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The entrance to Dollywood circa 2000
Getty Images/Redferns

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Searching for Souvenirs at Dollywood

The Dolly Parton theme park in Tennessee has more knickknacks, clothes, and commemorative trinkets than you can imagine.

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I have a plastic snow globe from Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s theme park in Tennessee. I bought it on my first visit, several years ago. The base is black and emblazoned with the word Dollywood in red, the “W” transformed into a butterfly in flight. On one side of the snow globe is a grist mill, on the other is a church, and there are pink flowers in the lower left-hand corner of each side.

I keep the snow globe on the windowsill in my kitchen, so the grist mill and the church have faded in the sun. These are both real places at Dollywood: reproductions of the countless churches and grist mills that used to populate, or still populate, the Great Smoky Mountains beyond the theme park.

The sticker on the bottom reads ITEM NO: GRIST MILL 00193 44084 RETAIL PRICE $4.99 MADE IN CHINA. It is not a valuable object, not in terms of money. And it is both of and not of Dollywood; it is a mass-produced souvenir from China.

This is not my only souvenir from Dollywood. I also have several fridge magnets, the tickets from each of the three times I have gone, a shot glass, a Dolly ornament, a mug, a key ring, and a mock-old-fashioned sepia-toned photo of my friend Amanda and me dressed as saloon girls. I also have a thimble, although I found the thimble at an antique store and not at Dollywood. It was, at some point, someone else’s souvenir.

I turn my snow globe back over and watch the snow fall.

The Dollywood Grist Mill in 2009.
Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images

It is a hot June day in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and I’m standing just inside Dollywood, looking over a large, cartoonish map. This is my third trip here, and I remember the park’s geography pretty well, but I still need the map.

I like going to Dollywood in the summer because Dollywood feels like summer. I can hardly imagine it existing in the winter, apart from Christmas. When the park celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2015, I went that summer — my dog Millie spent the day at Doggywood, the park’s “Kennel and Pet Cottages.” And my first trip was with Amanda, a couple of summers before that. It’s a pretty drive from where I live in Winston-Salem, in central North Carolina. You head up into the mountains toward Asheville and through Cherokee, along the Oconaluftee River into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where you might see elk grazing in meadows. Or a bear.

Although Dollywood feels familiar to me now, it is still a little overwhelming. But anything associated with Dolly Parton is likely to be overwhelming.

The park is divided into different areas — Showstreet, Timber Canyon, and Wilderness Pass, among others — that represent theme-park-ified aspects of Smoky Mountain life and of Dolly’s own biography. There is the Chasing Rainbows Museum, which houses Dolly memorabilia, including awards, photographs, and costumes from her concerts and films, as well as her famous “Coat of Many Colors.” There is her tour bus, or “home on wheels.” And there is a replica of her two-room childhood cabin, where she lived with her parents and her 11 brothers and sisters. The actual cabin is still up there in the mountains, on Locust Ridge, only a few miles from Dollywood.

As Helen Morales notes in Pilgrimage to Dollywood, Dollywood is the only amusement park in the world themed around a woman, and this makes it radical, even if Dolly’s cheery trademark butterflies may not seem so. Although Dolly is known for her embrace of spectacle and high artifice — her character in the 1989 film Steel Magnolias famously said, “There is no such thing as natural beauty” — she is also utterly authentic. She manages to collapse these seeming opposites into one another. The real is the fake; the fake is the real. If Dolly Parton is magic, and she may very well be, this is part of her magic.

This is the magic that many visitors to Dollywood seek. They hope to commune with the place that produced Dolly — the Great Smoky Mountains — and they hope to commune with Dolly herself, as she is embodied in the park. Her cheerful recorded voice greets visitors as they enter, and her music is piped throughout the park, giving way in some places to live country, bluegrass, and gospel music to remind visitors that her career has its roots in the mountains of Tennessee. Dollywood tells the story about the relationship between her successful career and the poverty of her childhood. It is a place of dreams and desire.

Dolly Parton at the park’s seasonal opening in 1993.
Ron Galella/Getty Images

As the “dreamer-in-chief” of Dollywood, a company she owns with Herschend Family Entertainment, Dolly herself is everywhere and nowhere in the park. She visits for business meetings, parades, and performances (including surprise performances), but otherwise, she is an absent presence, like a theme park spirit: an idea as well as an actual person. And this idea of Dolly is in everything, from rides and activities to food and souvenirs. The rides at the Country Fair form part of the theme park, but they don’t define it; Dollywood is not only about rides. It is about consumption, about buying the version of the Great Smoky Mountains — and the many versions of Dolly — available for sale.

I’m a fan of Dolly. I’m also a fan of souvenirs. It is a truth near-universally acknowledged that souvenirs are junk. Cheap, mass-produced fridge magnets, spoons, ashtrays, bumper stickers, shot glasses, snow globes, and T-shirts represent the worst side of travel, the worst relationship one can have to a place. They are silly. Kitschy. And they in no way represent authentic experience. They are loved only by the tourist, not the true traveler. Garbage.

But I can’t agree. Souvenirs are, in many ways, generic, particularly the mass-produced variety you buy at a theme park, as opposed to a seashell you might bring home from a trip to the beach. But, like Dolly herself, souvenirs can embody contradictions. If they are seemingly impersonal, they can also be personal. They can be material memories. There is something talismanic about them. And something ineffable, as if they might have powers that language does not. Once you’re home, a souvenir might be the only thing that remains from your trip, a reminder of the irrecoverable. Souvenirs try to transform an experience into an object.

According to Dollywood’s publicity office, clothing sells well at the park. Not surprisingly, some of this clothing is explicitly branded with Dollywood or Dolly, but some is about dressing a part, which often means mimicking Dolly herself.

A jewelry display in Dolly’s Closet.
Provided by the author

The first store I wander into is Dolly’s Closet (“Her Style, Your Size”), which promises “a unique blend of clothing, accessories and jewelry showcasing Country Western Dolly, Romantic Dolly and of course Glamour Dolly.” Dolly is not one person, but many. She is Dollys. The promise here is that shoppers can claim her ever-changing style for themselves; they can become another version of her.

If Dolly’s own costumes are housed in the Chasing Rainbows Museum, the clothes in Dolly’s Closet are costumes of another sort. In the window are four pictures of her in form-fitting black, red, and yellow suits, her hands on her hips. Inside, bejeweled denim shirts, jeans, and vests, long ruffled skirts, and blouses trimmed with lace hang on racks. These garments are an imagined version of Dolly’s own clothes, her own possessions. Her private closet, an inaccessible space, is transformed into a store.

Not far away, Traditions Gifts & Apparel in Showstreet is stocked with brightly colored T-shirts that invoke a vague sense of preppy Southernness that has little to do with Dolly. Some are printed with bicycles (“Enjoy the Ride”), others with dogs (“Love Is a Four-Letter Word”), and still others with retro campers (“Happy Camper”). There is a stack of T-shirts depicting a variation on the Heinz ketchup label: “Catch-Up With Jesus: Blessed From My Head to my To-ma-toes.” A woman looks at a “May the Lord Be With You” glow-in-the-dark shirt that copies the Star Wars logo.

At Gazebo Gifts in Showstreet, teenagers try on personalized leather bracelets and wire jewelry. I remember this from when I was younger: how desperately you want something like a bracelet with your name on it to connect you to a place. As we get older, we’re often shamed for thinking this way, so I like watching the teenagers. Their consumer desire is funny — “Oh, my god, Mom! Look at this ring with the pretty stone!” — but there is something sincere about it: They want to make something fleeting, permanent.

The stores in Craftsman Valley and Rivertown Junction, including the Hillside General Store’s “old-fashioned goods and treasures,” sell not glamour but a romantic vision of the Smoky Mountains. You can buy a Smoky Mountain uniform, or maybe just a hat, belt, or wallet, so that after your trip, when you return to your normal, non-Dollywood life, you can still dress like Dollywood.

I walk into the Smoky Creek Leather and Hat Co., where about a dozen people are trying on cowboy hats. These hats are for sale in virtually all the clothing stores, no doubt because the cowboy hat is one of Dolly’s favorite accessories. She wore a white spangled one with her white spangled dress and instruments when I saw her perform in Forest Hills, Queens, a few summers ago. The hats at the Smoky Creek Leather and Hat Co. aren’t quite this spectacular.

One of the many stores of Dollywood.
Provided by the author

Part of the appeal of souvenirs is their predictability. There is nothing surprising about them. They give you exactly what you want and expect, a monument that defines a city. Think of models of the Eiffel Tower or, in the case of the Smoky Mountains, the animal that stands for everything: the bear. There are bear souvenirs everywhere at Dollywood: bear T-shirts, bear water bottles, bear picture frames, bear blankets, bear kitchen utensils and dishes, bear throw pillows, bear signs, bear snow globes. There can never be too many bears.

I sit down on a bench across from Miss Lillian’s Smoke House Smoked Meats and Fried Chicken All-You-Care-to-Eat Buffet, where waitresses take orders in bonnets, aprons, and long skirts. While I eat my pulled pork sandwich, I inventory all the T-shirts in the crowd, some of which are souvenirs.

There are lots of orange University of Tennessee shirts. Shirts from nearby places, including the scenic drive of Cades Cove and the neighboring town of Gatlinburg. One South Florida Alumni. T-shirts printed with biblical quotes and American flags. One that reads GYM AND TONIC. Rainbows, pineapples, palm trees, roses, anchors, and parrots. Lego T-shirts. Disney. T-shirts from National Parks. Pensacola, FL. Under Armour. KISS. The Rolling Stones. Batman. Nike. Adidas. Levis. Support Our Troops. Jurassic Park. Route 66.

Some people are wearing new Dollywood shirts, still stiff and creased; others are wearing faded Dolly shirts they might have purchased on a previous trip or at a show. I have a T-shirt from her Queens show, but I didn’t wear it because its longish sleeves made it impractical for such a hot day.

At Dollywood, you exit through the gift shop, and it is here — at the Emporium — where you find the highest concentration of Dollywood- and Dolly-oriented souvenirs. The Emporium is about endings. These souvenirs tell you that your experience of Dollywood is about to end, so you must mark it, hold on to it. As Willie Nelson’s “Blue Skies” plays, I look over the hot-pink sequined purses and cosmetics bags marked with Dolly’s pink signature: the same signature on the sign for Dolly’s Closet. Her autograph, endlessly reproduced. Her last name is not required. She is just Dolly; there can be no other.

I pick out a black T-shirt with an image of her in white and hot pink. The size looks right. I don’t need to try it on. All of these things seem like relics of sorts: semi-sacred as well as junk. Connections to a saint, if there is such a thing.

The butterflies that reign over Dollywood proliferate in the Emporium. I survey butterfly fanny packs, mugs, magnets, key rings, spoon rests, and Christmas ornaments. I spin a rack of personalized red-and-yellow enamel butterfly necklaces around. Alyssa. Amber. Amelia. Anna. Andrea. Angela. The butterfly is Dolly’s symbol, her brand, inspired by her 1974 song “Love Is Like a Butterfly” and her memories of chasing butterflies as a child. There is a butterfly on everyone’s ticket, so you have to take one home.

The hopefulness and unshakable optimism of the butterfly — a complete faith in love and in one’s dreams — is not a view of life that I normally subscribe to, but somehow I believe it when Dolly says it, in her music and in her theme park, for a time. I believe it for the six hours that I’m here, under the Tennessee sun, and I have believed it both times I have come before, and I imagine that I will believe it when I come back.

Maybe that is what Dollywood offers: the opportunity to think that way, for a time. And if I can’t take that sense with me, I can take things that remind me of it. I buy mugs depicting a smiling Dolly for my sisters and my mother. I buy my T-shirt. And I buy a CD — Trio — of Dolly singing with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, which I listen to on my drive home, back to my snow globe, through the green mountains.


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