PIGEON FORGE — For her official inaugural voyage on Dollywood’s new $5 million ride, Dolly Parton asked children riding with her for one favor: “Don’t hit a target!”
But park officials say the 130-acre theme park that bears her name is right on target to meet and possibly exceed last year’s attendance levels — whether gas prices stay high or not.
Dollywood’s 2008 season — its 23rd — got under way a few weeks ago. This weekend Parton was “on park,” making what’s become an traditional season-opening visit and “homecoming.”
On Friday, decked out in a shiny red raincoat and wielding a clear bubble umbrella — just in case — she took a ride on a “River Battle” raft, checking out the new $5 million family-friendly attraction that promises “You Will Get Wet.”
“I don’t want to get wet because I might fall apart,” Parton joked.
River Battle sends eight passengers on rafts down a 500-foot channel lined with more than 100 targets.
The targets include large-scale talking animals such as beavers, skunks, otters and bears, some of which shoot water back at the riders. Riders can also aim at other passengers on their raft or park guests along the edge of the ride.
“Don’t shoot the targets,” Parton said to children riding with her. “That means (the water) comes back and hits us.”
Parton said like other rides at Dollywood, “River Battle” incorporates memories of playing with her brothers and sisters growing up nearby.
“We were usually squirting water through our teeth, at each other,” Parton said. “Or throwing it in buckets. And of course, we used to swim in the old swimming hole. We’d jump out of trees into the water. We’d swing on ropes and all that. This is a little more calm ... like we might ride around in a creek back home. Not too dangerous, but fun. I think children are going to really enjoy this particular ride.”
How did a singer end up with a theme park?
“When I was young I thought if I ever had the opportunity to do something great for my hometown — if I was fortunate enough to be successful — that I would like to have something like a theme park, to employ not just members of my family, but a lot of folks in the whole area,” Parton said.
How’d she come up with the park’s name?
As her career took her on repeated trips to Los Angeles, Parton said, she’d see the famous “HOLLYWOOD” sign and it just occurred to her that changing the “H” to a “D” would be a good name for a theme park.
What does she hope is written about her when people look back at her life?
“My music has always been my number one love,” Parton said. “It was a song that brought me out of the Smoky Mountains — and a dream. And it’s been a song that’s kind of sponsored and furthered every dream I’ve ever had. So, I’d like to first of all be remembered as a songwriter. And an entertainer. And a singer — that didn’t just sit around and spend all the money on myself, but tried to give back.
“I’d like ’em to say ‘hey, there was a girl that not only wanted to take, but also wanted to give.’ It’s been a great give and take throughout my entire career and I’m very grateful, for all of it.”
On Saturday, Parton planned to hold several events to pay tribute to Porter Waggoner, including dedication of a new exhibit in his memory at Dollywood’s “Chasing Rainbows” attraction.
“He was a great entertainer and meant a great deal to country fans and certainly in the last few years to the Grand Ole Opry,” Parton said. “I want to pay tribute to him for what he did, for me, and for country music.”
Dollywood — about 90 miles from the Interstate 81/Interstate 26 interchange in Kingsport — is Tennessee’s top tourist draw with more than 2 million guests annually. When totaled with visitors to adjoining property “Dollywood’s Splash Country” in 2007, the number topped 3 million, Parton said Friday.
Park staff said surveys indicate American travelers may take shorter trips this year — and look for ways to reduce other travel costs such as dining and lodging options — but won’t let higher fuel prices keep them from making visits to Dollywood.
Look for more about Dollywood’s 2008 season in the April 17 edition of GoTriCities in Thursday’s Times-News.