Earlier this month, I became the envy of my friends when I visited Dollywood, the theme park that Dolly Parton founded in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee in 1986. Upon reflection, I've realized that Dollywood is much like the woman herself. It presents many identities at once, meaning it can speak simultaneously to wildly different types of people.
Here are the Dollywood Identities I observed (as well as their corollaries to the actual Dolly Parton):
1. The Showstopper
On one level, Dollywood is just a really great amusement park. There are excellent roller coasters, a water ride, and several contraptions that swing you around in a circle. There are also live performances in theaters with names like Heartsong, The Back Porch, and Wings of America.
Like Dolly herself, then, the park can reach people who simply want to be entertained. You don't need an emotional connection to the woman or her fairground to enjoy what she's offering.
2. The True Friend
If you want a deeper connection, however, then you can find one. Or at least a flawlessly performed imitation.
Parton seems to please almost everyone. Gay, straight, Democrat, Republican: They've all endorsed her. Her appeal is at least partially defined by an aura of genuine affection for everything she sees. She always seems perky, engaged, and concerned, like she's ready to be your friend. (I don't even know the woman, and I want to invite her over for Baked Lays and Designing Women reruns.)
Inclusivity and kindness also run through Dollywood. Right at the entrance, there's a list of employees who have recently done something nice for park visitors, and four ride operators personally asked me about my day.
Meanwhile, the buildings resemble a rural mountain village, with Dolly's catchiest hits piping through the streets. Toss in the natural beauty of the surrounding Great Smoky Mountains, and the park emanates cozy charm. Sure, it's all been designed and perfected, but the result feels genuine.
Within that atmosphere, Dollywood blends multiple cultures with ease. When I visited, I saw both African musicians and banjo pickers playing in pavilions. I saw a '50s-style diner, a corndog stand, and a guy making Mexican food at a joint called PaPaw's Flat Bread. As he made fajitas, I thought I heard him say, "Everybody's welcome here."
3. The Winking Ironist
For urban sophisticates, it could be tempting to mock both Dolly and her park as a blend of cheap thrills and sentimental theatrics. But there's no need: Everyone's in on the joke.
If Dolly Parton only sang great songs and endorsed great charities, then I'd think she was fantastic. But since she's also got a sense of humor about herself, I love her beyond all reason. It's easier to trust her — to trust the emotion in her music and the messages in her causes — because she embraces her gaudy taste and fake eyelashes. (She's famous for saying, "It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.") Many celebrities refuse to acknowledge the phoniness that comes with being a public figure, but since Dolly owns it with good humor, she seems genuine.
Dollywood has touches of that humor, too. Take Chasing Rainbows, the park's interactive museum. It's less an egotistical shrine than a witty deconstruction of Parton's career. One exhibit allows you to take a picture of yourself and then digitally alter it to see how you'd look in Dolly's wigs. Another features a hologram of Dolly demonstrating the various machines she's used to get the fat off her thighs.
Even better, one of Dolly's tour buses is parked in front of the museum, with docents giving frequent tours. Just outside, there's a sign with standard warnings about not eating in the bus and not stealing things, but at the very bottom, in lovely mauve calligraphy set on top of a pink and white butterfly, the sign reads, "Management is not responsible for any sudden urges to wear rhinestones and flashy clothes."
Six Flags will never be that fabulous.
But again, Dollywood doesn't have to be a winking good time, any more than it has to be a straight-ahead theme park adventure or a heartwarming visit to a benevolent mountain community. It can be whatever we need it to be, and that's why it's so easy to love.