As Dollywood celebrates its 36th season in operation, they have taken great strides in recent years to improve the overall dining experience for its guests. There’s long been outstanding dishes to be found in the park, like their now iconic cinnamon bread and award-winning BBQ pork sandwich, but food festivals have been an area wide open for growth. And, so enters Aaron Banks, Dollywood’s director of Culinary Services, who joined the company in March 2020.
By Carly Caramanna
One of his first major moves was bringing in not one but two executive chefs to overlook the park’s dining operations, with one chef focused entirely on festival offerings. He is also making a conscious effort to move towards providing more items geared towards those with dietary restrictions, like gluten sensitivity and vegetarian options — something Dollywood had severely lacked. Thanks in part to Banks and his team, the changes are so palpable you can taste the difference, literally.
I recently made the pilgrimage to check out this year’s Dollywood Flower and Food Festival. Still in its infancy compared to other theme park food festivals, this is only the second year for the festival. Running through June 7, it is an ode to Dolly Parton’s favorite colorful season and is present throughout the park with culinary pop-ups and more than half a million brightly blooming flowers. From my perspective, the 2020 festival felt like a dress rehearsal compared to this year, and I couldn’t be more pleased with what that could potentially mean for upcoming festivals.
The outdoor food kitchens that had previously ran on rotating operational schedules, now run every day that the park is open. Menus this year have a globally-inspired flair to them and, overall, give you the sense that more thought and effort were placed into the execution. Banks shared with me that the menus were finalized about eight months in advance, allowing time for the culinary team to source ingredients. Menus embrace both a chef- and operational-driven approach, a crucial element for high-volume food operations, while seamlessly tying the festival’s storyline into the recipes.
The festival’s food and beverage offerings can be found throughout the park at freestanding outdoor kitchens as well as specialty menu offerings at existing restaurants. There’s a more ambitious approach to the offerings this year, as they stray away from the park’s signature Southern comfort offerings to expand the palates of guests with exciting small plates that are accessible enough for anyone. Guests can dine on more than 25 menu items from over a dozen locations, like lobster rolls and beef bulgogi nachos.
After sampling much of what the festival has to offer, my standouts include a mountain paella bursting with flavor that features smoked sausage, garden peas, chicken, and thyme. My other favorite savory item was a flatbread that embraces the season with fresh vegetables as well as mascarpone cheese, prosciutto ham, and a flavorful pesto sauce. On the sweet side, the festival offers a particularly well-thought-out waffle, which stands out as a far cry from the standard theme park variety. The strawberry shortcake liege waffle features house-made, fresh whipped cream, fresh fruit, local acacia honey, and hand-pulled, edible flowers that are delivered to the park each and every day.
For beverages, the focus was placed on fruit-forward offerings that tie into the overall theme, like blood orange lemonade and watermelon lime fresca. I absolutely loved the refreshing strawberry hibiscus fresca that was topped with a house-made sweet cream cold foam and edible flowers. Dollywood does not offer alcohol of any kind, so all drinks are non-alcoholic.
New for this year is a festival dining pass that allows guests to pre-pay for five menu items of their choosing for one flat rate. This offers guests a slight discount on the festival if they are intentional about the price point of the menu items they are purchasing with it. In the realm of theme park food festivals, I found the prices at Dollywood to be rather reasonable, given the overall quality and portion sizes. If you do prefer the convenience of the new festival dining pass, it is good throughout the entire festival and can be shared.
In addition to the major improvement on the food offerings, the festival continues to impress us with the larger-than-life landscaping, sculptures, and installations found throughout. Different from topiaries, which are one large plant that is then shaped, these works of art are actually comprised of multiple plants to create one large display, which they call ‘Mosaicultures.’ My favorite display can be found in the park’s Market Square area and is a depiction of Dolly Parton’s mother, Avie Lee, quilting her well known “Coat of Many Colors.”
Upon entering the park, guests will also not want to miss the return of the fan-favorite Umbrella Sky, a stunning display of more than 600 colored umbrellas hung via an elaborate cabling system. It has since become the synonymous image of the festival. With a story just as fascinating as the display itself, this was actually set to be installed by an experienced team from Portugal last year, but due to the pandemic’s travel restrictions, impressively, Dollywood’s own staff were determined and able to orchestrate this sky-high feat. What took them several weeks to assemble last year was done for the 2021 festival in just three days.
In addition to the season-long entertainment found throughout the park on several stages, the festival also brings in national Southern Gospel and Christian artists each weekend for The Melodies of The Heart concert series.
The festival also extends to Dollywood’s adjacent four-star resort and spa, the DreamMore. For a more elevated experience, guests can enjoy a multi-course dinner and wine pairing at the property’s Song & Hearth: A Southern Eatery. The cozy restaurant takes a sustainable approach to its menu in featuring fresh and seasonal ingredients from local farmers, ranchers, and growers. They also boost their own herb garden which sits just outside of the restaurant’s floor to ceiling windows and use those ingredients in dishes as well as their impressive cocktail list — order the honey sage lemon drop using local honey.
Of particular note on the festival pairing menu was an absolutely delicious chili lime-rubbed game hen with roasted caulilini and a tangy fresno pepper and arugula orzo salad. Song & Hearth also offers one of the most impressive wine selections in the area, with pours from acclaimed wine regions in South Africa, Chile, and beyond.
Dollywood’s team is already hard at work on the fall’s Harvest Food Festival and based on the recent festival, I can’t wait to see what Dollywood and the culinary team have in store for us.
Dollywood’s Flower and Food festival runs every park operating day through June 7, 2021. To learn more, visit Dollywood.com.