Dollywood has been thrilling guests for 37 seasons. As you stroll around the park, you may have noticed themed signs that look like advertisements. They are not actually advertisements at all, they serve a special purpose. During Dollywood’s 30th season, a new tradition began. After 30 years, hosts serving the Dollywood Company are commemorated with personalized signs that hang in the park.
There are about 60 great hosts who have received one of these special signs, but to give you a little peek into the inside information you can find on these signs, I want to share the unique stories of four longtime Dollywood hosts who have been honored with this token. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here are a couple examples of 30-year hosts’ signs you can find at Dollywood.
Each of these signs are designed to incorporate different aspects of the host’s career with the park. On a brisk April afternoon, I interviewed four members of this 30-year club, though sometimes I found myself listening to them in awe and forgetting I was there to do an interview. One thing that all the stories had in common—how much these hosts enjoy working at Dollywood. As a person who has worked 25 years with my current employer, I felt a certain kinship with these people. When you find a job you love, and a place where you love to do it, you really don’t want to go anywhere else.
After a morning wandering around the park, I decided to take in a show and sat down to enjoy “A Brighter Day.” The man playing the keyboard would be my first interview, David Brooks.
My first question for David was “how do you play on cold days like this.” He pulled out a hand warmer and showed it to me. I immediately knew this was going to be a fun interview. David started out as a freelance artist, playing music on the road. When he decided to come off the road and stop traveling, he accepted a job at Dollywood. While playing the keys is something he clearly enjoys, he also was very enthusiastic when speaking of his other responsibilities as a musical director for many of the shows at Dollywood, including one of my favorite shows, “Dreamland Drive-In.” I could tell he enjoyed mentoring the performers, who are often just out of college (and most with less years alive than David has working at Dollywood), teaching them how to handle performing 25 or more shows a week.
Dollywood utilizes a lot of performers for the many shows around the park. Many talented artists have come through the park, just starting their careers, and David has worked with many of them. Some stay a long time while others move on to work all over the performing spectrum. David shared that he has worked with many performers at Dollywood, some of them very now very well-known like Suzy Bogguss and the 2021 CMA Female Vocalist of the year Carly Pearce. Dollywood is brimming with talented musicians for sure!
David’s sign is located by the ice cream shop just past Showstreet Palace Theater. At first look, the signs appear to be just props added to the Dollywood theming, but they are much more.
One of the interesting details on each of the signs is some indication of what year the person started working at Dollywood. While the person’s name on the sign is usually straightforward, their year of employment is not stated directly like “employee started in 1988,” but rather the year is hidden somewhere in the art. On David’s sign, there is a statement that says, “Standard 88 Keys on All Models.” A standard piano keyboard has 88 keys, but in this case the 88 also refers to the year that David started: 1988. In fact, the year was so subtle that David didn’t even notice it at first.
My next interviewee was Cricket Russell, she serves in Culinary Services. There is not a Dollywood restaurant that she hasn’t worked in during her 30 years. Her sign is located next to Hickory House BBQ. It’s here because she spent her early years at Dollywood in this area at a Berries N Cream stand. (And there still is one at Dollywood’s Splash Country now!)
Cricket has worked at Dollywood for 37 years now, indicated by the 85 cents for a mason jar of berries and cream.
On our walk to her sign, she shared one of the best parts of her job: For the past 27 years, Cricket has used her Sunday lunch break to go to the Robert F. Thomas Chapel and lead worship during the church service whenever possible. (Here are links to more information about the chapel and details about how you can join Cricket on a Sunday for a 30 minute service at Dollywood.) As we were closing, Cricket invited me to come up and sing in the choir, so who knows, David might be mentoring me next! (To be fair, the choir is made up of volunteers from the guests that day, so everyone is invited!)
Next, we headed to the Dollywood Express Train Depot to meet Tim Berry, the Vice President of Human Resources. Tim started at Dollywood when he was still in high school back in 1986 (as you can see from the $86,000 reward). I think Tim is lucky they used a John Wayne looking picture, so people aren’t regularly taking him to guest services to collect the ransom!
As we have seen before, the information about the host’s responsibilities at Dollywood is frequently referenced in the details of the sign. To the right of the face, it states, “Also wanted for making Moonshine in Apple Jack’s orchard.” One of his first assignments at Dollywood was at Apple Jack’s, not to be confused with the current entertainer named Apple Jack. Apple Jack’s was a place that Tim described as making, “all things you could make out of an apple, such as stack cake, cider, and fried apple pies.”
I loved how much the hosts were excited to be interviewed, but Tim came prepared with props. The location of Tim’s sign reveals that he worked on the train at one point, but Tim actually worked as a train robber. See, up until 2003, the Dollywood Express wasn’t just a nice ride through the hills overlooking the park: there was a train robbery that took place in the train loop at the top of the hill.
Finally, I got to meet Ellen Ramsey who works in Dollywood’s Contact Center. She had some of the funniest and most touching stories I heard while doing these interviews. Ellen received her 30-year sign back in 2018, which you can read about in this article on the Dollywood blog.
Ellen seemed to have very interesting connections to the things on her sign. While waiting on Ellen, I wondered what the reference to “Ellen’s Pet Pig Oscar” might mean. It turns out, she had a pet pig named Oscar when she was growing up on a farm. The team that creates these signs really does their homework!
Ellen’s sign is located just inside Country Fair on one of the outside walls of Blue Ribbon Pavilion. Ellen has had many rolls during her time at Dollywood. She started in concessions.
She worked as a greeter and served as a character reading to kids.
Ellen is famous among Dollywood hosts for her bringing in biscuits to share—50 to 60 biscuits at a time! The sign even mentions green beans, which is her standard contribution to all the company potluck dinners and lunches. Her biscuits and green beans are now immortalized at the park.
The lemonade is a reference to when she worked at the frozen lemonade stand. Ellen told a story of the day when she was busy and a host named Jack carrying a clipboard asked her if he could help. She asked if he could scoop, he said yes and got to work. She later found out this was Jack Hershend. (Dollywood is owned by Hershend Family Entertainment. You can read more about Jack Hershend here.)
One question I asked all four hosts was, “what does it mean for Dollywood to honor you in this way?” The answer was a unanimous, “it means a lot.” This is an honor that anyone working for Dollywood for 30 years, no matter their position, is given. As an outsider, I think that’s amazing.
The fact that there are so many of these signs up all over the park says so much about Dollywood. It is a great place to visit and is one of the best employers in the United States. In the future, as you are walking around the park, be sure to notice signs like this:
If you can remember the name, you just might see that name on a nametag and meet the inspiration. Ask them a question about their sign and you may get to hear some pretty amazing stories. I did.