My mom, Sandra, is a 72-year-old spitfire. There’s really no other word that better describes her. She’s very opinionated, always likes for her belt to match her shoes and she absolutely loves Dollywood. And my entire childhood (and into adulthood), it’s very common for her to ask when we can go on a quick weekend trip to her favorite theme park in the world. Frequent spur-of-the-moment weekend trips have been a common recurrence through the three plus decades of my life.
But as Sandra has reached what so many call “the golden years,” we’ve learned that we had to adjust our park strategy to ensure a fantastic Dollywood day. Sandra has a few mobility issues now that she didn’t have a few years ago, and there are some health accommodations that we make that have changed our park strategy. Lucky for us, Dollywood is great at being a place where people of all ages can have fun… from the young to the young at heart, like Sandra.
If you are considering a trip with the grandparents in your life, here are a few tips on how we have the best day possible at Dollywood when you are enjoying your senior years. All of these tips are for the senior who prefers to spend their day walking the park. While Sandra isn’t using an EVC or wheelchair just yet, Dollywood has options available both outside the park at the entrance and inside after you go through the turnstiles with a team of great hosts who are happy to help you get the right ride for your visit.
Perfecting Your Parking Plan
Every year, Dollywood has millions of visitors. That’s a lot of people who need a parking spot! Dollywood’s parking system is relatively easy to navigate, and at every section in the parking lot, there is a close tram stop ready to take you and your party straight to the entry plaza. There is also a large section of the parking lot devoted to those with a disability pass, so you might be able minimize your trip to the gate. And, be sure to look for disability spaces near the tram stops if Lot A is full.
While Sandra does have a disability parking pass that she travels with, we’ve discovered that it’s often easier for me to drop her off at the guest drop off and pick up area outside of the tram stop. This allows her to take her time getting out of my vehicle and start making her way toward the entrance while I loop around and park in one of the standard parking sections. It’s usually a quick five-to-10-minute walk for me from my spot in C or D, and I can meet up with her inside the park.
Sometimes, we even splurge on a Preferred Parking spot. This designated area is available to purchase in advance online, or you can see if it’s available when you get to the parking booths. But be warned: Preferred Parking may not be available day-of because it’s pretty popular. There is also a guest drop off and pick up at the Preferred Parking entrance, so I will drop my mother off there and then make my way to my spot. The walkway from the Preferred lot to the entrance can be steep for some, so it saves her some steps and some energy if I drop her off first. Pick up is the same easy process! She waits for me at a safe, designated space while I get our vehicle when it’s time to leave for the day.
Pack Those Park Shoes
I feel very strongly about making sure you wear the right park shoes on your Dollywood visit (see my previous blog) but even more so when visiting with my mother. Dollywood is a beautiful theme park that is nestled into the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains—key: mountains. The park spans across 160 acres, and it’s critical that my mom wears her best walking shoes. For her Dollywood days, she trades in her trendy slides and booties for a strong stability-geared tennis shoe. This allows her to be able to walk up and down the hills and across the various terrains in the park. The turf on the green at The Plaza at Wilderness Pass? The railroad crossings at the Village? The grooved pavement at Rivertown Junction? She’s able to trek them all if she’s equipped with the right shoe.
Mastering the Map
Remember how I said that Dollywood is nestled into the mountains? When I am planning a Dollywood day with Sandra, we do have to make sure that we take the path(s) of least resistance. The layout of Dollywood features what we call in our family the “loop around the mountain.” The highpoint is The Plaza at Wilderness Pass, and everything from there is downhill. Plus, The Plaza is important for a Dollywood visit as many of the festivals have must-see attractions in the green space.
But you must get there first!
When you enter Dollywood, you first must decide if you are going left or right on that loop. If you go left, you are immediately going uphill toward Timber Canyon and Wildwood Grove. While there are some great roller coasters in that area, we find that it’s best for us to go right to walk down Showstreet and Rivertown Junction if we are making the loop around the park. This area allows for a slower climb up the mountain, and it isn’t as hard for my mom to make the trek.
We have also discovered that there is usually more than one way to get to a certain location. For example, when entering The Village from Rivertown Junction, there is a steeper hill near Dogs N’ Taters. Some days, Sandra can get up the hill with no issue, but on days where she might need a little more assistance, we just go an alternate route. There’s a quick walkway from the entrance of Craftsman’s Valley into the Village that has a less impactful incline. While it’s a few extra steps, it’s a lot easier on her knees!
There are also some great spots for us to rest along the way if she needs to stop for a break. Across from the Valley Theater is a row of rocking chairs where we will stop for a moment to catch our breath and maybe take in part of “Forever Country” in the nearby theater. We also really enjoy stopping at the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary to rest for a bit as well. This area is across from Hickory House BBQ and has a lot of picnic tables that let us sit for a moment and just enjoy the nature preserve where the eagles can fly safely in their habitat.
One thing we really enjoy is how Dollywood has a lot of open seating in various spots around the park, perfect to give both Sandra and her traveling companions a moment to rest.
The Right Rides (and Shows!)
My mother’s mobility issues can cause dizziness on certain rides, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty for her to do at Dollywood. She’s the first one to demand that we visit the Dollywood Express on every visit to the park.
She’s not one who enjoys going upside down, so she will usually skip the Tennessee Tornado for a ride on the Blazing Fury, which is a dark ride that has three small drops. She also really enjoys riding the Rockin’ Roadway as she says it helps her remember the days of visiting the local drive in with her high school sweetheart (my dad!) and making him buy her a milkshake with dinner.
And Sandra is never bored during her visits as she always has me running with her to the various theaters at the park. Each season brings new live entertainment, and Sandra is one who likes to see it all when she’s there. (And she’s even made friends with a performer or two!) From the Kingdom Heirs residency at Dollywood to the roaming musicians, there’s enough live music to fill up an entire day without stepping foot on a ride if that’s not on your grandparents’ list of must-dos.
With so much to see and do for various ages, Dollywood really is the perfect park for families of all generations. I love seeing grandparents and parents enjoying the park with kids of all ages, and Dollywood really makes it easy for the Sandra in your life to have as much fun as their youthful heart desires.