For the first time since Jan. 4, Dollywood opened its gates to guests for the first of two season passholder preview days on Monday, June 15. With the precautions being taken to keep guests safe, I’m sure the employees at the theme park that bears Dolly Parton’s name did not envision the start of their 35th anniversary season would look like this. My family and I made the trek to Pigeon Forge to get a glimpse of how things at Dollywood have changed.
By Jeff Cate
Dollywood is utilizing a new reservation system to limit park capacity and I signed up for the 10 a.m. entry, which was when the park opened for the day. I printed off the reservation confirmation, which had a barcode at the bottom of the page. This, along with your admission and face coverings, are required for entry into the park.
I discovered the first example of on-site safety precautions upon arriving at the parking booths. Since we are Gold Super Season passholders, parking was included. All the attendant, who, like the other attendants, was wearing a mask, had to do was scan my pass. No cash or credit card changed hands.
Once parked, I spotted the first of two temperature scanning stations. For those riding the tram, there was a tent where guests can have their temperature checked before boarding. If walking to the gate, there was another scanning area near the station where the trams unload; this was the scanning station that my party and I went to.
We got our place in line just before 11 a.m., and it took about 10-15 minutes to get through and have our temperatures checked. Everyone was adhering to the six-foot social distancing markers on the ground. There were also signs that had assessment questions, like if you have had fever symptoms, if you had contact with anyone who’s been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the last 14 days, etc.
If you are running a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, you and your party are not allowed into the park. I didn’t see anyone being turned away when I passed the tram station or the main scanning station toward the front of the park. The security screening process was the same as far as having bags checked, although mine was not checked thoroughly. Metal detectors were the newest addition to the process, which was nice to see.
We walked right to the gate, which was missing turnstile arms to eliminate a high-touch point. The employee asked for our reservation confirmation and season pass to scan. There are no paper park maps currently, so everything is accessible via the Dollywood mobile app. Once inside, we headed back to the Spotlight Bakery to fill up our Dollywood park cups with water and get a butterfly cookie. I mean, you can’t go wrong with a butterfly cookie at Dollywood, right?
There were plenty of social distancing markers on the floor inside the bakery, but that did not stop a guest from getting too close to me while standing in line.
When I asked for water, the employee at the bakery told me that they were not filling up cups behind the counter. I noticed markers throughout the park throughout the day that said this.
I was handed two small plastic cups of water to fill my cups with. Some places like Hickory House BBQ in Craftsman’s Valley would give you a bigger cup, but the Spotlight Bakery only offered me the smaller, clear cups.
Having a little one, we had to venture to the original kid-friendly area at Dollywood: The County Fair! There are three attractions that are must-dos for us every time we go here, and they’re within feet of each other: Busy Bees, Piggy Parade, and Lucky Ducky. This was the first glimpse of the attraction safety precautions that we saw.
Sanitizer was not offered before boarding the rides; some attractions did offer sanitizer before boarding, but these first three did not. The ride vehicles were not being sanitized at the end of every ride, but Lucky Ducky was the one that was being cleaned most often in the 20 minutes we were in the area. This was also the first time I noticed the hand sanitizer stations at the exits for the attractions. All the attractions that we experienced during the day had these stations mounted at or near the exits.
Speaking of attractions, it’s important to note that there are no virtual queues for rides like those at Universal Orlando. This means that you must wait in actual queues for attractions. Dollywood does offer TimeSaver, which is their equivalent to Walt Disney World’s FastPass+. You can purchase these in the park, or, if you stay at Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort, TimeSaver is included.
The County Fair was the first chance we had to see the several mask break areas that are located throughout the park. There is always an employee in these areas (wearing a mask), who cleans tables and benches where guests had been.
The Village area of the park was up next, and right before boarding the Village Carousel, lightning was detected within 5 miles of the park and operations had to be suspended around 12:30 p.m. A couple of hours later, a message over the intercom stated the park was resuming normal operations and my daughter wanted to ride the carousel. This was the first time we were offered sanitizer before boarding.
Normally, the fun on a carousel is choosing your animal, but those selections were slim. Every row had 4 animals, but only the inner and outer animals were available to ride. The middle animals were roped off with signs stating that they were not available.
After leaving The Village, we walked through Craftsman’s Valley, and if you’ve ever been to Dollywood, you know how packed these walkways can be. This is where I noticed the limited capacity, since you could walk side by side with your party without bumping up against other people.
We decided to ride a Dollywood classic, Blazing Fury. There was no wait and we walked right onto the ride. Guests were seated in every other row and everyone was offered sanitizer before pulling the lap bars down. The other thrilling attraction in Craftsman’s Valley is the Tennessee Tornado. I didn’t ride this attraction but could see walking by that like Blazing Fury, every other row on the coaster cars were empty.
Entering Wilderness Pass, there are two thrill rides, FireChaser Express and Wild Eagle. I didn’t ride FireChaser but did notice every other row was empty like Tennessee Tornado and Blazing Fury. There is also a popular children’s play area near the FireChaser queue entrance called the FireHouse Fun Yard, but it was closed.
When walking up to Wild Eagle, the employee at the bottom two sets of stairs leading to each side of the ride platform had sanitizer that guests were using before boarding. This was the only ride that we experienced that did not have empty rows on the ride vehicles. There is enough space between riders to keep everyone socially distanced and have the ability to operate the coaster at full capacity. I wore my face covering on Wild Eagle to see how the speed would affect it; my mask moved some but the g-forces of the coaster kept my covering in place for the most part.
Wildwood Grove, Dollywood’s latest expansion, was next and one of its attractions had the longest wait of the day: DragonFlier. This coaster has a 39-inch minimum height requirement, making it a family-friendly coaster. What was showing as a 40-minute wait on the Dollywood app turned into a 1-hour-and-15-minute wait.
Everyone in the queue was properly distanced until the very end when we got closer to the ride platform. This attraction also left every other row empty, making the ride capacity 10 people per ride vehicle.
I left my party and ventured through Timber Canyon to Dollywood’s only wooden roller coaster, Thunderhead. When I say there was no wait, I mean there was no wait! I walked up the steps in the queue to the front row and boarded immediately. The ride operator offered me hand sanitizer before I pulled down on the lap bar. It was less than 5 minutes to walk through the queue, board and ride the roller coaster, and then leave.
It was definitely great to return to Dollywood and have a little sense of normalcy during this unique time in our world. There was constant cleaning throughout the park and the employees did a great job, considering it was the first time they’ve been back to work at the park in months. If you get the opportunity, go and experience what the park has to offer!