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The Dark Side of Dollywood

You might associate Dolly Parton with her unique blend of country and bluegrass music or perhaps you might think of her larger-than-life persona and signature sense of style, but she is also the co-owner of a theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee fittingly called Dollywood. The park is nestled in Tennessee’s breathtaking Smoky Mountains just minutes away from H=historic Gatlinburg.

In 1976, Dolly teamed up with Pete and Jack Herchend and developed an existing attraction called ‘Rebel Railroad’ into a larger park that would be renamed as ‘Silver Dollar City Tennessee’, making it the sister park to the original – and still operational – ‘Silver Dollar City’ in Branson, Missouri.

A decade later, Silver Dollar City Tennessee was rebranded as ‘Dollywood’ and has been a successful tourist locale ever since. Dolly told the press in 2010 that she had always hoped to do something great for her region of the country if she ever got big and successful. She wanted to bring something that would bring a lot of jobs to the area. Today, Dollywood employs over 4000 people, making it the largest employer in the region.

Considering the fact that Dollywood’s motto is “Love every moment” and then theirs the added bonus that one of American’s most beloved performers is at it’s helm, what could possibly go wrong? Well, even though the park stakes the claim that there is something there for everyone and every interest, some guests have uncovered some particularly unsettling things about the park over the decades.  To gain a full picture of Dolly’s theme park’s history, it’s crucial that we look at some of the parks lowest moments.

Sure, Dolly would probably prefer it if we turned a blind eye to the things were about to show you, but that won’t stop us from exploring the dark side of Dollywood.

Gay Day And The KKK

Dolly Parton has been an outspoken supporter of the LGBTQ+ and drag communities for years. She once famously quipped that if she hadn’t been a woman, she would have been a drag queen. She has even been called the ‘patron saint of drag queens’, so it shouldn’t be that much of surprise to you that some of her gay fans started coming out to Dollywood in droves in the mid-2000s to organize an annual ‘gay day’ at the park.

Despite the fact that Dolly had always spoken highly of LGBT people, the park never officially recognized the perennial pride event. In fact, the park even had their lawyers send out cease and desist letters to the events organizers requesting that they stop using the ‘Dollywood’ name in their promotional material. If that sounds bad, just wait, it gets worse.

Eventually the peaceful participants of ‘gay day’ also had to compete with protests put on by the Klu Klux Klan.  The white supremacist group coordinated protests that they dubbed ‘demonstrations against homosexuality’ on the same day as ‘gay day’ for years hoping to scare them off. Without Dolly’s support, the organizers of ‘gay day’ disbanded after five years of organizing the event.

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And don’t go anywhere just yet. In a minute we’ll cover the shocking origins of Dollywood’s oldest ride, The Rebel Railroad, but first let’s see how one couple’s choice of clothing almost got them barred from the park less than a decade ago.

Don’t Wear Politically Charged Clothing Items

In 2011, Olivier Odom visited the park wearing a T-Shirt that read ‘Marriage is so gay’. When she made it to the gate of Splash Country, the parks water park, a man at the gate leaned in close and whispered that she had to turn her T-Shirt inside out. Apparently, the shirt had violated Dollywood’s dress-code which prohibits clothing deemed to be offensive.

Odom and her wife, Jennifer Tipton, told the Knoxville News Sentinel that the worst thing about the encounter was the fact that the employee told them that Dollywood was a ‘family park’.

“We were with our family!” Odom explained but shared she chose to turn the shirt inside-out anyway to avoid making a scene in front of her children.

She figured that she would address the situation more tactfully outside of the park setting at a later time.

A spokesperson for the park, Pete Owens, addressed the controversy by reaffirming Dollywood’s goal of being a place that is warm and inviting to people and families of all kinds. 

“If you walk around the park, you’ll see that it’s ethnically and socially diverse…. We’ve been very inclusive of everyone and I’m proud of that record.”  Owens concluded.

Safety Concerns And Red Flags

For many years, Dollywood had a pretty decent track record when it came to maintaining guests safety. Unfortunately, large crowds of people coupled with massive moving mechanical equipment means that accidents are inevitable. The trick is keeping those mishaps to a minimum.

In 2013, Tedi and Derryl Brown were visiting the park when they endured one of the most traumatizing experiences of their lives while riding the park’s Waltzing Swinger ride. According to a TMZ, the park completely ignored the fact that heavy rain had resulted in slippery conditions that ultimately led to Tedi slipping out of her seat.

Allegedly, she hung on for dear life as long as she could before losing her grip and falling head first into the concrete ground 10 feet below her. She sustained serious injuries including several fractured bones and permanent brain damage.

Her family later sued the park for $475,000 in damages. The park responded to TMZ’s report by saying that a rider would have had to intentionally unlatch themselves from the safety restraints before the ride came to a stop in order to get out. According to them, there is no way that her version of the incident would have been possible.

In 2018, Dollywood was sued once again, this time after a mom of two reported sustaining a spinal injury while riding the RiverRush Water Coaster. Reportedly, she sued the park for $2 million for ‘negligence and failure to properly warn guests of the dangers of the ride’.

In 2020, three guests were injured when a decorative item fell from a ride. Also in 2020, an employee of the park was seriously injured in a glassblowing accident.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Despite the whole ‘Gay Day’ KKK business, Dollywood has always seemed to be a relatively safe space for people of the LGBT community. The New York Times once described the park as being ‘A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Gay’ and wrote that  ‘Dollywood is a safe haven in the rural South’.  In a region of the nation where people can be ‘evicted or fired based on their sexual orientation’, Dollywood seems to draw in many LGBT performers and employees.

Still, not all staff members have felt comfortable divulging their sexual orientation to the park’s leadership. According to that same New York Times article, Herschend Family Entertainment, the park’s co-owners end their mission statement on their website with the phrase ‘ All in a manner consistent with Christian values and ethics’.

This phrasing has led some staff members to be apprehensive about who they open up with about their orientation, fearing that they might lose their jobs if they don’t keep a low profile.

A spokesperson for the park, Fatima Mehdikarimi, brushed aside these concerns saying that Dolly would be heartbroken to hear talk like that. She acknowledged that technically they are a Christian company but offered the assurance that everybody is on the same level playing field.

Dolly Parton’s Stampede

For years, Dollywood featured a Civil War themed dinner theater show called the ‘The Dixie Stampede’ where guests got to choose sides and either root for the South and it’s legion of smiling soldiers on horseback decked out in Confederate uniforms or root for the Union North.

Many have criticized the show for not addressing the issue of slavery and romanticizing the old confederate south. In 2018, the dinner theater was given a much needed update to match the changing times. Oddly though, the only thing that actually changed was the show’s name. Besides being rebranded as “Dolly Parton’s Stampede”, the attraction was essentially unaltered.

No effort was made to address the more problematic parts of the show. The script remains entirely in tact and questionable elements like the ‘Southerners Only and Northerners Only’ bathrooms are left unchanged.

Dollywood’s Problematic Railroad

Long before it was known as Dollywood, the park was known as Rebel Railroad. That original attraction came to be when a family incorporated a locomotive that was abandoned by a logging company into an attraction that has since become one of the crown Jewels of Dollywood. When Dolly Parton took over, the Rebel Railroad ride was altered but it’s extraordinarily problematic past still haunts the park.

The original ride sounded like something straight out of Westworld. Guests were encouraged to bring weapons to fight off the Yankees as the steam powered train took riders on a five-mile ride into the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. During the circuit, passengers would witness things like mock Indian attacks, train robberies, occasionally even Federal troops intent on ambushing the train and robbing it’s lockbox of Confederate currency.

These days, the Dollywood Express takes riders on a simple five-mile no-frills ride through the Smokey Mountains and passengers are encouraged to leave all of their weapons at home.

Allegations Of Animal Abuse

In 2004, Trexler Game Preserve out of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania faced heavy criticism after it  shipped 10 American Bison to Dollywood for use in the Stampede dinner theater show. It was reported that he animals were being whipped around a corral by performers on horseback.

The park claimed that the animals were treated fairly and humanely but critics argued that it was unethical to take animals that were born on peaceful preserve and then subject them to such exploitation several times a day  just for audiences amusement.

Pete Owens, one of Dollywood’s spokespeople, explained that the animals were never actually whipped. Rather, the sound of the whip was used to encourage the animals to move. According to him, the animals are treated with the same degree of respect as any other ‘cast member’.

Well, that’s all the dirt that we’ve managed to dig up for you today. Hopefully, we haven’t thoroughly tarnished the way you look at Dollywood. Despite it’s flaws and bits of history that Dolly probably wishes she could snap her fingers and make disappear, it’s still one of the top tourist destinations in Appalachia.

Have you ever been? If not, would you ever consider paying it a visit? Let us know in the comments section below.

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