It’s beginning to look a lot like…. Christmas at Dollywood! Holiday prep has begun in the heat of summer for the East Tennessee theme park’s annual Smoky Mountain Christmas. A beloved annual tradition since 1990, the premiere theme park holiday festival has earned them 12 Golden Ticket Awards, the industry’s highest award, for Best Theme Park Christmas Event. They maintain their position as the only winner of this award.
By Carly Caramanna
We were recently invited to the park to get a behind-the-scenes look at preparations for the upcoming event. So, what does it take to be the best? We discovered that it’s a massive undertaking a year in the making.
With conception and development beginning the Christmas prior, crew members, playfully known as ‘lightning bugs,’ assemble in early July to begin installing the over five million lights across the 160-acre theme park. Lights are purchased months in advance to ensure they arrive in time with ample time to prep the lights for install.
I was delighted to meet a husband wife duo who have been a part of the crew for the last 15 years. They shared a glimpse of how they hang lights along one of the premiere areas of the festival, Showstreet. The team explained that while the park chooses the colors and designs for each building, it’s their job to bring those ideas to fruition. On average, any given building may require several thousand lights to cover it. In addition to the buildings being adorned in string lights, attractions are given seasonal lightning packages and the popular Dollywood train is fully decked out. Work goes on through the night, in the early morning before the park opens, and on days when the park is closed to guests.
We spoke with Dalton Mitchell, special events supervisor for Dollywood, about the unique challenge of adding holiday décor during the summer and fall months in a way that doesn’t distract or hinder the guest experience. He explained: “If we can sneak out something here and there that’s not as noticeable and won’t really affect the feel and atmosphere of the park at that time. We will approach the park in that manner and work from the back to the front. We’ll even put some décor overhead. You’re walking through, enjoying time with your family, but you might not notice there’s a pumpkin bat hanging in the tree.”
Preparation for the holidays all happens while simultaneously putting out thousands of pumpkins for the acclaimed Great Pumpkin LumiNights. When Harvest Festivals ends on Oct. 30, they have just six days to — literally — flip the switch.
To alleviate some of the pressure from hosting back-to-back festivals, Mitchell explains: “If we can find any creative or sneaky way that we can use multiple displays or décor from one festival to the next but still get a different feel, we will. One example of that is what we call our Northern Lights area. We will multi-purpose that out and we put those out during our Harvest season and we turn it into what we cool Misty Hallow. We actually change all the lights to a cool purple color and we’ll have pumpkin displays, but then when it’s time for Christmas, we will switch them to a different program and run a completely different show on it. We also have various uplighting throughout the park that can be altered as well.”
Last year, they introduced a new lightning technology used to wrap the trees and guests can expect even more upgrades this year. With innovation always at the forefront, Mitchell teased at some potentially new additions: “For our Christmas displays this year, we will be doing something really neat around the front of the park. As far as our signature trees, we will be updating those systems a little bit and those displays with some additional flashes of color and drip tubes to give it a snowflake effect.”
Despite the daunting amount of preparation and work that goes into hosting the award-winning festival, the team confirmed that this year they are ahead of schedule. Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas returns Nov. 6 with over 5 million holiday lights, seasonal performances, elaborate holiday décor, and Christmas-themed menus.
Dollywood’s Harvest Festival runs from Sept. 24-Oct. 30, and Smoky Mountain Christmas runs from Nov. 6, 2021 – Jan. 2, 2022. To learn more, visit Dollywood.com.