Dollywood’s 36th season brings along unprecedented advancements in their entertainment offerings. While they’ve long been known for providing a multitude of live musical shows on various stages, Dollywood has stepped it up a major notch this year, landing them on the national arena.
By Carly Caramanna
I recently made my third trek of the season to East Tennessee for their Summer Celebration. Running now through July 31, the season is celebrated in the Smokies with Sweet Summer Nights, a multi-sensory drone and fireworks show, and two new musical stage productions, “Good Vibes” and “Forever Country.”
Let’s get the big news out of the way (and I’m not referring to the half-a-million-dollar drone show). Staying hydrated in a theme park is an absolute necessity any time, but especially so in the summer. Dollywood has just brought up their number of water filling stations to an impressive 19.
This was such a welcome addition and alleviated some of the previous long counter service lines of hopeful hydrators that we had witnessed. Given the size of the park and the sheer number of stations, at nearly all times there was one in eyesight. This proves to be a wonderful example of a park listening to critiques from its guests and actually doing something about it. We hope other parks take note.
My visit fell on the opening weekend of Summer Celebration and I was surprised by the rather quiet nature of the park. Wait times for most of the major attractions, like Wild Eagle and Mystery Mine, hovered around 20 minutes, with the only attraction experiencing times over that being Lightning Rod. The park’s newest coaster maintained a steady line of about 45 minutes that swelled to 120 minutes in the afternoon. The Grist Mill, the original home of Dollywood’s cinnamon bread, also didn’t have its usual long line. I noticed that the children’s play stations found throughout the park have reopened since being closed previously for COVID-19 restrictions.
With the summer season comes later park hours, meaning riding some of our favorite coasters with a totally new vantage point in the dark. There’s a certain thrill associated with riding a roller coaster in the dark of night and I jumped at the chance. Given the size of the park and low crowd levels, I was able to ride most major roller coasters in the morning before taking a mid-afternoon break back at Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort, and later returning in the evening for a second go-around.
At the forefront of the Summer Celebration is the new half-a-million-dollar production, “Sweet Summer Nights.” Taking place nightly, the 30-minute, multi-sensory production has proved to be groundbreaking in theme park entertainment and visual storytelling. With the Great Smoky Mountains playing backdrop, 400 drones fly in the air creating animations synced to music and a choreographed fireworks show. An on-the-ground celebration with a DJ and dance crew completes this new experience that takes place in the park’s latest expansion, Wildwood Grove.
On my visit, the crowds began to congregate in Wildwood Grove about an hour before showtime. Sweet Summer Nights can be seen throughout the park, but for the best experience and full effect it’s imperative to be viewing from within Wildwood Grove. The experience begins with two DJ dance parties, complete with energetic dancers, prior to the fireworks and drone show. This type of party atmosphere is something I have never seen at Dollywood before and it was pretty remarkable. Dare I say it took me back to the New Year’s Eve countdown days at Pleasure Island. While on the surface it may sound like an afterthought or unneeded addition, I found the DJ dance parties to be an integral part of the show that properly kicked of the experience with an energy that was palpable and maintained throughout the evening.
The main event is without a doubt the fireworks and drone lights show, created exclusively for Dollywood by Intel. Highly choreographed and synchronized to a music playlist, crowds erupted in cheers after the drones were revealed and continued to do so as they dazzled the night revealing new scenes and shapes throughout the over 14-minute portion of the show. Some highlights included a silhouette of the park’s Dreamer-In-Chief herself, Dolly Parton, as well as their mascot, a colorful butterfly.
They absolutely nailed the accompanying playlist with upbeat tracks, like Rascal Flatts’ “Summer Nights” and American Authors’ “Best Day Of My Life,” that further solidified the immersive nature. The fireworks were fine albeit pretty standard with the drones certainly stealing the show. Wildwood Grove is an expansive area and there were some clear winning locations that would provide optimum viewing. I found that, to get the full visual and auditory effect of Wildwood Grove’s landmark glowing tree, DJ, fireworks, and drones, it was best to be standing further back. If you were too close to the dance party, you’d likely miss out on key elements.
Overall, I was incredibly impressed by this new entertainment offering that is truly pioneering in the theme park industry. We’ve seen other parks make feeble attempts at drone shows and they certainly have paled in comparison.
Dollywood’s Summer Celebration is running now through July 31. To learn more, visit Dollywood.com. You can check out our video of the drone show below: