PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. (WATE) — If only 2020 were as predictable as the Dollywood Express schedule.

Though cabins and rental properties in places like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are booming, Dollywood had to shut down for three months.

This is the park’s 35th anniversary year.

It was back up by mid-June, but it was a lot of work to make that happen. There’s a lot of hand sanitizer, hand washing, and many masks. Temperature checks happen at the front gate.

“I don’t want to wear the mask, but it’s better than being stuck at home, so I like that we can still come here,” Annabelle Hazelwood, who was with her parents at the park, said.

The park is closed on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but during the last week of September, Harvest Festival and Great Pumpkin Luminights began.

It was all aboard for the Hazelwood family.

“You have to Germ-X to get on a ride, off a ride,” Karen Hazelwood explained. “We wanted the kids to be able to get out and see the pumpkins and just kind of feel a little bit like Halloween was coming.”

They have a history of making memories at theme parks.

“I’m just grateful,” she said.

She’s grateful for people like Jayne Rahe. Rahe left her job as a paralegal to work for Dollywood. That was 21 years ago.

“I love it here. I can’t imagine now working any other place,” Rahe said.

It was a dream until COVID derailed her plans this year.

The park was supposed to open for the season in March, but that didn’t happen.

“It was sad to have to close after that, but we know that was the right decision,” Pete Owens, the Vice President of Marketing for Dollywood, said. “Dolly was here. She was in on the conversation. She felt that it was more important to make sure folks were safe, not only our guests, but our hosts and that we needed to put some things together to make sure that it stayed that way.”

In a small tourist town like Pigeon Forge, places like Dollywood make up 21% of gross revenue, according to the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism.

That’s the single-largest source of income next to lodging.

Amusements alone are credited with bringing in $315 million in 2019.

That, by the way, was a record year for Dollywood and Owens said momentum had been growing until the virus stopped it in its tracks.

The park reopened in June.

“We did it with the right heart and we did it with a clear mind and we really relied on research and what the experts are telling us to do the right thing,” Owens said.

Call it half-speed ahead: Indoor entertainment venues, like theaters, are closed. Shops, restaurants, and rides are open.

It’s all part of more than 700 operational changes made to get this place back on track. Consumer research is the driving force.

“They want to make sure that they know that they’re going to be safe or they’re going to feel as if they’re safe,” Owens said.

Owens said on a good day, without a pandemic, Dollywood gets 30,000 visitors in a single day. He wouldn’t say what the number looks like right now, but there is a capacity limit in place following state guidelines.

“With this whole process, we went into it very thoughtfully. We worked with the state of Tennessee in the creation of the Tennessee Pledge and we worked through with our partners at Covenant and the CDC to be able to help us do what was right,” Owens explained.

They said locals with season passes are coming back and attendance has been growing.

“I mean, I think one of the interesting things that COVID has provided us is that we’ve had to approach our business and how we do things differently and that always is a challenge, but it also adds it innovation and so we’ve been able to do some interesting things and create some new experiences for folks that come visit,” Owens said.

They’re continuing to research to see what consumers think and said things will continue to change, but staying open for the rest of the year is the goal.

If you need a job, Dollywood is also hiring.

Of the more than 600 employees laid off, Dollywood officials said almost all got their jobs back, while other decided to retire or move on to new careers.

“All I could think was, ‘I’m home, I’m home, I’m home again,'” Rahe recalled of the first day back.
She was celebrating another birthday at work!

“Yes, I am. No better place to be,” she said smiling while check in guests through the front gate. “Seventy-two-years-old.”

She welcomes people who need the stop off at Dollywood most.

“It’s rough,” Kevin Hazelwood said.

He’s a respiratory therapist in North Carolina working with COVID patients.

“It’s nice that I can actually take the family out and not have to worry as much about all this,” he explained.

From financial to economic to personal, this year has been a doozy.

“It goes on the loopdy loop one,” Connor Hazelwood exclaimed.

This year has also had some loopdy loops! Still, life tends to keep barreling ahead just like that train. Like the rest of us, though, no matter what’s coming, Dollywood will keep chugging along.

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