PIGEON FORGE — With a bald eagle eyeing her from a couple of feet away, eager fans waiting to try out her latest ride and dark clouds moving in, Dolly Parton looked to the sky with one thought.
“I hope it don’t rain,” she recalled thinking during an interview Friday, “because we spent a lot of money on that ride. I don’t want the people to be disappointed.”
The setting was a pre-grand opening ceremony event Friday at Dollywood. Hundreds packed the outdoor space next to the Wild Eagle roller coaster, the centerpiece of a $20 million expansion debuting today at the theme park.
A bald eagle named Lincoln shared the stage with Parton. Dozens of roller coaster enthusiasts, who won an eBay auction to be the first guests on the attraction, were looking for a cue to hop on for the maiden flight.
But as rain clouds moved in, it looked as if the entire event might be dampened. The rain, though, held back.
Dollywood has more riding on its 27th season than a massive steel roller coaster, which is taller and faster than anything the theme park has done before.
The Wild Eagle’s impressive features include maneuvers through four inversions along with a giant loop, a “zero-G” roll, and a giant flat spin. The coaster’s tallest loops are visible everywhere in the park, including most vantage points in the parking lot.
The ride is working so far to bring in guests. Season pass sales are up 20 percent over this time a year ago, officials say.
Three years ago, Dollywood nixed a plan to create a resort area, including a hotel, because of the recession. This year, with the economy on the mend, Dollywood thought it’d be the perfect time to jump on the ride.
“I got people certainly smarter than me working on those things,” she cracked of the timing for the ride’s debut. “It ain’t all my responsibility. It ain’t all my money.”
While Parton, who is the majority shareholder in Dollywood, was focused on just getting through the events of Friday, she’s not oblivious to the future.
Among the challenges in Dollywood’s future: finding the right replacements to forge a new generation of leadership. Vice president Barbara Joines retired in 2011. President Ken Bell will leave at the end of this season.
Both have been with Dollywood since its early days. “Dollywood would not be what it is now without Barbara and Ken,” Parton said.
Craig Ross, vice president of retail for Herschend Family Entertainment, Dollywood’s operating partner, replaced Joines and is poised to assume Bell’s position.
Parton has little to do with the day-to-day operations. Her involvement normally centers on artistic aspects of Dollywood, and even those are the grander productions.
The star said changes at the top will “make Dollywood only better” as it heads into the future.
“We want people who are new and have new and great ideas,” Parton said, “but we also want people who have our key values.”
Parton dismissed notions that bringing in new talent may diminish the home-spun feel of the place and might even usher in a new corporate-like tone to operations.
“We want people who have good ideas and feel excited about coming to work every day,” she said,” but we also want people who know what our values are.”
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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