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Old fashions and new twists in Pigeon Forge

Most people who rode Dollywood’s Thunderhead roller coaster can easily remember the nerve-wracking terror of riding slowly to the top of the ride’s 100-foot drop. However, Dollywood also has a quieter side, as I discovered when I visited Pigeon Forge in June.

Tucked away into a shaded corner of the park in the Craftsman’s Valley, the wooden Robert F. Thomas Chapel bids guests to step inside for a moment of reflection with its large sign stating “Everyone Welcome.” Inside, the quaint one-room chapel keeps the mood calm and scream-free for anyone wanting to pause for prayer before hopping on the next roller coaster.

The chapel is just one way religious groups can enjoy the Pigeon Forge area, which offers interactive museums, historical tours and plenty of theme-park attractions.

Painting the wagons red
Just as the church’s design mirrors chapels like those of the late-19th- and early-20th-century Smoky Mountain settlers, Dollywood’s Craftsman’s Valley re-creates everything needed for an early mountain village, including a blacksmith, a glassblower, a woodcarver and a wagonmaker. Walking along the cobblestone streets, I stepped into the Valley Carriage Works, where Tom Crawford handcrafts authentic wagons year round.

Crawford seemed more than happy to stop carving a wooden block to introduce us to the world of wagonmaking.

“The six-seat wagon you see behind me took about 80 man hours,” he said. “We build about 20 to 30 wagons a year. We don’t work hard enough to be a profit-driven business. We interact with visitors to tell them about the history of wagonmaking.”

Guests to the park can learn much more about the local area in Dollywood with the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, the 5-mile Dollywood Express mountain train ride, the Southern Gospel Museum and Hall of Fame, and the 2009 musical “Sha-Kon-O-Hey: Land of Blue Smoke.” The 45-minute production follows a family forced to leave its Smoky Mountain home in the 1930s. Eight songs written by Dolly Parton celebrate different cultures that lived in the mountains with acrobatics, talented singers and special effects of blue smoke to mimic the natural mist of the mountains.

“The Dollywood shows really can capture the whole family’s attention,” said Ashley Adams, Dollywood’s publicity coordinator. “It helps those who don’t want to ride the rides. “We are able to tell stories through our shows.”

Other new attractions keep visitors to the area coming back for more, among them the 2010 Adventure Mountain ropes course, the 2009 SkyZip adventure zip line and the 2008 River Battle water ride.

Dolly Parton, in person
After seeing her face on signs across the park and hearing her voice broadcast on the park’s radio, I waited excitedly for the country music legend who owned the park to enter the meeting room for an interview. She finally arrived in a blaze of positive energy with the same big hair and big smile I remembered so well from movies and television.

Parton maintained the same friendly and open manner she’s known for while talking to us about her spirituality and family.

“My favorite attraction at Dollywood is probably different than most people’s,” said Parton. “We have the Backporch Theatre that has regular performances of a band made up of my family members. Since we are family, I love to just walk right up on stage and surprise them. I love all the music at the park. There really is something for everybody.”

Next door to the theme park, the rides continue at Dollywood Splash Country water park. The 35 acres of the park cover a range of water attractions, including 32 slides, a wave pool, a five-person raft ride and a float ride.

“We take advantage of the natural beauty of the park,” said Gene Shearer, vice president of Dollywood Splash Country. “We nestle the slides into the slope of the mountain.”

After our tour of the Dollywood properties, we went to a coined “amusement park for the mind” called WonderWorks. The upside down WonderWorks building sets the mood for the entire experience of interactive exhibits designed to both entertain and teach an aspect of science.

“We are zany, fun and silly,” said Rich Benjamin, marketing and sales director for the park. “We want visitors to have a great time, but we also want them to learn something.”

Virtual games, simulated hurricane winds, a rock climbing wall, a bed of nails and various other mind puzzlers can keep guests engaged for hours.

Any dream will do
With gags including a desert GPS and a pharaoh dressed as Elvis, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” presents a musical and madcap spin on the classic Bible tale. The former Broadway show began playing in Pigeon Forge’s Miracle Theater in February. I had trouble not singing along with the familiar Andrew Lloyd Webber songs as I watched the lively production and talented performers.

The next morning, I toured a more historic side of Pigeon Forge at the 19th-century Old Mill. Visitors can still tour the wooden mill and watch as workers grind and sift the wheat into flour.

“See all the bags of flour piled around this room?” said Emma Huskey, tour guide for the Old Mill. “Those are all bagged by hand. We try to do as much by hand as possible, which can be tricky, since we can make about 300 pounds of flour an hour.”

The Old Mill Square, adjacent to the mill, also showcases handmade candy, pottery and the Old Mill Restaurant. At the square’s Pigeon River Pottery, I watched the complicated procedure of molding a mound of clay into a bowl shape at the pottery’s demonstration area.

“Just like we have recipes, there are recipes for making pottery,” said Donna Huffaker, marketing and group sales for the Old Mill and Old Mill Square. “There are six potters for the actual production here.”

A titanic museum
Opened in May, the Titanic Museum is impossible to miss, as the half-scale, three-deck re-creation of the ship towers over nearby buildings. Inside the ship, the museum’s 400 authentic artifacts and 20 galleries tell the intriguing story of the infamous ship’s sinking.

“Instead of getting a ticket, the visitors here get a boarding pass of an actual passenger,” said Rick Laney, public relations director of the museum. “We believe the best way to honor the historic figures is to tell their stories.”

My assigned passenger, Laura Francatelli, was a member of first-class, so I knew that she had favorable odds of survival. This seemed especially true after I saw the re-created third-class section of the museum, which was mostly left locked up during the sinking to give priority to first-class passengers boarding lifeboats.

Wandering through the museum felt like I was meandering through the original boat, since the museum contains a replicated Grand Staircase, engine room and deck and an iceberg that guests can touch. In one exhibit, the air temperature matches that the night of the sinking, which let me feel the chill the shipwrecked passengers endured. There’s also a tub of chilled water where guests can feel the subfreezing temperatures of the seawater that night; my hand starting aching after less than a minute, which illustrated the passengers’ suffering better than any words could.

After learning my assigned passenger had survived the Titanic, I ended my tour at my Dollywood Vacations cabin. Often rented by church groups desiring to stay together, the huge cabins overlook the surrounding mountains.

While admiring the scenery, I remembered the fog special effects from “Sha-Kon-O-Hey” meant to represent the mist of the Smoky Mountains. As I watched the natural blue mist slowly lifting from the mountains, I knew I was beholding the most impressive of Pigeon Forge’s spectacles.

Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism