PIGEON FORGE — The buzz on Dollywood often focuses on thrills and live entertainment. Everyone has their favorite ride or must-see show. Newcomers and long-timers alike can’t wait to hit every roller coaster or grab a show schedule as soon as they’re through the turnstiles at the front gate. Children run for the Country Fair or the let’s-all-get-wet water rides.
But there’s another key player in keeping park guests happy — and keeping them coming back asking for more.
Lots and lots of it.
And 90 percent of it is prepared fresh at the park.
What Dollywood’s food services serve up in a single season can be staggering when broken down. A few examples: gravy, 9,520 gallons; chili, 18,000 pounds; pepperoni pizza, 63,910 slices; cotton candy, 91,960 bags; popcorn, 37,000 pounds; chocolate Chips, 12,950 pounds; chicken, 436,491 pieces (that’s not nuggets, but actual breasts, wings, thighs, and legs); hamburgers, 280,000. Park guests run through 8.2 million napkins.
Some folks don’t mind standing in line, no matter how long the wait, to get on their favorite ride. Others simply cannot pass by “Dogs N Taters” without getting a corndog. And what would a trip to Dollywood be without funnel cake, kettle corn or pork rinds?
Don’t forget cotton candy. Or fried chicken. Did we mention barbeque?
Oh, yeah — the penultimate treat: fresh cinnamon bread from the Grist Mill.
The Grist Mill underwent an interior update of its bakery sales area over the winter, reopening for this season with more ovens to bake more bread.
That’s helped the Grist Mill already break its daily record for cinnamon bread: 1,200 loaves on a recent day.
And if you’re one of the people who want to take some home, there’s more good news. New this season are aluminum to-go loaf pans (replacing the paper bags used before) with tight-fitting lids (and you can buy the bread at the Mill and request it be ready for you to pick up near the park’s exit later in the day).
But all those staples are joined each season — and sometimes with each festival within a season — by new offerings.
This year that concept has been expanded to take over the Backstage Restaurant, where the buffet’s theme will change along with the park’s festival lineup.
Last year, Dollywood experimented with new flavors and different colors for kettle corn and cotton candy — and for the first time began offering kettle corn sweetened with Splenda, which proved a huge hit.
This year, the theme park will be serving up new flavors of pork rinds and this summer, will offer 300 flavors of milkshakes.
“Our philosophy is we want to offer a unique experience every time they come to the park, whether it is a repeat guest or a new guest or a one-time guest,” Dollywood’s Executive Chef Steve Carideo said last week. “We know what we need to have for our guests who return — they want consistency. They want to know they can go to Aunt Granny’s, for example, for the same fried chicken they remember from last time. They want the same stuff they’ve been having. But at the same time, we try to stay fresh and exciting.”
That philosophy seems to be working more than well for Dollywood. Last year, the park won the Golden Ticket Award for Best Theme Park Food in the world. And recently, Aunt Granny’s Buffet was named best theme park restaurant in the nation.
Carideo said a key factor is that all of Dollywood’s recipes keep it simple and use fresh ingredients.
“We don’t try to make it complicated,” Carideo said. “You don’t have to put a lot of ingredients in to make it good when you use fresh products and keep it simple ... use fresh ingredients and use less of them and it will taste good.”
For guests who have food allergies or sensitivities — a growing group in recent years — Dollywood offers its “Fresh Start” program.
“If you have an allergy or a concern about foods, our plan is designed to make sure your day happens without a hitch,” Carideo said. “We have several restaurants throughout the park that are attune to all the allergies, including gluten-free and celiac disease to you-name-it. We go to great detail to make sure those guests are taken care of. All it takes is a phone call or simply ask any park host.”
Dollywood’s Festival of Nation’s concludes Monday. The International Buffet will continue at Backstage until the Barbeque & Bluegrass Festival begins May 25, Carideo said.
Featuring the biggest names in bluegrass music and serving up different types of barbeque — and grilled — items and accompaniments, Barbeque & Bluegrass runs through June 6.
Next up will be Dollywood’s Great American Summer festival, June 22 through Aug. 8. The National Southern Gospel & Harvest Celebration is scheduled for Oct. 2 through Nov. 2. And the immensely popular Smoky Mountain Christmas is set for Nov. 9 through Jan. 4.
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