If there’s one thing about Dolly Parton's 60-plus years career, it’s that she can put her sassy trademark stamp on anything and make it distinctively “Dolly.”

Last November, she released her first rock (and 49th solo) album, Rockstar, to prove she deserved her spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And now, almost four decades after she started welcoming guests to Dollywood Parks & Resorts in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee (and only a year after Dollywood opened its new roller coaster, Big Bear Mountain), the country legend opened a sleek new immersive museum-like attraction called the Dolly Parton Experience on Friday. 

“Well, I think you need to freshen up everything every now and then,” the 78-year-old, 10-time Grammy winner told Lonely Planet during the opening festivities. “We felt like my whole career had grown so much more than what we had in the old museum.” 

A museum exhibit focussed on sewing, clothes design and fashion
The new Behind the Seams exhibit has displays of Dolly's clothes, jewelry and shoes © The Dolly Parton Experience

A new chapter for Dollywood

Replacing the more traditional Chasing Rainbows Museum, closed in 2019, the Dolly Parton Experience goes big, tripling the size of the original museum, with four distinct spaces. “I really love the fact that the fans can really see who I am, where I came from, what I've done,” she said. “You can't do that with a few items here and there. You can tell that story, but this just makes it a bigger picture all over, the way my life has been.”

The heart of the experience is Songteller: Dolly’s Journey, following Parton’s path, starting from her modest Tennessee Smoky Mountain roots in Sevier County, including a replica of the “Coat of Many Colors,” hand-sewn by her mom (the original was discarded), which inspired the 1971 hit song of that name. Along the way, visitors can sit on the swing from the Dolly variety show from the mid-1970s, and pose behind the desk of the late Dabney Coleman’s character from her 1980 movie 9 to 5

Across the way is Behind the Seams: Dolly’s Life in Rhinestones, which is like stepping into a sparkly world that is Dolly’s closet. Inside are dazzling displays with butterfly jewelry, heels of every color and a mega-bag of pearls that’s been part of Parton’s creative director Steven Summers’s longtime secret stash.

“What’s funny is you've seen those pearls for 20 years – you just don't know it because I'm still using them,” he said, chuckling over the fact that originally a dozen gross were ordered instead of just 12. “A lot of it's trial and error – you don't know what works until you try it.”

A large orange sign with "Dolly" written on it, next to a TV screen and interactive exhibits
Songteller is the heart of the new experience, following Parton's career through the decades © The Dolly Parton Experience

Family affair

There’s also the DreamSong Theater, with a Precious Memories exhibit in the front, a multifaceted video dedicated to her family and friends – an appropriate entrance into the stage where one of her nieces headlines the theater’s inaugural show, Heidi Parton’s Kin & Friends. (Heidi is the daughter of Dolly’s late younger brother Randy Parton.

Rounding out the area is one of Parton’s old tour buses that visitors can climb right into. Her niece Rebecca Seaver (daughter of her younger sister Cassie Parton), who serves as her archivist, said it’s “so wild” because of all her childhood memories aboard both this bus and another one being used as a luxury accommodation, the Dolly Suite 1986, starting at $10,000 for two nights. 

“Every time I'm on one of those buses, I'm transported back immediately to road trips as a kid or being on tour with her,” Seaver told LP. “It's cool that the fans get to enjoy that too – those bunks were where we used to have little tea parties… and I might have kissed my first boy on that bus!” 

Up close and personal with a new album

Inviting fans into Parton’s world in such a personal way makes the entire Dolly Parton Experience so intimate. “A lot of my fans have learned a lot of stuff they didn't know,” Parton said of early visitors, who have had the chance to gaze at never-seen-before photos and get to know her family members more. This is especially fitting since at the opening event, she also announced her upcoming album will be family-focused, called Dolly Parton & Family: Smoky Mountain DNAFamily, Faith & Fables, out November 15.

Overall, the nature of the exhibits provide a more multi-dimensional immersion. “You can see where I've been, what I was doing while I was doing it, and you can feel what I was feeling when I was doing it,” she said. “Not only that, you can see where we're headed. This is a whole experience – I really think that word kind of sums it up. It really is an experience.” (Insider tip: The public restrooms here might be the most Instagram-worthy of any theme park!)

Parton admitted that she and the Dollywood team had been wanting to upgrade several sections of the park, but the museum made the most sense right now, not just to grow in size, but also keep up with “all the new digital stuff and multimedia,” which not only enhances the guest experience, but provides “more opportunities” to continually upgrade and change out exhibits as her legacy keeps evolving.

An exhibit of family photographs, a dressing table and clothing
Dollywood is at the start of a 10-year plan that includes a third hotel © The Dolly Parton Experience

An ever-growing legacy

“It was just time to move it along,” Parton said of the modernized museum experience. “You’ve got to roll with the punches, as they say, [and] go with the times.”

After all, the park has long been a part of the dream of the little girl from Sevierville, with the first seed planted “very well back before I was ever a star,” she told Lonely Planet. The original theme park on the site had opened in 1961 as Rebel Railroad before switching to Goldrush Junction in 1970, and then Silver Dollar City in 1977. 

Parton remembered visiting as a child. “I kept thinking that one day I'm gonna have a theme park in my own home county – a bigger one,” she said, first articulating the vision to Barbara Walters in a 1982 interview.

The Herschend family, who owned the theme park, heard about Parton’s dream, and they turned it into a “joint venture and adventure, which is what it has been,” adding that they call her “Dolly Partner.” 

Rewinding to Dollywood’s opening day in 1986, Parton says the younger version of herself had lofty expectations. “Of course, with any dream, you hope it does well,” she said. “You have the desire… and you just hope it comes true.” 

Dollywood today and tomorrow

That said, what the park has transformed into – a 160-acre resort with two hotels, the DreamMore Resort, which opened in 2015, HeartSong Lodge, that opened last year, and a water park Splash Country, which opened in 2001 – has gone beyond expectations. “Nobody could ever imagine what all of Dollywood has become through the years,” she said, assured that her 1986 self would “be thrilled, like I am today.” 

Even though it’s her namesake park, Parton, Dollywood’s "Dreamer in Chief," shares the credit. “It is doing so well now, but we attribute that to a lot of great people,” she said. “Same with my career – nobody does anything alone.”

And the parks and resorts are just three years into another growth spurt: a 10-year $500 million strategic plan, which includes a third hotel, is scheduled for 2027. 

“With all of the great minds that really love Dollywood for what it is… we'll always be coming up with bigger and better things,” Parton said. “As long as time lasts, we're gonna have people with kids, places that people need to go to be entertained – and what better park could you ever find than Dollywood that has some of everything?” 

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