Dollywood investing $500 million as part of a 10-year strategic plan

While he walks around Dollywood, always ready to pick up the odd food wrapper floating along the path, Eugene Naughton is listening.

Listening for comments about a too-long food line. Listening for the telltale signs of a turned around first-time guest. Are there enough places to sit? Is the walkway too narrow?

Fixing the small things, the president of Dollywood Company told Knox News — customer pain points like parking, seating and ease of movement — is key to taking one of America's most beloved theme park companies to the next level.

Becoming an empire also takes money. The company is investing $500 million as part of a 10-year strategic plan to elevate Dollywood Parks & Resorts to a premier and eventually year-round destination.

The investment by business partners Herschend Family Entertainment and cultural icon Dolly Parton includes building two new resorts, adding more rides, and creating  infrastructure to attract and retain the best in the hospitality industry.

It's a good time to invest in the Smoky Mountain brand. Record visitors flocked to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2021. And Dollywood already is considered one of the best amusement parks in the country.

"But with this investment, we’re going to be able to provide even more for our guests," Parton said in a written statement to Knox News. "We’ve already announced our HeartSong Lodge & Resort — which I’m very proud knowing we’re going to have two resorts — and I‘m not going to spill it all yet, but we’ve got some great new attractions coming in the future. I’m not sure that even I can imagine how much the parks will change and grow over the next 10 years." 

Dollywood opens its 37th year for season passholders March 11 without attendance restrictions. As more Americans return to travel, it could be a record year for visitors and revenue.

Pete Owens, vice president of marketing and public relations, remembers in the early 2000s when the park marketed to visitors in Knoxville, Tri-Cities, Chattanooga and maybe Asheville.

Now, the park advertises in 16 markets and pulls visitors from major metro areas within 300 miles and all along the East Coast. Dollywood attracts visitors from an average of 25 states a day, according to Naughton's unofficial license plate survey.

As it expands promotion geographically, Dollywood hopes to extend the length of each guest's stay in the Pigeon Forge area, about 3.4 days right now.

About $200 million of the company's 10-year investment is earmarked for creating new overnight experiences.

HeartSong Lodge & Resort, slated to open in September 2023, is under construction. A 28.5-acre site adjacent to DreamMore Resort & Spa will house the 302-room rustic retreat inspired by Parton's love of the Great Smoky Mountains.

With the addition of a third unnamed resort by 2027, estimates the brand will go from 300,000-400,000 overnight guests a year to more than 1 million.

New coaster, entertainment

Those additional visitors will need more things to do. The investment provides for additional space at Dollywood's Splash Country and new experiences at Dollywood, including two phases of expansion for the wildly popular Wildwood Grove.

The company plans to announce more details this year on Wildwood Grove's expansion and a new attraction that will open in 2023.

"I would say arguably, and with all humility, I believe that attraction will be up for the best new attraction in 2023 and will be known as one of the best of its kind in the world," Owens said.

The company will continue to invest in more restaurant capacity, seasonal festivals and last season's new Sweet Summer Nights 3D drone and fireworks show.

"We’re going to bring that back this year and we’re going to make it even bigger. We’re always looking to our guests for what they want to see and try to put that in place," Parton said. "This summer the Gazillion Bubble Show is coming back and that is our most-requested show, so we know having that is going to be very popular; we’re always listening to see what they want. You never know what else we have up our sleeves for the rest of the year, too — like new things we could add during Smoky Mountain Christmas."

Some of the additions over the next decade will be all-season entertainment and attraction offerings to bring guests more value when the weather cools.

Could Dollywood open 365?

Making sure there are plenty of things to do in every season will position the company to entertain year-round, Naughton said, adding it's possible the park could open theaters and restaurants near the entrance during winter.

Continuous improvement seems to be the new constant at Dollywood. Much of that change happens during a frenzied January and February.

For the park's first major midseason construction project, it closed Hickory House BBQ for eight weeks last year to expand seating.

The changes Dollywood guests won't notice

Guests might not have noticed Valley Forge Blacksmith Shop recently moved across the path to allow for more seating at Hickory House BBQ.

They might not have noticed some of the twisty, windy paths — OK for 500,000 guests  but not for, say, 3 million guests, Owens said — are wider.

Guests should be happier with the $1 million spruce up of the parking lot, redesigned to smooth the flow of inbound and outbound cars.

More perks to grow the Dollywood workforce

Maintaining and attracting a strong team will remain a high priority for the company, recognized nationally this year by Top Workplaces for its culture.

To meet future employment demands as the park grows — Naughton anticipates going from 3,000 employees to 4,880 by 2030 — the company is building employee dormitories with more than 800 beds. The first phase opens in May.

Later, on-campus living will include a townhouse community to help 400 new company leaders relocate their families to East Tennessee.

Dollywood made headlines earlier this year for announcing it would pay for tuition, fees and books for employees seeking certificates through Guild Education, which curates courses to help workers develop in-demand skills.

"I'm very bullish on our future," Naughton said. "The town's on fire. Pigeon Forge No. 6, Gatlinburg No. 1 in the destination rating for our country. We have really good solutions from a staffing perspective coming, that'll be a quick strike that'll make a big difference."

While he loves talking to guests and employees, Naughton, the son of an environmental engineer, lets data drive decisions.

That's how the leadership team knows it was time to retire Festival of Nations or that Hickory House BBQ is operating more efficiently post-renovation.

So what happens when that analytical thinking intersects with Parton's encouragement that the Dollywood team never stops dreaming?

"Fun," Naughton said.

"We’re both trying to provide the very best experience we can for our guests and for our hosts," Parton said. "I’m always dreaming big dreams, but I think Eugene’s dreaming just as big. He has so much he wants to accomplish in the next 10 years, he has to dream big just to make it all happen. I think his experience matches up perfectly with mine; he’s the one that puts the wings on my dreams."

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Brenna McDermott

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Published March 9, 2022