Folks in Pigeon Forge say there was a time when the place shut down after the Fall color season. Without the lure of the shopper-friendly weather or the breathtaking autumn foliage, tourists skipped the sleepy Smoky Mountain village for warmer vacation spots or more traditional ski towns.
But for this girl from Chicago, Pigeon Forge always held the promise of that most elusive memory of home - snow. I was seven years old when my family moved from Chicago to Chattanooga and it was a culture shock even at that age. I missed my friends, I missed my relatives, I missed the snow.
I got letters from my friends, I talked to family on the phone, but the snow? Not much we could do about that.
Until we heard about Pigeon Forge.
Our second winter in the South we trekked into Sevier County and celebrated Christmas in a cabin in the Smoky Mountains. The days leading up to our departure were filled with once-familiar routines - buying snow boots and mittens and scarves - all in the hope that we would need to don our trusty winter wear and brave sub-zero temperatures to gather firewood along the side of the mountain because of a power outage due to the worst winter storm in the history of winter storms.
As it turned out, we didn’t need the snow gear. While it was colder than the perceived near-tropical conditions in Chattanooga, day after day passed without even a glimpse of the white stuff.
But when we woke up on our final day in the Smokies, a light dusting of snow covered the ground, the first we’d seen since moving to Chattanooga. My joy knew no bounds.
That first visit to Pigeon Forge came a few years before the inaugural Winterfest celebration. Kay Powell, assistant director of tourism for Pigeon Forge, said her city’s first Winterfest celebration in 1990 consisted of 92 lighted snowflakes displayed on the 46 posts down the center median of the Parkway.
Since then, the event has been named “Festival of the Year” three times by the Southeast Tourism Society and was recently recognized by the American Bus Association as the Top Event in the United States for 2003.
“Winterfest has been the single most successful thing we’ve ever done,” Ms. Powell said. “It helped Pigeon Forge become a year-round destination.”
Winterfest kicks off each year with the help of some big name talent - this year’s event was held on November 7 and included home-town entertainer Louise Mandrell and actor Vicki Lawrence. Five million Christmas lights were lit that night in Pigeon Forge and they will shine every night until Winterfest ends on March 2.
Two days later, Dollywood chimed in with an additional three and a half million lights, bringing the total number of lights for Winterfest up to more that eight million. Dollywood celebrates their Smoky Mountain Christmas through December 30 with holiday attractions throughout the park.
Dollywood’s public relations director Pete Owens said their Christmas activities have brought back summer vacationers year after year. “Everything in the park is open now except for a couple of the water rides. We like to call this time of year ‘Dollywood all dressed up.’”
The theme park certainly dons its finest for the holidays with Christmas lights intricately woven around trees, bushes, buildings and bridges. The park added a new event this year - a nightly light parade down Showstreet. The parade is followed by “Carol of the Trees,” a musical event involving a synchronized light show on the lake.
Dollywood’s six regular holiday shows were joined by a newcomer this Christmas season, an in-house original production called Dollywood’s ’Twas The Night Before Christmas. This musical salute to the season runs three times every day.
After 12 years, Dollywood has one of the longest-running Christmas programs in Pigeon Forge, but it is by no means the only one. All of the city’s nine theatres present Christmas shows, adding holiday themes and music to their wildly successful country, bluegrass and gospel shows.
Now in their sixth year in Pigeon Forge, Country Tonite Theatre has garnered numerous awards including “Best Live Country Show in America” and most recently “2002 Country Music Show of the Year.” During the holidays, Country Tonight presents half of their regular show, followed by a Christmas show, complete with a visit from Santa and his reindeer.
At Pigeon Forge’s newest dinner theatre, The Black Bear Jamboree, diners are treated to Christmas music from Charlie King and the Black Bear Jamboree All-Stars while they eat. The show itself starts after dinner and is completely devoted to the season, with energetic song and dance numbers performed with the cast in their holiday finery. The audience even gets showered with a snowstorm before it’s over.
Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede dinner and show is an experience unlike any other in Pigeon Forge at Christmas time or any other time. Dinner is served around a 12,000 square foot arena floor that has been transformed into a holiday setting with twinkling lights and greenery. The friendly North vs. South rivalry presented year-round continues in the Christmas show, with elves from the North Pole competing with elves from the South Pole. A live nativity and traditional carols polish off an entertaining evening.
Rich Benjamin of the Dixie Stampede says that while the theatres in Pigeon Forge add to the draw of Winterfest, they have benefited from the festival’s popularity as well.
“There was a time when in the winter you could shoot a cannonball off at one end of the Parkway and not hit a car until you got to Gatlinburg,” he says. “Winterfest changed all of that.”
Ms. Powell says the draw of Winterfest goes beyond the Christmas activities. The slowest months of January and February are full of special events that keep tourists flocking to Pigeon Forge. “Winterfest has certainly done more for Pigeon Forge than we ever thought it could,” she says.
The occasional snowfall doesn’t hurt either.
Here are some events scheduled for Winterfest 2002 in Pigeon Forge:
Trolley Tour of Lights
November 8 - February 14
Brilliant displays of more than four million lights are located at a number of locations throughout the city. The Pigeon Forge Fun Time Trolleys allow you to enjoy the Tour of Lights in a temperature-controlled trolley with hosts and hostesses serving as guides to the city's landmarks and the lighted displays. Most of the trolleys are equipped with lifts to accommodate passengers who are in wheelchairs, and trolley drivers can call for a special lift equipped van when needed. Reservations are required. To make yours, call the Trolley Office at (865) 453-6444.
Smoky Mountain Christmas - Dollywood
November 9 - December 30, 2002
The sights and sounds of the holidays come alive during Dollywood's Smoky Mountain Christmas. Holiday music and shows are presented nightly from the stages of the entertainment park along with the light show "Carol of the Trees" and the light parade. The park is aglow with three and a half million colorful lights, adding to the atmosphere of a Smoky Mountain Christmas. For more information, call (865) 428-9488 or visit the website at www.dollywood.com.
World's Largest Outlet Extravaganza
December 5-15, 2002
The 200 factory outlets of Pigeon Forge present 11 days of mega-savings on everything from clothes to home furnishings to tools, just in time for the holidays. Bring comfortable shoes and the credit cards. Many of the outlets also participate in Winter Savings Fest held just after Christmas from January 4-19. One more reason to shop.
13th Annual Wilderness Wildlife Week™
January 11-19, 2003
Heartlander Country Resort and
Music Road Hotel & Convention Center
Recognized as one of the nation's leading conservation education events, Wilderness Wildlife Week™ combines nature workshops and lectures with daily hikes on some of the best trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Topics include natural and cultural history, photography, fly fishing, songbirds, orienteering and more.
More than 90 experts will be on hand throughout Wilderness Wildlife Week™ to enlighten visitors to the many wonders found in one of our nation's most biologically diverse national parks. Representatives from the National Park Service, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Tennessee State Parks, Appalachian Bear Center, Foundation to Protect America's Eagles, and many educators from universities in Tennessee and surrounding states work together to ensure that Pigeon Forge's Wilderness Wildlife Week offers a comprehensive environmental education opportunity.
Parents and educators can take advantage of the training provided through Project Wet and Project Wild environmental education programs. Resource manuals filled with activities for youngsters of all ages are provided free of charge at the conclusion of each eight-hour training session.
For a brochure outlining all the activities of Wilderness Wildlife Week™, call 1-800-WINTERFEST or the Pigeon Forge Office of Special Events at (865) 429-7350.
3nd Annual Saddle Up!
February 6-9, 2003
Pigeon Forge turns back the hands of time through Western music, poetry and culture to one of the country's most romantic eras. Guests will be entertained by multi-talented cowboy poets who bring the American West to life in story and song. Saddle Up! tickets on sale at the Country Tonite Theatre beginning November 12, 2002 by calling 800-792-4308. Authentic Western Chuckwagon Supper Show tickets available by calling the Heartlander Country Star Resort at 800-843-6686. For more information, please call the Pigeon Forge Office of Special Events at (865) 429-7350.
Smoky Mountains Storytelling Festival™
February 27 - March 2, 2003
Louise Mandrell Theater & Smoky Mountain Jubilee Theater
Each year many of the nation's best-loved performers gather for Storytelling concerts and workshops in a mountain setting that has inspired generations of story-tellers. The event features special day and evening concerts, Swappin' Grounds, and the ever-popular Haunts 'N Haints Trolley Tales. This year's Grand Torchbearer is from the National Youth Storytelling Olympics. Brennan Dobbins from Longwood, Florida will appear as one of our featured tellers. Call (865) 429-7350 for event schedule, prices and locations.
For more information on any Winterfest events, call the Pigeon Forge Department of tourism at 1-800-251-9100.