'It's just about the journey': New Dollywood exhibits take guests through Parton's life

Before Dolly Parton was a global music superstar with her own theme park, she was a Nashville, Tennessee, newcomer writing home to her family.

Over the speakers inside Songteller, a new walk-through exhibition space at Dollywood, visitors can hear her read from a letter she wrote to her parents after her move to Music City. “I got to Nashville OK, and I thought I’d better write and let you know ‘cause I knew you’d worried about me, and I don’t want you to be worried about me ‘cause I’m gonna be alright,” she said. “If I try long enough and hard enough, someday I’ll make it.”

That she did. Songteller, part of the new Dolly Parton Experience that opened at the park on Friday, tells visitors what led up to that moment and what happened next. The attraction is made up of various exhibits that showcase her life and storied career.

“I hope that's what people can feel,” Parton told USA TODAY. “It's just about the journey.”

Songteller features a number of photo opportunities.
Songteller features a number of photo opportunities.

What is the new Dolly Parton Experience?

Housed in multiple buildings, the experience is triple the size of the Chasing Rainbows Museum, which closed at the end of the 2021 season.

Songteller, located in that museum’s former space, takes guests from Parton’s childhood through her early days in Nashville and eventual icon status. Visitors can see a replica of the coat of many colors her mother made for her – alongside a photo of the dry cleaning receipt she wrote the song of the same name on – learn about how she met husband Carl Dean at a laundromat, and see her guitars on display. Those include an acoustic Gibson covered in paisley-pattern rhinestones that she used during a 2005 tour.

Footage from many of her performances and films is sprinkled throughout, but an immersive 360-degree projection mapped show takes viewers to Dolly’s childhood home in Locust Ridge, Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and other landmarks from her life.

Behind the Seams feels like a giant walk-in closet.
Behind the Seams feels like a giant walk-in closet.

In the building directly opposite – formerly the Dolly’s Closet boutique – Behind the Seams feels like stepping into a giant walk-in closet. The exhibit features Parton’s clothing, shoes, wigs and more. Some, like a bell-bottom jumpsuit designed by Lucy Adams that Parton wore on her 1970s variety show “Dolly,” have never been displayed. Guests can also play stylist and dress a cartoon version of Parton in different outfits using magnets.

Rebecca Seaver, Dolly’s niece and director of museum and archive services, said her aunt is “known for her songwriting and her look, and so it's nice to have all of those facets of who she is kind of represented in a really, really stunning way.”

Parton blushes at some of her past looks when she looks back, though. “I just laugh out loud sometimes,” she said. “I thought, ‘What was I thinking? Was I really serious?’ Now, I know I was because nobody would make such a fool of themselves if they didn’t think they were looking good. And I guess at that time, it was kind of acceptable.”

“But, of course, I still have big hair,” she added. “But, you know, you can kind of tame it a little.”

Behind the Seams features clothing Parton has worn at Dollywood, among other items.
Behind the Seams features clothing Parton has worn at Dollywood, among other items.

At the entrance to Dreamsong Theater, guests can listen to Parton tell stories about her family and faith as part of the Precious Memories exhibit while they wait to see a show. The narration appears alongside childhood photos and footage with her relatives. “We had her record the stories in studio,” said Cyndi McCormack, vice president of guest experience at Dollywood and creative director of the Dolly Parton Experience. “We believe Dolly tells her own stories better than any of us.”

Dolly’s Home-on-Wheels, one of her former motor coaches in service from 1994-2009, was also relocated to a new spot in the Dolly Parton Experience, and there is a new on-site boutique, Dolly’s Fan Shop, with exclusive items.

Do I need tickets for the Dolly Parton Experience?

Due to the high demand anticipated upon its initial opening, guests will need timed-entry tickets from May 24 to June 2 during most times of day (tickets are only required to access Songteller and Behind the Seams and are separate from park admission).

Visitors can choose from 30-minute entry slots between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., though they can then stay in the area as long as they want. Guests can register online. Tickets are not required after 5 p.m. The park will reevaluate whether to extend the timed-ticket system after June 2.

A live counter in Songteller tracks the number of books Parton's Imagination Library has distributed to kids.
A live counter in Songteller tracks the number of books Parton's Imagination Library has distributed to kids.

Who can visit the Dolly Parton Experience?

The experience is open to all guests.

Does Dolly Parton ever visit Dollywood?

Dolly visits regularly on the down low to take care of business, but she also makes several public appearances at the park each year, according to a blog post on Dollywood's website. That could mean walking on stage at a show to surprise visitors or riding through the park in her antique car.

Hello Dolly!: Dollywood theme park will keep you (and your kids) entertained 9 to 5

Does the Dolly Parton Experience cost extra?

The experience is free, but visitors must have valid park admission. One-day theme park tickets start at $92 for guests between 10 and 61, with discounts available for younger children and seniors.

The Dolly Parton Experience is the latest new attraction at Dollywood, which announced a 10-year, half-billion dollar investment campaign in 2021. And Parton foresees more growth.

“That's what's great about dreams,” she said. “You dream new dreams every day, and dreams expand. And I've always said you put wings and feet and legs on them.”

Nathan Diller is a consumer travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Nashville. You can reach him at ndiller@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: New Dollywood exhibits take visitors through her life and career