Some visitors felt alienated by the park’s traditionalist choices: the holiday shows center on straight family stories, with mostly white actors. “When people celebrate Christmas, they can celebrate in different ways, and families can look very different,” said Zaki Baker, a mother who came often with her young children. “It seems like they have a narrow perspective.”
Park leadership said they make tweaks every season, including to popular shows; they recently added a new song to “Christmas in the Smokies.” In a statement, Tim Berry, Dollywood’s vice president of human resources, said the company believes that “a diverse work force makes us more creative, flexible, productive and competitive,” adding that “our diversity encompasses differences in ethnicity, gender, language, age, religion, socioeconomic status, physical and mental ability, thinking styles, experience and education.”
For years, Parton’s brand has been about inclusivity and acceptance; lately she has come out more forcefully in support of the gay community and movements like Black Lives Matter; in 2018, she changed a separate attraction known as the “Dixie Stampede” to the Dolly Parton Stampede.
To stans like Shea, the Florida visitor, every section of the park seemed imbued with Parton’s spirit, including an aviary showcase for birds of prey, created by the American Eagle Foundation. (“I was like, oh my God, Dolly cares about the eagles!”) But behind the scenes, John Owens Dietrich, a former choreographer and director for the Rockettes, who teaches at N.Y.U., has also had an outsize influence in creating movement and songs for the park, and coaching performers through a grueling schedule of as many as six shows a day.