When it opened on May 3, 1986, no one could have predicted what a success Dolly Parton’s theme park in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee was going to be. It manages to pull off the impossible by being a draw for the LGBTQ community while simultaneously being a hit with church groups. On any given day you are as likely to hear contemporary Christian music blasting out throughout the park as you are to see herds of homos coming to praise and worship at the alter of Dolly. The park confounds all your expectations.
My love affair with Dolly started in the early 90s when I was a teenager. I was at a friend’s house watching TV with his Mum while the friend played football outside (the clues were all there). Then Steel Magnolias came on and my life changed forever. Dolly played a character called Truvy who owns a hair salon. I was immediately transfixed. It was like a magic spell had been cast by this vision of boob-enhanced loveliness. I wanted so much to spend my days chinwagging with Sally, Julia, Dolly et al in Truvy’s beauty shop. Still do, actually.
Then, last summer, I received an invitation to visit my cousins in Tennessee, a hop and a hillbilly skip from Dolly’s theme park. It had to be kismet: the planets were aligning, and I must embrace my Dolly destiny. My cousins couldn’t quite understand why anyone would go to a theme park alone, but this was more like a pilgrimage than a fun day out with the family. I’ve always taken Dolly very seriously. So off I trotted, with Dolly’s Greatest Hits downloaded, to gay mecca.
Dollywood: somehow in my heart I always knew I would end up here
Dollywood: somehow in my heart I always knew I would end up here. It was the vacation I had been dreaming about for years. Like a gay homing pigeon returning to Pigeon Forge, I was returning to my spiritual home. Listening to Dolly’s songs, you get a wonderful sense of what the Smoky Mountains must be like, but I was determined to experience them for myself. I wanted to fully immerse myself in Ms. Parton’s Appalachian Southern fantasy.
As a committed Dollyologist, I follow her Wilde-like aphorisms – “It costs a lot to make a person look this cheap” being perhaps the most famous – with religious zeal. Lesbian rumors still abound, but on gay marriage she is unequivocal: “I think gay couples should be allowed to marry. They should suffer just like us heterosexuals,” she joked.
Dollywood itself can seem either super gay or super redneck depending on your goggles. With all the flannel shirts and mustaches it was hard to tell sometimes which team I was looking at. The Chasing Rainbows Museum (Ms. Parton is fond of saying, “If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain”) is a case in point: it’s an interactive story of triumph over adversity, filled with handwritten lyrics, shoes and glittery costumes. Walls are covered in photos of Ms. Parton and a veritable who’s who of stars, including a personal love note from comedic dykon Lily Tomlin. The gay breadcrumbs are there if you want to see them (and I do).
Of course you could come here, not give a hoot about Dolly at all and still have fun. There’s her Splash Country waterpark, which helps to attract some 4 million visitors per year (incidentally, that’s almost a third of the 13 million people who visit the Smoky Mountains region annually). Other attractions include the Tennessee Tornado rollercoaster and a much more sedate choo-choo train which takes you on a scenic tour of the property and it surrounds in the foothills of the mountains. Two creeks flow through the park with ducks a-quacking, and there is a spooky mix of Smokies-themed ecotourism and gun-lovin’ patriotism here, with information on eagle preservation prominently displayed. Seeing rural families (sans guns, mercifully) enthuse over these charming attractions was heartwarming until I remembered that I’d probably be lynched if they knew I was gay… but I let them have their pork sandwiches in peace.
To a sensitive teenage boy watching that salon-centered tale of female friendship, Dolly seemed to embody all that was gentle and kind in the world, especially for a kid who felt like a misfit. She too seemed like she didn’t quite belong, but she’d somehow managed to embrace all those things that others might use against her. She has said, “I’ve always been a freak and different, so I can relate to people who are struggling and trying to find their true identity.” So here’s to you, Ms. Parton, an example to us all, and a reminder that we should never judge a book by its cover. Because, as Dolly says, “I know I look totally artificial, but I’d like to think I’m real where it really counts.”
Richard Bence is a British-born, Los Angeles-based journalist. He has been Lifestyle Editor of Attitude, Managing Editor of Barclays Little Book of Wonders and Editor-in-Chief of CoutureLab