Dollywood debuts major water ride – plus a live, Parton-centric live-music show

PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. At Dollywood’s Splash Country, the Keys family of Sevierville, Tenn., shriek in unison as their four-person raft takes a stomach-churning, 25-foot plunge that makes mom Brooke’s hair trail behind her like a kite tail. After splashing down, there’s no time for the rafters to recover before zipping around a hairpin turn that sucks the bunch into a dark tunnel.

It’s all part of the fun on the RiverRush, Tennessee’s first and only water coaster.

Dollywood – the Splash Country water park plus the regular Dollywood theme park – is like other theme parks in this regard: It aims to top itself every year with new rides and entertainment. But Dollywood, four hours west of Charlotte, nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, has something no other park does: the star power of country music legend Dolly Parton. Every year Parton kicks off the season and unveils the latest attractions at the entertainment venue inspired by the simple mountain village of her youth.

The RiverRush is the big news this year, and Parton was on hand May 10 to pull the ceremonial switch and send the Keys family on the ride’s maiden voyage.

The $6 million hydromagnetic coaster combines the twists and turns of a land roller coaster with the adrenaline rush of whitewater rafting. The experience leaves riders breathless and soaked, but, more often than not, eager to do it again. From the peak of this four-story attraction, thrill riders enjoy panoramic views of Dollywood and the surrounding mountains – until they are whisked through a tunnel or forced to brace themselves for one of four exhilarating drops.

Dollywood is all about family entertainment, and Parton likes the RiverRush because it’s something the whole family can ride together. Well, most families: Parton, who has 11 siblings, said a single, four-person raft would never have worked for that large brood.

When it comes to thrill rides, Parton is strictly a spectator and says she has no plans to ride the RiverRush. It’s a good thing, because her trademark glammed-up look, which includes a form-fitting dress and 6-inch high heels, could prove troublesome while rocketing along the 1,176-foot track.

“Not only would I lose my hair (wig), I would lose my pride and my reputation,” she said, laughing. “And my shoes.”

A dream come true

At the Dreamsong Theatre, Dollywood’s new entertainment venue, Parton’s siblings Randy and Cassie get the audience clapping to “My Mountains, My Home,” one of several new songs Parton wrote for “My People,” a musical that tells the story of her early life in east Tennessee. “My People” is one of six new shows at the theme park this year; Dreamsong Theatre is adjacent to Chasing Rainbows (the Dolly Parton museum). The 45-minute “My People” show, featuring Randy and Cassie Parton (plus two cousins and two nieces) is offered at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. most days.

Parton was there for the May premiere, but when she can’t be at Dollywood, she sings along with the cast of family members via a large screen above the stage.

The show pays tribute to Parton’s parents and others who gave her the courage to leave the Smoky Mountains for Nashville, Tenn., and pursue her dream of making it in the music industry.

Parton’s fresh sound seamlessly blends with some old favorites to illustrate a captivating, poignant tale of mid-century mountain life.

Some stars lose touch with their roots after making it big, especially if those roots happen to be humble.

But “My People” depicts a childhood that was poverty-ridden, (her home had no running water or electricity) but happy because her family was strong and resilient in the face of hardship.

“Coat of Many Colors” is a show highlight for die-hard Dolly fans who know every word of the 1971 hit. As a child, Parton was ridiculed by school classmates for wearing a coat her mother made for her out of rags, but Parton refused to feel humiliated and turned the experience into a life lesson that she has shared with millions.

Parton spent several months composing music and writing lyrics for the show. She said her goal was to produce a theatrical experience that resonates with all families.

“I wanted it to be not just about my family, but something everybody could relate to,” Parton said. “Like the song ‘Family’ – that’s everybody’s family. The song ‘Mama’ – that’s everybody’s mama. So I wanted to try to do things that would appeal to our audience, but also still tell my story and talk about my folks.”

Parton said she can write songs anywhere, anytime , even on airplanes, but prefers to schedule time for songwriting when possible. That said, Parton said she has learned to be prepared: Guitars are scattered throughout the house so she can pick one up whenever an idea strikes her.

“My husband’s always laughing at me. He says, ‘Can’t you walk by that damn guitar without hittin’ it?’ I’m always just hitting a chord, and then, sometimes, I’ll hear a sound, and I’ll just pick it up and go sit down and start playing. Sometimes a whole song will come out.”

Stardom was just one of Parton’s dreams; another was to use her influence to improve the lives of those in her community,

“Even early on, I always thought, if I’m lucky enough to make it, I’m going to do something big in my home area, like Dollywood, where it would provide jobs, not only for the local folks, but for my family as well.”