Nearly three years after a deadly wildfire devastated Gatlinburg, the mountain tourist town is rebounding with new and renovated attractions. Neighboring Pigeon Forge is experiencing growth as well, with Dolly Parton's Dollywood theme park opening its biggest expansion ever in May.
The park's all-new Wildwood Grove is a dive into Dolly's childhood dreamworld — and a welcome addition for families and people who like low-thrill rides. The Grove features several unique rides, including the Dragonflier, a strikingly smooth suspended coaster that mimics the erratic flight of a dragonfly; and Treetop Tower, a ride that takes guests soaring through the air then gently lowers them to the ground like a falling leaf. Unless you have young children with you, the Dragonflier and the Mad Mockingbird, a ride that lets you control how high your "bird" soars via a sail-like device, will probably be the only things you'll want to check out in the Grove. Still, it's worth a visit. Cool off with a wade through the Grove's creek, dance to the Appalachian tunes of the area's live band, or dip into the Till and Harvest restaurant for a Tex-Mex meal.
Also new in Pigeon Forge is Dolly's Pirate Voyage Dinner Show and the National Enquirer Live museum, both of which opened in May. Exhibits in the latter are as tasteless as you'd imagine, including a 3-D re-creation of the crash that killed Princess Diana.
Both PF and Gatlinburg have several relatively new mountain coasters, which are reminiscent of faster, safer versions of Raccoon Mountain's old Alpine Slide. They operate on steel rails as opposed to a concrete tube and feature personal handbrakes. Opened in late 2018, the Rocky Top Mountain Coaster is the newest of the bunch, and has four separate runs that take about 10 minutes altogether; though the title of "longest downhill track in the United States" purportedly goes to the Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster. Meanwhile, the Coaster at Goats on the Roof boasts the additional attraction of — you guessed it — goats on a roof, along with gem mining, because all of those things naturally go together. Right?
Opened in spring of last year, Pigeon Forge Snow offers indoor snow tubing and snow boarding all year round. Or, you can go "summer tubing" down a carpet-like surface at Ober Gatlinburg.
Blake Shelton's restaurant and bar, Ole Red Gatlinburg, opened on Gatlinburg's main thoroughfare in March. The Ole Red stage, Gatlinburg's only indoor live music venue, hosts country's rising stars every night of the week. The restaurant's menu features twists on Southern favorites, such as Lucky Charms banana pudding and tater tots poutine.
Opened in 2017, a visit to Anakeesta theme park in Gatlinburg begins with a gondola ride to its mountaintop Firefly Village, filled with shops and restaurants. There's also dueling ziplines, a mountain coaster, a tree-canopy walk made of 16 bridges 40-60 feet in the air, and a Memorial Forest Walk commemorating the November 2016 wildfire. Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani paid a visit to Anakeesta earlier this year when they went to Gatlinburg to check on progress at Ole Red — also making stops at Pigeon Forge Snow, Dollywood, and Dolly's Stampede dinner show.
This spring, Gatlinburg's SkyLift Park, featuring a chair lift which transports riders from downtown Gatlinburg to the top of Crockett Mountain, opened its new SkyBridge. The pedestrian suspension bridge spans 680 feet and the park claims it's the longest bridge of its kind in North America. Glass floor panels allow walkers to look down at the bridge's midpoint 140 feet in the air.
After a $5 million renovation, Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium in Gatlinburg is back following damage in the 2016 wildfire with 95% new exhibits across 3,000 additional feet of space. Some of the wonderfully weird new items include a shrunken human torso that once belonged to Ernest Hemingway, a vending machine hawking edible bugs, and a depiction of the Last Supper made entirely from lint.
In November, the 16-mile "missing link" of Foothills Parkway opened in Great Smoky Mountains National Park between Wears Valley and Walland, Tennessee. It is considered one of the most beautiful routes in America. Nearly 200,000 people visited the long-awaited new section of the scenic driving route in November and December.
The Titanic Museum Attraction in PF isn't new, but it's still worth visiting to view the real artifacts recovered from the actual Titanic after the ship was discovered in 1985 — and July brings a special new addition: the unveiling of the largest assemblage of remaining Titanic life jackets, which will be on display July through December. "There are only 12 known RMS Titanic life jackets left in the world, out of the 3,000 that were on board the ship," says Mary Kellogg, the attraction's president, COO and co-owner. "For the first time anywhere, six of these priceless artifacts will be on display at the Titanic Museum Attraction in Pigeon Forge." You can also feel an iceberg, steer the ship, and stand on a dramatically sloping deck mimicking what passengers experienced. When you enter the museum, you're given a boarding pass with the name of a real passenger on the ship, and at the end you find out whether "you" survived the voyage.
While in Pigeon Forge, don't miss The Island, a 23-acre shopping, dining and entertainment complex that opened in 2015 and includes a 220-foot Ferris wheel, Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville restaurant and Margaritaville Island Hotel, the Alcatraz East crime museum, and a color-changing dancing water show. The Island was voted the ninth-best amusement park in the world in TripAdvisor's 2018 Travelers' Choice Awards, although those travelers' definition of an amusement park must differ from my own, as there are only a few small rides and they're only intended for very small children, aside from the Ferris wheel.
Where to stay
Dollywood's DreamMore Resort is a good option for families planning to visit Dollywood, as you can avoid the park's $15 parking charge with the resort's free shuttle, and family suites feature a king bed and a separate room with bunk beds. The four-star resort is open year-round (even when Dollywood is closed), and boasts amenities including an indoor pool, restaurant, bar, spa and kids activities.
Margaritaville Island Hotel offers island flair along with four-star service and amenities like a spa (with discounts for guests Sunday-Thursday), restaurant, lobby bar, rooftop pool and bar, and room service from Mellow Mushroom, the on-site restaurant and the Margaritaville restaurant next door. All rooms have blenders for making margaritas and other tropical drinks, and balconies which face either the Island shopping and entertainment complex or the Little Pigeon River.
Located across from Anakeesta theme park and many Gatlinburg attractions, Margaritaville Resort Gatlinburg has a beachy theme similar to its Pigeon Forge counterpart. The resort includes a restaurant and bar, spa, and indoor and outdoor pools.
The condos at RiverStone Resort and Spa offer full kitchens, fireplaces and private balconies. Resort amenities include a spa, indoor and outdoor pools, a lazy river and free Wi-Fi. The central location in Pigeon Forge is a perk you won't get with short-term rentals.