Dollywood opening kicks off tourism season

(WBIR-Pigeon Forge) The opening of Dollywood kicks off the official tourism season in Pigeon Forge, where 10 million visitors travel for attractions like the country star's theme park.

"The easiest way to explain it is the most ticketed attraction in the state of Tennessee. If you think about that, it's pretty amazing. They have over 3 million visitors a year to that park there," said Leon Downey, executive director with the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism.

Downey said the city has roughly 6,000 residents, but over 10 million visitors every year who trickle into restaurants, shops, and other local attractions.

"During the season, it's about 80% tourists that we see. Off season it's mainly locals," said Tom Horne, director of operations at Bullfish Grill. "Coming out of the winter, when they (Dollywood) open their doors, it's packed every weekend, and every week from there on out."

Horne is part of a group that owns seven restaurants and shops in Pigeon Forge.

"Pigeon Forge, it's really an eclectic mix of shops and retails and attractions. There's very few places in the country where you get 10 million visitors a year all on one road, like through this county."

Since tourism keeps businesses busy in Sevier County, Downey said new development on the parkway is key.

"Any season of the year, at least 80% of the people who come here are repeat visitors, so if we were to be a static destination those people would probably not come back year after year after year," said Downey.

Recent developments include The Island at Pigeon Forge, as well as Dollywood's new roller coaster, FireChaser Express.

"It's their main attraction on park right now. Anytime they have a new attraction it's major for us and the community of Pigeon Forge and all of Sevier County," said Downey.

The family-friendly coaster blasts riders forward and backward, and children as young as 4-years-old can ride since the minimum height requirement is 39 inches.

Downey said in 2012, Dollywood achieved a record-breaking year thanks to the debut of the Wild Eagle.

"It was the most successful year Dollywood had ever had, so hopefully we can have that kind of success this year with this new ride because it is so unique, so different," said Downey.

As 10News reported back in August, FireChaser Express is just one piece of the 10-year, $300 million investment Dollywood has committed.

"That says to the people that come here that they're confident about the future of Pigeon Forge and East Tennessee that they would be willing to commit that kind of an investment."

Other big name investments that are in the works for Pigeon Forge include Paula Deen's Family Kitchen, Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville restaurant, and a Margaritaville Hotel.


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