Dollyood Opening eekend 2005

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By Duane Gordon

Dolly prior to her Friday evening parade in Pigeon Forge. Photo by Harrell Gabehart for See more pictures here!

       What do you give several hundred people to thank them for helping your theme park succeed and grow for 20 years? Well, 20 more years of fun! And that’s exactly what Dolly handed out at Dollywood on Friday. Dolly also announced $160 million in additions to the park over the next 20 years of operations and plans for an anniversary television special.

Dolly at the ceremony Friday morning.

      Approximately 1,600 guests received what Dolly referred to as “platinum blonde super passes,” good for 20 years of free admissions and parking at both Dollywood and Dollywood’s Splash Country plus a 20 percent discount on all purchases at the parks. Dolly stated that the value of each pass was roughly $5,000, totaling about $8 million for all of those handed out.

      “You were worth every penny of it and more to me,” Dolly told the crowd inside the Celebrity Theatre. Only those in the theatre on Friday morning for the 20th anniversary celebration were given the passes. The crowd included representation from each of the groups to which Dolly said she wanted to express her appreciation for their role in the park’s success: her fans (who obtained tickets for admission to the event from the theatre box office), the press and local officials who have worked with the park over the years.

      “I want to thank you, my friends and fans and the press,” she explained. “You’ve made it to Dollywood year in and year out, and you are really the ones that have made it what it is. We can dream and we can put all these big numbers up on the screen, but none of that could work if we didn’t have the folks like you who help us make it all come true. So I sing it all the time, but truly, I will always love you.”

Signs around the park proclaim its 20th anniversary season.

      The announcement, which came as a shock to those in attendance as well as employees throughout the park as they learned of the gift, concluded a celebration held in the theatre. It began with a performance by the Moscow Circus, which is headlining this year’s Festival of Nations. Afterward, a video was played tracing the park’s history via clips from an idea Dolly mentioned in a 1982 interview with Barbara Walters and its opening in 1986 to its annual expansions through 2004, when Dolly inaugurated the Thunderhead wooden roller coaster in an outfit she described Friday as looking like “Paul Bunyan in drag.”

      Dolly arrived to the usual thunderous applause and screams, entertaining the audience with her jokes and stories. Putting on her “business hat,” she revealed several facts and figures of the park’s past two decades, including:

  • $210 million investment in Dollywood, Splash Country and Dixie Stampede
  • 2,000+ current employees
  • 30 million visitors since opening
  • Current annual attendance of more than 2.25 million
  • $20 million to charity, including to the Dollywood Foundation, United Way, American Eagle Foundation and Young Life
  • No. 1 paid attraction in Tennessee
  • The Dollywood Foundation’s Imagination Library in more than 500 communities across 40 states distributing more than 2 million books this year

          “I forgot to mention the $100 million I spent on cheap clothes and cosmetic surgery and all that stuff!” she later joshed.

          Dolly also elaborated on plans for the park’s second two decades, including:

  • Another $160 million invested in the park for a total of $370 million since inception
  • Of this, $30 million to be spent in the next three years alone
  • Double annual attendance to more than 5 million per year
  • Distribute more than 100 million books worldwide through the Imagination Library

          Pigeon Forge City Manager Earlene M. Teaster thanked Dolly and park officials for their willingness to work with the city and for the economic impact Dollywood has brought to the community, and Tennessee Tourism Commissioner Susan Whitaker, former vice-president of marketing at Dollywood, presented a proclamation from Gov. Phil Bredesen (D-Tenn.) honoring the anniversary with an official Day of Recognition.

          Dolly singled out several others instrumental to the park’s development, including her financial partners the Herschend family, the City Council, Pigeon Forge Planning Commission, Dollywood General Managers Ken Bell and Barbara Joines, Dollywood Foundation Executive Director David Dotson and her business manager Ted Miller.

          She also said she believed the park’s dedicated employees “are probably the main reason families keep coming back year in and year out,” and said none of the successes would be possible without the fans and families who visit the park each year.

          As ushers dressed in tuxedoes passed out envelopes to everyone in the room, Dolly announced that the Imagination Library Playhouse to be featured during this summer’s KidsFest will present live-action musical stage shows based on three books from the Library and for which Dolly has written new songs. She also said that she is planning to pitch a 20th anniversary Dollywood special to the CMT or GAC cable networks to feature stars who got their start as singers in the park and established artists who have visited Dollywood to perform over the years. After all envelopes were distributed to the audience members, Dolly announced the prize they contained and led the crowd in a performance of “Hooray for Dollywood” as hundreds of balloons fell from the ceiling.

          Friday evening brought Dolly into Pigeon Forge proper for the 20th annual Dolly Parade through town. However, expected heavy storms kept Dolly enclosed in a Plexiglas bubble atop her float, but the rains held off until after the parade.

    Dolly in her bubble.

          On Saturday, Dolly was carried into another performance of the Moscow Circus at the Celebrity Theatre and belted out a wonderful Russian arrangement of “These Are The Days,” taking a break in the middle of which to watch the stunts of the troupe’s dancers and acrobats while perched upon the knee of a juggler/dancer.

    Dolly in her Russian outfit on Saturday.

          Unfortunately, bitter cold temperatures and a steady rain throughout the day Saturday kept many away from the park and forced the cancellation of Dolly’s traditional parade through the grounds. Officials said Dolly was “heartbroken” to have to cancel the parade. Her float was to have had a Mardi Gras theme, and she wore the peacock costume she would have donned in the parade for a private photo session with the Festival of Nations performers and others who would have participated in the parade.

    Dolly and her own Mardi Gras crewe.

          On Sunday, the sun returned, which brought a robust crowd to the park.

          Throughout the weekend, visitors enjoyed the performers visiting from around the world for the fifth annual Festival of Nations. Along with the Moscow Circus (and its aerialists, singers, musicians, gymnasts, contortionists and clowns), the festival included the Russian Academic Band, the African a capella children’s choir Zambian Folk Collection, the Czech children’s ensemble Noticky and folk singer/dance ensemble Ondras, Trinidad’s Six on Steel band, China’s Bamboo Breeze musical duo and Dragon Legend Acrobats, Serbia’s Gradic dancers, Lithuania’s musicians Dainava, Italian flag hurlers Leoni Reali, Ecuador’s band Atahualpa and the very enthusiastic stilt-walking clowns from Germany, Zebra Stelzentheater. The festival continues through May 8.

    A juggler with the Moscow Circus.

          The week also saw the opening of the $5 million expansion of the Country Fair area to replace several old rides with 10 new ones: Lucky Ducky, Busy Bees flying bumble bees and bouncing Piggy Parade for small children; midway favorites spinning cups, swings, flying elephants and dizzy disk (fairly intense for such a little ride -- definitely one of the best five or six in the park); a 25-foot junior drop tower and 70-foot flying adventure Sky Rider as well as the park’s first children’s coaster, the VeggieTales Sideshow Spin (although the coaster was placed on the wrong barge and reportedly ended up in the Bahamas, so it was not assembled until Sunday). Remaining rides in the Country Fair include the 60-foot Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel, Dolly’s Demolition Derby bumper cars, the Scrambler and games of skill.

    Riders enjoy the new Dizzy Disk.

           Look for many more photos from the festivities in coming days!

           I'd like to offer special notes of appreciation to Dolly, Pete Owens, Corrin Paradice, and all of the personnel in the Dollywood media relations office, Tim Berry, Ted Miller, David Dotson, and the folks who picked confetti from my hair after I was doused by the Moscow Circus clowns during Saturday morning's performance. Thank you!

    See additional photos here.