Pigeon Forge, Tennessee is a small town full of big surprises. From a 150-acre theme park to a 522,000-acre national park, this popular Smoky Mountain vacation destination is sure to delight the entire family. Here are 7 Things You Must Do on a Pigeon Forge vacation.
If you just looked at a map, you might imagine Pigeon Forge, with its population of 6,000, to be a sleepy East Tennessee town that tourists merely pass through on their way to nearby Smoky Mountain adventures. But, a quick visit to the My Pigeon Forge Facebook page is an easy way to clear up that misconception. The page’s more than half a million fans go wild for all things Pigeon Forge, from the announcement of Dolly Parton’s new dinner show to a photo of the popular themed hotel The Inn at Christmas Place.
As it turns out, this mountain town is a tourist magnet that last year alone attracted 3.7 million overnight visitors. I recently spent a week exploring this little vacation destination that could, and learned that Pigeon Forge should not be underestimated!
Pigeon Forge Vacation: Dollywood
Dolly Parton hails from Sevier County and is largely credited with spurring the area’s transformation from impoverished coal mining region to the bustling tourist haven it is today. No visit to Pigeon Forge would be complete without a visit to Dollywood or its sister water park, Dollywood’s Splash Country, an evening at Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede dinner attraction or her upcoming Smoky Mountain Adventures dinner theatre show, and, if you can swing it, a stay at Dollywood’s dreamy DreamMore Resort or its rustic counterpart, Smoky Mountain Cabins.
I loved spending the day strolling through Dollywood, otherwise known as “the friendliest town in the Smokies.” A nostalgic nod to Dolly’s Appalachian heritage, this lovely theme park features first-rate shows, live music, southern cooking, a coal-fired steam engine, thrill rides, wooden roller coasters, river rafts, and even a bald eagle sanctuary. It is a special place that multiple generations can enjoy together — the perfect mix of excitement and tranquility. Nestled in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, with tree-lined trails weaving through iconic attractions, Dollywood takes guests back to a simpler time of one-room schoolhouses, mountain cabins, craftsmen, county fairs, and good old fashioned family fun.
If you are a true fan, make plans to see Dolly herself, as she makes her annual appearance in Pigeon Forge at the Dolly Homecoming Parade.
“Pigeon Forge is so appreciative of all that Dolly does for our community, and Dolly’s Homecoming Parade is our city’s way of saying ‘thanks’ to this remarkable woman,” said Leon Downey, executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism, which organizes the parade. “We also love giving Dolly’s many fans a chance to see her, too.”
Pigeon Forge Vacation: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
You may recall national news coverage of the wildfires that swept through Sevier County last November. If so, the National Parks Service has a message for you: “You need to make a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park part of your vacation plans for 2017.” The lush, green forest did not burn down, and continues to stand tall as a testament to the resilience of its ecological community. Visitors might well notice some charred trees in the mosaic pattern of footprints the fire left behind, but less than 2% of the 522,000-acre park suffered damage. The rest is thriving and remains the ecologically diverse natural treasure that last year made Great Smoky Mountains National Park America’s most visited national park.
Pigeon Forge Vacation: Outdoor Fun
I have driven all the way from Texas to Tennessee just to see the Great Smokies — as one of last year’s 11.3 million visitors to the national park — so, I was surprised to learn that not all visitors to Pigeon Forge make it the extra 15 minutes to the mountains. But, after a week full of non-stop adventure and entertainment during my Pigeon Forge stay, I could certainly see how fun-loving families might run out of time!
Want to fly down a mountainside in your personal, speed-controlled Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster? In Pigeon Forge, you can! Prefer to roll down an oversized obstacle course in an inflatable ball filled with water? No worries, Outdoor Gravity Park has you covered! There are unique experiences around every corner in Pigeon Forge. Whether you’re racing go karts around a three-story spiraling wooden track at The Track or soaring 200 feet in the air aboard The Great Smoky Mountain Wheel, you’re sure to have a great time!
Pigeon Forge Vacation: Museum Fun
If you have teens trying to distance themselves from the family vacation, Pigeon Forge will rope them back in. After letting big kids be human pinballs at Outdoor Gravity Park, head to the Hollywood Wax Museum where they can take silly selfies with their favorite celebrities. Then, cross the parking lot for a truly terrifying 5D zombie experience at Outbreak – Dread the Undead. Or, if they aren’t into screaming, take your tweens and teens to The Escape Game, a team challenge that involves solving puzzles to escape a locked room in less than 60 seconds.
When weather rains on your parade, head indoors to the Titanic Museum. Visitors to this ship-shaped attraction in Pigeon Forge receive a passenger card prior to entry, with details about a real person who sailed on Titanic’s ill-fated maiden voyage in 1912. Assuming this persona makes museum exploration more memorable, as you take in the fascinating exhibits and interact with costumed crew members. It is not until the end of the attraction that you learn your assigned passenger’s fate, whether he or she survived or perished in the Atlantic.
Another indoor attraction I found fascinating was the brand new Alcatraz East Crime Museum, which recently relocated from Washington, D.C. Filled to the brim with information about the history of crime in the United States, this museum offers a maze of exhibit areas lined with placards about real life criminals, methods of punishment, and updates in crime scene investigation. There are interactive exhibits, including a shooting gallery, interesting artifacts like Bonnie and Clyde’s getaway car, and activities for “Junior Detectives.” Be advised that if you have littles in tow, there are some sections you might prefer to breeze past.
If you’re looking for 100% kid-centric rainy day amusement, WonderWorks is the place to go. This hybrid science center – entertainment complex has it all: experiments, laser tag, optical illusions, an indoor ropes course, bubbles, a rock climbing wall, you name it! Kids of all ages will love this upside-down museum of fun.
Pigeon Forge Vacation: Exciting Shows
Pigeon Forge is renowned for its dynamic entertainment scene, offering everything from comedy and variety shows to theatre and dinner attractions. After vacation days filled with exciting activities, don’t miss the chance to enjoy an evening of breathtaking Broadway scenes and aerial acts at the spectacular Smoky Mountain Opry, or Country classics and hymns at the Country Tonite show.
Unexpected side effects of wholesome all-ages shows are all the feels. If the classic American songs and traditional hymns don’t get get you, the honoring of veterans in the audience surely will. I left each show in Pigeon Forge feeling a little more connected to my roots, thankful to those who have served our country, and more patriotic than when I walked in.
Pigeon Forge Vacation: Memorable Meals
My absolute favorite shows in Pigeon Forge were the ones that stuffed me full of country cooking, then let me play along. In the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud, half the audience was adopted into the Hatfield clan and the other half became honorary McCoys. We cheered for our kin as they clogged in happy dance-offs and pitted their best pickers against each other onstage. With feisty Bluegrass and plenty of spirited play fighting, family feuding has never been so much fun.
Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede
Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, too, delighted me long before the show began. Upon arrival, guests can visit with the equine stars in their stables. Then, 50 minutes prior to showtime, grab a seat in the Dixie Belle Saloon to enjoy the Opening Act with Bluegrass band Mountain Rukus. One of the trio, Gary “Biscuit” Davis, is a four-time National Banjo Champion and he is just incredible to watch. This experience alone is worth the ticket! But the night only gets better with a four-course feast and an interactive show where you cheer for your assigned side as you eat. We hooted, hollered, and devoured our whole chickens as the lively competition played out in the arena before us. Our side didn’t win, but we left happy and full!
Are you sensing a theme here? Go to Pigeon Forge hungry and you won’t be disappointed! This was the trip where I fell in love with all things fried. Fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, and even fried corn on the cob. At one point, after several rounds of mouth-watering southern fare, a friend tried to order a sensible breakfast and ended up with an oversized bowl of oatmeal as big as her head. Do not resist! Eat all the food! For the most delicious eats, head to the Old Mill Restaurant for breakfast and Pottery House Cafe for lunch. Then repeat.
In between meals, be sure to wander through the Old Mill historic district to see 200 years of Tennessee tradition in action. Guests can make a knife out a railroad spike at the local blacksmith shop, take a tour of the old water-powered gristmill along the banks of the Little Pigeon River, watch old fashioned candy being made, and purchase pottery that was crafted onsite using materials from the region.
Pigeon Forge Vacation: Fun Hotel Stays
As you may have realized, Pigeon Forge is far from the tiny town I was expecting. And I haven’t even covered The Island yet! Three million people a year pass through this new shopping / dining / moonshining entertainment complex encircled by the Little Pigeon River, and I had the great pleasure of staying right in the middle of it all, at The Margaritaville Island Hotel.
With a village-view room, I was steps away from everything: pampering in the Margaritaville St. Somewhere Spa (I went twice – how could I not?), the rooftop pool (which had the best night views of the color-changing 200-foot Great Smoky Mountain Wheel), and the Bellagio-style fountain lights and music show on the main plaza, which happens every half hour. Add to the mix shops, restaurants, bars, live music, candy and fudge stores, rides and attractions…. Well, it’s hard to believe I had time for anything else.
After a week of living in luxury, and eating all the deep fat fried corn on the cob I could get my hands on, I left Pigeon Forge already dreaming of my return. I hear the town’s annual WinterFest celebration is not to be missed and that all of the shows — including those featured in Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas celebration — change for the holidays. I think I’m going to need to witness that caliber of Christmas merriment for myself!
For more information on Pigeon Forge, be sure to visit the My Pigeon Forge website and follow the page on Facebook. You will find me there, one of the newest fans adding my enthusiasm to all the posts!
I was invited to tour Pigeon Forge. No compensation was received to write this article and all opinions are my own.