For The Best Dinner At Dollywood, Just Add Pirates

Pirates Voyage dinner theater is a swashbuckling adventure in the Smoky Mountains.

Call it silly and touristy if you must, but I absolutely love a dinner theater attraction—the bigger, louder, and brighter, the better. I've eaten kalua pork and chicken long rice at a luau in Hawaii while hula dancers swayed against a blazing sunset, and I've tapped my toes while watching Irish step dancers and snacking on bangers and mash at Raglan Road in Walt Disney World. But admittedly, I'm not truly happy unless my meal is paired with death-defying stunts and pyrotechnics. These high standards of mine were instilled by none other than Ms. Dolly Parton herself.

I started going to Dolly Parton's Stampede when it first opened in 1988, back when it was the Dixie Stampede. It's in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, a tiny town in the Smoky Mountains that's home to Dollywood and to countless other kinds of family entertainment, from a Titanic museum to a lumberjack stunt show to a centuries-old grist mill that's now a restaurant on the banks of the Little Pigeon River. Every time my family would go back to Pigeon Forge, our Dollywood trip wasn't complete unless we sat high up in that arena, watching games of horsemanship and "stampeding" our applause with our feet because, as part of the entertainment, we were eating with our bare hands.

On my most recent trip back, though, I wanted something different. Something daring. Something adventurous. Something... with pirates.

Dollywood’s Pirates Voyage dinner show, explained

Pirates Voyage is a dinner show that's owned by Dollywood, but isn't part of the park itself—although dinner for an adult costs almost as much as a ticket to the theme park just down the road. Over the course of an hour and a half, guests sit and eat while a show unfolds, combining physical stunts, aerial acrobatics, sword fighting, fire dancing, animal actors, and games of competition. Oh, and mermaids.


The theater's tiered seating is situated around a 300,000-gallon lagoon, which is 15 feet deep and holds two 25-foot pirate ships, one decked out in crimson and one in sapphire. In the center of the pool is a deck with a ship's mast rising up from it and a platform sort of like a crow's nest high overhead. The entire set is visible as soon as you enter the room, but still, I couldn't have anticipated the complexity and quality of the stunts we were about to witness.

Our party included my Dollywood-loving lifelong best friend and her daughters, 8 and 2, whom we were introducing to the wonders of Pigeon Forge for the first time. Our adult tickets were $69.99 each, the 8-year-old's ticket was $35, and the toddler was free as long as she sat on someone's lap. The price of admission includes a four-course meal and unlimited soft drinks, and alcohol is available for purchase. Shows happen almost every night of the year in Pigeon Forge and at the Myrtle Beach location as well.


As soon as we sat down, a server dressed as a pirate came to take our drink order. The meal started with a creamy vegetable soup; I enjoyed the thick bisque purely for the nostalgia, since it was essentially the same recipe as it has been at the Stampede for more than 30 years. As the show progressed, we were served fried chicken, sugar-cured ham, corn on the cob, a roasted potato, and a biscuit, then an apple turnover. The chicken was flavorful and I especially liked the ham, but the meal is a distant second on the list of reasons I enjoyed the experience.

Just as our food started coming out, the lights in the theater went down, and all of a sudden Blackbeard descended from the ceiling, sitting in what I can only describe as a pirate throne. He started the show, a parrot on his arm, setting the scene for what would be the night's competition between the crimson pirates and the sapphire ones. Eventually, there would be challenges they'd try to win to capture the hidden treasure. First, there were going to be some really thrilling stunts.

Mermaids dropped down from the rafters, sitting on ship anchors suspended from the ceiling and diving into the water. A fire-wielding pirate took center stage with a flaming sword, who lit the stage on fire before setting the water itself ablaze. Stunt divers careened off high-dive platforms, plunging into the water and disappearing under the ships. There was a lot of sword fighting, a lot of swinging wildly on ship's rigging, a lot of truly unbelievable feats of strength and skill.


And there were animals, too. Trained dogs performed tricks, tropical birds took flight, and Salty the Sea Lion stole the show with his antics, stealing fish from his pirate trainer and eliciting a huge audience response when he succeeded in getting his treats. Dolly Parton wrote a song for the show, "Sail Away," which plays during the performance, while two performers partner for aerial acrobatics.

The whole thing was bigger and more spectacular than any show I've ever seen at a theme park, and I wasn't the only one who felt that way. The next day, we spent the day at Dollywood riding roller coasters and eating the park's incredible cinnamon bread until we were about to burst. The day after, we went attraction hopping in Pigeon Forge, exploring Wonderworks, the interactive science museum housed in an upside-down mansion, and Magiquest, where we had magic wands and used them to unlock treasures in a medieval-style castle. It was a lot of fun packed into three days.

At the end, I asked my friend's 8-year-old what her favorite part of the whole trip was, fully expecting her to say one of the thrill rides—she goes to Disney a lot and knows her way around a theme park vacation.

"Um," she said, "probably Salty."


A sea lion performing tricks in a pirate lagoon won the whole trip. I honestly can't say I'm surprised. That guy has some real star power.