of these woods for a minute and let’s go down to Dollywood.“’