But where does this belief come from? To understand this, we have to understand the people behind The Dollywood Company.
Dollywood is owned via a partnership between Dolly Parton and Herschend Family Entertainment, which is a privately owned entertainment company. You may recognize their name because they own several family attractions including The Dollywood properties, Silver Dollar City, water parks, and aquariums, to name a few. This partnership works well because their commonly-shared beliefs.
Most Dolly Parton fans know that faith is very important to her—that she’s very open about it (though not particularly “religious”), and that her faith has inspired her to dream about a bigger purpose for her life. Dolly’s faith has given her the courage to make her dreams come true through hard work, integrity, and caring for others. Many have watched or heard her life story told through her movies and music. Knowing these things about her, it’s not surprising that she chose to partner with the Herschends, who share those same values.
It is no secret that they both hold firm to Christian values and ethics, and that they believe in the “Golden Rule” – treating others as they want to be treated. And, their leadership style is based on “servant leadership,” which comes from the teachings of Jesus Christ. These are shared beliefs that play out in many ways throughout Dollywood. It is not a requirement of employees to be Christians, however, the values and ethics in which they treat guests and conduct business are certainly grounded in a manner consistent with Christian love, values, and ethics.
Together, Dolly Parton and The Herschend Family have created a “vision” for The Dollywood Company that states, “We serve God best by bringing families closer together.”
As you visit Dollywood and its many attractions throughout the Smokies, you will pick up on these values. It’s not brought out in a way that is forced, or in a way that is “religious” or “proselytization.” Instead, it’s brought out in a way that emphasizes LOVE. They want you to FEEL loved and cared for when you experience the charm of Dollywood. They want to connect with you. They want to exude friendly, welcoming, and genuine hospitality that makes you feel right at home.
It’s an intangible difference you’re going to notice when compared with other theme parks. In this post, I explained where the emphasis on the values comes from. In my next post, I’m going to tell you what I learned about how these ethics are put into practice during daily operations at Dollywood.
In Part 1 of this post, I explained the common ground Dolly Parton and the Herschend family shares when it comes to their Christian faith. Knowing all of this, it still might surprise you, as it did me, to find out that Dollywood and Dollywood’s Splash Country both have their own chaplains on staff. I got to meet and interview Dollywood’s Chaplain, Joey Buck, and learn more about the “heart and soul” of Dollywood, and how he brings Christian values into Dollywood’s daily operations without offending those who do not share the same beliefs.
Chaplain Joey walks the park every day, meeting and greeting employees and guests. In his conversations, he has the opportunity to break down barriers and really get to know people. He very rarely asks others about their faith backgrounds, and instead looks for other ways to connect with them.
Other aspects of his responsibilities involve home and hospital visits of employees in need, as well as pastoral counseling, premarital counseling, and funeral services.
The chapel services that Chaplain Joey provides are probably the most visible aspect of his job. These worship services are held at 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. every Sunday during the park’s regular season and at 5:30 p.m. during the Christmas season at the Robert F. Thomas Memorial Chapel, located in Craftsman Valley within Dollywood.
This beautiful little wooden chapel was built in the winter of 1973, before the park became known as Dollywood. When the park opened in May that next season, they began holding services there, and a service has been held there every Sunday since!
The chapel was named after the doctor who delivered Dolly Parton. Dr. Robert F. Thomas was also the first person to ever preach there. The chapel itself also now serves as a nod to Dolly getting her start in music by singing in church as a young girl.
The quaint one-room, country church contains simple wooden pews, hardwood floors, and colorful, picturesque quilts hanging on the walls reminding us of many beloved Bible stories. It is a beautiful place, and I have stopped there on many visits to Dollywood to simply rest, reflect, and pray in this peaceful setting right in the middle of a bustling theme park.
Chaplain Joey told me that the 9:30 a.m. service is attended by many of the Dollywood Hosts before the park opens. The 11:30 a.m. service is a mixture of both guests of the park and Dollywood Hosts and their families, averaging about 200 visitors each Sunday. The service is an interdenominational blend of many Christian traditions. Joey calls it a “worship movement,” which usually has an order to it. It usually involves congregational singing, prayer, and a short message based on Scripture. He says the focus is on “equipping people to experience and see God, and how to have a relationship with God.”
The Dollywood chapel is not an actual working church with programs and such, but there are “regulars.” It has become a place where these folks find their spiritual encouragement and opportunities to volunteer. The Dollywood Company has enabled and empowered their employees to impact the community through service and charitable giving, and this often begins with those whose faith is a visible part of their lives.
The chapel contains a prayer request book. More than five hundred pages have been filled so far this season! In reading these prayer requests, you can learn of the many reasons that families travel to visit Dollywood. Sometimes they come to celebrate opportunities and the good things that are happening in their lives, and sometimes they come to step away from the hardships of life they are facing. For many, Joey says, the act of simply writing their cares down on paper is the prayer, and they are able to leave their troubles behind and go on to enjoy the day at Dollywood. Chaplain Joey says they receive 10,000 – 12,000 prayer requests per year, and they DO pray for them.
Is it really possible to “find God” at Dollywood? Chaplain Joey said that he believes that “if people can even begin to find God in a theme park, their eyes are more open to see God in all of life. The unexpected experience, he says, can be the most profound, meaningful, and memorable experience.