Recently, we visited Dollywood with our family. We are new season pass holders. We had gotten passes at Christmas last year and thought we’d go a few times this year to make it worth it. We were extremely disappointed with Dollywood when we took family in May. We had Mike, Me, The Boy (3), Brother-in-Law, his 5-year-old son, and the two boys’ grandmother. I’m going to now, unfairly, compare Dollywood to Disney World.
Just a note: I use some patently unfair math below, but it’s to make a point about value for the dollar.
Reasons why it’s (possibly) unfair to compare the two:
- They are suppose to not really be in the same league and shouldn’t be compared.But why should they not be compared? USA Today even had one article that ranked Dollywood above Magic Kingdom and Disneyland. Dollywood is obviously trying to compete with the big boys. So shouldn’t it be fair to compare it to the bigger parks?
- Dollywood is cheaper on the surface, for a pass, it certainly is. Once you get in the park, not so much. And check out the value for the dollar math below.
- Disney World is the destination, Dollywood is a day’s distraction. Agreed. People go to Pigeon Forge for the shopping, Gatlinburg for the kitch and mountains and Dollywood is often a place to wear the kids out in between. Though locals, like us, do just plan on spending the day at Dollywood periodically as our only reason for braving the tourist traffic in Pigeon Forge.
So let me tell you about our recent experience and why we spent the day comparing Dollywood to Disney.
When we visited Dollywood, the park was open from 10a.m to 7p.m. Considering we were only interested in doing rides that small children could do, that limited us to about 1/2 of the park. That’s totally fine with us. Meant less walking. But here’s the problem. Many of these rides were either not working or had broken parts. We went on May 17, long after the website says the rides are to be open. Here’s a sampling.
The Carousel – broken. With no sign. It was spinning around and looked like it was working fine. People would walk up to the line only to be told by a half-hearted attendant that it was being maintenanced. There was nothing to indicate that the ride, which was spinning and playing music tempting little children to come to it was anything but functioning properly – until you walk through the line to discover it’s broken. The answer to the question of when would it be finished was a shrug. It was broken from before we took the train until after we left the elephants (a couple hours later).
Rockin’ Roadway – closed. At least the lady in front of it was nice about letting us know it was closed and should be working later in the day. But there was still no sign. And that didn’t help us when we were not going to be back in that part of the park.
Amazing Flying Elephants – several of the elephants were broken. Considering how long this stupid line was and the fact that some people seemed to decide they had to put their kids in one elephant and them ride separately, my brother-in-law and I spent most of our time at the park waiting in line for this low rent version of Dumbo with multiple elephants broken. If all of the elephants had been working, the line would have moved at a crawl rather than a snail’s pace.
This was the ride that really ticked me off. Why? Because Dollywood can’t do one simple thing that Disney does: Put up a sign that says how long your wait is going to be. How hard is it to do that? They could do it with a chalkboard.
So Dollywood has multiple popular rides either being fixed with no notice or in poor repair and broken and doesn’t post signs either about the fact they are broken or the times you’ll wait for poorly maintained rides. At least when Disney refurbishes a ride, they work on themeing the closure and their wait times and (free) Fast Pass + system are head and shoulders above Dollywood’s TimeSaver pass that costs $25 PER PERSON and just lets you put yourself in the line so you don’t have to stand there while you wait.
Food and Drink Prices
Drinks: We purchased the season pass beverage containers. They were running a special where the normally $20/each cups were on sale for additional ones. I think we ended up paying $20, and then $5 for three others. Something like that. Here’s the funny thing. The equivalent of these from Disney (which granted can not be used in the parks, only at your home resort) are $18 for your length of stay and then free refills. For Dollywood, each refill is $1, but the cup is good all season long. This kind of balances out for me. I might even give the winner here to Dollywood since the rapid refill mugs at Disney are only good at your hotel.
Drinks Winner: Dollywood
Since I went with a Gold Pass at Dollywood, we did get a 10% discount on our meal. I will say the food we got was pretty good for a theme park, though not as good as food at Disney sitdown restaurants. For this, I’m comparing Backstage Restaurant at Dollywood to Liberty Tree Tavern at Disney.
Positives for Backstage Restaurant – everyone can choose their own meal.
Positives for Liberty Tree – unlimited food, so many choices people can find something they like. YUMMY food. Awesome service
For me, Liberty Tree at Disney was much better for the taste. The food at Backstage was a bit uneven. Some was good, some not so good. Everything at Liberty Tree was great. Price wise, I’d say we came out slightly ahead per person at Backstage, but that included a 10% discount that we didn’t get at Liberty Tree (since we no longer have annual passes).
Taste Winner: Disney’s Liberty Tree Tavern
Price (with season pass discount): Dollywood’s Backstage Restaurant
We purchased the season photo pass for Dollywood. We purchased the Memory Maker for our Disney World trip. Mike and I both agreed that the $160 we spent on Memory Maker was the best thing we bought the entire time. Why? Unlimited photos from all the photographers around the parks. It was so easy to just scan our Magic Band and have the photos appear in our account. We got magic shots, we got posed shots, we even had photographers just come up to us during rainstorms to entertain The Boy and get great pictures. It was wonderful. And no, it is not expensive when you consider that for daycare school photos, we pay $150 to get 3 poses plus the digital image. We don’t care about the printed photos. We want the digital images. We got more than 100 photos on our trip and had so many good ones, I made a rather large photo book of the Memory Maker photos.
At Dollywood, the photo pass costs $50 annually and then you get to pay $2 per photo to get them to put it on your account. Considering that we have averaged exactly 1.5 photos per trip, that’s fairly expensive per picture, though granted, not daycare prices. We have both agreed it has not been worth the hassles for the quality of photos we’ve gotten.
Dollywood has very few places for people to get photos, so you are rushed constantly. On this trip, we got a photo before riding the train. Mike went to pay the $2 to get it added to our account while my BIL and I took the two boys to ride Elephants. Note: we were still in line for a 1/2 hour AFTER Mike got back from the ordeal of trying to GIVE THEM MONEY for our photo.
Mike was the first person in line for the photos since he didn’t need to stop and look at the photo to know he wanted to pay the $2. The attendant waved him back and said he had to wait until ALL the other people who wanted photos and who had NOT paid for the photo pass paid for their photo. So he was literally sent to the back of the line because he paid $50 extra for convenience. After he waited for an entire train’s worth of passengers to buy photos, he paid the $2 and was told it would appear soon. It was not there when we left. He had to stop at the window on the way out to ask about it. They said to give it 24 hours. He did. Called again. Give it another 24 hours. Called again, we finally had to go through the process of describing what we were wearing so they could manually go through the photos to find us. Surprisingly, they DID find our photo. So good on Dollywood for that. But this was a nightmare compared to the ease and customer friendly attitude you get with Disney.
Winner: Disney Memory Maker
For ease of comparison, I’m going to choose an annual/season pass for each park. I’m choosing the 2 park option for Dollywood since Disney’s pass gets you all 4 parks.
- Disney Annual Pass: $654
- Dollywood (2 park): $146
Looking at this, Dollywood wins. However, Disney is open 365 days a year. Dollywood is closed for nearly 3 months in January, February and March and an additional 45 days periodically throughout the year, when it has entire days in the middle of the week where it is closed. Be sure you check the calendar and not trust it’s open! So that means instead of getting 12 months as you do at Disney, you’re in effect getting 7.5 months where you can use the pass.
Let’s re-work our math:
- Disney’s annual pass (per month): $54.50
- Dollywood’s season pass (per month, this is assuming 7.5 months of usable time): $19.47
Wow, Disney is still nearly 3 times as expensive. But what do you get for the price?
- Customer Service. No one can deny that Disney has the best customer service in the world.
- Quality. Their stuff works. If it doesn’t work, they advertise it, they make it easy to know when it will be fixed, they handle it with style when things go wrong.
- Choices: 4 parks to choose from compared to 2 for Dollywood.
Hey, let’s look at the per park math, shall we?
- Disney Price per park per month: $54.50/4 = $13.63
- Dollywood Price per park per month: $19.57/2 = $9.74
Prices aren’t looking too different now, are they? I’d say Quality, Customer Service and Choices are worth the extra money. That being said, it still is easier to go for a day to Dollywood than to run down to Orlando.
So there you go, for a difference of a few dollars per park, you get Disney. Is this math really fair when comparing the two? No, not really. But it sure does make me feel like I’m not getting the bang for the buck from Dollywood as I do from Disney. And that’s the important thing. My value for the dollar.
Value for the dollar: Disney wins.