If you are looking for the best food to enjoy, thrilling rides, and Broadway-style shows, look no further than Dollywood, just minutes outside of downtown Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The Smoky Mountain theme park, owned by The Queen of Country, Dolly Parton, features more than 40 family-friendly rides, 15 theatrical shows, a waterpark, and most notably, some of the best food you can find at an amusement park.
For the fourth time in seven years, the park has won the title of best theme park food from Amusement Today, the amusement park industry's leading trade publication. Think of it as the Academy Awards of amusement parks.
While the park does cater some theme park favorites like funnel cake and popcorn, the various food options across the park offer southern favorites, bringing you back to Dolly's childhood. From food stands to buffets and even a full-service restaurant or two, many people visit the park just for the food, and I can't blame them.
To be fair, I've tasted my fair share of amusement park foods. I grew up in Southern California and spent weekends and vacations running around Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, Universal Studios and Six Flags. I moved to Orlando, Florida, after culinary school where I worked at Walt Disney World cooking for EPCOT guests. Knowing the in's and out's of the culture of amusement park food, I was excited for the chance to visit Dollywood and try it out myself. Coincidently the weekend I decided to visit was the first day of Smoky Mountain Christmas, which has won over 9 Golden Tickets from Amusement Today for Best Christmas Event. Excited was an understatement.
Eager to start the day, my partner and I decided to jump on a wooden roller coaster before checking out one of the park's award-winning shows, "Christmas in the Smokies". With growling tummies and a bit of Christmas cheer, we headed over to taste our first food of the day, The Grist Mill's famous cinnamon bread.
Located in the Craftsman's Valley section of the park, Dollywood's Grist Mill is over 100 years old, and while the outside of the building is a sight to marvel at, the real attraction is just inside; sweet, buttery, cinnamon bread. Watch as the bakers prepare the loaves in front of you and try not to let your knees buckle when the scent of freshly baked bread fills your nostrils.
The wait was long (perhaps a half-hour) but that didn't stop my partner and me from grabbing a loaf along with apple butter and icing. The loaf, which is $6.99, is easily a treat for 2-4 people.
The bread is warm and sugary, making napkins a must for this yeasty treat. Between the apple butter and the icing, we both preferred the icing, making the sweet treat even more decadent than possible.
Once we wiped our mouths and tucked the leftover bread in its white paper bag, we followed our noses to our lunch, Dollywood's famous Big Skillet meals. Located in Rivertown Junction, this quick service food booth features the biggest cast iron skillets you've ever seen. Choose between steak or sausages served up with peppers and onions and a side of skillet potatoes.
We shared a sausage sandwich, chowing down like our lives depended on it. Order one of these bad boys for lunch and you won't be disappointed.
A few hours later, (after watching Dolly Parton light the Christmas tree) we were ready to jump into our big meal of the day. When it comes to big meals, there are a few contenders in Dollywood. If you want to sit down, try Front Porch Cafe, known for their finger-licking ribs and Dolly's famous banana pudding or Granny Ogle's Ham 'n' Beans. Want a little bit more variety? Check out the two all-you-care-to-eat buffets the park has to offer. Miss Lillian's Smokehouse, named after one of Dollywood's most famous characters, features fried chicken, smoked roast beef, green beans, brown sugar cinnamon apples and a rousing song or two from Miss Lillian. The other buffet, Aunt Granny's Restaurant, features a wide array of options ranging from cornbread and biscuits to fried catfish and Aunt Granny's large dessert bar.
We decided to Aunt Granny's, making sure to try out everything on the buffet line, including mashed potatoes, pinto beans, freshly sliced ham, turnip greens, cornbread stuffing and an apple pie for dessert. They even have mini corn dog nuggets for the little ones if they tend to be picky. It's not often you see comfort food staples at theme parks like you do at Dollywood, and with it, every bite has the ability to transport you back to your childhood.
It's rustic food. Food that your Momma would make you. There are no fancy menus here. No trendy foods or weird flavors to get the hype of tourists. No, it's what you can find in most Southern kitchens. Cool Whip adorns the funnel cakes, the biscuits are smothered with fresh butter and the food is filled with love.