Review: Dollywood for Families

Millions of guests visit the Smoky Mountain region every year. Most take in some iconic hikes to see waterfalls and nature. Others spend time taking in the various tourists activities from mini-golf to Jurassic boat rides. However, somewhere between the creation of the mountains and the proliferation of tourism came an amusement park that was fitting to the region in theme and atmosphere.

In 1986, that small amusement park called Silver Dollar City was purchased and rebranded as Dollywood after the iconic singer Dolly Parton.

During our family’s summer venture to the Smoky Mountain region, we took in plenty of nature packed hikes, some tourist activities, and made it a point to spend some time at Dollywood to see how it compares to the many other amusement parks we have visited from Cedar Fair to Disney.

The very first thing we did was take advantage of the offer to buy a ticket after 3:00 PM and get in free the next day. We arrived promptly at 3:00, entered the park, and headed straight for their new ride, Lightning Rod. However, after an hour plus of the ride running, then going down for repairs, we opted to go out and enjoy the rest of the park. Lightning Rod would have to wait for another time.

Fortunately, there were tons of rides the whole family could enjoy in the rest of the park.

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We LOVED the theme to all the rides. None of them were just plain roller coasters. All had an incredibly detailed theme and character that made them memorable.

Our boys loved Blazing Fury, a dark ride depicting a fireman theme. Firechaser Express also held a special place for us since it was the first big kid coaster that are youngest son (3 years old) was able to ride, and he loved!

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Our family also managed to take advantage of the Parent Swap, which is great for those with young kids who may not be able to ride certain attractions. Each ride is different in how it operates with Parent Swap, but the general gist is that one parent rides the attraction, while the other watches the kids. Then, when the first parent completes their ride, they switch with the other parent, who then gets to ride without waiting. Parent Swap is a wonderful program that helps alleviate double waiting in line to ride attractions.

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Since our family visits a lot of the Cedar Fair parks from Kings Island to Knott’s Berry Farm to Cedar Point, those parks are heavily operated by a younger, college age crowd. While a minor detail, I love when visiting parks like Knoebles and Dollywood, where the staff are the majority of an older aged crowd. We find them more pleasant, helpful, and give the park a sense of authority with an experienced, older staff. We also assume it means the park pay their employees a decent wage.

When visiting Dollywood, guests also know they can eat some really good food! In partnership with the CPFoodBlog, we had to try the iconic cinnamon bread from the Gristmill. Following we also took in a great all-you-can eat buffet at Miss Lillian’s Fried Chicken restaurant.

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After walking around the entire park, you really get a sense of how absolutely gorgeous the grounds are maintained. From the beautiful landscaping, water features, and historic period buildings, Dollywood is well worth the investment.

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PS We did eventually get to ride Lightning Rod on the day of our full day visit, first thing in the morning. Lightning Rod is the world’s first launch wooden coaster with some fantastic elements that were a real surprise. The verdict: Lightning Rod was fantastically fun and a great new experience!

Our family was partially sponsored by Dollywood with two free tickets to visit the park.

Review: Orchid Mania (Cleveland Botanical Gardens)

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Have you checked out Orchid Mania (Cleveland Botanical Gardens)? This once a year event highlights the beauty of the orchid family of flora, bringing hundreds of orchid variety on display throughout the Cleveland Botanical Gardens.

Over the years, I have tried my greenthumb at a variety of plants. Sometimes my work resulted in the direct result of less oxygen creating species on this planet, resulting in the demise of the species. However, with several years of experience tending to plants and flora, I have become rather good at nursing a plant back into a beautiful species. No where is that more apparent than in the orchid variety of flora.

After getting my first couple orchids, they lost their flowers as all do. However, their leafy greens continued to flourish, and despite my wife telling me I should throw them out, I have managed to bring them all back into gorgeous blooms at least once per year.

Orchids take a good deal of patience and the right conditions to get them to flower again. Fortunately, I keep our orchids, now numbering a half dozen at indirect light windows, water once per week with a good soaking, and give periodic fertilizer and repotting when necessary.

So I had a big urge to visit the Cleveland Botanical Gardens Orchid Mania display for many years. This year when Orchid Mania appeared on Groupon, I knew our family had to take advantage of the offer. For only $20, I got our entire family into the event (I actually saved 20% on top of that with the weekly promo code).

Get your discounted tickets to Orchid Mania.

Our family had been to the Botanical Gardens a handful of times; however, in order to use the Groupon, it has to be used on a Wednesday evening, giving you a different view of the property at night.

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After enjoying the large variety of orchid blooms in the lobby and main hallway, we opted to enjoy a quick healthy bite to eat at the Botanical Gardens Cafe, offering fresh salad, fruit, yogurt, and sandwich offerings. The food was fantastic and healthy all at the same time.

Once darkness had set in, we went into the main atrium. Having the environment dimly lit created a whole new experience for all of us. The dark allowed us to see all the plants and few animal habitats in a new “light.” While you may not have been able to see the orchids in all of their glory, if you looked closely, there were many hidden gems to be discovered.

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I love seeing all the many variety of orchids on display, and it inspires me to keep on with the hard work on the promise of a gorgeous annual bloom.

While there were other kids at the facility for Orchid Mania, it appears to be more of a date night or girls night out event. There is a small play area towards the end on the upper level, giving the kids a chance to escape for putting up with dads staring at plants.

Review: Great Wolf Lodge Sandusky

Have you stayed at one of the Great Wolf Lodge properties? Our family had the privilege to stay at the Great Wolf Lodge Sandusky, Ohio recently as part of a long weekend. We opted to take advantage of a deal through Groupon, offering us a Loft Fireplace Suite for 8 guests that included a $25 dining credit for $249. After taxes and resort fee, the total was $304.60. Even with the Groupon discount, for over $300 per night, it is a lot to swallow for only a single night. So does it live up to the high cost?

After checking in, our room was not ready yet, so we headed straight to the waterpark, which guests can get in as early as 1:00 pm. With only one entrance into the waterpark, the facility made for an excellent way to conveniently keep track of your kids. Our two oldest went off and explored within view of us while we watched our youngest in some of the little kid pools.

The park featured almost everything you would come to expect from a waterpark, with the exception of a wave pool, which was fine with us. While smaller, Great Wolf Lodge did provide a lazy river, beautiful hot tubs surrounded by faux rocks, and a variety of climbing and slide complexes for the kids.

We were most surprised by the two large slides that you ride down in tubes. They were very fast with some nice small drops that made them really thrilling for kids and adults of all ages.

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We also happen to be celebrating our kids birthdays during our visit. Their wristbands granted them free ice cream throughout the property which they more than took advantage of to fill their tummies. We also used our $25 dining credit towards some slices of pizza and the $1 upcharge of Dippin’ Dots.

The resort also offers a Native American/Nature show in the lobby with animatronic figures. While it may have been entertaining for kids, the sound quality needed some improvement.

The facility also offered face painting, story time, and a variety of other activities. For an additional fee, guests could use the arcade or Magic Quest.

Our room was nicely appointed with two beds on the main floor and a bed up on the lobby. The sitting area included a small dining table, outdoor balcony, and several flat screen televisions throughout the room. A small dorm style fridge was also included.

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Overall our family loved our stay at Great Wolf Lodge! The facility was well maintained and very clean. We were not bothered constantly by the staff that the kids were forced to wear life vests like at Kalahari, Castaway Bay, and other resorts we have visited.

The only drawback was our oldest son was running his hand down the wall of the halls and a piece of wood was sticking up and sent a piece of wood down under his nail and into his finger. When approaching the staff at the front desk, they seemed unconcerned when requesting directions to an emergency room because of the incident. I would have expected them to consult the on-site medics (assuming they had one) and file a report, but no one seemed all that concerned. After a trip to the ER, we had the issue corrected and were back to enjoy the rest of our stay.

Have you stayed at a Great Wolf Lodge? How was your experience?