The Best Theme Park Holiday Celebration Is Not The One You're Thinking Of
Nobody throws a holiday party quite like Dolly Parton, and—finally, a bit of pleasant news!—you're invited.
For nearly thirty years, the Smoky Mountain Christmas celebration has been a highlight of the annual goings-on at Dollywood, down in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, taking home the very first Golden Ticket award (they're a big deal in the theme park business) handed out to the best Christmas celebration at a theme park, back in 2008. Since then, nobody else has won, and at the rate Dollywood is going, nobody else never will—the event, with all the music, the high-quality stage shows, the lights, a multi-splendored parade and, terribly important, really good seasonal snacks—only seems to keep growing.
This Saturday, it's flip on the lights, crank up the carols, and bring out your gingerbread men, as Dollywood welcomes the largest Smoky Mountain Christmas celebration ever, since the event was first launched back in 1990. This year's event will feature no fewer than five million twinkling lights, all over the park, but specifically in an all-new installation they're calling Glacier Ridge, which transforms a good chunk of the 150-acre (and soon to be expanding) park into an all-out immersive light experience, designed to make it look as if the Smokies have frozen over.
At the heart of it all, a fifty-foot video motion Christmas tree will be the focal point of a synchronized light and sound show, every thirty minutes. There will be a 130-foot light tunnel, there will be polar bears, or "polar bears," anyway, and a unique installation creating the illusion of aurora borealis (northern lights). Basically, the Arctic, but not quite so cold, and then afterwards there's funnel cake, and sometimes Dolly Parton shows up.
Speaking of funnel cake, and other good things to eat, that's half the point of Christmas in the park, already famous for food, which you can (thank goodness) avail yourself of, year-round. During the holidays, however, things get real cozy, and rather delicious. Every day can be Christmas Day—well at least until January 5, when the celebration ends—at the Front Porch Cafe, a pleasant sit-down restaurant, where they serve up holiday-worthy ham and cornish game hen dinner plates, with all the fixings. There are desserts and snacks galore, from chocolate chip peppermint ice cream sandwiches at the Sweet Shoppe, to the red velvet funnel cakes (Dollywood funnel cakes, by the way, are some of the best around) at Crossroads. Of course, there are the goings on at the Spotlight Bakery, too—Christmas cookies galore, all kinds, not to mention the special holiday menus at the park's DreamMore Resort & Spa.
Really, though, don't wait for a special invitation to come eat your way through Dollywood—even if you can't get here for the holidays, the food—also award-winning—is always a highlight; here are just a few very good things to look out for.
Cornbread at Granny Ogle's Ham 'N' Beans
Looking like someone dropped a single family home down at the bottom of Craftsman's Valley, this charmingly rustic restaurant serves up hearty meals—one of the most memorable bites will be the cast-iron cornbread—classic, salty, Southern cornbread. Beautiful stuff, every rustic bite.
Funnel cakes at Crossroads
One of the best in the business, the trick is not to go overboard on the toppings, which they certainly encourage—a bit of powdered sugar on the not-too-sweet, perfectly fried cake is all you need. Feeds two people, if you feel like sharing.
Cinnamon bread at the Grist Mill
The park sells a dizzying number of these humble, buttery pull-apart loaves throughout the year, but they feel particularly relevant around the holiday time, with all that cinnamon sugar baked right in; grab some apple butter to go with it.
Buffet lunch at Miss Lillian's
First off, there's Miss Lillian herself, serenading customers with her hybrid banjo-ukelele, and then there's the buffet, with one very impressive carving station; if you leave here wanting to eat meat anytime in the next twenty-four hours, or possibly even longer, you did it wrong.
Everything at the Front Porch Cafe
Frequent visitors to the park will recognize this as the old Backstage Restaurant, or at least the space where that popular restaurant used to be; now it's a cute, modern cafe with a proud farm-to-table ethic (the park is really good at supporting Southern growers and producers, by the way) for a clever deconstructed pimento cheese dip (one of Dolly's favorites, they'll tell you), for Cornish game hen, and the park's best meatloaf, and yes, there's competition. Save room for banana pudding—Dolly's recipe.