The Dolly Parton Experience at Dollywood Relives the Career of Our Most Beloved American |

The Dolly Parton Experience at Dollywood Relives the Career of Our Most Beloved American

There’s only one Dolly Parton, but now everybody can get an idea of what her one-of-a-kind life has been like. The Dolly Parton Experience is a new museum-style attraction at Dollywood focused on Dolly’s decades-long career, from her hardscrabble childhood as one of 12 children of a sharecropper and subsistence farmer, through her march to global superstardom. Dollywood has always understandably venerated its beloved co-owner and namesake, and The Dolly Parton Experience is a bigger, brighter expansion of the work done by the park’s former Chasing Rainbows museum. If you like Dolly or have an interest in the history of pop culture, it’s a must-do.

When Dollywood decided to modernize Chasing Rainbows, they realized a single building wouldn’t do Dolly justice. The former museum has been replaced with three exhibits, one looking at Dolly’s career, another at her iconic outfits, and then a theater that currently features live shows by members of Dolly’s family as well as an almost half-hour video about the Parton clan. And Dolly’s tour bus, which was often open to guests back when Chasing Rainbows was running, remains on display, giving The Dolly Parton Experience a total of four attractions to check out.

The centerpiece of the Experience is Songteller, a new museum that summarizes Dolly’s career through a series of digital-heavy installations and social media photo ops. Each of its chambers focuses on a distinct period of her career. It starts with a reverent portrait of her youth, as the most talented member of a large, musically-inclined family living in a one-bedroom cabin in Sevierville, Tenn. The next room uses audio and recreations of posters and ads to track her teen years, performing on local radio stations and making her Grand Ole Opry debut at 13. From these humble beginnings she hits it big in Nashville, joining The Porter Wagoner Show in her early 20s and touring the country with Wagoner. This era is recapped with a video montage of TV appearances in the ‘60s inside a room modeled like the inside of a bus, capturing the speed and energy with which Dolly tackled the entertainment world. Next is a corridor about her final rise to superstardom, with a recreation of the swing she’d enter the set of her ‘70s variety show on next to a TV showing various appearances she made on talk shows and variety shows from the ‘80s to today. Nearby is a desk styled after Dabney Coleman’s character’s from 9 to 5, next to a screen showing scenes from her biggest movie roles; guests are encouraged to take photos of them sitting on the swing and at the desk. Throughout these first few rooms you’ll find dresses, costumes, shoes and wigs that Dolly wore during these periods of her career, alongside photos, music, and video clips.


The second half of Songteller is focused on two large audiovisual displays, with a small hallway devoted to her many musical collaborations connecting the two. The first of these rooms has a striking screen shaped like a large guitar hanging on one wall, with dozens of Dolly’s gold and platinum records hanging nearby. Clips of Dolly performing some of her biggest songs appear on the guitar, with lighting effects making the room feel personalized to each performance. It shows us Dolly at the peak of her performing skills, when she was one of music’s best songwriters and singers, and a massively popular mainstream superstar. This room is an audiovisual showstopper and the highlight of Songteller. From here guests enter into that hallway covered with photos and video clips of Dolly with various other musicians she’s worked with over the decades, from fellow country stars like Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, to larger-than-life figures like Pitbull and Miss Piggy. Of course Kenny Rogers takes center stage, with their stellar rendition of “Islands in the Stream” headlining the room’s video clips. 

That hallway serves as something of a waiting room for Songteller’s final experience. The last room is a large, standing-only theater with floor-to-ceiling screens on all four walls. An immersive short film that once again looks at Dolly’s career trajectory from Smokey Mountain girl to world-conquering multi-hyphenate surrounds guests, combining photos, computer graphics, and video into a multisensory spectacle. It’s a fitting and high-tech end to The Dolly Parton Experience’s main act.

Across from Songteller sits a second building that’s home to the Behind the Seams exhibit. Like Dolly’s book of the same title, this is a detailed look at Dolly’s fashion, hair and makeup, with a few dozen of her iconic outfits, wigs and shoes on display. There’s another Instagram moment where you can take your photo at a makeup vanity (with Hollywood lights, no surprise), and a paper doll-style activity on one wall where you can put different dresses and wigs onto cartoon drawings of Dolly. Her clothes are glorious, of course, and I say that as a middle-aged man who stereotypically has little eye for or understanding of fashion. You can see how her career steadily went upward just by how more elaborate and impressive her costumes got year after year. A personal fave is the teddy bear-influenced get up she wore to Dollywood’s grand opening of the Big Bear Mountain roller coaster in 2023, complete with bear’s ears sewn into the wig. Behind the Seams could probably stand to be a little bit bigger—it’s basically one giant room on a single floor, and features only a fraction of Dolly’s sartorial brilliance. Still, it’s a beautiful collection of one-of-a-kind outfits, and about as deep a look into Dolly as anything in Songteller. Also, it’s built to easily rotate the selection of outfits on display, so regular visitors can expect a decent amount of regular change with this exhibit.


Even more crucial to Dolly’s success than her clothes is her family, and they take center stage in the Precious Memories exhibit at the DreamSong theater. Don’t miss this multimedia show—it’s situated in the entryway to the theater, and is easy to walk by without even realizing it’s a relatively long and detailed video. Screens set amid an assortment of family photos introduce us to Dolly’s family members and show us the impact they had upon her as a person and a musician, including TV footage from the ‘80s of Dolly, her parents, siblings, and cousins performing together at Dollywood. It’s the most poignant part of The Dolly Parton Experience, and it’s almost like a hidden little treat. Inside the theater you can currently see Dolly’s niece Heidi Parton leading the Heidi Parton’s Kin & Friends show, featuring a plethora of Dolly’s family.

Finally, Dolly’s tour bus remains parked in this part of the theme park. Open for short tours by a handful of guests at a time, the bus offers a glimpse of what Dolly’s day-to-day life was like when she was touring heavily in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It has a set of bunk beds, a TV with attached VCR, a small kitchenette, two bathrooms, a standalone shower, and a private bedroom for Dolly herself. It’s luxurious but at the same time stifling—which is kind of what the life of a massively popular musician can feel like. This might be the most candid snapshot of Dolly offered by The Dolly Parton Experience, and I’m glad to see it’s still on display at Dollywood.


The Dolly Parton Experience is a larger and more focused exhibit than Dollywood’s old Chasing Rainbows museum. If you ever visited that, you might remember how it basically just felt like a lot of stuff put on display without too much rhyme or reason. It was wonderful for what it was, but it was a little hectic and a little old-fashioned, without much of the interactive, immersive flourishes that actual museums have pioneered over the last few decades. The Dolly Parton Experience, and Songteller especially, are much more digitally oriented than Chasing Rainbows, and less interested in showing off Dolly artifacts in glass cases than in giving guests memorable, large-scale moments. Both approaches are valid—and I do wish the new experience had a bit more actual Dollyana on display, and spotlighted concrete milestones and moments of Dolly’s career instead of serving as a broad overview—but The Dolly Parton Experience’s emphasis on arresting visual presentations and social media-friendly photo ops should make it resonate more with the typical Dollywood guest than the old museum did.

If there is a flaw to The Dolly Parton Experience, it’s one that reflects Dolly herself—her public persona is so well-crafted and fastidiously curated that you don’t get much sense of who Dolly is as an actual person. That’s been true for most of her career—Dolly Parton is her real name, but the Dolly we see is a carefully maintained character. It’s amazing that she’s been able to keep the public at arm’s length for so long, and that must play a huge part in how she’s become perhaps the most universally beloved person in America. Dolly Parton gives everything of herself in her performances, public appearances, charity work, and literacy campaigns while holding the real Dolly back for herself and her family; that’s deeply impressive and admirable, especially at a time when so many celebrities seem desperate to broadcast their private lives. It does make a museum like The Dolly Parton Experience feel a little like advertising and brand-building instead of a thorough examination of her life and accomplishments. Still, it’s a touching tribute to an unparalleled pillar of American culture, and another great reason to visit this world-class theme park.

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