If asked to picture Christmas, you could be forgiven for not thinking of a country-music-themed amusement park in east Tennessee. But that’s not for a lack of trying on the part of Dollywood, the park in Pigeon Forge, owned by country music legend Dolly Parton.

During the warm months visitors from all around flock to the rural-themed park to see live music shows, eat county-fair-type food, and seek thrills on one of the park’s many rides (Dollywood is home to one of the best wooden roller coasters in the nation, the Thunderhead). But in the cold winter months the park transforms. The packs of teenagers, bound together in small groups by invisible string, are replaced with families large and small. Christmas lights, over four million of them, get strung on nearly every object that won’t walk away. Trees shine and wreaths get hung, light parades saunter through the narrow streets. Tightly-wrapped people pack in to see a Christmas tree blink in sync with holiday music, in the middle of a pond.

And there are the shows. ‘Babes in Toyland’ gets full treatment here. Gigantic toy soldiers, acrobats, evil folks, massive moving spiders (toddlers in the first row seem to hate this part), and other creepy/colorful/awesome stuff fills the stage in this elaborate production of a holiday classic. The finale (spoiler alert!) is a smoke and confetti-filled flight over the audience by the heroes on their way home.

Dollywood may not be where you first think of spending the weeks leading up to the holiday of your choice, but it beats where I normally end up: The mall.

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