This June, a 72-acre, $42 million attraction called Anakeesta, with shopping, a mountain coaster, zip lines and dining is set to open in downtown Gatlinburg, just the latest sign that the beautiful east Tennessee town is open for business after devastating fires burned more than 10,000 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and damaged or destroyed more than 2,000 buildings last fall.
But months removed from the fire, Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO and President Mark Adams says, people should have no reservations about coming.
“When the fire first happened, it was almost like people had a missing loved one,” Adams says. “They wanted a reassurance that where their family memories were made is still intact. For the most part, they are.”
The businesses along the downtown parkway largely survived, as well as the attractions at Ober Gatlinburg Amusement Park & Ski Area. Damage from the fires kept the iconic Gatlinburg Sky Lift closed for months, but operators had planned to have it open by Memorial Day. Originally constructed in 1954, the lift to the top of Crockett Mountain still offers a spectacular panorama of town and the Smoky Mountains.
“The views are more amazing than ever,” Adams says. “This fire, while it was widespread, was really a fast-moving, low fire. It burned a lot of the underbrush. We are now able to see wildflowers we haven’t seen in years, and we’re actually seeing some new birth as well.”
Dollywood, Dollywood’s Splash Country and Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort in nearby Pigeon Forge were threatened but unaffected by the fires, though 17 cabins did perish, says Pete Owens, director of communications for Dollywood.
The number of cabins lost in the area overall topped 600, but that has not stopped people from making plans to visit this summer.
“We are tracking ahead of where we thought we would be for this year, and we have some attractions we’re adding (that were) scheduled to open Memorial Day weekend,” Owens says.
Among them, the Drop Line offers a 230- foot free fall experience; and a junior roller coaster, Whistle Punk Chaser, accommodates young children. Splash Country has added TailSpin Racer, a multilane, mat-racer-style slide. All the additions are part of Dolly Parton’s $300 million investment in the park complex that was announced in 2013.
Also new in Pigeon Forge is the Alcatraz East Crime Museum with O.J. Simpson’s infamous white Bronco and Al Pacino’s Scarface machine gun on display. New hotels are opening, too.
“Pigeon Forge’s only industry is tourism, and if you don’t change, people will say, ‘Why go?”’ says Leon Downey, executive director of the department of tourism for Pigeon Forge. “There’s always something new and different in Pigeon Forge.”
Dollywood also hosts a number of summer festivals, and Gatlinburg boasts the country’s first Fourth of July Parade each year, too, kicking off at 12:01 a.m. on July 4, with 50,000 people lining the streets and bands from all over the country.
“The fire happened. We can’t change that,” Adams says. “The great thing is we have new attractions, new hotels and new everything being built. You can come and make new memories here.”