This is a blog I never anticipated writing—or for that matter, ever wanted to write! But this summer I found myself with a broken ankle after having surgery where a plate and seven screws were installed. I faced two months of being wheelchair-bound soon after Dollywood reopened after being closed due to COVID-19, but I really wanted to visit the park I had missed so much! What to do?! Here are some things I learned on a visit to Dollywood in a wheelchair.
The first thing I did was look on Dollywood’s website to see if I could get some information before my visit. To my delight, there was a great deal of helpful info as well as a very thorough Rider Safety and Accessibility Guide which you can look over and even print out before you go. I was amazed to see not only did the guide include general guidance about safety and other information, it also had each ride listed along with a detailed description of the ride and specific ride requirements. These guides are also available in the Ride Accessibility Center in the park. Reading this ahead of time helped me get off to a good start as I started planning my day.
All handicapped parking is located in section A and you must have a handicapped hang tag or license plate. Dollywood suggests the driver take the guest using the wheelchair to the drop-off area near the ticket booths before parking their car. I was using a very lightweight wheelchair and wasn’t sure how it would take the hills of Dollywood, so after we went through the ticket turnstiles, we headed to the stroller/wheelchair/ECV Rental booth. I decided to rent an Electric Convenience Vehicle (ECV) to give my husband a break from pushing me. After a brief “lesson” on how to drive it, we were off. I had never used an ECV before, but it was very simple to use. We were able to check my personal wheelchair there and pick it back up at the end of the day.
If you are staying at Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa, their shuttle accommodates wheelchairs. I rode the shuttle to the park on a visit earlier in the summer, and although I was apprehensive about how it would go, it was very easy to do. The hosts were super patient and accommodating as they explained every step along the way how to load and unload via a ramp at the back of the trolley, then how to clip the wheelchair in so that it is stable.
If you don’t take any of my other advice, you must take this piece of advice: visit the Ride Accessibility Center first thing after entering the park! It is located between the Stroller/Wheelchair/ECV Rentals and Flashbulb Photos, near Dollywood Emporium. A host at the center will give you very detailed information about each ride’s rider requirements to help you make well-informed decisions about what you can and cannot ride. Here, they will also give you a Ride Accessibility Pass tailored especially for you which shows you the rides you will be able to safely ride on your visit. They are open during regular park hours each day.
I met Dollywood Safety Manager Jerry King outside the center, where he told me a bit of the background. The Ride Accessibility Center was created 10 years ago so guests would have clear expectations going in to the park. I should mention here that this location isn’t just for folks in a wheelchair, but also for guests with any kind of disability from learning differences to sensory issues to prosthetic limb wearers and more. Jerry noted that the hosts who work here are specially trained and are particularly compassionate, wanting to share with guests all the things they can participate in at Dollywood; not just the things they can’t do.
Jerry also explained that each ride has limits set by the manufacturer of the ride. For example, each ride has a unique ride restraint system which lends itself to allowing or not allowing guests’ ability to ride. During my visit, the Ride Accessibility host asked me some questions, then gave me my Ride Accessibility Pass, where beside each ride I was able to ride, she made a checkmark. This pass allows guests with disabilities (plus up to five guests who are with them) to use the accessibility entrance at each ride, attraction and theater. The host showed me the sign I should look for and said most of the accessibility entrances are located at the exit of the ride, with a few exceptions. At the ride, the hosts there will check the ride car and the rider to verify their ability to ride, which provides a second safety check.
On some of the rides or restaurants, a guest using an ECV may have to transfer to a regular non-motorized wheelchair, which is provided at the location. The host also told me to look out for a few places in the park which are marked with a yellow diamond sign that warn wheelchair users that they should take an alternate route (clearly marked) due to the steep grade of the walkway. All of the theaters have a special accessibility entrance and reserved seating for wheelchairs.
Jerry then took me to a very interesting room, which while not related necessarily to being in a wheelchair, is valuable to many with learning differences who visit the park. At the Dreamsong Theater building, there is a calming room which is available to guests with special needs who may have a sensory overload while visiting Dollywood. An employee must open it, then inside there are items known to be calming to those who need it. It is a very quiet and relaxing environment and is equipped with sensory items such as a weighted blanket, a tent which is very popular, stuffed animals and other toys, a sensory board activity panel and a rocking chair. During this time of the pandemic, the room is sanitized between guests and there are duplicates of the items inside which are also switched out.
Jerry told me that Dollywood was the first theme park to have a calming room and they have also helped other parks who have called for advice on how to set this up. Dollywood came up with this idea after feedback from families who needed such a space, and Jerry mentioned that they have developed close relationships with many of these families who come back time after time and also spread the word about how helpful Dollywood is to families who need special accessibility.
So all-in-all, a great visit to Dollywood even in a wheelchair! I loved getting to be there, and there was much I could still do: see great shows, ride a few rides, eat good food, shop the unique merchandise and just soak up the atmosphere.
Consult Dollywood’s website or call 1-800-DOLLYWOOD for further information on any of these things. There are also helpful videos on the website according to Jerry, as well as similar accessibility information about Dollywood’s .