PIGEON FORGE, TENN. — PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. -- Dolly Parton vividly remembers the first movie she ever saw.
Because of his personal interest in the subject, Parton's father broke his long-standing rule against his children going to the movies. Her dad loaded the growing family up and headed off to the local Sevierville, Tenn., drive-in. The Parton brood sprawled on the ground to watch Robert Mitchum in "Thunder Road," the 1957 action adventure about moonshiners in the hills of the Smoky Mountains.
"It was based on a true story, and Daddy knew all those people," Parton said recently at the annual opening of her theme park.
Young Dolly was hooked, and almost four decades later has brought "Thunder Road" back to the Smokies with a multimillion-dollar motion simulator that highlights the 11th season of the Dollywood theme park.
Nearly 2 million visitors
With nearly 2 million visitors last year, the park continues to expand. Along with the natural attractions of the Smokies, it's the reason this corner of Tennessee, about 35 miles from Knoxville, has become one of the growing tourist destinations in the Southeast.
Dollywood's theme for 1996 is its co-owner's lifelong interest in Hollywood. That fascination added up to an $8 million expansion of the park and a 7-acre region called Dollywood Boulevard.
Billed as the "world's largest turbo-ride action theater," Thunder Road straps visitors in and takes them on a chase through the Tennessee back country via bucket seats and a movie screen that stands five stories high and seven stories wide. Jolts and crashes are all part of the adventure.
The ride got a healthy round of applause from entertainment writers during a preview last week, and it compares well to similar rides such as "Days of Thunder" at Paramount's Kings Dominion near Richmond, Va.
Dolly herself didn't get strapped in. "It scared me to death, and I
was just standing in the hall, watching," she told the local Mountain Press newspaper. "I have a feeling if I rode it, I'd have a heart attack."
Dollywood Boulevard also is now home to roving celebrity look-alikes, from Marilyn and Rhett to W.C. and Elvis. This being a part of the country where people are almost always congenial, the impersonators are pleased to pose for plenty of pictures.
Dollywood Boulevard also houses the Silver Screen Cafe; a place called Magic Moments, where visitors can act out famous scenes from epic movies; and a movie-themed shopping extravaganza called Centerstage.
What is now Dollywood actually opened in 1961 as the Rebel Railroad. It was a simple operation, with a saloon, steam train, blacksmith and general store.
A decade later, the founding Robbins brothers sold out to the Cleveland Browns' owner, who renamed it Goldrush Junction and made improvements.
Part of the expansion was the Robert F. Thomas Church, which opened on the site in 1973 and is still used for twice-on-Sunday services to which Dollywood visitors are welcomed for worship.
The park was bought again, and in 1977 was renamed Silver Dollar City. The focus remained on mountain crafts until 1980, when theme rides began to be added. Among them: the Wonder Wheel, Tennessee Twister, Country Fair Falls, Smoky Mountain Rampage and Thunder Express.
Parton became a part-owner and lent her name to the property in 1986. Since then, it has doubled in size to more than 100 acres, and currently is one of the top 25 theme parks in attendance across the country, the top 50 worldwide.
Dolly's image is everywhere -- on T-shirts at dozens of shops, in her "Rags to Riches" family museum on the grounds, at the re-creation of the home in which the 11 Parton children (Dolly is No. 4) grew up and in the music that coos from speakers around the park.
Since the transformation, new park attractions have been added on a year-by-year basis. A children's area arrived in 1987, the Dollywood Celebrity Theatre a year later. Last year, a $6 million expansion with a '50s theme called "Jukebox Junction" was unveiled.
Food is never far away, with homespun restaurants like Aunt Granny's, Red's Diner and Miss Lillian's Chicken House.
Those seeking entertainmentare likely to find Dolly's kin and childhood friends working on stages like Dolly's Mountain Music in the park. Combined, more than 40 performances take place at the park each day.
The Celebrity Theatre features names that will be familiar to anyone who keeps up with Myrtle Beach's country music scene. Marty Stuart kicks off the season May 4-5, with acts like Billy Dean, Wade Hayes, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis and the Oak Ridge Boys performing throughout the summer. Tickets are in addition to park admission.
The park is in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., not far from Gatlinburg and about 35 miles from Knoxville in the eastern part of the state. Like Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Branson, Mo.; and Kissimmee, Fla. -- to name a few -- it is a tourist mecca whose road system has yet to catch up with its overwhelming growth.
One main road, simply called the Boulevard, connects 15,000 motel rooms and at least as many cars. Some advice: Get to any attraction you want to see early, before traffic gets unbearable and parking spaces are gone.
Dollywood also operates the Music Mansion in North Pigeon Forge and a Dixie Stampede closer to the park.
Nearby is the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which attracts more tourists per year (about 9 million) than any other national park in the country. Camping and lodging are available in the park, but reservations often are needed well in advance.
There's plenty to keep the youngsters and oldsters occupied for a day or two. There's an Elvis museum, a car museum, several non-Dolly theaters and a Guinness world records museum. Riding, rafting, hiking and golf compete with laser tag, motion simulators and a haunted house.
More than 200 restaurants in the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge/Sevierville area offer both fast food and home cookin' style.
The communities also operate trolley services that can take visitors to and from the attractions.
If you go
Where: Dollywood is in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., about 35 miles southeast of Knoxville.
Admission: Ticket prices are $25.99 for adults, $17.99 for children ages 4-11. Children ages 3 and under are admitted free. Anyone entering the park after 3 p.m. can return the next day without charge. Parking is $3 per vehicle.
Note: Given the mountainous terrain of the Smokies, good walking shoes are a necessity.
Information: Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism: (423) 453-8574. Gatlinburg Visitors & Convention Bureau: (423) 430-4148. Dollywood information: (423) 428-9488 Great Smoky Mountain National Park: (423) 436-5615.
Pub Date: 5/12/96