Back at Dollywood for Smoky Mountain Christmas 2021
Last weekend, I traveled to Dollywood for my annual visit to the park’s award-winning Smoky Mountain Christmas event. Each year, the park is blanketed in over 5 million lights and decorations as far as the eye can see.
I hadn’t been to the park since March, so I was well overdue for a visit.
In fact, I didn’t realize I had been suffering from severe Dolly withdrawals until I walked inside the gate. I felt a wave of excitement that had been missing for more than 8 months.
The forecast for this December Saturday was unseasonably warm — highs in the upper 60s under a mostly cloudy sky. Having been to this event many times over the years in November and December, I knew these pleasant temperatures would attract even more crowds than a bitterly cold day would. And I was right. Upon arrival, the park was already crowded.
Yet as someone who is incredibly cold-natured, I’d gladly take a crowded park over violently shivering for an entire day.
Side note: according to Dollywood’s website, reservations are required during Smoky Mountain Christmas 2021 before 6 p.m. After 6 p.m., entry will be available as capacity allows. Reservations can be made here. More information about making reservations at Dollywood is available on the official Dollywood blog.
My group wasn’t asked for a reservation, but from others who have been in recent weeks, groups without reservations have been turned away at the parking toll entrances. So make your reservations as early as possible, especially if you’re planning to go on a weekend.
Lightning Rod had another extended bout of downtime earlier in the season, one that I heard might extend through the end of the year. I was ecstatic to learn that it reopened last month, meaning that I had the chance to get a few more rides in before bidding adieu to 2021.
Given the now wooden/steel hybrid coaster’s inconsistent operations, I dashed to the entrance as soon as we arrived. Unfortunately, it remains in a one-train operation, so its line gets long fast. With that in mind, I highly recommend investing in a TimeSaver pass. The standard version allows you to bypass the line eight times in total at the park’s most popular attractions. All eight of those line skips can be used at any one ride. So theoretically, you could use all eight on Lightning Rod. The coaster (as of this posting) also offers a single-rider line, which can drastically reduce your wait time if you don’t mind being separated from your party.
As much as I want to believe otherwise, Lightning Rod is not as berserk as it was in its first couple of seasons of operation. But a tamer Lightning Rod is still an amazing roller coaster — the best at the park. The sections of steel track are still noticeably smoother.
I don’t think the intensity of the coaster in its early days was sustainable. So if a slightly less intense Lightning Rod means that we can enjoy for years to come, that’s okay with me.
There were a few other changes I noticed since my visit in March.
The former site of the Mountain Slidewinder toboggan attraction is being cleared. While it’s way too early to tell, I’m sure the park is planning something for this space in the next 5 years.
While there are rumblings of a new family coaster coming to the Wildwood Grove area in 2023, it’s still too early for any major site work to begin. But this plot of land will certainly see a significant amount of attention over the next 5 years. I’m sure it will see much more than the rumored coaster.
Just recently, the park welcomed a few food trucks in the Glacier Ridge (Wilderness Pass) area, including these two in the shadows of the Tennessee Tornado “spiro-loop” element.
Dollywood isn’t immune from the nationwide staffing shortages, so lines for food were long (as seen above). The food trucks will no doubt help disperse those lines.
A handcrafted game booth has opened up in this structure that was added near the Dollywood Express station.
The kid in me enjoyed perusing all of the board games and other novelties.
The relocation of the blacksmith shop to make room for a picnic table pavilion was much-needed.
Thanks to the TimeSaver pass, our time in ride queues was limited. I don’t think we waited more than 15 minutes for anything.
The longest line of the day — by far — was the line for the park’s coveted cinnamon bread at the Grist Mill. Although I wish the park could make the cinnamon bread-buying process a little more efficient, it was absolutely worth the hour wait.
Thankfully, the Dollywood celebrity/legend Miss Lillian (of Miss Lillian’s Smoke House) was entertaining those in line for a loaf of cinnamon bread.
If you’re short on time or just want to maximize your time in the park, I recommend heading to the Grist Mill as early in the day as possible when the line is shorter.
Because my-oh-my it is a can’t miss.
To cut down on the time standing in line for food, we made a put our name on the waiting list at Front Porch Cafe. They took our number and sent a text when our table was ready (we had 15 minutes to make it to the restaurant). This gave us enough time to catch a quick ride on Thunderhead.
Speaking of Thunderhead, like Lightning Rod, it too has received new track over the last few seasons — but Thunderhead’s new track is all wood. I know I’ve written and tweeted about this numerous times, but the newly tracked Thunderhead is amazing.
I was never that bothered by the roughness of the old track, but the considerably smoother new track really allows you to enjoy how insanely good the Great Coasters International’s layout and pacing is, even 17 years since its opening.
It wouldn’t be a trip to Dollywood without a show or two, so we used our TimeSaver pass to reserve seats for ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, a fun, silly and heartwarming play/musical that featured a cast of humans and mice. As is often the case at Dollywood, the show was a high-quality production, and the on-stage talent was fantastic. The 45-minute show flew by. I’d absolutely see it again.
But there are plenty of outdoor musical performances and other forms of live entertainment sprinkled throughout the park if you’d rather stay outside.
Photos — at least mine — do Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas little justice, especially at night.
The Northern Lights pathway in Glacier Ridge (between Blazing Fury and Tennessee Tornado) remains my favorite display at the event. The addition of fog makes the twinkling lights even more stunning.
The calming, ethereal music makes it all even more awe-inspiring. I could easily spend an hour just sitting and watching the effects cycle through.
Of course, the lights and decorations across the park are stunning.
The nightly fireworks display, Merry & Bright, which starts at 9 p.m., is a great way to end a festive day at the park, especially since there is no parade this year.
After one last night ride on Wild Eagle (highly recommend as a ride to close out a coaster season), we watched from the Plaza at Wilderness Pass, right next to the park’s stunning 50-foot LED tree.
But for the best view, I recommend watching the show from Wildwood Grove. Or if you’re interested in beating the crowds, viewing it from the parking lot also provides a great vantage point.
Speaking of Wildwood Grove, this was my first time during Smoky Mountain Christmas being able to explore the decorations inside Dollywood’s newest area. I loved this butterfly display.
And just like that, the park was closed. As warm as it still was at 9 p.m., I wish the park had been open another hour. I certainly had at least an hour’s worth of exploring left in me. Visiting Dollywood during Smoky Mountain Christmas can easily be a two-day event, especially if you’ve never been to the park before. I could spend an entire night doing nothing but looking at the lights.
Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas runs select dates now through Jan. 2, 2022. For more information, check out the Dollywood website.
Have you visited Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas this year? Let us know what you think about the event in the comments section below.