PIGEON FORGE (WATE) – Dollywood celebrated its 30th anniversary season Friday. Dolly Parton herself made a couple of appearances, handing out prizes to guests and looking back at the history of the park. She also took part in the annual Homecoming Parade as thousands of people lined the streets to look on.
Parton kicked off the 30th season with some songs and some trips back in time, remembering some of the most popular shows throughout the decades. Some things at the park are the same, but many are additions from over the years.
People have been witnessing the growth first hand for 30 years.
“Just seeing what Dolly has done with it and how she’s made it very family friendly, but also just really special for everyone. Great rides, great shows, something for everybody here,” said park visitor Justin Petrowski.
It’s clear that Parton’s love for her hometown has influenced growth in the whole area.
“That she stays true to where she’s from and we’re just thankful that we have something like this that we can come to. We tell people about it all the time. Anyone comes in from out of town, alright we’re going to Dollywood!” said park visitor Julie Petrowski.
Parton is a native East Tennessean with one of the most recognizable names in show business.
More than three decades ago, Parton was about to make an announcement that would change the face of Sevier County.
“I have a big dream of building a center or a city or being involved in a place in East Tennessee, my hometown up in Gatlinburg which is one of the most wonderful places in the world, called Dollywood USA,” Parton told Barbara Walters in an early 1980s interview.
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There was already a small theme park in Pigeon Forge, then called Silver Dollar City. Parton was able to put her name on it in 1986.
In the early days, it was unclear if the park would be successful. Fast forward 30 years, and those doubts are just memories.Slideshow:Dolly’s Homecoming Parade
“Well I’ve seen it grow. I’ve seen it go from just a little dream to a bigger dream, and every year we come up with new things,” said Parton.
It’s now the largest employer in Sevier County and in 30 years has seen more than 75 million guests come through the gates. Nearly three million of those were just last year.
“It’s probably one of the biggest things that’s ever happened for the city of Pigeon Forge and for Sevier County in my opinion. Every year since then we’ve had a major growth in tourism revenue except for the economy when it crashed in 2008,” said Leon Downey, Pigeon Forge director of tourism.
Dollywood’s impacts can be felt throughout all of Sevier County and nowhere more than in Pigeon Forge. One of the many businesses that attributes its growth in part to Dollywood’s success is The Incredible Christmas Place. It opened 25 years ago and continued to grow, even opening an inn across the street, but 25 years ago it looked very different.Related story: Dollywood employees prepare for 30th anniversary celebration
“Pigeon Forge used to just be Gatlinburg’s overflow. They’d just pass through here going to Gatlinburg,” said Ray Ogle, manager of The Inn at Christmas Place.
Ogle remembers Dollywood being instrumental in bringing winter business to the mountains, when tourism would die off and unemployment rates would skyrocket.
“Dollywood agreed at that time to extend their hours and stay open longer during the year to allow people to have more to do to bring them in for the Winterfest,” said Ogle.
Dollywood is continuing to boom, starting a 10-year, $300 million investment last year. The first step of that is something Parton has wanted since the park opened, the DreamMore Resort.
The rest of those projects are being kept quiet for now, but when it’s all said and done, it’s expected to add another $240 million into the local economy each year.
“We like to help one another, and it’s like I think the more people that come to Dollywood, the more people are going to be out on the highway going to different shops, different restaurants, and you know staying in their own places,” Parton said.Slideshow: Dolly Parton through the years
Seeing Dollywood’s success benefit the place she calls home is just another dream come true for Parton.
“It just makes me feel really proud that in my older years that I can look back and see that a lot of the things I’ve done has helped a lot of people,” she said.
If you come to Dollywood in the next 30 days, you can register for a prize. Each day, 30 people will win Dollywood season passes. There is one grand prize winner who will win four tickets to Parton’s concert in August with a meet and greet with Parton, a two-night stay at the new DreamMore resort, and four tickets to Dollywood and Splash Country.