Dolly Parton speaks to Travel + Leisure about Dollywood's new HeartSong Lodge & Resort, memories from the park’s early days, and her dreams for its legacy.
Dolly Parton's new Tennessee mountain home away from home is now open for visitors — and I was one of the first to be welcomed.
This weekend, Parton celebrated the opening of her newest hotel, Dollywood’s HeartSong Lodge & Resort, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. This new 302-room lodge is inspired by the iconic singer's connection to the Great Smoky Mountains, and it serves as the rustic-chic sister property to the neighboring DreamMore Resort & Spa, which opened in 2015.
The new hotel, HeartSong Lodge & Resort, which shares its name with Parton’s 1994 “Heartsong,” a song in which Parton expresses nostalgia for her childhood and her love for her “Smoky Mountain home.” Of course, those are themes heard throughout Parton’s discography, perhaps most famously in “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” her 1973 song that feels like the unofficial theme song of Dollywood.
Parton’s deep love and appreciation for her Great Smoky Mountain home inspired HeartSong’s modern interpretation of a rustic lodge. With soaring butterfly buttresses along the wood beams in the lobby and fireflies that illuminate the guest room bathroom mirrors, the hotel’s design incorporates elements influenced by the region’s natural beauty (of course, you can also find depictions of Parton herself and memorabilia, too). Other resort highlights include elevated Southern meals at Ember & Elm, nightly s’mores and campfire sing-a-longs, and a range of room types including family suites with bunk beds.
Those familiar with Dolly Parton’s life story know that she grew up amidst the Great Smoky Mountains in Locust Ridge, Tennessee — near where the resort now stands — in a tiny cabin as one of 12 children. A replica of her modest childhood home can be found near the front of Dollywood today; if the theme park is a journey through Parton’s world, that little home represents the beginning of a legend that has left an indelible mark on American music and culture.
Throughout the park, guests find nods to Parton’s life story, her music, her family, and her beloved Great Smoky Mountains in the attractions, musical shows, food and drinks, and experiences. A new Dolly Parton Experience, set to open next year, will give guests an interactive look at Parton’s journey and impact through immersive experiences, exhibits, and even displays of her iconic fashion through the years.
With two hotels, a water park, and an ever-growing theme park that has gained worldwide attention (and recent accolades) for its new attractions, seasonal festivals, and experiences, Dollywood has transformed into a bonafide family destination in the nearly 40 years since its creation. In my past interviews with Parton, we've discussed her dreams to make a positive impact through Dollywood — to create jobs for her community, to provide a fun place for families to make memories, to celebrate her home, and to further her charitable initiatives. So far, Dollywood has done all that and then some; the park sees over 2.5 million guests each year, and with even more expansions planned for the future, Dollywood won't be slowing down any time soon.
I got to sit down with Dolly Parton once again for a wide-ranging interview to discuss the new hotel, her memories from Dollywood’s first days, and her hopes for the park’s legacy.
Travel + Leisure: Today we're celebrating the opening of HeartSong Lodge and Resort. What can you tell us about the inspiration behind the creation of the new resort? How does HeartSong fit into the overall Dollywood plan?
Dolly Parton: "We were excited about how successful our DreamMore Resort was, I mean people just love that, and it just stays booked all the time. We thought, well we're gonna need to have another hotel, and we need to have it pretty close. Now what will that theme be? Because we try to choose things that I can identify with, things that kind of are from my life in one form or another.
So we thought, well, why not have a lodge? Why don't we use as many of the beautiful trees and put this lodge right in the hills there, where people really feel like they're in a mountain home — a very luxurious one, by the way — but we just wanted to kind of be more rustic than the other one, which was more my glamorous life, the DreamMore, [that was] more my Hollywood life, but [HeartSong] takes me back to my childhood and being more here in the Smokies. And I've always loved a lodge, anyway.
I’ve loved going through the years to different places around the country when they have a lodge, always was intrigued with that. So it just made sense that it's something I could identify with, that we could play off of to promote it, too. That it’s certainly not foreign to me, to be here in the mountains of the Smokies, so I'm just so proud of it. When we broke ground there, in that little spot I thought, ‘Wow, this this is gonna be great,’ and today, walking in when it was all done I thought ‘Wow, this is just amazing.’”
Dollywood’s 40th anniversary season is coming up, and when you look back at the last 40 years, are there any Dollywood memories that stick out to you?
Well, they all stick out to me, I mean, when we broke ground, you know, when we started Dollywood and started building, that was really a standout. Having a lot of my friends through the years, guest artists come for different openings, that's always been great. But every time we added new things, that was always exciting, and watching it just grow through the years and just become so much what it is. And when we built our first water park, Splash Country, that was a big deal, thinking, ‘Oh we got a water park now,’ and then certainly all the things that we've added with our rides and all, the food is great, and the shows are great. But then you know, we thought, ‘Wow this is just gonna be great, we need a resort.’ And then when we built our first resort that was a major thing, and now we've got this one, so I have just loved through the years just watching it grow and watching it expand.
What’s a beauty product that you can't travel without?
All of my makeup! My makeup kit, would that fit?
Your favorite ride or food item at Dollywood?
Oh, the funnel cakes.
Aisle or window seat when you're flying?
Is there a location that has inspired you the most to write music?
My Tennessee mountain home, my old Tennessee mountain home.
And what is the biggest lesson you've learned traveling over the years?
That I'm the luckiest person in the world to be from Tennessee. That it's still the most beautiful place - the Great Smoky Mountains - that I've ever been. So I'm just grateful that I'm a Tennessee girl, and an American girl.
Do you remember how you felt on those first days when you were transforming this place into Dollywood?
Yeah, I remember looking out my bus window and wishing and hoping that we were gonna have people come. You know, it's like a kid having its first party, you don't know if anybody's gonna show up, and then you're so excited when people start knocking on the door.
Well, when I started seeing those people coming into the park, I mean, I just felt so relieved and I remember feeling so proud and so excited thinking, ‘Wow, I think this is gonna work, I think it's gonna work.’ And then I've watched it grow all through the years, and it's just been amazing.
In 40 years, Dollywood has become a world-renowned park and it continues to grow, just like you mentioned, with all of the new additions of the rides and the experiences and one of the newest experiences upcoming, the Dolly Parton Experience, is very exciting. Can you speak about that and how you feel about that opening soon?
Well, I’m as excited about that as almost anything that we've done in years and years, and in a personal way, maybe more so, because that's about my life, and my journey through life with my music, with my clothes, with my family, and all the things, the trials and tribulations and all the joys and all the accolades and all the things that I've seen through the years. To have it there in this Dolly experience where it's really done so well — I have such a great team here at the park — and everybody's just done a great job so I think people are gonna enjoy seeing the clothes and the hair and all.
In many ways, Dollywood feels like a celebration of your larger-than-life impact on American culture and music and an intimate look into your upbringing and your life. So what do you hope for the legacy of Dollywood?
I'm just hoping that we continue to do great things like we have in the past, and that everything that we do will be meaningful and will impact the families because we try very hard to be there for people.
And we've just had so many great things through the foundation here, like our Imagination Library and stuff that we do that really is a giveback. We're not just one to take and take and take, but we do a lot of wonderful things because of the park, and the fact that we can provide so many jobs with all the new things we have, like the new resorts and the expansion of the park every year, so we just hope to be able to continue to be an entertainment spot, a vacation destination, especially for families.
So we're just proud of everything that we've accomplished, and I'm so proud of the people I work with. I have such a wonderful team, and the partners that I have, here at Dollywood, the Herschend family. So we just watch it grow, and we're just all very proud of it.
So between Dollywood, your upcoming first rock album, “Rockstar,” and your book “Behind the Seams” that just came out, do you ever have time for a vacation? And when you do, where do you go? What is Dolly Parton’s happy place?
Dollywood! No, actually my own house is my perfect place. If I do get a chance to have some time off, I just like to be home, you know, cook and read and just kind of be simple, hanging around with my husband and do much of nothing. That's my idea of a great vacation.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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