Inside Dolly Parton’s new resort in the Tennessee mountains

Inside Dolly Parton’s new resort in the Tennessee mountains

By Marnie Hunter, CNN

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee (CNN) When a petite blonde known for her high hairstyles and even high heels is expected in a certain corner of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, the faithful start making travel plans.

Crowds of people gather, necks craned and cell phones held aloft, searching for recorded evidence of this life force with broad smiles and contagious laughter. An accomplished singer-songwriter, savvy businesswoman, and all-around likable entertainer, she’s not afraid to crack a joke at her press conference.

That’s the vibe that Dolly Parton’s presence brings to the Smokies, where she just opened her second resort hotel connected to the Dollywood theme park complex in East Tennessee. Its long-standing business partnership with Herschend Family Entertainment, fueled by Parton’s star power, has also estimated an annual direct economic impact of $1.8 billion., There are plans on the horizon to create more Dollywood resorts and attractions to support the state’s growing tourism industry.

The 302-room HeartSong Lodge & Resort opened on Friday, and Parton stepped out to launch the hotel, Dolly-style, with a few sarcastic jokes and a few minutes of singing and playing — verses from the 1994 hit “Heartsong” — to honor her rural Tennessee roots on which he’s based. On it is the country inn.

Parton’s glamorous, flamboyant personality doesn’t dominate the resort’s aesthetic, which she called “high-fashion rustic.” But the 77-year-old star provided plenty of glam at the opening, as she took to the stage in a bold printed dress with black ruffles at the hem, black beads draped at the waist, and a signature plunging neckline that sparked this quip: “I’m the only one who left the mountains.” Smokey took them with her.”

But it’s warmth and hospitality, not flashy decorations, that are on display at HeartSong.

“I’m just a normal person and all the people I grew up with are lovely, quiet people. I think once you instill that in your whole self, your whole being, it follows you,” Parton told CNN Travel in an interview after the launch party. Dollywood Empire greets guests with a smile and is quick to ask how they can help.

“When you grow up in a big family, you meet each other’s needs, you meet the needs of your neighbors, you meet the needs of your friends, even on Sundays when the preacher comes, you’re always giving and we kind of have that spirit. (At the Dollywood Resorts),” said Parton, who grew up Rich in music but without material wealth, he is the fourth of 12 children.

‘High country style’ inn.

It’s Dolly Parton’s childhood in the foothills of East Tennessee that takes center stage here.

In the foyer is a four-story stone fireplace containing an iron grate with an image of Little Dolly among trees and butterflies, while the other side features a huge portrait of the artist. Behind the reception desk, a huge screen cycles through images indicating the current season: in autumn, a mother bear and her clumsy cubs, a majestic, flashing owl, and the red-brown and ocher treetops covering the mountaintops.

The natural world and seasonal changes are captured throughout the hotel. The hallways on the guest room floors feature artwork associated with the four seasons, while the fireflies that captured Little Dolly appear in the rugs alongside the concentric rings set in the tree trunks, a fitting nod to a lifetime of accumulated experiences. Almost half of the rooms have balconies so guests can enjoy the mountain air.

In the guest rooms, murals along the wall feature night or day 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 the kids, complete with hybrid sleeping bag beds where the covers come off.

HeartSong features crafts for kids at Camp DW and a morning reading time that builds on Parton’s Imagination Library’s efforts to promote reading among young children. There is an outdoor pool with a waterfall and water pillow, as well as a hot tub and an indoor pool. Both pools are salvaged. A large fire pit hosts evening sing-alongs, and smaller seating areas with fire pits are scattered around the large patio. The wood-burning fire pit is home to the resort’s “Roasties” evening, a new twist on s’mores.

Although the inn is rustic, there is some subtle glam in the lobby and the plush smokey blue velvet sofas. The singer’s pink and purple aesthetic is on display in HeartSong’s separate acoustic lounge, a space dedicated to private dining. Here there is a chandelier of acoustic guitars and displays of Parton’s dazzling costumes. When it is not being used as a private space, guests are welcome to enjoy the room.

There is a take-out market, and the main restaurant, Ember & Elm, serves an à la carte breakfast and dinner featuring classic Southern cuisine. Adjacent High Note is a casual all-day dining restaurant/bar.

HeartSong follows Dollywood’s first hotel, DreamMore Resort and Spa, which opened nearby in 2015. This property has a more feminine feel, complete with a spa and salon.

Peak season rates at the new HeartSong Lodge start at $319. DreamMore peak season rates start at $269. Prices are usually lower in January and February when the theme park is closed.

Loyal 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 the trip to Pigeon Forge to attend the resort’s opening — and hoped to catch a glimpse of their idol.

Allen Jones drove seven hours from Dothan, Alabama, something he has done dozens of times as a Dollywood season ticket holder. He used to come with family members who have since died, but over the years he has befriended other ardent Parton fans from all over the country, and they often gather here.

“They’re my family now,” said Jones, 54, sitting in the hotel lobby wearing a T-shirt. It just happens to be Dolly Parton. Jones saw Barton twice on Friday — during her morning press event and when she left Heartsong for the day.

Carol Malerby made the pilgrimage to Dollywood from New Hampshire in 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, and 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 hopes it would reach Parton. It was their first trip to Dollywood, and they timed it in hopes of seeing the star, which they did for “two seconds” as Parton was on her way out of the hotel on Friday evening.

Autumn Martin, wearing a pink dolly shirt, 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 huge Parton fan that she incorporates the singer’s music and message into her teaching.

“My whole semester revolves around Dolly,” she said. Every year, Martin and her kindergarten class put on an end-of-year production of Dolly Parton songs, with some modified lyrics (“9 to 5” turns into “8 to 3” to better align with her school hours).

“We love the glitz and glamor. But it’s really about kindness,” she said when asked about Parton’s influence. “She teaches us to care about everyone. She embodies true goodness. “It’s something I want kids to emulate.”

For some fans, a visit to Dollywood — and the prospect of seeing Dolly herself at an event like the opening of HeartSong — is an almost religious experience.

One excited boy claimed he caught a glimpse of the star herself on Friday when he was looking into a room off the resort’s lobby.

The woman next to him said: “I wish you cared so much about God.”

For Tennessee, Dollywood is big business

Barton’s perennial attraction translated into more than three million Dollywood visitors last year, making it the largest ticketed attraction in the state. Sevier County — home to Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg — generated nearly $3.8 billion in visitor spending in 2022, placing it third behind Davidson County, where Nashville is located, and Shelby County, home to Memphis, according to the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development. (tted).

That number is up 53% from pre-pandemic numbers in 2018. “Among the top 40 tourist states in America, we are the fastest-growing state in the last five years in terms of visitor spending,” TDTD Commissioner Mark Ezell told CNN Travel.

Eisele, who called Parton “our second First Lady of Tennessee,” said Dolly Parton’s influence on the state is “profound, and it continues to grow.”

HeartSong Lodge is located just 10 miles north of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the United States.

HeartSong also has 26,000 square feet of event space. With Dollywood closed for two months during the winter, the inn included that space to increase business, especially during that time, said Kevin Osborne, HeartSong’s general manager.

Move full speed ahead to Dollywood’s new resorts and attractions

It all started, of course, 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 Park and Silver Dollar City, whose owners, Jack and Pete Herschend, joined Barton in the 1980s. On May 3, 1986, Dollywood opened, doubling attendance from the previous season.

For starters, Dollywood features a replica of Parton’s childhood Tennessee mountain home, a two-room cabin that gives visitors a sense of its humble roots. The park also includes a bald eagle sanctuary, where more than a dozen non-releasable birds live in a wooded enclosure.

Many additions and upgrades followed, leading to the opening of the $25 million Big Bear Mountain roller coaster in May.

And for die-hard Dooley fans, there’s more to come. The Dolly Parton Experience, a complete renovation of the former Chasing Rainbow Museum and several other nearby buildings, is expected to open in May 2024.

It will feature interactive snapshots from Parton’s life and cover her TV shows, films, many duets and her beloved Imagination Library, which offers free books for children. Another building will house a “Behind the Seams” program showcasing performance clothing, wigs and more. Visitors will also be able to take a ride on one of its former tour buses to see how their idol crosses the country.

Over time, the company plans to add three more resorts, including an upscale RV experience expected for 2026, according to Eugene Naughton, Dollywood’s president. DreamMore plans to update the decor for 2024.

“You know every few years I do a little facelift, a little bit of chewing and tucking,” Parton said at the press event, adding that it’s “right” for her hotels to do the same.

All of these attractions, just a few miles from where Barton grew up, only add to the destination’s expanding tourist offerings.

“I’m so proud of every business, every hotel, every motel, and all the people that are here, because this is my home,” she said.

CNN’s Brandon Griggs contributed to this story.

CNN Wire
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At Dollywood, there is a replica of the mountain house where Dolly Parton grew up.
Marnie Hunter/CNN

Dollywood theme park opened its Big Bear Mountain roller coaster this year and is the largest attraction in Tennessee.
Courtesy Dollywood

The lodge is inspired by Parton’s childhood in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Courtesy Dollywood

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