PIGEON FORGE, TENN. - Set against the Great Smoky Mountains, Dollywood is surrounded by a green canopy of hardwood trees and colorful blankets of flowers that envelop every ride and attraction in the Tennessee wilderness.
The 150-acre theme park in Pigeon Forge traces its origins to the 1961 debut of the Rebel Railroad, a five-mile steam train ride into the foothills of the Smokies, complete with Indian attacks and train robberies. Over the years, rides and attractions were added until 1986 when country singer Dolly Parton became a partner and Dollywood was born.
With themed areas celebrating the history and culture of Tennessee and the Smoky Mountains, Dollywood is known for award-winning live entertainment showcasing country, bluegrass, gospel, rock 'n' roll and Appalachian music.
Like Pennsylvania's Hersheypark, Dollywood is one of the few theme parks in the U.S. to feature thematic touches and conventions reminiscent of Disneyland - from immersive architecture to signature foods to enveloping landscaping. Dollywood has more benches per visitor than any other park I've ever visited and enough rocking chairs to form a porch sitters union. It's cleverly done.
In 2010, Dollywood received the Applause Award, the highest honor in the theme park industry presented biennially by the International Assn. of Amusement Parks & Attractions. Previous winners include Europa Park (Germany), Efteling (Netherlands), Cedar Point (Ohio), Universal's Islands of Adventure (Florida) and the Magic Kingdom (Florida).
A closer look at the Top 10 rides and attractions at Dollywood:
1) Wild Eagle:The $20-million attraction was the first winged coaster in the U.S. when the Bolliger & Mabillard-built ride opened in March. Riders sit on either side of the track in a winged formation on trains themed as bald eagles in flight. The smooth-as-glass thrill ride delivers on the soaring-like-a-bird premise and represents a strong candidate for best new coaster of 2012 when award season opens.
2) Thunderhead: The 2004 Great Coasters International wooden twister featured the world's first station fly-through. The terrain-hugging ride, chosen as the best wooden coaster in the world by Amusement Today in 2005 and 2006, includes 14 bridges, 22 turns and 32 crossovers. The awesome twisting wooden coaster delivers a solid ride with plenty of airtime hops.
3) Mystery Mine: The indoor-outdoor coaster was the first Gerstlauer Eurofighter in the U.S. when the ride opened in 2007. Themed as a long-abandoned haunted coalmine, the special effects-laden ride features two vertical lifts and steep 95-degree drop.
4) Adventure Mountain: The 2-acre multi-level rope course, the largest in the U.S., is themed to resemble a rustic National Parks ranger complex. I could have spent an hour traversing the four challenging courses and quickly forgot that I was tightrope walking four stories above the ground tethered only by a harness.
5) Mountain Slidewinder: As the only ride of its kind in the U.S., the water toboggan swoops and swooshes through high-banked turns as riders navigate the twisting trough in tandem-seat rafts. The slightly ragged 1987 Slidewinder can leave you soaking wet or bone dry depending on the seat you draw and how high you careen through the turns.
6) Tennessee Tornado: The 1999 Arrow coaster features three inversions, including a 110-foot-tall loop and a sidewinder. The short-but-sweet aging coaster still holds up well after years of service.
7) Blazing Fury: Set amid an out-of-control fire in an old mountain town, the 1978 attraction combines an indoor dark ride with a steel coaster. A cross between Disneyland's Pirates of the Carribbean and Knott's Berry Farm's Calico Mine Train, the wonderfully weird and wacky throwback Blazing Fury delivers a surprising triple whammy finale for the unitiated.
8) Dollywood Express: The 110-ton coal-fired steam engine takes riders on five-mile journey through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. The train debuted in 1961 as the Rebel Railroad, the predecessor to Dollywood. The locomotive's smokestack belches an endless cloud of charcoal gray smoke that smells like those old fireworks snakes and covers your clothes, skin and hair in soot.
9) Barnstormer: The 2011 S&S Worldwide Screamin' Swing reaches speeds of 45 mph as the pendulum arms pass through a smashed red barn. There always seems to be at least one rider who screams uncontrollably - adding a blend of shrill thrill and gallows humor to the ride.
10) River Battle: The 2008 interactive water raft ride pits boat against boat in a water cannon battle that leaves riders and bystanders soaked. The boat-mounted cannons don't have much range, leaving the riders at the mercy of the cannon fire from the land-based water artillery.