Although completely unrelated to my “Dolly” nickname, I’ve had a bit of a fascination with Dollywood for years and years. I honestly can’t recall the origin of my interest but since sometime in college, I have put a visit to Dollywood near the top of my bucket list. I’ve casually looked at planning a trip a few times over the years but just never followed through. That all changed in late December when I found myself on their website again. The siren song was calling for me. Then, I saw that kids under 4 are free. Since my boys turned 3 in January and this would be our last year to take them without having to buy tickets for four, I vowed that this would be our year.
Living in Disney’s backyard, we spend a lot of time at theme parks. I mean a lot. It may seem a bit crazy to drive 10+ hours to go to yet another theme park but I was excited to try something new. I started doing a bit of research and added some people’s trip videos to our YouTube queue. Driven by a great price at the resort, we picked mid March (which happened to be the second week of the season for the park) and the rest is history.
I am so happy we planned this trip because we had an absolutely amazing time! The park is incredibly unique, impeccably clean, and the staff were extremely warm and friendly. Let’s start with some of the basics of our visit: We booked 3 nights at Dollywood’s Dreammore Resort and planned to do 2 days in the parks. Since we were planning our visit for one of the quietest times of the year, park hours were 10am-6pm but we rightfully assumed that we would still have plenty of times since crowds would be limited.
Although Dollywood is known for having some killer roller coasters, we found it to be a great family experience as well. In that spirit, I wanted to share 10 tips for doing Dollywood with Toddlers. Many of these tidbits are actually not specific to traveling with children but will be extra useful for families with little ones in tow. If you are contemplating or planning a visit soon, I hope these will come in handy to help you maximize your time, save some money, and make some lasting memories with your family like I did with mine.
1. Visit at an “off peak” time to minimize your waits and make the most out of your visit.
Since my boys aren’t in school yet, we still have the luxury of being able to plan vacations when rates are low because older kids are in school. In general, this allow you to get lower “off peak” rates and enjoy destinations that are a bit less crowded. This is especially true at theme parks so I took this into account when beginning to plan our visit.
An article on Dollywood’s official blog noted that March is usually one of the quietest times in the year. Summer attracts locals and visitors who are out of school and the fall and holiday seasons include some special offerings that draw extra crowds. This made this early spring timeframe a natural choice for us.
No matter what month of the year you are considering, I would recommend looking at the official calendar on Dollywood as a first stop. Dollywood closes from early January to mid-March and sometimes closes on certain days of the week at other times of the year. In addition to avoiding days when the park is closed to visitors, you might also consider planned park hours and how they fit in with your preferences and other plans.
2. Consider a stay at Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort.
While there are tons of options for accommodations in the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg area, we wanted the full Dollywood experience and decided to give Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort a try and I am so glad we did.
This resort is beautiful. It was clearly very thoughtfully designed and includes so many special touches.
Two guest perks really put our stay over the top – complimentary Time Saver passes and the complimentary park shuttle.
Time Saver, which allows you to enter a special line with little to no wait 10 times a day, normally costs around $40 a day but is included complimentary with your stay (as long as you have a season pass or purchase a multi-day ticket from the resort). The park ended up being so quiet that I barely had to use it but I can see this being a game changer during busier times of year. This also made riding the “big” rides possible for me. Try asking 3 year old toddlers to wait for even 30 minutes while you’re in a roller coaster. Yeah – no thank you. Time Saver enabled me to experience even the most popular rides guilt free.
The complimentary park shuttle was an incredible convenience for us as well. It saved us $15 a day we would have had to pay for parking our vehicle and was lots of fun for the boys. The shuttle is an adorable trolley that runs every 10-15 minutes. It also drops you off at a special entrance reserved exclusively for resort guests which keeps security and entrance lines extremely short.
One last thing I will quickly mention is Club DW, a special kids activity club at the resort. While we didn’t have a whole lot of time to experience their offerings, we did go to a fireside story time on our last night and we were very tempted my s’mores by the fire (for a small fee) which seems to be offered most if not all nights.
3. “All You Can Eat” can be a great value when traveling with little ones.
While we didn’t do a whole lot of advanced planning when it came to what we would eat, we did hope to do so as economically as possible. We made a trip to a local grocery store to stock up on some breakfast and snack items but lunch was left TBD each of our two days. We had some rain (and accompanying extra cold weather) on our first afternoon which led us to feeling kind of desperate for a heated, indoor lunch option. We just happened to be near Miss Lillian’s which is an all you can eat, buffet style restaurant. While around $18 per adult was more than we would have spent at a counter service restaurant, we quickly realized that kids under 4 could eat at not charge. Since counter service food in the park is pretty pricey (most entrees were around $11 or so) and we would have had to buy food for the boys, the buffet suddenly became somewhat more economical option. We were able to fill up on comfort foods like fried chicken, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and dessert and soft drinks were also included.
On our second day, we followed the same formula with a lunch stop at Aunt Granny’s, another all you can eat buffet located in another part of the park. Although slightly more expensive (around $20 per person), we felt the quality and selection at this restaurant was much better and this would definitely be a place we would eat again on a future visit. The apple cobbler was simply delicious – and yes, I’m still thinking about it.
4. Take advantage of the play areas to keep your toddlers entertained.
I think my toddlers are fairly typical in constant and unending desire to play. Dollywood offered several play areas, many of which were located near some of the more thrilling attractions, that allowed the kiddos to blow off some steam and pass the time while mom got a few big rides in.
While most were fairly simple, they were nicely themed to the various areas of the park and the boys had a great time. While it was much too chilly during our visit, there were also some water play areas that would be great for a hot day.
5. Make the measurement station your first stop.
Right between the main and resort theme park entrances is a little station devoted to measuring children’s heights to help families understand which rides their child is tall enough to ride. The child is then given a colored bracelet that corresponds to a height tier and signals to ride operators whether or not the child is eligible to ride. My toddlers are always squirmy so having to only go through the measuring ordeal once was amazing and saved us a lot of time and headaches at the individual rides. My boys are not particularly adventurous yet so thankfully they did have a desire to ride any of the attractions that they are currently too small to safely experience.
6. Strollers are your friend.
We are a bit spoiled in Florida because our topography is really consistent – flat upon flat. As the proximity to the Smokey Mountains might suggest, Dollywood is anything but flat (at least for us). There are some pathways in the park that are so steep that signage prohibits wheelchairs from using them. This combined with the sheer amount of walking necessary to navigate the park (it’s really quite large) meant our stroller really came in handy.
As with any theme park, zoo, or other similar experience, the storage that the stroller provides was also a huge perk. We were able to bring along extra clothes, stow our jackets as the day warmed up, and carry snacks without being weighed down by extra bags. Dollywood also offers rental strollers if you would prefer not to bring your own.
7. Plan your time to make sure you catch experiences with set timetables.
While this wasn’t a huge issue for us, it is helpful to do a bit of planning when it comes to certain experience. Dollywood is renowned for its shows and entertainment (although, I will admit, we didn’t get around to seeing any of them this time) and other experiences like the train run on a schedule. It’s a good idea to scope this out early in the day to make sure you are able to experience everything you would like to during your visit.
The train was one of our favorite experiences on the trip and departed roughly once an hour. While I didn’t notice if departure times were included in Dollywood’s app or park guide (definitely download the app – I used I very frequently and will cover later), they were definitely posted at the train station.
8. Visiting for more than a day? Consider a season pass.
I did the math and with a discounted season pass promotion they were running at the time we were making our plans, 2 days of park admission was pretty much the break even for a season pass. That also gives you the option of a little breathing room when making your plans. It might be nice to have the ability to spend a few hours at the park here and there on a few different days, especially if you were staying for a longer period of time.
Since we purchased the session passes (and had such a great time) it will make our return visit in the fall very economical.
9. If you are planning in advance, look for special offers.
We planned our trip at the very end of the 2018 season so they were running quite a few special offers, drumming up excitement for the 2019 season. We ultimately found a 30% of sale on the resort rooms and the season passes were the lowest price of the season.
I also suggest checking resort rates on an ongoing basis leading up to your trip. I had a great rate locked in but found an even better one a few weeks later and was able to save over $100 on our stay with a simple update to the reservation.
10. Make sure to download and use the Dollywood app.
The Dollywood App is full of useful information and is definitely something you should download upon arrival if not before. Attraction information, including current wait times and heigh requirements, are visible once you enter the park. I used this a lot to decide what we should do next based on how busy various attractions or parts of the park were. Rather than carrying around a paper park guide, the app provides show times and includes a map of the park.
One neat little feature was the ability to generate turn by turn directions to any location in the park through the interactive map. If you have challenges navigating an unfamiliar place, this could be very useful.
I hope this has inspired you to consider giving this charming park a try. This barely scratches the surface on our overall experience but has hopefully provided you with some practical advice for making the most of your future visit.
Oh, and one last bonus tidbit. Do yourself a favor and give their famous cinnamon bread a try. You won’t regret it.