Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Dollywood theme park celebrates 25th anniversary

May 24, 2010, 8:38 am

"They always say you can't go home again," says 64-year-old country music icon Dolly Parton, who skedaddled to the bright lights of Nashville from her sharecropper family's two-room cabin on the Little Pigeon River the day after her high school graduation.

"Well," adds the self-proclaimed Backwoods Barbie, "I've certainly proved that wrong."

Dollywood, her signature theme park a few hollers over from the cabin she shared with her parents and 11 siblings, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. And even when Parton isn't back in town — she returns several times a year, including this weekend to film a Hallmark special with pals Kenny Rogers and Billy Ray and Miley Cyrus and to raise money for flood victims in her adopted hometown of Nashville — the amply endowed entertainer casts as long a shadow in East Tennessee as the nearby Smokies.

Vacationers have been heading for these hills for decades; Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the USA's most-visited, turned 75 in 2009.

But it took Parton's star power to transform a small-town attraction into Sevier County's biggest employer and the state's top paid tourist draw with 2.5 million annual visitors — and turn Pigeon Forge (population 6,000) into a hillbilly version of Myrtle Beach.