By Virginia Brown
It’s 4 o’clock in Pigeon Forge. As the carillon cues the hour, Santa pops out from behind two small wooden doors. His elves help chime the bells of the two-story clock tower in the lobby at The Inn at Christmas Place, and a Christmas tune starts to play. A little girl looks on with wonder. It’s a moment of magic in the Smokies.
Tucked in the cozy valleys of the Great Smoky Mountains, this trio of eastern Tennessee towns — Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Gatlinburg — offers snowcapped views, warm cider, friendly folks and enchanting events during the holiday season.
Get in the Spirit
Dolly Parton means serious business in the Smokies. Driving around, Dolly shows up on local Tennessee tags, a tribute to her Imagination Library childhood literacy efforts. Also, her famed Dollywood resort and theme park in Pigeon Forge draws over 3 million visitors annually. At Christmastime, over 5 million lights brighten the paths of this 150-acre wonderland. You’ll also find nine rollercoasters, sugary-sweet cinnamon bread, award-winning shows and an all-things-Dolly museum.
Like a family-friendly, small-scale Vegas, Pigeon Forge offers dozens of entertaining shows and attractions along its main Parkway. Pirates Voyage Dinner & Show, the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Show, and The Comedy Barn Theater all add a holiday spin to their popular annual performances. Through early January, Christmas takes over Dolly Parton’s Stampede, too. Splurge on a four-course meal as elves from the North and South poles compete in a friendly rivalry. The show’s live nativity — with three kings atop camels — is a popular holiday draw.
For a high-speed adventure, hop aboard the Rocky Top Mountain Coaster, just a stone’s throw from Dollywood. These stand-alone sleds light up at night during the area’s Winterfest celebration. A nine-minute route takes thrilling curves and daring hairpins — all at speeds up to 30 miles per hour.
Too cold for a coaster? Take it inside at Pigeon Forge Snow, a year-round indoor snow tubing and snow play center.
Over 4,000 apple trees line the hillsides of the beautiful Little Pigeon River valley at the Apple Barn & Cider Mill in Sevierville. Sample apple dumplings, apple stack cakes, fried apple pies, and sip on hot cider at the Cider Bar. Start your day with apple fritters and a family-style breakfast at Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant. It’s a charming farm home with wrap-around deck and beautiful views of the surrounding orchards and river.
Take a spin around the outdoor ice-skating rink at Wilderness at the Smokies from mid-November through the first week in January. There’s also a massive indoor waterpark with a “see-through” roof, so you can soak up the sun — even in winter.
Beginning in Nov. 15, 2019, and running through Jan. 5, 2020, Shadrack’s Christmas Wonderland offers a festive drive-through LED light show choreographed to music. Displays feature a variety of creative holiday images that might include Santa wearing an inner tube or riding a tractor. Guests will also find interactive family-friendly activities, a petting zoo, refreshments and (of course!) Santa Claus.
Gatlinburg is so full of the Christmas spirit that it’s home to the Santa Family Reunion. Every other March they welcome over 400 Santas and Mrs. Clauses — plus their little helpers — for workshops, a downtown parade and a snow-tubing race.
During the holidays, though, don’t miss the long-running Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade (Dec. 6). It features marching bands, floats and equestrian units along charming downtown. Lighted bears double as drummer boys, while foxes, deer, squirrels and other critters native to the Smokies shine in bright LEDs during the town’s Winter Magic celebration. It runs from late November to February.
Share the Spirit
Hundreds of stores mark the area’s outlet malls. However, for a truly eye-widening experience, visit the massive Christmas Place in Pigeon Forge. This multi-building destination is filled with holiday gifts and personalized ornaments. You’ll find everything from miniature pinecones to a life-sized display of Santa and his reindeer hanging from the ceiling.
Smoky Mountain Knife Works in Sevierville is another impressive showplace. It’s full of display cases of knives, hunting and outdoor gear, food items and more. There’s even plenty to peruse for the non-knife enthusiast. Choose from cutlery memorabilia, stuffed animals, kitchenware, gourmet canned goods and beads.
Known as Gatlinburg’s Santa, “Santa Pat” has his own shop along Route 321. Santa’s Claus-et is a charming, multi-room cabin chock full of lighted artwork and ornaments. Even more, Santa himself might stop by.
For unique holiday gifts, Dollywood has that covered, too. Craftsman’s Valley is one of 10 themed areas inside the park. It features the work of glassblowers, jewelry makers, blacksmiths and more. Pick your own pearl for a custom-made necklace. You can also have your favorite scenic photo hand carved into a mantlepiece.
Stay in the Spirit
Cozying up in a cabin with mountain views all around is a popular route for a stay in the Smokies at Christmastime. Just around the corner from the park, Dollywood offers cabins tailored to each visitor. They feature hot tubs and romantic views for couples, and pool tables, bunk beds and park perks for families. Opt for Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa for a more elevated experience. Here, you’ll enjoy their popular Christmas buffet, in-room Christmas trees upon request and Saturday visits from Santa.
In Pigeon Forge, Christmas Tree Lane leads to The Inn at Christmas Place. Each hallway has a different Christmas theme, while every room is decorated for the holidays, from pillows to a Christmas tree. During holiday months, activities range from doll making to lessons on Christmas decor led by the team at the Inn. Plus, there’s entertainment from a live pianist and a ventriloquist, among others. (Tip: Stay in the Santa Suite and get a special treat from the jolly man himself.)
Finally, the Black Fox Lodge is a Smokies-themed quiet, family-friendly home base, just a few miles from Dollywood and within walking distance to dozens of attractions along the Pigeon Forge Parkway.
For exclusive AAA Member savings on attractions, restaurants and more, visit AAA.com/GoDiscounts.
Book a Smoky Mountain holiday getaway today! Call 800-374-2865 or go online at AAA.com/GoTravel.