When my family wants to enjoy a “Tender Tennessee Christmas,” for the holidays, we head to the mountains – the Great Smoky Mountains! It’s just down the road for us, but worth a much longer car ride to visit the towns of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville. The three towns come together to host “Winterfest.” It’s a dazzling holiday display of lights, entertainment, and shopping that will keep you busy far into the New Year.
Overcoming the Wildfires
Wildfires devastated Gatlinburg and parts of Pigeon Forge this year and continue to burn in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So expect some changes. That makes it extremely important to plan ahead for your visit. Check to make sure the attractions you want to experience are open during the holiday. Then you can make alternate plans to take the place of those things that have not yet re-opened.
Sevierville and Pigeon Forge are mostly unscathed and open for business. Gatlinburg reopened on December 9th! Please check gatlinburg.com for information on which restaurants, attractions and roads will be open to the public.
There is still plenty to see and do, so please, y’all come on and visit! The Spirit of the Holiday Season is alive and well in The Smokies, and the kind folks who live and work there haven’t lost their cheer. They are ready and waiting to welcome you with their legendary hospitality!
Festive Resorts in the Smokies
Fabulous places to stay abound for families. How about swimming over the holiday? We’ve recently enjoyed partially hosted visits at Wilderness at the Smokies in Sevierville, with its spacious rooms and indoor waterpark, perfect for the cold winter months in Northeast Tennessee. Though the outdoor water park portion is closed for winter, there is plenty of water-world fun to be found indoors, along with other fun activities such as the humongous arcade, climbing wall, laser tag, black-light indoor mini-golf, 3-story ropes course, pottery painting center, and more.
Fire Update: Wilderness at the Smokies is located a safe distance from the wildfires, so it is fully open. This amazing resort with a huge heart also served as a community donation and distribution center during the wildfires and ensuing recovery. You are welcome to stop by their distribution center to offer your support.
Our family thoroughly loved our stay at Greystone Lodge on the River in downtown Gatlinburg. You simply cannot beat the location, just across the street from Ripley’s Aquarium and on a mountain stream whose soothing sounds lull you into peaceful relaxation. It is the perfect spot for enjoying the Winterfest lights and also in walking distance to everything on the Gatlinburg strip.
It recently went through a stunning renovation, serves a spectacular breakfast buffet, and the service is some of the friendliest you will experience. It’s no wonder so many return to this cozy lodge year after year, making it their home away from home in Gatlinburg.
Fire update: At this time, the Greystone Lodge on the River is closed, but working diligently to re-open soon. Visit the website at greystonelodgetn.com to check for announcements regarding re-opening and reservations.
With its close proximity and free shuttle ride to Dollywood Theme Park, Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort is our new family favorite resort in the Smokies. It is particularly festive this time of year. There are beautiful decorations, Christmas activities such as gingerbread house-building and other Christmas crafts led by Santa’s elves, and of course the perfect opportunity to visit with Santa himself for photos and wish-list sharing.
Don’t miss out on at Christmas dining specials at the fabulous Song & Hearth: A Southern Eatery restaurant at the resort. There’s even a breakfast buffet with Santa or Rudolf and well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Family Buffets.
Fire Update: Thankfully, the Dollywood DreamMore Resort was spared by the wildfires, along with the Dollywood Theme Park.
Winter Lights & Activities in the Smokies
Winterfest is the only official seasonal celebration in the Smokies, though this region is blessed to experience all four seasons in all of their glory. And, while it starts with a holiday focus, the celebration continues until the very end of February.
It kicks off in Sevierville and Pigeon Forge in early November with a Veteran’s Day Parade and a festival which features the town flipping the switch to turn on its magical holiday lights. Draped in more than five million lights, Pigeon Forge creates a winter wonderland for guests to enjoy through Feb. 28, 2017.
Fire Update: Though the Christmas parade for 2016 has been canceled due to the wildfires, Gatlinburg has reopened. There you’ll find the Gatlinburg Winter Magic Trolley Ride of Lights. Note: Major roadways are expected to be open, but some city roads in heavily-affected areas may remain closed to accommodate utility work.
New this year
The Island in Pigeon Forge has invested $1.5 million in new Christmas experiences for guests. All-new decorations sparkled across the 23-acre property. That includes approximately 40,000 ornaments, half a million lights and more than 5,000 feet of garland. There are three new Christmas trees, including one that stands 40 feet tall and allows guests to walk through. Santa and Mrs. Claus greet guests at their new workshop while roving carolers fill the air with Christmas music.
Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas
Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas is a nine-time award winner for America’s Best Christmas Event! More than just rides, you’ll find four million dazzling holiday lights and spectacular holiday performances. There are two new holiday shows and a new Christmas parade, “Parade of Many Colors,” this year. The decorations, seasonal music, and the smells – oh my, the smells of the baked goods! – everything works together to get my family into the true Spirit of Christmas.
There is also a fabulous character experience my children adore at Holly Jolly Junction with Rudolph and Friends for photos and fun! We had a blast, decorating our own cookies, taking photos with Yukon Cornelius, The Abominable, and Clarice.
TravelingMom Tip: Smoky Mountain Christmas guests can upgrade a paid one-day admission ticket to a regular 2017 season pass for as low as $27 (plus tax when buying four or more). Ticket purchasers receive credit for the value of a regular one-day ticket ($65) toward the purchase of a 2017 season pass. A season pass purchased during Smoky Mountain Christmas provides unlimited admission to this year’s Christmas festival along with Dollywood’s entire 2017 season. (A one-day ticket is valid for upgrade on the day of visit only.) Also, if you buy a Dollywood one-day ticket after 6 p.m., it includes free admission to the park’s next operating day. Visit www.dollywood.com or call 1-800-DOLLYWOOD for more information.
This holiday festival at Dollywood has won America’s Best Christmas Event FIVE TIMES! Be sure to check the Dollywood Park Calendar online for limited park hours during this season (November 8, 2014 – January 3, 2015). Be sure to dress appropriately for the weather. Smoky Mountain Christmas days and nights can get pretty chilly!
Smoky Mountain Opry Christmas Spectacular Show
The Smoky Mountain Opry Christmas Spectacular Show is absolutely phenomenal, with music, dancing, comedy, acrobatics, ice skating, and special effects that rival the greatest thing on Broadway and beyond! It features the area’s largest (and most beautiful) live nativity, with live animals and soaring, singing angels. If you want to get into the Christmas Spirit, this show – nearly two and a half hours in length with an intermission, is one you will want to see with the family every year!
Even though this was my family’s second musical holiday show of the evening, and it lasted two and a half hours, we were all wide-eyed with excitement throughout the entire production. My boys were crying with laughter at the antics of the comedian, Slim Chance. My husband was absolutely impressed with the theatrics and professional production, including a section with champion ice skating. I was taken back to my childhood watching The Andy Williams Christmas Show, and movies like “White Christmas” and “Toyland.” Then, my spirit was completely enthralled by the majesty and voices lifted in praise during the nativity and gospel choir. It was a night we will always treasure.
Dixie Stampede’s Holiday Adventure
The “high-spirited adventure” of Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction receive a festive twist for the 2016 holiday season with the magnificent sights and sounds of Christmas. That includes a full-scale living Nativity, holiday decorations, Santa Claus and a fabulous four-course Christmas feast. The Christmas show at “The Most Fun Place to Eat in the Smokies” debuted Nov. 1 and runs through New Year’s Day.
We were awed by the birth of Jesus reenacted with Mary, Joseph, the wise men and a living Nativity of camels, donkeys and sheep. This touching scene is a reminder of the importance of the Christmas season. My family also enjoyed “Toys Come to Life.” This amazing musical fantasy stars The Sugar Plum Fairy and a number of toys she magically brings to life. It’s a holiday musical celebration that includes a stunning aerial display set to the unforgettable music of The Nutcracker.
The trick riding stars of the show challenge each other in barrel races and other thrilling competitions, all in the name of Dixie Stampede’s friendly Christmas rivalry between the North and South Poles. Audience members even may find themselves called in to help their side to victory. Finally, no Christmas would be complete without an appearance by Santa, as Old Saint Nick arrives in his sleigh while the arena is transformed into a winter wonderland of freshly fallen snow.
Christmas dinner is the other star of the show. It’s delicious, and eaten without any utensils – seriously!
The fun-filled evening starts in the Dixie Belle Saloon. There, my boys lauded at the side-splitting comedy and hard-driving bluegrass and country music of Mountain Ruckus, Dixie Stampede’s house band. The band performs one hour prior to show time. Show times and reservations are available by calling 1-800-356-1676 or visiting www.dixiestampede.com.
Hatfield and McCoy Christmas Disaster Dinner Show
Billed as “The feudin’-est, fightin’-est, funniest place to eat in The Smokies,” get ready to eat heartily and laugh loudly at this crazy Christmas production with the famous feuding families in the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Show.
Delicious food fills you, elaborate staging impresses you, but you’ll be blown away (not literally, I promise) by the talented performers dancing, singing, and doing “feats of strength.” Keep an eye out for familiar characters – you’re sure to see someone resembling a visiting relative during the holidays! One thing I dearly loved about this crazy production is that, amidst all the feuding and fighting, the Christmas message rang through loud and clear.
Christmas at Lumberjack Adventure
Dolly Parton’s Lumberjack Adventure Dinner & Show continues its high-flying inaugural season with a new holiday tale which invites families on a journey to discover the spirit of Christmas. The Wheelers and McGregors, both known for helping supply the Great Smoky Mountains with Christmas trees during this special time of year, display amazing lumberjack skills, incredible acts of acrobatic agility and breathtaking aerial performances as they explore the hillsides and—at the same time—the true meaning of Christmas.
Along the way, guests enjoy incredible lumberjack skills competitions, engaging songs and dance, as well as marvelous live animals and a moving Nativity which combine for a heartwarming Christmas experience. The Nativity is set to Parton’s powerful version of “Little Drummer Boy,” a special song that conveys the importance of this extraordinary scene.
Guests should come early as the entertainment begins early with interactive music and much more. A lumberjack feast treats guests to tantalizing tastes inspired by the campfire cuisine of a fun-filled sawmill logging camp at Christmas. This show is special to me because it celebrates the spirit of the Appalachian people who lived off the land in logging and milling towns which dotted the map throughout the region. The thrills and excitement, along with the heartfelt moments which so perfectly capture the joy of Christmas, make this an instant family holiday tradition. For complete Christmas holiday show schedule, visit www.lumberjackadventure.com.
The Titanic Museum
We spent more than five hours at The Titanic Museum one afternoon, and still didn’t manage to take it all in! This is not your average museum – it’s truly an immersive experience (pun intended!) that puts you in the middle of the stories of the actual passengers of the Titanic on that fateful voyage.
During the holidays, the museum is beautifully decorated for Christmas, performs a dazzling fireworks display on Thanksgiving, and makes snow off the bow! For an in-depth look at the Titanic Museum experience, check out my post from earlier this year when I visited.
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
When something has the name “Ripley’s” attached to it, you expect something a bit strange and spectacular, right? Well, you won’t be disappointed when you come out of the bitter cold to visit the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in the heart of Gatlinburg.
We were fascinated for hours by Shark Reef, as we were transported through (literally, through) an underground aquarium, enjoyed watching the cute antics in the Penguins Playhouse, and learned all about slimy creatures of the ocean in a special exhibit. Interactive highlights included actually touching stingrays, jellyfish, and horseshoe crabs!
Holiday Shopping in the Smokies
Looking for a one-of-a-kind Christmas gift? Visit more than 120 working artists and craftsmen in the Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community on this historic 8-mile loop in Gatlinburg. Established in 1937 and designated a Tennessee Heritage Arts & Crafts Trail, this is the largest group of independent artisans in North America. We enjoy taking the children to see the artisans as they whittle, paint, sew, carve, weave, cast, and create fine works of Appalachian art. It’s beautiful, educational, inspirational, and we get lots of shopping done, too! Go to gatlinburgcrafts.com for a map and list of all the artists and crafters. They are open and ready for business!
Don’t forget Dollywood Theme Park for seasonal shopping! One of a kind crafts, beautiful baskets, pottery, forged iron products, tasty treats, and handmade signs are often fashioned right before your eyes in the park and available for sale. My favorite gift to both give and receive are the beautiful hand-blown glass ornaments. You can even create one yourself to give or keep!
Other things we enjoy doing include shopping and paying a visit to the “Singing Santa” at The Christmas Place Shops, which is a magical holiday shopping land in and of itself. The outlet mall shopping in Pigeon Forge is topnotch – my favorite being the “green-roofed” (as it’s called by locals) Tanger Outlet Mall, which has a Disney Store outlet – that alone makes it worth the stop for me! There are mini-golf courses, go-carts, and plenty of restaurants nearby to keep the family entertained and happy when they start complaining from all the shopping.
Downtown Gatlinburg offers specialty shops – don’t miss The Village Shops, over 27 specialty shops in one location, with delights such as candy, candles, socks, cheese, hiking equipment, and moonshine – to name a few! Excellent eateries abound, and there is too much to do and see in one trip. Don’t miss the Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen, we love to watch taffy being made and sample our favorites. Maypops is a yummy sweets shop, featuring homemade doughnuts and ice cream – oh my word, the goodness! We went into sugar shock after our visit! For breakfast, you might have to brave a long line, but the famous Pancake Pantry is not to be missed!
Thrilling Adventures in the Smokies
We find plenty of thrilling adventures in the Smokies! My boys love to practice rock-climbing, plan an outdoor adventure, and shop at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
We’ve also discovered that zip-lining with Legacy Mountain Zip Lining, is one of our favorite outdoor adventures in the Smokies – even for my 70-year old dad! I’m thrilled to report that they are without damage and still completely operational after the devastating wildfires that happened nearby – so please make your reservation for this thrilling experience!
If you want to see Gatlinburg and the mountains, ride the Gatlinburg Sky Lift to get a better view of this beautiful mountain village, or even ride the enclosed tram up to Ober Gatlinburg, which offers skiing, snowboarding, tubing, bobcat encounters, shopping and more. If you prefer to keep it simple, hiking trails abound in and around Gatlinburg.
Fire Update: As the Smokies recover from the wildfires of 2016, and after you’ve enjoyed your exciting Holiday Season visit in the Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg, you’ll want to be sure you plan to visit again in the spring and summer of 2017. Though some of these above adventures we experienced, such as the sky lift and sky way to Ober Gatlinburg, have been temporarily closed due to the fires, they are expected to make a full recovery and re-open once they have rebuilt and/or completed a thorough safety overhaul and check.
How to Help in the Recovery Effort of the Smokies
If you are interested in helping with the recovery efforts in the Smokies, there are several efforts underway. My top recommendation if you would like to contribute monetarily is the Dollywood Foundation “My People Fund”, set up by Dolly Parton herself. All contributions will go toward providing $1,000 each month for six months to Sevier County families who lost their homes. One hundred percent of your donation will go toward helping these families affected by the wildfires.
Please make sure to be aware that at the time this article was posted, the fires are still not completely contained in the actual Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and you will not be allowed to visit the national park itself. Also, be aware that many firefighters and utility workers are still working diligently around the clock to contain the fire and begin the process of recovery. Please keep them, and everyone in the Smokies, in your hearts and prayers. They are definitely #SmokiesStrong and #MountainTough!
Out of the ashes comes new life, re-birth, and the tremendous beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains will rise again. We’ll be looking forward to seeing it in all its amazing glory once more!