Fourteen years ago, Dolly Parton unveiled plans for a theme park as grand and showy as the star herself

By Josh Wolk
Updated July 16, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

With her towering wigs, harlequin makeup, and, of course, always-accentuated twin trademarks, Dolly Parton has never been one for understatement. So when the country star decided to commemorate her down-home upbringing, you knew she wasn’t just going to mount a plaque.

Still, even Parton’s faithful were surprised when she announced, on July 22, 1985, plans for a theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., to be called — what else? — Dollywood.

The planned park was ambitious in scope. Country stars had long been known for plastering their names on self-aggrandizing museums or restaurants (Johnny’s House of Cash and Twitty City, both in Nashville, to name but two). But Dollywood — which officially opened for business the following May — was on a whole different scale. Spread over 400 acres, Dollywood’s attractions included a museum featuring her handwritten lyric sheets and childhood corncob dolls; a restaurant called Aunt Granny’s Dixie Fixins, after her nieces and nephews’ nickname for her; and a replica of the log cabin in which Parton and her 11 siblings grew up. For added authenticity, Dolly employed real Partons: Members of her family staged a musical revue, and her mother and oldest sister decorated the reproduced cabin (built by Parton’s brother).

Though cynics wondered how much interest there’d be in such a one-note enterprise, Parton confidently sank $6 million of her own money into the park’s construction. ”My family was supportive and thought it was a great idea,” says Parton, 53. ”But my accountants, they thought it was a very bad idea.” They needn’t have worried. Tourists flocked to the hokey-but-homey extravaganza. In its first season, Dollywood attracted 1.3 million visitors. Through the years, a number of popular features were added, including a bald eagle sanctuary, a radio station, and the $8 million Tennessee Tornado roller coaster. This year, attendance will hit 2.2 million, and by one estimate, Dollywood pulls in over $30 million a year in profits.

Yet its success has irked some Nashville purists. With country music enjoying more mainstream exposure, many are unhappy to see the crass flaunting of Dollywood’s backwoods charm. ”The industry is torn between its hoedown Southern roots and its L.A. and New York sophistication,” says country historian Bruce Feiler.

None of that fazes Parton, who’s taken the park’s success as a charge to set her sights even higher. While efforts to erect a park in Japan fell through, she still hopes for EuroDollywood…and beyond. ”You know how big I dream,” she says. ”Today Pigeon Forge, tomorrow the world!”

Time Capsule: July 22, 1985

AT THE MOVIES: Back to the Future, starring Lea Thompson and Michael J. Fox, warps to the No. 1 spot again, pulling in $10.3 million in its third weekend.
IN MUSIC: Duran Duran top the charts with ”A View to a Kill.”
ON TV: Miami Vice is hot; NBC’s third rebroadcast of the pilot hits No. 3.
AND IN THE NEWS: schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe enjoys newfound fame after she’s chosen to be the first private citizen in space. Six months later, she and six astronauts will die when the shuttle Challenger explodes 73 seconds after takeoff.