Dollywood: The “Gay Mecca” in Tennessee’s Backyard

by Melinda Lejman | photos courtesy Dollywood

I think everybody should be allowed to be who they are, and to love who they love. I don’t think we should be judgmental. Lord, I’ve got enough problems of my own to pass judgment on somebody else. —Dolly Parton

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably heard of Dollywood, even if you haven’t had the chance to visit. Located in Pigeon Forge at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, the amusement park hosts around 3 million guests in a typical season and is the biggest ticketed tourist attraction in Tennessee. When a friend informed me that it was also a sort of “gay mecca,” I was intrigued and had to learn more.

The park is co-owned by singer/songwriter/entertainer Dolly Parton and Herschend Family Entertainment. An American legend and queer icon, Dolly has gone on record in support of LGBT rights and equality. In 2014, Parton said in an interview with Billboard, “I think everybody should be allowed to be who they are, and to love who they love. I don’t think we should be judgmental. Lord, I’ve got enough problems of my own to pass judgment on somebody else.”

Also in 2014, the New York Times piece “Dollywood: A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Gay” paints a picture of Parton as a rags-to-riches powerhouse whose determination and dedication to her roots has drawn gay travelers to Dollywood for decades. It may seem surprising, but the tourist attraction nestled in a conservative region of the state draws more than die- hard conservative Christians.

Maybe it’s the famous cinnamon rolls that are delivered daily like manna from Heaven in the Grist Mill. Food is, after all, a great equalizer, and the same might be said of Dollywood’s first- class theme parks. Or perhaps it’s the fabulous shows and resort amenities. One thing is certain – Dollywood has something for everyone, and on any budget.

“It has all the sorts of things you’d expect to find at a theme park,” says Graham Hoppe, author of Gone Dollywood: Dolly Parton’s Mountain Dream. “(It has) roller coasters, shows,
souvenir stores. But what makes it different is that it all revolves around this extraordinary
woman: Dolly Parton. You can see her fingerprints on everything from the rides, the food, the shows, her museum and, of course, the music.”

Even if you’re not a Dolly fan per se, it would be nearly impossible not to get caught up in the larger-than-life persona that is Dolly. “Parton’s persona is one of the most appealing in American culture. So many different kinds of people fall under the umbrella of Dolly fandom,” says Hoppe. “When I talked to people who work at Dollywood, while researching my book, they echoed public statements that Dolly has made about the park being a welcoming place for all her fans.”

Whether you’re looking for a weekend getaway, or week- long vacation with friends or family, Dollywood has you covered. When planning your stay, go to Dollywood. com’s special offers page to find discounts on everything from spa services to buffets to cabin packages. And if you’re planning a spring break vacation, check out the “Spring Break: Stay and Play” package which gives you up to 20% off a three-night stay at the DreamMore Resort and Spa when you book by April 28th.

Dollywood Park, Pigeon Forge

“Parton seems to be such an affirming presence in so many people’s lives,” says Hoppe, “that there seems to be a real demand that all of the extensions of her empire follow her example.” So, my friends, it appears that the verdict is in. There’s really no excuse not to get your bags packed and venture to one of Tennessee’s most breathtaking regions in search of some deep-fried delicacies, countrified entertainment, and down-home hospitality.

Here are links to information about Graham’s book, Gone Dollywood: Dolly Parton’s Mountain Dream Approaches-Appalachian/dp/0821423231