Dollywood, located in Tennessee on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains, is one of the USA’s most beautiful and exciting theme park resorts, especially in the Autumn. Throughout September and October, the park hosts a special event to celebrate the changing of the seasons called Harvest Festival, featuring the dazzling Great Pumpkin LumiNights after nightfall. I, Chris, could not wait to experience Dollywood again and explore everything the resort has to offer at this time of year.
Dolly Parton is a huge role model, being an exceptionally talented musician and one of the kindest and most generous celebrities alive today. Her theme park resort has always felt like an extension of her warm personality, inviting guests from all backgrounds to come and experience Southern Hospitality at its best, in a setting not far from her hometown, with rides, attractions and entertainment for all ages. Country music plays a huge part in how the resort looks and feels, but as well as being able to perform a Thanksgiving Super Bowl Halftime Show at 77 years old, Dolly’s passions also extend to some fantastic events which celebrates her love for all four seasons.
Harvest Festival is billed as the following:
Celebrate the wonder of the changing seasons with the return of Dollywood’s Harvest Festival. Experience the beauty of a Smoky Mountain fall as the forests come alive with vivid color, the smells of apple and pumpkin treats waft through the streets, and the sounds of thrilling rides like Big Bear Mountain fill the air with adventure. After sundown, award-winning Great Pumpkin LumiNights illuminates the evening sky with the whimsical warming glow of over 12,000 pumpkins, including the enchanting Hoot Owl Hollow.
I was immersed in the season right from the main entrance. The flagship Dollywood sign was surrounded by pumpkins, and the walkway to the right-hand side had an incredible display of autumn colours hung above my head in a flowing gradient pattern. At the end of this street was a display of larger-than-life pumpkins which were quite astonishing, so naturally I had to take a selfie! These pumpkins had been shipped (carefully) from all over the USA, with labels to show their origins and proud farmer donors. Further along in the central plaza was the centrepiece of the area, a 50ft pumpkin tower tree, perfect for photos.
Dollywood doesn’t really do ‘terror’, so there are no scare mazes or haunted houses at this event. Instead, they go overboard in decorating the theme park for the season, with family friendly décor, some areas looking spookier than others. All around the park are various scenes that have been cleverly designed by the creative team, whether that be a guitar made from pumpkins to remind guests that they are in a park named after a musician, a flowing river of pumpkins underneath an Autumnal gourd ‘tree’ which looks like a piece of art, or a spider made out of varying sized pumpkins underneath a huge web to celebrate Halloween. Even if you have no intention of riding any attractions, the theme park is a pleasure to walk around to just admire the seasonal displays alone.
Talking about attractions, it was so good to finally ride Lightning Rod. This famous RMC coaster (for both positive and negative reasons) had been closed on my previous two visits, so it’s great to see Dollywood address the reliability issues with changing the ill-fated LSM launch to a simple chain lift over the coming winter. As well as getting to experience Harvest Festival, Lighting Rod in its current form was also a large incentive to visit, so I’m grateful I was able to experience the launch while it lasted.
So, did the ride live up to the hype? Yes and no. With making the launch shorter by removing some LSMs over the years, meaning the train travels at a slower speed over the crest of the first hill, the ride layout felt sluggish like it was designed for the train to travel through faster, which it was originally meant to! Rider comfort was inconsistent – the wooden track felt jolty in places, and the new I-beam track installed last year was smooth as glass. However, the picturesque location and terrain complement a unique layout, with the highlight being the amazing quad down. RMC have come a long way since building the ride, and I feel it no longer compares to some of their newer designs.
Lightning Rod is joined by an incredible arsenal of headline coasters in Dollywood’s line up. Perched on top of a nearby mountain is Wild Eagle, still the best B&M Wing Coaster I have ridden. Firechaser Express is just pure fun for all the family and is an example of some of Gerstlauer’s best work. Tennessee Tornado looks like a scary old Arrow lopping coaster from 1985, but being one of their newer designs, the gigantic inversions and smooth ride make it very enjoyable. Mystery Mine is one of the original and best Gerstlauer Eurofighters, utilising a theme which suits the ride system so well. Since my last visit the layout no longer features the Immelmann turn. Instead, it just avoids it and manages to serve a whole load of nothing – I’d love to know the reason why this was done. Thunderhead has been re-tracked since I last rode it, which has helped maintain its status as one of the best GCI wooden coasters worldwide.
New for 2023 is Big Bear Mountain, a substantial Vekoma family coaster with multiple launches that I couldn’t wait to experience. I do feel there’s too many manufacturers and parks always aiming for the next best thing, yet forgot to make just good rides! Big Bear Mountain has no real gimmicks but instead has every attribute that you would want an excellent family coaster to feature – high capacity, long length, smooth ride, fast and punchy launches, airtime, tunnels, height, and just the right amount of intensity. My only criticism? The ride area looks a bit barren in places and could benefit from some more foliage. Overall, the launches make up for the one lost on Lightning Rod, and Dollywood and Vekoma have created a re-rideable masterpiece.
Other than Christmas, Autumn is my favourite time of year to enjoy seasonal food offerings. Dollywood’s harvest selections on menus throughout the park are loaded with delicious choices, and it’s the perfect place to immerse yourself in the pumpkin experience, especially in culinary creations of this ‘Fall’ favourite. First up and being the coffee fan that I am was the Pumpkin Spice Cold Brew – a beverage the world is very familiar with, along with its latte counterpart made famous by Starbucks. It was just what I needed in the morning for a caffeine fix, and a special mention goes to the pumpkin flavoured cold foam which is divine. Next up was the Pumpkin Pie Funnel Cake – an autumnal twist on a staple American amusement park offering. Topped with maple pecan glaze, whipped cream and pecans, it was incredibly soft and moist to eat, and without fail was the best version of this snack I have tasted. Dollywood’s famous apple pie is again, one of the best examples around and is packed full of flavour with just the right amount of cinnamon and spice to complement the warm apple taste. I had to once again visit the Grist Mill to take away a loaf of Cinnamon Bread – in my opinion the world’s best theme park sweet treat, now imitated at so many other attractions, but none are better than the original. Perhaps the best part of the food offering at this time of year is that most of the choices are part of the special event’s Tasting Pass, where you can get five different pumpkin pleasers for one reasonable price.
As daylight dwindled, it was time for Great Pumpkin LumiNights. This award-winning nighttime spectacular combines the Harvest Festival and millions of lights to create an incredible Autumn spectacular. I have visited various lantern festivals at Christmas time, but seeing a similar concept but for this time of year was so exciting. The sheer effort of how the park is transformed at night to create such an immersive atmosphere is outstanding, and is clearly the reason why the event has gained such a positive reputation. Highlights of Great Pumpkin LumiNights for me were the forest of shimmering pumpkin sunflowers, pumpkin graveyard, and the stunning tunnel of lights.
During this visit I stayed in Dollywood’s beautiful DreamMore Resort & Spa. The warm southern hospitality of the theme park is only extended when you stay on site. Every inch of the hotel is decorated in Autumn décor, and thankfully it was still warm enough to use the expansive exterior swimming pool which the bedroom had a stunning view over. The rooms at the hotel are traditional in style but not at the expense of comfort and practicality. There’s everything you need, and nothing you don’t. Pleasant details are spread around the rooms, including branded shower and bodywash which smells of pine trees from the Great Smoky Mountains, postcards from Dolly, plenty of complimentary tea, coffee and water, and found in the Harvest Festival leaflet was a packet of pumpkin seeds for the little ones to take away and grow at home – so sweet!
There are four dining options at DreamMore Resort & Spa. Song & Hearth: A Southern Eatery is the main sit-down restaurant which serves buffet-style breakfast and dinner, all with a touch of Southern hospitality. It’s one of the most beautiful resort hotel restaurants I have dined in, making you feel like you’re in Dolly’s cosy living room. On this trip I only experienced breakfast there, and the $22 was well worth it, featuring a pancake station, bacon and eggs, biscuits and gravy, omelettes, pastries, fruits and cereals, along with a cabinet offering some outstanding doughnuts! The DM Pantry is a convenient grab and go cafe to enjoy a quick bite to eat, or take what you need before a day on the theme park or the journey home. I was very pleased to see smaller portions of the famous Cinnamon Bread on sale! Adjacent to Song & Hearth: A Southern Eatery is The Lounge which is great for enjoying snacks, meals, and after-dinner drinks. Poolside dining is also offered, selling everyday snacks to refreshing beverages, all available from a sun lounger.
The hotel offers complimentary shuttle buses to the theme park and water park, and room rates also include TimeSaver passes which enable you to skip the queues on some of the major attractions. One night in the hotel, based on two adults sharing including admission to the theme park cost $523. The quality of the bedrooms, excellent hotel amenities, immersive environment and the friendliness of the staff made it absolutely worth the price.
No one does Autumn like Dollywood. The location of the resort in the Great Smoky Mountains is the perfect setting to be absolutely immersed in Harvest Festival as the seasons change. Those looking for a Halloween offering may prefer to visit other scarier attractions, but for me, the combination of incredible theming and décor, delicious seasonal food and beverage offerings, great entertainment and rides, along with the dazzling Great Pumpkin LumiNights makes it one of the best events of its kind, so I highly recommend a visit. Dolly Parton is a one-of-a-kind human being, and I am so glad her influence in partnership with Herschend Family Entertainment’s excellent operations continue to provide a fantastic guest experience for all that visit Dollywood.
Have you visited before? Where do you like to spend your Autumn and Halloween season the most? Let us know via our social media channels.