This week was Spring break at Taylor University, and our family has been vacationing down in the Smoky Mountains. Today we spent the day at Dollywood, a theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where we have been regular patrons for many years. Dollywood was conceived by and named after—you guessed it—Dolly Parton. Sounds pretty obnoxious, doesn’t it? It also sounds kitschy, corny, and culturally narrow, right? That was certainly my impression until I actually visited Dollywood for the first time, about a decade ago. And since I’m generally not a fan of theme parks, no matter how many cool roller coasters they might boast, I was a hard sell. But I was surprised to find out that Dollywood is not just a theme park with rides, funnel cake, and greasy, grumpy employees. Instead, it is a culturally enriching, globally-minded potpourri of arts, crafts, music, and indigenous (and not-so-indigenous) culinary delights.
Despite the name of the place, Dollywood is anything but a vain tribute to its namesake. Though Ms. Parton is actively involved in the park’s on-going development, her primary emphasis is cultural diversity and global awareness. In our visit today we attended two shows. One of these was called “Samaia” and featured dancers and musicians from the Caucasus (in Euroasia). The other was entitled “Los Pampas Gauchos” and featured a group of Argentinean drummers and folk dancers who gave an astonishing performance involving drums, boleadoras, knives, and whips. We also spent some time watching a skilled glass craftsman at work and negotiating an intricate ropes course that was as physically demanding as it was entertaining. Good times.
To put the icing on the cake, I had a close encounter with Dolly Parton, as she rode through the park on a carriage—a tradition on opening day at Dollywood. As she came near, I expressed my thanks to her, not just for the theme park but also for her extensive philanthropic efforts (giving substantially to causes ranging from literacy promotion to cancer and HIV/AIDS research). Dolly smiled and responded with her own “thank you.” The gratitude is definitely mutual.