When a petite blonde with a high hairdo and even higher heels is expected to be in a certain corner of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, the devoted start making travel plans.
Crowds of people gather, with their necks craned and cell phones held high, seeking recorded proof of this life force with a wide smile and an infectious laugh. A master singer-songwriter, a savvy businesswoman and all-around beloved entertainer who’s not afraid to make a boob joke at her own press conference.
That’s the atmosphere Dolly Parton’s presence brings to the Smokies, where she’s just opened her second resort hotel connected to the Dollywood amusement park complex in eastern Tennessee. Her longstanding business partnership with Herschend Family Entertainment, stoked by Parton’s star power, also has an estimated annual direct economic impact of $1.8 billion, and there are plans on the horizon for more Dollywood resorts and attractions to fuel the state’s growing tourism industry.
The 302-room HeartSong Lodge & Resort had its grand opening Friday and Parton came out to launch the property, Dolly-style, with some snappy jokes and a few minutes of singing and strumming – verses from 1994’s “Heartsong” – to pay tribute to her rural Tennessee roots that the rustic lodge draws on.
Parton’s sparkling, spangled persona doesn’t dominate the resort’s aesthetic, which she called “high-fashion rustic.” But the 77-year-old star herself delivered plenty of glam at the opening, taking the stage in a bold print dress with black ruffles at the hem, black beading draped at the waist and a signature plunging neckline that elicited this quip: “I’m the only person that ever left the Smoky Mountains and took ‘em with her.”
But it’s Parton’s warmth and hospitality, not flashy style, that are on display at HeartSong.
“I’m just a down-home person and all the people I grew up with are just likable, easygoing people. And I guess once you’ve kind of had that instilled in your whole psyche, in your whole being, that does follow you,” Parton told CNN Travel in an interview after the launch event. Employees across the Dollywood empire greet guests with a smile and are quick to ask how they can help.
“When you grow up in a big family, you cater to one another, you cater to your neighbors, you cater to your friends, even on Sundays when the preacher comes over, you’re always kind of giving and we kinda have that spirit (at Dollywood resorts),” said Parton, who grew up rich in music but without material wealth as the fourth of 12 children.
A ‘high-fashion rustic’ lodge
It’s Dolly Parton’s childhood in the foothills of east Tennessee that takes center stage here.
In the lobby, a four-story stone fireplace has an iron grate with a depiction of a young Dolly among trees and butterflies, while the opposite side features a monumental portrait of the artist. Behind the reception desk, a massive screen rotates through imagery nodding to the current season: in fall, a mama bear and her clumsy cubs, a majestic, blinking owl, and the red, brown and ocher-hued treetops blanketing the mountain crests.
The natural world and seasonal changes are captured throughout the hotel. The hallways on the guestroom floors feature artwork tied to the four seasons, while the fireflies that captivated young Dolly appear in the carpeting alongside the concentric rings found in tree trunks, an apt nod to the accumulated experiences of a lifetime. Nearly half of the rooms have balconies so guests can enjoy the mountain air.
In the guestrooms, wall-length murals feature either day or nighttime scenes with bears, raccoons and butterflies. There are more than a dozen room and suite types – including a variety of configurations with separate bunk rooms for kids, complete with beds made up with a sleeping bag-sheet hybrid where the covers unzip.
HeartSong has Camp DW kids’ crafts and morning reading time drawing upon Parton’s Imagination Library effort promoting reading among young children. There’s an outdoor pool with a waterfall and splash pad as well as a hot tub and an indoor pool. Both pools are lifeguarded. A large firepit hosts evening singalongs, and smaller seating areas with firepits are scattered around the large patio. A wood-burning firepit is home to the resort’s evening “Roasties,” a twist on s’mores.
While the lodge is rustic, there’s some subtle shimmer in the lobby and plush, smoky blue velvet sofas. The singer’s sparkly aesthetic is on display in HeartSong’s separate Acoustic Lobby, a pink-and-purple space that’s offered for private dining. Here, there’s a chandelier of acoustic guitars and displays of Parton’s dazzling outfits. When it’s not in use as a private space, guests are invited to enjoy the room.
There’s a grab-and-go market, and the primary restaurant, Ember & Elm, serves a la carte breakfast and dinner featuring Southern classics (the biscuits served with local jams are addictive). The adjacent High Note is a more casual restaurant/bar with all-day dining.
HeartSong follows Dollywood’s first hotel, DreamMore Resort and Spa, which opened nearby in 2015. That property has a more feminine feel, complete with a spa and salon.
Peak season rates at the new HeartSong Lodge start at $319. Peak-season DreamMore rates start at $269. Rates are typically lower in January and February when the theme park is closed.
Devoted fans drove hours to attend the resort’s opening
Parton’s music, kindness and down-home charm inspire legions of fans, many of whom become loyal customers. Some made pilgrimages to Pigeon Forge for the resort’s opening – and, they hoped, to catch a glimpse of their idol.
Allen Jones drove seven hours from Dothan, Alabama – something he’s done dozens of times as a Dollywood season-passholder. He used to come with family members who have since died, but over the years he’s befriended other avid Parton fans from around the country, and they often meet up here.
“They’re my family now,” said Jones, 54, sitting in the hotel lobby wearing a T-shirt that read, “Everyone has their addiction. Mine just happens to be Dolly Parton.” Jones saw Parton twice on Friday – during her press event in the morning and as she left HeartSong for the day.
Carol Malerbi made a pilgrimage to Dollywood from New Hampshire in the hopes of seeing Parton, whose music was played for her while she was in a two-month coma about a decade ago due to complications from diabetes.
“I just love her, I love her inspiration,” she said, alongside her husband Jim, who made a cutting board for Parton bearing an eagle and a butterfly. The couple gave it to HeartSong staff in the hopes that it would make it to Parton. It was their first trip to Dollywood, and they timed it with the hopes of seeing the star, which they did for “two seconds” as Parton made her way out of the hotel Friday evening.
Autumn Martin, wearing a pink Dolly sweatshirt, was enjoying her first visit to HeartSong with her husband, their 8-year-old son and her husband’s parents. The elementary school teacher from Marietta, Georgia, is such a Parton fan that she’s incorporated the singer’s music and message into her teaching.
“My whole classroom is Dolly-themed,” she said. Each year Martin and her kindergarten class stage a year-end production of Dolly Parton songs, with some tweaked lyrics (“9 to 5” becomes “8 to 3” to better align with her school’s hours).
“We love the sparkles and the glitter. But it’s really about being kind,” she said when asked about Parton’s influence. “She teaches us to care for everybody. She embodies a genuine goodness. It’s something I want the kids to emulate.”
For some fans, visiting Dollywood – and the prospect of spotting Dolly herself on an occasion like HeartSong’s opening – is a near-religious experience.
One excited young boy claimed to have caught a glimpse of the superstar herself Friday as he peered into a room off the resort lobby.
The woman beside him said, “I wish you cared this much about God.”
For Tennessee, Dollywood is big business
Parton’s enduring appeal translated to more than three million Dollywood visitors last year, making it the state’s largest ticketed attraction. Sevier County – home to Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg – generated nearly $3.8 billion in visitor spending in 2022, putting it third behind Davidson County, where Nashville is located, and Shelby County, home to Memphis, according to the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development (TDTD).
That figure is up 53% from pre-pandemic, 2018 figures. “Out of the top 40 tourism states in America, we’re the fastest growing state in the last five years in terms of visitor spending,” Mark Ezell, TDTD’s commissioner, told CNN Travel.
Dolly Parton’s impact on the state is “profound, and it keeps on growing,” said Ezell, who called Parton “our second first lady of Tennessee.”
And HeartSong Lodge is just 10 miles north of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most-visited national park in the US.
HeartSong also has 26,000 square feet of event space. With Dollywood closed for two months during the winter, the lodge included that space to increase business, particularly during that period, said Kevin Osborn, HeartSong’s general manager.
Full speed ahead on new Dollywood resorts and attractions
All this, of course, started with a theme park.
Three other parks called the site home before Dolly Parton’s involvement turned it into Dollywood. The original park, Rebel Railroad, dates back to 1961. It was followed by Gold Rush Junction and Silver Dollar City, whose owners, Jack and Pete Herschend, joined forces with Parton in the 1980s. On May 3, 1986, Dollywood opened, more than doubling attendance over the previous season.
For the uninitiated, in addition to roller coasters, rides and live entertainment, Dollywood features a replica of Parton’s childhood Tennessee mountain home, a two-room cabin that gives visitors a sense of her modest roots. The park also holds a bald eagle sanctuary, where more than a dozen non-releasable birds live in a wooded enclosure.
Many additions and updates have followed, leading up to the $25 million Big Bear Mountain roller coaster that opened in May.
And for die-hard Dolly fans, there’s more to come. The Dolly Parton Experience, a complete revamp of the former Chasing Rainbows Museum and several other nearby buildings, is expected to open in May 2024.
It will offer interactive highlights of Parton’s life and covers her TV shows, movies, her many duets and her beloved Imagination Library, which gives free books to children. Another building will contain “Behind the Seams,” showcasing her performance outfits, wigs and more. Visitors also will be able to board one of her former tour buses, removed from the park right now during the renovations, to see how their idol crisscrossed the country.
Over time, the company plans to add three more resorts, including an upscale RV experience outlooked for 2026, according to Eugene Naughton, president of The Dollywood Company. And DreamMore is planning a décor refresh for 2024.
“You know every few years I get a little facelift, a little nip and tuck myself,” Parton said at the press event, adding that “it’s only right” that her hotels should do the same.
All of these attractions, just a few miles from where Parton grew up, just add to the destination’s expanding tourism offerings.
“I’m so proud of every business, every hotel, every motel – all the people around here,” she said, “because this is my home.”
CNN’s Brandon Griggs contributed to this story.
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