The park takes a short break during January and February, but there’s a (delicious) workaround
Mid-winter in the Smokies, particularly as experienced within the vast Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is a magical time. For each falling crimson leaf, for every crisp, blue sky summer afternoon you must trade back, you get something else very special, very special indeed, and that’s personal space. Room to breathe, to roam, the freedom to spend a morning in remote Cades Cove without hundreds of other people in their cars, trying to do the same thing.
There’s one more trade off, however, a trade off slightly less palatable; if you do end up coming here in January or February, or during the first two weeks of March, there is no Dollywood. For years, I had been making pilgrimages to the nearby national park, along with so many other Americans. (Did you know, it’s the busiest and most visited, true story.) For years, I had been laboring under the misapprehension that I did not also need to make the pilgrimage to Dollywood. Then, this one time, I actually went to Dollywood, on a brilliant November day, and I was forever changed. Dollywood is a national treasure, much like Dolly Parton herself, and the food is, well, it’s delicious, and you don’t have to take my word for it, because everybody else thinks so, too.
Since my first bites of cinnamon bread, since that real deal skillet cornbread, the simply gorgeous beans and greens, the groaning buffets, the surprisingly civilized dinners of roast Cornish game hen, and those really good, floss-like pulled pork sandwiches on the fly, the notion of a mid-winter visit to the region has held considerably less appeal. However, when you are in the neighborhood, and you can opt for a quiet, snowy day in one of the finest national parks on the continent, you do so, even if Aunt Granny, Granny Ogle, Miss Lillian and the rest of the gang (those are names of restaurants at Dollywood, look it up) are on a beach in the Caribbean somewhere, getting some rays and relaxation in before the park's next season kicks off. And what a year 2019 will be, with the park’s largest expansion ever set to debut.
And then I found out about the secret cinnamon bread stash. The existence of Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort—the first park hotel, and one hopes not the last—I was aware of. The fact that anyone can buy the park's famous Grist Mill cinnamon bread, baked and sold in delicious, monkey bread-style pull-apart loaves, all winter long (and every other day of the year) at the hotel’s otherwise ordinary-looking lobby cafe counter, this was news. I made a beeline.
There it was, served up warm (at least in the mornings) for a few bucks a go, packaged neatly along with an abundance of sugary glaze, in the regional, too much is never enough fashion. You may top the bread yourself, or you can just rip off giant, buttery, sugary, cinnamon-scented hunks of the stuff, dragging it through your little pot of frosting, and people are not being overly dramatic when they say this stuff is a delicious essential, when visiting this part of the world—there’s a reason a deceptively humble loaf of bread became one of the most popular theme park foods in America.
Not that you'll need much more comforting on a chilly January or February morning in Pigeon Forge, but the cinnamon bread is only one example of how Dollywood's award-winning food can be sampled during the winter (and any time) at the DreamMore, which is a pleasant, tastefully decorated, mid-range, family-oriented resort, complete with impressive pool complex and grownup-centric spa. Most interesting to me, however, was the hotel’s restaurant, Song & Hearth.
On a Monday night, deep into winter, I was one of just a few patrons seated in the soaring, circular dining room; much like some of the best meals in the park, the restaurant serves dinner buffet-style. For about twenty dollars a head, all you could eat, they were slicing perfectly-pink, well-seasoned flank steak, there was a world-class baked potato bar, with more fixin’s than you could fit on any one baked potato. A normal person might have stopped right there, but there was so much else to consider—homestyle fried chicken was a meal in itself, there were perfectly tender, tangy collards, simmered in cider vinegar, Dolly's famous (and beautifully simple) stone soup was there, in a giant urn, as it is every night, a tasty vegetable soup, and there was creamed corn I might have eaten by the bowlful, if there weren’t so many other things to try. And all this was just the first trip around the very nicely laid-out and maintained buffet, where one of many Dollyisms you will become intimately familiar with during a stay at the DreamMore has been mounted up on the wall, for all to see. This one was, I was told, Dolly’s secret to happiness. Half a cup of love, a teaspoon of caring, and a dash of humility, topped with compassion.
During a winter stay at the DreamMore, guests will likely have more than a few occasions to dine at Song & Hearth; for one, that’s the restaurant; for two, while one could go down into town, to the dinner theaters with their large format roast animal setups, to the pancake houses, where at this time of year, there aren’t any lines to speak of, it's nice and warm and cozy at the hotel, and why leave, if you don't have to? Personally, I felt like I had all I needed, right there, beginning with the once-again ambitious breakfast buffet, with its birthday cake pancakes, thick-cut bacon, fluffy omelettes made-to-order, exemplary plain donuts hung artfully on a highly-Instagrammable wall, looking down over an array of toppings, presented for your consideration. There were fluffy biscuits, and real sausage gravy, as if any other kind could be presented around here with a straight face, plus too many other options to count.
My final morning, I was dining with a local, and the restaurant was running a winter special, buy one, get one free, for people who live in the surrounding area. We ate, between the two of us—okay, mostly me—more food than any human needs to survive an entire day, all before ten o’clock in the morning; we walked out having spent only twenty dollars, total. If Dollywood had even been open, I doubt I’d have made it into the park. Not before a nice long nap, anyway.