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Dollwood Wildwood Tree

Running Dollywood, the world’s friendliest theme park

As Dollywood Parks & Resorts embarks on an ambitious investment plan, the company’s President speaks about its unique vision

Dollywood, owned jointly by Dolly Parton and Herschend Family Entertainment, and located in the Knoxville-Smoky Mountains metroplex in Pigeon Forge, is the biggest ticketed tourist attraction in Tennessee. It is also recognized as one of the world’s best theme parks.

Offering more than 40 world-class rides and high-energy entertainment, alongside award-winning shows and dining, Dollywood boasts ‘the friendliest park atmosphere in the world.’

Eugene Naughton

Eugene Naughton Dollywood

Eugene Naughton, The Dollywood Company’s third President, is an industry veteran. He joined Dollywood as the Vice-President of Parks Operations in 2019. He became President a year later, leveraging three decades of experience in roles at Paramount and Six Flags.

“I’ve got a long history in the theme park business, but thankfully have only worked for two companies prior to my experience here at The Dollywood Company,” he says. “After earning a degree in culinary management from Radford University in Southwest Virginia, I spent 19 years with Paramount Parks.

“I grew up in Paramount Parks on the revenue side of the business. My focus was on using my degree, so I started running up the ranks of the culinary operation, spending time in procurement operations as a department manager. Then, ultimately, I was promoted to Vice President of In Park services.”

Naughton finished off his career with Paramount Parks at Paramount’s Carowinds. This Hollywood themed park straddles the border between North and South Carolina.

“I was also running revenue for the company in Charlotte, North Carolina at the time,” he says. “It was great fun. I had an awesome time and I never wanted for anything in my career when I was with Paramount Parks. I found it quite interesting to have the opportunity to work with all the movie brands.”

A wealth of experience

Ohio-based amusement park operator Cedar Fair bought the Paramount Parks business from CBS Corp. for $1.24 billion in 2006.

“When big companies merge, there are always opportunities for change,” says Naughton. “I made a decision then to capitalise on an opportunity of joining the Six Flags organization.”

 He remained at Six Flags for 15 years:

“I was on the revenue side of the business for 12 years, focused on running revenue for their In Park operations across their 30 theme parks. Obviously, that was a lot of fun. When you think about all the moving parts of one theme park, that’s a lot to do. If you then add 30 more columns to your spreadsheet and get a chance to play with all those moving parts, it really is fun.”

Dollywood FireChaser Express
Dollywood’s FireChaser Express

“I learned a lot of valuable lessons during my time at Six Flags, because of that. But the thing that probably shaped me the most was when I took over the international development piece for Six Flags; they were, at that point, very interested in exploring potential partnerships across the world.”

The Six Flags years

Naughton was working with James Reid-Anderson, the then president, chairman, and CEO of Six Flags:

 “He was an interesting gentleman to work with; I really loved him. He gave me a grand opportunity of white papering theme parks and water parks and hotels from scratch across the world.”

Robert F. Thomas Chapel
Robert F. Thomas Chapel, Dollywood

“It was a fascinating time in my career, but also a little bit challenging. I was deploying myself across the world. I was spending a lot of time in China, Asia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, 200 days a year. For my last four years at Six Flags, I was in somebody else’s country, and not my own.

“But it was fascinating to be able to work with the different cultures, and to get a chance to deploy the Six Flags brand in multiple cultures, and to become an important regional theme park player in the middle of Beijing or Dubai.”

Dollywood: the opportunity of a lifetime

Naughton originally started in the theme park business alongside Craig Ross, who went on to be President of The Dollywood Company before Naughton:

“Craig was a retail guy at Kings Dominion in Richmond, Virginia, when I was the food guy there. So we cut our teeth together.

“Much later, when the general manager was retiring from The Dollywood Company, Craig called me. It just happened to be 2:30 in the morning where I was, which was in Beijing.”

Dollywood sign- Veterans Blvd

“Craig told me about an opportunity here at The Dollywood Company, working for him as the GM of the parks. After being away from my home 200 days a year for four years straight, living in one place and working with a team consistently really excited me.

“And then there was the blessing of being able to work for a brand associated with Dolly Parton and everything that she represents. What a great career topper it would be to come here and to participate in advancing The Dollywood Company forward.”

Dollywood and COVID-19

COVID is a blessing and a curse to many. But Herschend was well-positioned overall as a company,” says Naughton. “They have a secret formula of success in their approach to the business. An opportunity presented itself for Craig to leave The Dollywood Company and return back to the Herschend corporate office, running an opportunity fund. So it put me in a great position to take over as President of The Dollywood Company.”

It was a case, he says, of being in the right place at the right time, and possessing the relevant experience to help The Dollywood Company grow.

“I think COVID has made us rethink our approach,” he adds:

“Other theme park companies have retracted from doing new things. But our approach here at The Dollywood Company has been exactly the opposite. We tried to re-engage in a lot of new events, festivals and entertainment options throughout the year. Things that would give plenty of reasons to come visit us safely in this new environment that we’re all trying to navigate and operate in.

“We changed over 700 operational safety protocols on the property, which sounds like a lot to work with. But honestly, after working with 30 different theme parks, focussing on one environment was not so hard to do. I think we did a fantastic job of operating safely. Our internal tracing metrics prove that our numbers are far superior, not only to the United States, not only to our state of Tennessee but also locally.”

Perfect location

“We’re very blessed in being in a really great area of the country,” he says. “Tennessee Smokies were the number one visited National Park, and it’s right outside our front door.”

Dollywood was recently recognised by Tripadvisor, featuring in the top-10 of its ‘Travelers’ Choice Best of the Best Awards’ for worldwide theme parks. Travel & Leisure also included Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort & Spa in its ‘World’s Best Awards’ survey, as one of the ‘Top-15 Resort Hotels in the South.’

Dollywood train

“We’re blessed with being in a really strong market. It makes sense. I’m staring out of my window at the mountains of Tennessee, and it’s really quite lovely.”

Dollywood looks to the future

Focusing on plans for the park, Naughton says:

“We’re excited to be looking at the future. Dolly is really focused on the positive of what our future holds for us overall, and I carry that close to my heart as we work together as a team to march forward. Now we have a big opportunity with advancing to our second hotel on the grounds.”

The five-storey, 302-room HeartSong Lodge & Resort, Dollywood’s second on-site hotel, is part of a 10-year plan that will cost half a billion dollars and will be completed in 2023. 

Dollywoods-HeartSong-lodge-and-resort-announcement
Dolly Parton and Eugene Naughton announce Dollywood’s HeartSong Lodge & Resort

“We are really excited about working towards being known as the Dollywood Parks and Resorts. We feel like we have a strong ability to be a great destination for visitors from all over the country, and all over the world.”

The park before Dollywood

Dollywood dates back to 1985 when Dolly and Herschend Family Entertainment formed their partnership.

Before that, its history goes back to the late 1950s, when the Robbins brothers, owners of Tweetsie Railroad in North Carolina, started to develop the Tennessee property with a narrow-gauge train ride that they called Rebel Railroad.

The park operated as Rebel Railroad until the late 1960s, before being sold to Art Modell, now the owner of the Baltimore Ravens, but at the time owner of the Cleveland Browns. He changed the park’s theme to a Western town, operating it as Goldrush Junction. Modell also used it as a platform for his players to make appearances in the summertime.

In 1975, Jack and Pete Hershend purchased the property, which became Silver Dollar City until 1985. In 1982, Dolly Parton announced on TV that she intended to build a theme park in her home area to provide jobs for local people.

While in the process of looking for a site, she and the Herschends met and hit it off, and decided to go into business together.

Partnering with an icon

“That partnership has been in force since November of 1985,” Pete Owens, VP of Marketing and PR, adds:

“There is a misconception that the park itself is all about Dolly. Dollywood is not a 170 acre Graceland. It really is about the Smoky Mountains. It’s about the beauty of the area, the people, the culture. We leverage all of those things as pillars of our brand.”

Dollywood glass blowing
Crafts on show at Dollywood

“Entertainment is, inevitably, a huge pillar for us because of Dolly and her role as a living legend in regard to entertainment. So, we have a very robust entertainment programme and special events programme, in addition to some one-of-a-kind ride attractions. It’s a unique Smoky Mountain theme park experience.”

“The interaction points are very intimate,” Naughton says. “In all the years that I’ve worked in the theme park business, a real difference for me when I came on is that the people that work for us, our hosts, take such pride and care and heart into taking care of the guests.

“It’s like coming home to family. We are widely known for that. Dollywood has won awards for being the friendliest theme park. I’ve been in hundreds of parks throughout my career, and it’s a real differentiator. It’s our secret sauce.”

Big plans

Naughton says:

“I’m often asked, as President of Dollywood, ‘What is your plan? I’ve always professed not to be the smartest person in the room, but the best listener. My approach to the park is to be a good listener to the people that are around me. I want to solve for the things that they see that are impediments to us delivering the day with excellence.

“I figure if I concentrate on those things and then honour the important aspects of the experience that Dolly wants to be overall here, I’ll hit home runs. That’s my long-term approach.”

Tennessee Tornado
Tennessee Tornado

“I’m so excited about resort number two and its development. The future holds big things in terms of what we can add in other hotel properties, and what we can support from our destination marketing for the 12 million visitors a year that pop into our market from all across the country.

“We want to give them plenty of reasons to spend time with us, and that’s what I’m focused on doing.”

Multigenerational fun at Dollywood

Dollywood is known for home cooking:

“We have an extraordinary culinary opportunity on our grounds,” says Naughton. “I think we can elevate the delivery of our home cooking as we improve the number of restaurants that we have on the property so that we can comfortably deliver the day at a high level of attendance, which I know we’re going to get back to after COVID is done.”

Grist Mill
Grist Mill

“Pete and I have also been really quite enjoying ourselves working on a fun multigenerational coaster development project.

“Multi-generational is an important part of our DNA here because we cater for everyone from 2 to 92. We lean heavily into entertainment because a lot of people come here for our world-class shows and festivals, others also come here for our unique rides.

“We have a lot of promises to live up to. But I know our good thinking is going to be able to wow people in the future when they come to the Dollywood resort.”

Inspiration from Dolly Parton

Commenting on the ethos underlying his work, Naughton says:

“There are two things that inspire me. One of them is a quote from Dolly on the mug I drink my coffee from, and it says, ‘Start each day with a grateful heart.’ To me, that’s exactly what she represents. I like to remind myself of that when I come into work.”

“The other thing that I’ve studied from her life is, ‘Don’t always worry about who gets credit for the good that happens around you, as long as good happens around you.’

“That’s something that I try to live to every day. Let’s worry about making a difference, and not about who gets the credit.”

The HeartSong Lodge & Resort

The new 302-room HeartSong Lodge & Resort will be adjacent to Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa. It will have themed suites and lofted rooms, spacious suites with adjoining balconies, 26,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space, a communal fire pit and indoor and outdoor pools. Further plans include three more resorts, a campground, and a new attraction, which the company will reveal in 2023.

Dollywood-Smoky-Mountain-String-Band
The Smoky Mountain String Band on stage at Dollywood

Earlier this year, Tripadvisor named Gatlinburg as the number one trending destination in the United States, with Pigeon Forge ranking fourth on the same list. Last year, Dollywood was “traveller-ranked” number six on Tripadvisor’s Travelers’ Choice Top 25 United States Theme Parks list and number eight on the Top 25 Worldwide Theme Parks list based on guest reviews.

After a decade of unparalleled growth, The Dollywood Company is embarking on an ambitious investment strategy.

The HeartSong Lodge & Resort is just one of the first projects in an exciting plan.

Building the dream

Dolly Parton

According to Dollywood’s Dreamer-in-Chief, Dolly Parton herself,

 “I’m always dreaming and coming up with new ideas and things I want our guests to experience. We wanted to talk about this last year, but with everything going on, we knew we needed to pause because it just wasn’t the right time to do it. Things are looking brighter and with the popularity of the Smokies soaring, there are more people than ever wanting to visit our area.

“I’m so proud of this place that we’ve been able to build here in the Smokies. I always dreamed of accomplishing two things with Dollywood. I wanted to give jobs to the folks who live here, and I wanted to give visitors another reason to come and experience the beauty of the Smoky Mountains.”

Naughton adds:

“From the time we announced Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort in 2015, we have seen the entire region emerge as one of the nation’s leading family vacation destinations. We’ve been able to help Dolly achieve the dreams she had more than 35 years ago, and we’re going to be able to put wings on even more of her dreams.

“With the success that we’ve experienced at DreamMore Resort, we feel this is the perfect time to expand our portfolio of resorts.”

A bright future for Dollywood

“Despite the challenges of the pandemic, we had a relatively strong 2020. And we currently are outpacing our original expectations for 2021,” Naughton concludes. “So, we are confident in the potential we see in the continued growth of the Smokies.”

Lighting Rod Dollywood
Lighting Rod

“We’ve earned a number of awards and accolades the last few years. With this addition and the epic plans we have in the works, Dollywood and the Smoky Mountains will continue their reputation as one of the best places in the country for family travel.”

Dollywood’s Summer Celebration will take place from 25 June – 31 July. This will include a new evening drone show and dance party every night. The Harvest Festival presented by Humana will follow from 24 September – 30 October. Smoky Mountain Christmas presented by Humana, taking place from 6 November to 2 January 2022, will celebrate the spirit of the season with lights, award-winning shows, and festive culinary creations.

All images kind courtesy of Dollywood Parks & Resorts

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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