Millions of festive light displays, family activities, excellent shopping, mountain views and snow means one thing in Sevier County: Winterfest!
smoky mountains national park, Sevier county Tennessee, Dolly Parton, patriots park, Sevierville Convention Center
MobileRVing: The Buzz, Your Outdoor Lifestyle Insider, Written by Renee Wright
Celebrate Smoky Mountain Winterfest Through February
Up There With Christmas Destinations Like Rockefeller Center & Walt Disney World, Winterfest In The Cities of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge & Gatlinburg No Doubt Bring Tennessee A Year-Round Tourist Economy
Hometown girls don’t come much better than Dolly Parton, so back in the late 1980s, when Sevier (pronounced “severe”) County, Dolly’s childhood home, started searching for a way to expand into a year-round destination, city planners had to look no further than Dolly’s 1986 made-for-TV musical “A Smoky Mountain Christmas” for inspiration.
“Back then, when the leaves fell off the trees, most of the businesses around here would close down,” Leon Downey tells The Buzz. “They’d put out a sign saying see you in the spring.” Downey has been head of tourism in Pigeon Forge for 29 years and remembers those quiet winters.
“I’ll tell you how slow it was: we would put all the traffic lights in Pigeon Forge on blink!”
Sevier County includes three Tennessee towns, Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, strung west to east along the broad highway locals call The Parkway. The road ends at the base of the mountains, the western entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most visited.
“The folks at Dollywood were very enthusiastic about expanding into the winter season,” Downey recalls. “They helped bring the three towns together. The idea wouldn’t work if we weren’t all on-board.”
That first Winterfest, in 1990-91, Pigeon Forge put up ninety 6-foot snowflake light displays along the Parkway. The neighboring towns began small as well. Since then, the number of Winterfest lights have grown to more than 15 million in the region, many of them the new LED lights that save on power. Many dinner theaters and attractions cover their entire facades with lights, creating dazzling displays.
But the Smoky Mountain Winterfest is more than just lights. “We realized we needed to offer a full experience for families,” says Mary Hope Maples, head of the Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Council. “Many of our attractions have come on board, decorating with their own lights and offering holiday events. Restaurants offer special holiday menus, and our music halls and dinner theaters stage special holiday shows.”
Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg kick off their Winterfest celebrations in early November, hosting tree-lightings and holiday parades on different days. During the festival, each town offers something a little different. Sevierville is home to Shadrack’s Christmas Wonderland, a drive-through display of thousands of animated lights flashing in sync with holiday music on your car radio. The Tanger Factory Outlets are another holiday hotspot with numerous sales both before and after Christmas. Other shops and galleries are located in Sevierville’s historic downtown, where a bronze statue of Dolly Parton graces the lawn in front of the courthouse.
In Pigeon Forge, many of the light displays are located in Patriot Park, where American scenes like the Liberty Bell and the Iwo Jima Memorial are recreated in lights. The Island and the Old Mill District entertainment and shopping complexes are also decorated for the season.
In Gatlinburg, holiday lights can be found along the Riverwalk, and at the Bell Tower in Christmas Place, Ripley’s Aquarium, and the new Anakeesta Village, reached by gondola ride from downtown. Through January, the town hosts a Winter Magic trolley ride to see the lights.
The majority of the light displays are located along the 15-mile-long Parkway and scattered throughout downtown Gatlinburg. Themes range from fairy tale characters to local wildlife, including lots of bears, seen dancing, fishing and celebrating winter. Each town offers a free map of its light displays for self-guided tours, and 3-D glasses are available that turn each light into a snowflake.
Dollywood itself, which remains open through January 3, has more than 4 million lights, plus a lighted nighttime parade and numerous holiday themed shows, including “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Christmas in the Smokies.”
“There is no time of the year that is more special to me than Christmas,” Dolly Parton says. “It’s
when we all come together to enjoy sweet traditions and the warm love of family and to have those special experiences we’ll always remember.”
But the fun doesn’t end with the New Year’s Eve celebrations hosted throughout the region. The lights along the Parkway continue to shine through the end of February. “After Christmas, we have wonderful sales,” Maples says. “Many of the events shift to winter themes, and we transition into the romantic Valentine’s season.
Ober Gatlinburg, the only ski area in the region, opens with snow tubing in November, and offers skiing, snowboarding and ice skating all winter.” The ski area, reached by gondola from downtown Gatlinburg, also offers a year-round Wildlife Encounter and a Mountain Coaster, for non-skiers looking for thrills.
Toward the end of February, the Rose Glen Literary Festival brings local and regional authors together for a day of book signings, readings, workshops, and a book marketplace at the Sevierville Convention Center. And the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, with more than a dozen distilleries in the Sevier region offering intriguing flavors of moonshine, is a draw all year.
The 28th season of Smoky Mountain Winterfest looks to be the most successful yet. “During the four months from November to the end of February, our revenues have experienced a remarkable growth,” Leon Downey reports. “The year before Winterfest, we took in $56 million. Last year, the same four months brought in $250 million. We now have a year-round tourist economy thanks to Winterfest.”
Winterfest promises to keep growing. “We have an additional $100,000 in our budget to expand next year’s festival,” Downey says. “This has been the most successful thing the area has ever done. I met a 16-year-old the other day who couldn’t believe there had ever been a time before Winterfest.”
With festive light displays, family activities, excellent shopping, mountain views and plenty of snow, Dolly Parton’s family home has become a top destination for winter travel.
A graduate of Franconia College in Social Psychology, Renee has worked as Travel Editor for Charlotte Magazine and has written three travel guidebooks for Countryman Press among other writing assignments. She enjoys food and camping.
Make Sure To Stay At:
Bear Cove Village, an all-seasons resort with cabins, premium RV sites, 2 pools, and a fishing pond! Just 1 mile from Dollywood and Dollywood Splash Country. Make this your home away from home when visiting Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge or Sevierville!