Bright lights, big city. You probably think I’m referring to New York, but in fact, I am talking about Pigeon Forge, TN. Nestled in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains, there it is, in all its glory — a 6-lane, 5-mile-long strip filled with anything and everything a child could ever want. Arcades, amusement park rides, attractions, NASCAR-inspired go-kart tracks, waterslides, restaurants, ice cream parlors … and the list goes on and on.
Recently, my 2 children, including my daughter with special needs, and I traveled to Pigeon Forge and had a blast discovering its many personalities. Here are some of the highlights from our trip, including some great tips for those who have a special-needs traveler.
If your family loves rides, great food and live entertainment, then a trip to Dollywood is a must. Take a ride on the Dollywood Express, a 1938 steam locomotive that is the oldest attraction in the park. Visit the Country Fair section of the park, where you will find old-school rides and games. For those kids seeking a little more thrill, check out 1 of the 5 roller coasters in the park. The Tennessee Tornado, a looping coaster, and the Wild Eagle, a steel, winged coaster that is 210 feet high and goes up to 61 mph, are the 2 most heart-pounding options. When you are ready to grab some lunch, if you have a hot dog lover in your family, be sure to stop at Dogs n’ Taters. It serves foot-long corn dogs and yummy, hand-cut tater twirls. The menu also includes a delicious, piled-high, 1/3-pound, all-beef chili cheese dog.
Special Needs Tip: Dollywood is open for business for those with cognitive or physical disabilities. Be sure to visit the ride accessibility center when you arrive to get a park accessibility guide, which highlights all the rides, shows, services and amenities for those with specific needs. You will get a front-of-the-line pass so you can bypass the long lines, and there’s also a brochure that highlights all the rides and indicates which ones are safe for those in wheelchairs.
Your family’s adventure begins the moment you pull in to the parking lot. Standing before you is an enormous upside-down building! As you enter through the front door, you feel as though the whole building is going to collapse around you. WonderWorks has more than 100 hands-on exhibits that will test your imagination, skill and intelligence. There is something for all ages, including mom and dad. Learn how natural disasters occur, take a ride in a space shuttle, lie on a bed of nails, play in the Bubble Lab, or compare your soccer, baseball and football skills with the pros’ in the virtual sports exhibit. Climb high on the largest indoor ropes course, which even glows in the dark! For thrill-seekers, try out the Xtreme 360 bikes and the Wonder Coaster.
Special Needs Tips: WonderWorks has lots to offer for people with cognitive or physical disabilities and welcomes all families. Some of my daughter's favorite exhibits were Hurricane Hole, where we experienced a Category 1 hurricane with 71 mph winds; the Bubble Lab; and Google Earth, a virtual globe and map that allows you to travel anywhere you want in seconds. There is plenty of room to move around if you’re traveling with a wheelchair.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
When you and your family are looking for some quiet time away from the hustle and bustle of Pigeon Forge, spend an afternoon at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smokies cover more than 500,000 acres and are filled with wildlife, beauty and rich history. Take a hike, rent bikes or pack a picnic and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Ten miles from Pigeon Forge is the Sugarlands Visitor Center, where you can begin a hike with your family on the Gatlinburg Trail. This flat trail winds 1.9 miles one-way toward the outskirts of Gatlinburg, following along Little Pigeon River. You will be sure to see lots of joggers, walkers and bicyclists.
Special Needs Tip: For those with a child in a wheelchair, Sugarlands Visitor Center has an accessible trail, which is located on Newfound Gap Road, just south of the center. Accessible interpretive exhibits along the half-mile, paved trail describe the unique historic and natural features as you weave along the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. An audiotape tour is also available from Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Horse stunts, magic tricks, musical productions and a friendly North vs. South competition that engages and energizes all the nightly guests are just part of the family fun you can expect here. While you are enjoying the show, you will be a served a 4-course, Southern-style meal that will set your taste buds on fire. Be prepared to eat the entire meal with your hands, because no silverware is provided. The evening closes out with a video of Dolly Parton singing “Color Me America,” and you can’t help but feel proud to be an American.
Special Needs Tips: When we visited, there were quite a few people in wheelchairs. The staff did a nice job accommodating them with a seating area specifically for those in wheelchairs. Be sure to mention any special needs you or a family member has when reserving your tickets so they will be prepared and can serve your family better.
RiverStone Resort and Spa
Conveniently located on Dollywood Lane, about a block away from the main Parkway strip, RiverStone is a quiet respite from all the action. The resort offers log cabin and condominium rentals that come with a full kitchen, washer and dryer. You can choose from 1-, 2-, 3- or 4-bedroom units. The world-class spa offers massage therapy, facials, pedicures and body treatments, plus a fitness center for mom and dad. For the kids, there is an indoor pool, playground and game room, as well as an outdoor lazy river.
Special Needs Tips: For those of you who have a water lover in your family, the Jacuzzi tubs are large and very nice. You will need to lift your child in and make sure he is secure. Also, the indoor pool has a lift. If your child is in a wheelchair, ask for a room with a full-body massage shower, and don’t forget to request a shower chair.