Travel Tuesday: Dollywood or Bust

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Like some sort of religious zealot, Lance must make an annual pilgrimage to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, home to Dolly Parton’s eponymous amusement park.  On our previous visit, we bought season passes, good from the holiday season of 2012 through the end of 2013; given that the season pass price was only ~$30 more than a 1-day ticket, we took a gamble, figuring we’d definitely be back in 2013.

Yet the close of 2013 was rapidly approaching, and we hadn’t once set foot on Wild Eagle OR Blazing Fury. Decisions had to be made.

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We again decided to visit Dollywood during the park’s annual Smoky Mountain Christmas.  The weather is cool in Tennessee that time of year and Dollywood is literally wrapped to the nines in Christmas lights.  Dollywood, not surprisingly in a Southern state, also runs a fair split of Christian and secular holiday shows, which is kinda charming, if you don’t think too much of the “organized Christianity’s long history of discrimination against gays” thing.

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Now, Dollywood is a TREK from Philadelphia.  It’s not really economical to fly (PHL-Knoxville is like $450 round-trip per person during this time of year), and while the drive is scenic, it takes 11+ hours.  ELEVEN HOURS.  Sweet lord.  Driving that in a Ford Fiesta too, while great on gas mileage, will make you go stir crazy. No amount of Hardee’s Thickburgers can make it bearable.  I was kinda hoping that this trip would get me out of having to visit Dollywood for at least another 18 months.  It was just too much time in the car to ask of someone…

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We arrived in Pigeon Forge on Saturday night, with just a few hours left before the park closed for the night.  The place was jam-packed with thousands of locals there to catch the holiday parade; after spending a half-hour just getting from our parking spot to the gate, we shimmied our way to the back of the park for the terrific Mystery Mine and Wild Eagle coasters.

On Sundays during the holiday season, the park doesn’t open until 2:00pm.  Still, we felt like seven hours in Dollywood justified the drive, so we spent the morning taking a scenic drive through the Smoky Mountain National Park, which we’d never done before.
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On the way up a mountain, we saw a bunch of pick-up trucks (of course) pulled over.  City-slick gawkers that we are, we rubbernecked only to find…A BEAR. And not the kinda bears us urbanites are used to…HEY-O!

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Yup, just a cub hanging out in the trees near the side of the road.  Lance and I both speculated that this could’ve been some elaborate trap by the bear family to lure in stupid tourists. We felt like we were in a good position, though, since most of the other spectators were significantly…larger and most likely slower than us.  (This is what happens when you have dozens of pancake restaurants in your town.)

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Lance doing his best Rafiki.

Unfortunately, with the afternoon came rain, and right as we were in line waiting to be let in to Dollywood, it started to drizzle.  And didn’t stop all afternoon.

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JAM-PACKED in Timber Canyon.

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6:00pm rolled around, just four hours into park operation for the day, and ropes started going up in front of ride queues.  We were soaked, but we were committed to getting the most out of this season pass which we’d only used twice.

“Is the park closing?” I asked a Dollywood employee.  It was supposed to stay open for another three hours.

“Yup, bad weather coming this way,” she said.

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So Dollywood management just decided to shut down the park early.  We looked at the forecast, and the weather was not anticipated to get any worse than it had been all day.  Lance and I figured that it was probably related to the very light crowd in the park all day–it wasn’t cost-effective to leave the park open for maybe 100 guests.

Lance was obviously disappointed–Dollywood is practically his second home (aside from Bath & Body Works…and Pei Wei…and Target…).  I was disappointed because we’d spent 11 hours in the car the day before to get here and only got six total hours in the park.  I was on the verge of breaking down into tears thinking that all that driving was for naught.

On the way out of the park, I made sure to visit Guest Relations.  “They’re going to make this right, dammit!” I said, though I didn’t know how much of a case we’d have as season passholders who just happened not to have used their season passes all year.

“Well, we can offer you essentially a rain check pass to come back during the 2014 year,” the Guest Relationships rep told us.  We took it.

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So now we basically HAVE to go back to Dollywood in 2014 in order to take advantage of our free passes (I’m not one to easily pass up a good deal.)  Which means another 22+ hour roundtrip commute to eastern Tennessee.

GAH.

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25X: Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas

Last weekend, I got Disney World and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.  This past weekend, Lance got Dollywood and its Smoky Mountain Christmas.

To be fair to Lance, we’d joked (or so I thought) about going to Dollywood for Christmas for almost a year.  Lance loves Dolly Parton purely and without a spec of irony, and in such a wholly and devoted way that I’m not sure even I hold a candle to their special bond.  I’ll leave the “why” for Lance to explain, should he feel so inclined, but just know this: there was no doubt in his mind that the 11-plus hour drive to Dolly’s theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, was well worth it.

We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Gatlinburg, a town over from Dollywood.  We’d stayed here on our one prior trip to Dollywood and loved it so much (it’s like a cabin with a fireplace and everything, but without the scary bugs and deranged woodsmen who come to kill you in your sleep!) we had to return.

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Above: Lance warming up by the hotel’s outdoor bonfire.  It was a little chilly during our visit!

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25X: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

It’s 8:00AM as I’m writing this. Do you know where your favorite Lance+Jeff contributors are?

Nope, not Japan. Or Hawaii. Or even New York City (just an expensive hop, skip, and jump away from us normally). Nope, y’all, we’re currently in Gatlinburg, Tennessee to find our Christmas spirit; Dolly Parton is our guide.

A lot of us will travel for the holidays: some to see family, some to vacation, some to visit the model tour bus in front of Dolly Parton’s museum, Chasing Rainbows (I think that’s also the name of Liberace’s museum…too soon?). Travel, for many, is synonymous with the holidays, and if you can find a way to enjoy “the journey,” maybe singing along at the top of your lungs to really cheesy Christmas songs, then it can actually be a fun, memorable component of your holiday.

A few years ago now, Lance and I were on our way back to Michigan to visit my family for Christmas. When I was a kid, my immediate family lived in Maryland while most of my extended family called the Great Lakes state home, so I was familiar with this drive and knew how grueling it could be. But let me tell you, having the back of our Honda Fit (good riddance) stuffed to the brim with Christmas presents, so full you couldn’t open a door without something falling out, all the while sipping Salted Caramel Mochas and listening to Kenny and Dolly sing “A Christmas To Remember”…that was a good time. It felt a little magical, like we were two dentists bringing in tow a sleigh full of misfit toys.

Now, normally I’m all about packing up a bag and having a bit of an adventure, sometimes (::cough cough::all the time::cough::) to a fault–sorry, bank account. That’s why we flew down to Disney World for like 38 hours last weekend, and why we’re here now for Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas (we’ll save the musings regarding Lance’s Mecca-like religious experiences at Dolly’s theme park for another post.)

And it’s not like I usually mind long car rides. But something about yesterday’s drive just had me in such a foul mood (except for the gas prices, which are under $3.00 a gallon here in Tennessee! Now I know why Connie Britton wanted to film Nashville on location!). We left at least an hour later than planned, then hit lots of inexplicable traffic, tacking on an another hour or so to the trip. I couldn’t sleep in the car because no matter how low you keep the volume on the stereo, our Fiesta’s so small that your head is always near a speaker.

Then Lance had us route through Johnson City, Tennessee on the way to our hotel in Gatlinburg, The Mall at Johnson City being home to a Bath & Body Works test-scent store. A test-scent store, as you might gather, is where the company sells products before they may be released nationwide, taking stock of what does and doesn’t sell before mass producing it. This means Lance could get his well-moisturized hands on some candles that would normally not be released until next year, if they were going nationwide at all.

I’m all about “the hunt,” so to speak: devoting an illogically large amount of time to procure something you most likely don’t need. I do this a lot with couponing, re-buying things multiple times in an effort to get the best deal (though I’m sure an argument could be made that the amount of time and money wasted on this make it totally not worth it.) But at the end of what at that point was an 11-hour ride, all the while being constantly stuck behind people on I-81 that considered the speed limit a wild, dangerous proposition, the last thing I wanted to do was stop at a mall.

Then Lance plugged the hotel’s information into the GPS to see the time to the hotel from the mall.

“When’s it say we’ll get in?” I asked.

“Umm. Never mind.”

I reached for the GPS. “What’s it say??” I began to panic.

“9:30,” Lance whispered.

“9:30???” I yelped, a mix of shock and outrage. That meant another two hours in the car, after we were done at the mall.

The mall would end up being about an hour out of our way. With that realization, I lost it, becoming filled with irrational, boiling irritation. I wanted to cry and scream at the same time. Let’s appreciate the journey and not just the destination? That concept was so far lost from me.

So I sat in the passenger’s seat after stopping at the mall (had to stock up on Tiki Beach three-wicks!!), stewing with some unnecessary, indescribable mix of emotions: anger, irritation, sleepiness. I was DONE with this effing car ride.

Then we pulled off the highway and into Sevierville, Dolly Parton’s hometown and just two towns over from our hotel. That’s when I saw this:

The whole road, for miles, was framed with these gorgeous, enormous Christmas light displays. None of this blow-up lawn Santa shit here–these we’re beautiful, complex-but-simple for the fact that they were all made from lights.

It was something that just took my breath away a little. Something so simple, yet tapping into the part of my instinctual brain which finds comfort with light in the darkness.

In those moments, as we were passing by these wonderful displays, I didn’t think about the drive at all.