NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Dolly Parton seems to live her life by the motto "Go big or go home." With her signature theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., she did both.
Parton opened Dollywood in 1986 on the site of what had been the Silver Dollar City theme park. The first year, 1.3 million visitors came. Now at the start of its 25th anniversary season, Dollywood has more than doubled in size to 150 acres, and over 40 million people have passed through its gates, with 2.5 million guests in a typical season.
"I always thought that if I made it big or got successful at what I had started out to do, that I wanted to come back to my part of the country and do something great, something that would bring a lot of jobs into this area," said Parton, 64, in a recent interview. "Sure enough, I was lucky, and God was good to me and things happened good. We started the park and 25 years later, we're still at it."
Parton expanded her brand locally to include the Dixie Stampede dinner theater in 1988 and Dollywood's Splash Country waterpark in 2001. All three together employ 3,000 people.
When asked why she thinks Dollywood has been so successful, Parton didn't hesitate.
"Location, location, location. It's a great place to be going right into the Great Smoky Mountain National Park," she said. "We've got plenty of stuff to be entertaining for anybody that wants to come to this area, and all the beautiful things that are not mine, that are in this whole area. This is a wonderful place to visit, whether you get over to my businesses or not."
Dollywood is Tennessee's No. 1 ticketed tourist attraction and has been for over a decade.
"They've created a lot of economic benefit for that entire region, which then sends an enormous amount of state and local tax to pay for education and keep other expenses to the community down," said Susan Whitaker, Tennessee's tourism development commissioner.
Whitaker says over 88 percent of tourists drive instead of fly to attractions in Tennessee, particularly to Dollywood, and that leaves ripples throughout the state as visitors arrive.
"People come in and they may spend one day or two days there, but they're in the area and they're going to spend money all over the place," she said.
Matthew Lambert from Knoxville, Tenn., has been a season passholder to Dollywood since 1995. There are many reasons he keeps coming back.
"I love the atmosphere," he said. "Everytime you come here it's like coming home. You see people that you know that are working there. Everybody's friendly. The shows are amazing. The food is wonderful. The rides are great. It's the whole experience. It's the way a park should be, not a giant mega-conglomerate, corporate run park."
That, and "They still have my favorite wooden coaster in the whole wide world, The Thunderhead," he added. "I've ridden it over 1,900 times."
Theme parks, with their relatively high per-person admission, do not always fare well in recessions. Six Flags is struggling to emerge from bankruptcy; Cedar Fair saw a 7 percent drop in attendance last year; and even Disney has offered incentives in the last two years like free admission on your birthday and free tickets for volunteers.
Dollywood saw a 6 percent drop in attendance last year, but spokesman Pete Owens says the park attributes the decrease more to bad weather than the recession. Online ticket prices for one-day admission this year are $56 for adults, $45 for kids.
New this season at the park is the Adventure Mountain challenge course, which cost $6 million to build.
"We definitely want to expand with new things every year, eventually with a resort," said Parton. "We may eventually have Dollywoods in other parts of the country, where we can kind of be true to whatever's going on in that part of the world."
No matter what, Parton's pride for Dollywood will always exceed its size.
"I would honestly say that with all the awards and all the other things that I've done in my life, Dollywood is one of the greatest dreams that I've ever had come true. I am so proud of that I can't even begin to tell you," she said. "Dollywood is real special to me."