I have been a Dolly fan my entire life. The more I’ve gotten to know her personality, her charity work and her life philosophy she’s just endeared to me even more. I consider Dolly Parton a business and professional role model as well as a spiritual guru.
My favorite way to get folks to really get to know Dolly is to encourage them to listen to her audiobook version of My Life and Other Unfinished Business, her 1994 memoir. I’ve listened to it over a dozen times and it’s the reason I still own a cassette player because that’s how it was published. I love to put it on while I’m cleaning the house.
My favorite quote from her book is this, “All my life … I have been driven by three things; three mysteries I wanted to know more about; three passions. They are God, music and sex. I would like to say that I have listed them in the order of their importance to me, but their pecking order is subject to change without warning.” As quoted from this great 2000 Salon.com article about Dolly.
I think it’s pretty amazing that one of my favorite celebrities has her own theme park and I wanted to make the pilgrimage someday. It’s hard as a working artist to be able to carve out money and time to do a trip for fun like that. In fact, I’d planned about eight trips with friends that had all fallen through, including going to Knoxville for business just an hour away from Pigeon Forge but not having time to go to Dollywood.
My dear friend Jess is also a deep Dolly Parton fan, and had free tickets to Dollywood good for this past Spring. She invited me and Dara to come along, knowing we were going through chemo as patient and caregiver. Dara ended up declining because a theme park would be too taxing for her low energy level and being immune compromised around little kids is a dicey proposition. She encouraged me to go anyway, so I said YES to Jess’s generous offer of her airline miles to get me down there.
Because I’d had so many Dollywood trips fall through it took until the week before the trip, once the flight was really booked, that I believed it. Once I believed it, I started listening to nothing but Dolly Parton and took another turn through her memoir.
On the first audiocassette of the book Dolly talks about having faith the size of a mustard seed. She’s not super Bible focused when she speaks about God, mostly she’s into the generally benevolent higher power version of God, but this instance she talked about how one only needs to have faith in the tiniest amount, but really believe in it, in order for the faith to be effective.
Jess was flying in from San Francisco and we met late on Thursday night at the Knoxville airport and drove to our Dollywood Cabin.
Friday morning we stopped for breakfast in Pigeon Forge on the way to Dollywood at Reagan’s Pancake House. We noticed all along the main drag in Pigeon Forge that folks had set out camp chairs as though for a parade, but no one was there. First of all, we noted that no one in a big city would be able to leave anything anywhere and expect to find it again. It was super quaint and country, we were totally delighted by those trusting chairs.
When our server sat us he asked if Jess and I were visiting from Michigan. That was odd but, we felt, the Goddess giving us a high five—since Jess is originally from Michigan and that’s where we met.
We asked him what was going on and he said, “A parade.” We asked if we would like it and he answered with an apathetic shrug, “I guess, if you like Dolly Parton.” We were shocked!
First of all, I was wearing a “What Would Dolly Do?” tee shirt, and we were visiting the Smokey Mountains from really far away, chances are high we like Dolly Parton. Second of all, pretty much all fans are primed from the beginning that it’s rare to see Dolly at Dollywood. She’s a busy celebrity doing her celebrity things all over the world (this summer, in fact, at 68 years old she started another world tour).
My What Would Dolly Do tee shirt is a handmedown from my friend Bridget. This is me and Jess on Dolly’s tour bus at Dollywood. I’m holding her tea set, which is glued to the counter.
We quickly smartphoned all the information about the parade and the weekend. We had stumbled upon Dolly’s homecoming weekend! We knew we’d be able to see her in a parade at Dollywood that afternoon and again at the parade in Downtown Pigeon Forge, where all the chairs were waiting, at 6PM. We decided this was the Goddess bringing us to Dollywood on this specific weekend and were delighted at this turn of events!
We got some advice from park workers about the best strategy to see Dolly’s parade in the park and then get downtown for the big parade (by making sure we went towards the exit of the park to see the tail end of the park parade, to get us ahead of the crowd). I got pretty good at sensing the fan energy and started noticing when folks would congregate in weird spots, those were the folks to go ask about Dolly goings-on. We learned about dollymania.net, the premier Dolly Parton fan website, that had a whole list of Homecoming Weekend activities.
Dollywood has tons of shows, which I think makes it a great all-ages kind of place that’s not just about thrill rides. I noticed that there was a show called “My People” premiering the next morning that had a bunch of Dolly’s family in it. I told Jess, “I bet Dolly is going to be there.” Nothing published on fan sites or in the Dollywood schedule confirmed my suspicion, but I just knew. Dolly is so family-oriented, if she was in town for the premier, of course she’d be there!
We saw both parades and they were awesome. We even go to walk the parade route through Dollywood on our way to strategically be near the exit and it was really cool to have the Dolly perspective on the parade route, all the eager fans lined up waiting to wave at her. It was so magical and a little overwhelming. Though, I’m sure if you had been a celebrity for 50 years like Dolly has, you might get used to it.
This was the first time I’d ever seen her in person and she was so cute! In person she looked a lot like my Grandmother, another blonde femme icon of mine, who is a glamorous woman with a big smile and lots of lip gloss.
After the parade, we left the park and I had a hunch Dolly would be getting off her little wagon thing just inside the parking lot and I was right, catching a quick photo of her getting into her Dolly van, that matches the Dolly tour bus we had gone through that morning in the park.
I try to be a super respectful fan and keep my distance. If she hadn’t just been doing a public appearance I wouldn’t have tried to snap a photo.
At dinner that night, after seeing Dolly again in an outfit change at the downtown parade, we tried to figure out how to get to the 10:30AM premier of the My People show as early as possible. The park opened at 10, so we figured we could get into the parking lot at 9. Nothing confirmed any of this, but we had a hunch and just kept following our intuition. Following our intuition kept aligning us with things that were totally delightful.
The Downtown parade was very Southern, small town and a great way to sample all of the dinner shows and entertainment available outside of Dollywood–Pigeon Forge is a big tourist town.
Just after Dolly went by us there was a rainbow that came out of nowhere just above us. Another high five from the Goddess.
We were prepared to stand in line at the gate to the park for a long time, but though we got in line at 9:15 or so, they started letting us in right away. I didn’t exactly RUN to the theater where the My People show was playing, but I walked really fast. And by the time we got there, the line was already incredibly long.
In front of us was a Southern family. The matriarch’s aesthetic was totally delightful—she had a gorgeous white Southern hairdo, right from Steel Magnolias and a matching seafoam green pantsuit that was likely from QVC. I love that kind of style, and I told her how much I liked her outfit.
The family in front of us kept talking about how we “definitely” weren’t going to get in to the show. I mean, it was 9:30AM and we were already in line for it, but because there were VIPs at the show people were filing into a special side entrance to the theater. The more VIPs that came, the less likely it was that we, the general public, would get seats.
A park employee told the dad from the family in front of us that there was “no way” we were getting in. I just kept telling Jess, pointedly, that Dolly Parton says to have faith the size of a mustard seed, and that we were going to have faith that this was our time to see Dolly. Jess kept supporting me by saying, “Whatever you want to do, I’m following you.”
I was surprised that the family in front of us even stayed in line, given how Doubting Thomas they were about our chances of getting seats. They could have just gone on to enjoy their day in the park. I saw the line behind us thickening and the VIP line streaming folks, including several obvious Parton family members. (Dolly is one of twelve siblings—that’s a big brood.)
Once our line started moving I got a little nervous for the moment of truth. We wound our way to the entrance of the theater and stopped about ten people from the front. A theater personnel in a Dollywood smock poked her head out and said, “Sorry, no more seats.” Many of the people behind us left, but me and Jess and the folks ahead of us stayed put.
The theater person poked her head out again and said, “We’re not going to be able to seat you.” A couple folks ahead of us in long denim skirts abandoned the line. I turned to Jess, “Well, if I were Dolly Parton I’d point out that she didn’t say anything about standing room.” I had my faith set on seeing Dolly that morning.
She came out a third time and tried to shoo us away but we would not be moved, even the Doubting Thomas family stayed put. I figured maybe they were doubting in words but not in action. I kept repeating that we were having faith the size of a mustard seed to Jess.
Then, moments after the last naysay, the door opened and we were let into the theater. We streamed in, quietly and quickly shuffling through to a huge section in the center of the theater, a bunch of seats marked “reserved.” We were fifth row center!
And just after we sat down, out of the corner of my eye I saw a rhinestone costume through the curtains and followed the costume up to see Dolly Rebecca Parton eyeballing the crowd! I gasped and pointed Jess towards it.
My heart was so full at that moment I started to cry. It’s so rare that you get the visceral experience of having faith in something that required triumphing over doubts, adversity and people saying “No.” Most of the time these things play out over months of years, rarely does it all happen within an hour with a very satisfying crescendo. It was a lot of emotion! And I felt so vindicated following my faith and intuition.
Dolly came out and took a seat about two rows and a few seats to the right of us, right off the aisle.
She watched the show with us, which involved her family members and a band playing music live along with a video screen of Dolly performing from above them. It was very surreal to watch Dolly perform on a TV while she was sitting just to our right.
Her super hot niece, Heidi Lou, performing in the show.
Dolly on stage with her sister, brother, niece and some other relation.
If I had given up when it seemed hard, impossible or a waste of my vacation day to wait in line for the chance to see her, I wouldn’t have had that experience. During a year in my life that proved to be the most difficult, with one crisis following another, it was the perfect time to be reminded of the power of faith. As much as I’ve admired Dolly for so many reasons, she is a model to me for perseverance and believing in yourself, in spite of all of the Doubting Thomases in the world.