Back in January, before we had any inkling of what this year had in store, I bought a season pass to Dollywood. I was feeling optimistic about all the fun things we’d do in 2020, like take day trips to Queen Dolly’s theme park.
Plus, the November before, Dollywood had offered a free “preschool pass” for the coming year to kids born in 2015 and 2016, which meant Arthur could visit the theme park for free all year long. Sweet deal, I thought, as I snagged the free pass and bought my own with a heart full of hope.
Okay, so it wasn’t that idealistic. But I had big plans, as did we all.
Once things slid downhill, fast, in March, I joined the ranks of disappointed would-be park goers who wondered where they stood with their memberships. I hadn’t even gotten to activate mine, and I was already considering canceling it.
But I never got around to it. Part indecision, part fear of calling an actual human to cancel something, part laziness, I finally decided to hold out and see how things would go. And while I waited, Dollywood decided to sweeten the deal by adding another six months to 2020 memberships bought before March, meaning my pass is now good through June 2021.
A few weeks ago, driven by pandemic fatigue and desperately wanting to go anywhere, I brought up the idea of taking a day trip to Dollywood with my husband. He scoffed. After all, we’ve been absurdly careful since March. We adopted the shelter-in-place rules religiously for weeks, only making quick trips out for necessities. We dutifully wear masks and avoid seeing people in person (save a very select few).
A trip to a theme park right now? You’ve got to be joking.
Believe me. I get it. But I also get the fatigue that’s come from living this way for six months. And you guys, I’m done. I mean, I’m not. I’m still wearing a mask in public and staying apart from people. But mentally, I am over it.
Aside from slowing the spread of the virus, the whole point of social distancing and wearing masks is to help us live ordinary lives in extraordinary times. We can’t hide from other people forever. So we make choices about what feels safe based on our comfort level (and our health), and we take the necessary steps to make things even safer, like wearing masks. And, frankly, I just needed a break.
And Dollywood gave me the perfect chance to do just that.
Nestled in the Smokies and only a couple hours’ drive from home, Dollywood makes for an easy, drivable getaway for Chattanoogans who’ve already got memberships to the Big Three tourist attractions downtown — the Creative Discovery Museum, the Tennessee Aquarium, and the Chattanooga Zoo — and want to add another fun outing to their family-friendly repertoire.
I hadn’t been to Dollywood in over 15 years, not since a random excursion with some friends during college. I always remember it being a clean park, but I had forgotten just how beautiful it is. Surrounded and shaded by trees, Dolly’s homage to Southern Appalachia is a quick peek at history, with plenty of old timey theming to set the tone.
It would be easy to spend a few hours at Dollywood without stepping foot onto a ride. Between the specialty shops and entertainment (outdoor only at the moment), there’s lots to do. But let’s be honest. I have a five-year-old. We rode things.
This isn’t a full review of Dollywood. For one thing, I lack the space. But I just wanted to highlight some things about the park in case you’re daydreaming about a quick trip right now. As someone who hesitates to do something as frivolous as run to Bath & Body Works for nonessential lotion, this was a big step for me.
And I’m glad I did it.
I can’t (and won’t) tell you whether you should travel during a pandemic. That’s for you to decide. But if you’re already thinking about it and want to know what it’s like, here’s my roundup of thoughts on Dollywood.
- It’s a quick, easy, scenic drive. The drive from Chattanooga to Pigeon Forge is about two and a half hours (from where we live). It feels even quicker, probably because it’s not just a straight stretch of boring highway. Quick drive = few (or no) stops depending on the age of your kids. And fewer stops means less of a risk of picking up a bug.
- They’re taking extra health precautions. You have to go through a screening to get into the park, well before you even reach the gates. You’ll be asked the standard COVID questions and have your temp taken. You’re then given a wristband to wear in the park to prove you’ve been screened. Throughout the park, there are handwashing stations, and every ride has a bottle of hand sanitizer readily available — and you’re required to use it when getting on the rides. I also witnessed at least one ride being paused so it could go through a sanitation cycle. Plus, rides are not being loaded at capacity, to enhance social distancing. Dollywood is a clean park, even more so right now.
- Masks are required. However you feel about masks personally, the research seems pretty clear that they’re effective at reducing the spread. And for me, I liked that Dollywood requires them (except for eating or when you’re in a designated mask-free zone).
- There are plenty of rides, even for little ones. My son is five and tall, but he doesn’t have much experience on rides, so we’re never quite sure what he can (or will) do. Fortunately, there are plenty of rides he can do at Dollywood. His favorites were The Scrambler and Treetop Tower. He did not like the Great Tree Swing (but I did!).
- There’s abundant shade. We lucked out and got a perfect day in terms of weather, with non-rainy clouds and a high in the lower 70s. But even if it had been sunny and hot, we could’ve taken breaks on benches under canopies of green foliage. There are so many trees and so many shaded areas at Dollywood that I never felt like I had much direct sunlight (except for some rides). But pro tip: wear sunscreen anyway. I didn’t and my pink face is proof that while I couldn’t feel the sun, it was there nonetheless.
Overall, we had a good day. Arthur got to play carnival games — something he’s been asking to do for ages — and ride rides and eat Dippin’ Dots and take a break, as did his parents.
But I do want to highlight a few things that I think you should know before booking your trip.
- Masks. They’re required. I know I said this, but I wanted to reiterate it here to make sure you bring several. I started out wearing a cloth one, but I found it stifling, so I switched to a paper one. My husband kept his cloth one on all day. Arthur went through three different ones. So pack a few extras for your family. Also, Dollywood has designated “mask free zones” to give you a break from wearing a mask if you need it. These spaces are clearly marked and include socially distanced tables.
- Crowds. We went on a Friday, assuming it wouldn’t be busy because it wasn’t a holiday weekend and kids are in school. Since I hadn’t been in 15+ years, I can’t say how crowded it was compared to pre-pandemic times, but it felt more crowded than I expected. That said, we rode everything we wanted to with hardly any waits. In fact, we walked on most rides. We didn’t ride any roller coasters, though, so I can’t say whether those had long waits. Just bear in mind that it might be crowded, especially since Dollywood has limited fall hours right now.
- The app. Dollywood is not giving out physical park maps right now, for obvious reasons. Instead, you can download the official Dollywood park app, which offers a virtual map, wait times for rides, showtimes and other info. We found it tricky to use, so I recommend spending some time on it beforehand so you know how to navigate it. (That said, there are always employees around to ask if you need help getting somewhere.)
We traveled during a pandemic. And we had a good time.
I didn’t think travel would be possible at all this year. And for people who are immunocompromised or high risk, like my dad, I still don’t recommend it. As safe as Dollywood felt and as good as their cleaning protocols were, it still presents a higher risk for some people. And since you can’t control other park guests — who may not be as concerned with the safety protocols as the park itself — it’s best to play it safe if you have concerns.
If you’re in doubt about whether you should travel right now, check in with your doctor. But if you’ve got the go-ahead — and the itch — to get outside Chattanooga and see a bit of the world, take precautions and go for it. Find a way to make life more livable right now.