What Can an Author Learn from a Theme Park?

As an author who is surrounded by people explaining how important it is to brand oneself, exactly how to do that has often eluded me.  All too often, it seems that fonts, colors, recognizable photos and tag lines make up a brand.

However, I got to see an example of an amazing brand in the person of Dolly Parton when the Home & Family Show  took to the road over the past few weeks to visit Dollywood, the theme park that Dolly developed.  Dollywood is different from every theme park I’ve ever visited, and in the context of producing a week’s worth of shows, we had an eagle’s eye view of it all.  As we got to know the staff and people of eastern Tennessee, we warmed to their hospitality and found ourselves wanting to stay.  The park is an example of how an artist who creates a brand that sings from her soul can imbue all that she touches with those images.  And that is what I – as an author – learned from a theme park.

The Great Smokey Mountains are an exquisite background to an amusement space that is designed so that guests never lose the feeling of being in those hills.  In fact, celebrating its mountain home origins is one of the things that sets Dollywood apart from the crowd and starts to expand the brand and image of Dolly Parton herself.  One of the most charming features is its preservation of the natural topography and a brook that runs through the park.   Ducks are part of the ecosystem – and in the evening as the park is closing, they emerge from their watery nooks to sleep on the walkways throughout the park.

Dolly was raised in poverty in a modest cabin.  She has replicas of it within the park itself and in her Chasing Rainbows Museum.  It reminded me of stories my father used to tell of his similar upbringing in Texas.  The walls were lined with newspapers, not wallpaper, to keep the wind down in poorly constructed houses.

This was poverty stricken Appalachia.  People scraped together the bare essentials to keep their families fed, and faced the harsh realities of life through the support of faith and family.  They had no air conditioning so the entire family would gather at night on the porches around the house in great rocking chairs.  One didn’t run to the box stores to purchase much.  They often made what they needed themselves.  The blacksmiths, potters, candle makers and glass blowers that populate Craftsman’s Valley in the park now are reminiscent of those times and have kept the artisans at work for the past 30 years.

Food plays a big role at the park where traditional Southern cooking dominates – from taffy to cinnamon bread, turkey legs to fried chicken sandwiches and, of course, the story of stone soup.  A classic storybook, “Stone Soup,” is retold as an example of how Dolly’s mom provided special attention to her children through their contributions to the stone soup in hard times.

Even faith gets its due within the park with the presence of an old chapel, moved onto the property.  This chapel has a real chaplain, a member of a resort chaplains association, and provides regular Sunday services to all who wish to attend.  Peter and I spent a few moments taking in the classic old church as we celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary at the park.

Dolly’s songs and music emerged from this humble background.  She uses what she appreciated in this lifestyle to build her businesses.  She plays the mountain instruments, like guitar, dulcimer, and autoharp.  She sings their stories.  She brings their history to the public eye with theatrical presentations, displays and museums throughout the park.

She first began talking about building the theme park as a way to give back to her community.  It would be a place to salute the family and values of Appalachia.  People laughed at her when she first mentioned it, but look who’s laughing now.  Dollywood is now a leading theme park.  Its roller coasters are rated among the best by roller coaster enthusiasts.  She employs approximately 4000 people and the entire region has benefited as outside attractions pop up in the surrounding areas.  Some of these are additional dinner theaters that Dolly Parton started herself.  Food and interactive, rodeo style arena entertainment combine in the Dixie Stampede to provide a fabulous experience for all attending.   There is some incredible Roman riding on display there.  True to the lumbering community that is part of Appalachia, Dolly is now opening up the Lumberjack Adventure.

Staying at the Dreammore Resort Hotel which opened less than a year ago, we learned a great deal more about the woman who held the dream that led to Dollywood and much of the economic growth in the region.  Dreammore is a beautiful hotel with a grand entry and magnificent picture window that opens upon all the outdoor pool facilities.  Dolly calls it their “watering hole.”  From the staircase leading down to the main restaurant, lounge and hotel services, you are high above it all and view the mountains rolling away into the distance.

The furniture, including rocking chairs everywhere around the hotel, and decorations themselves echo touches of life in the nearby mountain towns.  To keep it family oriented, the rooms have bunk beds next to the main beds, as well as refrigerators and microwaves (on request).   There is a camp for kids near the indoor pool.   Even the lounge echoes its Appalachian origins in the moonshine mason jars collage behind the bar.

All of this came about because Dolly Parton had a dream and she “put wings and feet and legs” on them to make this theme park a reality.  She believes in the power of dreams and actively educates people to dream more.  Obviously, the name Dreammore Resort echoes her feelings, as well as her favorite inspirational sayings hung in all the corridors of the hotel, the dream box on display in the lower lobby, and the multitude of butterflies woven into the carpeting and other places.   When she speaks, you hear the message loud and clear.  “Love one another more.  Dream more, care more, do more and be more.”

On yet a deeper level, Dolly Parton carries her history and her vision into the contributions she makes to the community and the legacy this will become.  Her father could not read or write, so Dolly was inspired to create a literacy project called Imagination Library, in which every child in the area receives a book when they are born and every month thereafter until they go to school. Dreaming comes from imagining and books can help us imagine. The program continues to grow as new affiliates sign up from regions far away from Tennessee.

Dolly has also worked with the American Eagle Foundation for 27 years.  To her, saving our national symbol from extinction was a way to honor and appreciate the wildlife in her roots.  Today, visitors to the park can see injured bald eagles recuperating on the slopes above them, contribute to the breeding and preservation of the species, and get to see Tuck take their money. We were lucky enough to see the beauty of an eagle in flight when the eagle Challenger flew overhead during our stage show.  Coupled with the rendition of God Bless America performed by the Gemtones from the Park, it was an incredibly moving experience.

Dolly Parton has incorporated her roots and her values into her brand, in her music, her theme park and her philanthropy.  And yes, Dolly Parton does include fonts, colors, images and tag lines in her messaging.  Pink and purple are said to be her favorite colors and a butterfly is incorporated in her graphics.

For me, it has been a very special experience to see how Dolly has permeated her work with these elements to create her brand.  I’m inspired to look for similar things in my own life that could help inspire others in the way that she does.

May you find the ways to express your message as well.

To Your Success,


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