We actually first visited Gatlinburg back in 2019 when Ryder was a baby and knew we wanted to return because we barely scratched the surface with all there is to do in the area. To be honest, I still feel like we barely scratched the surface with seeing all there is to see in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge but in the same breath, we crammed a lot into the two full days we spent in Tennessee (especially for a vacation involving three little ones!) and I know we’ll return again at some point to see some of the things we missed.
Here’s a glimpse into our trip in chronological order!
Tennessee Family Vacation
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
We knew a return visit to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies had to happen during our weekend getaway since our family loved it so much when we first visited back in 2019. We actually drove straight from home to the aquarium so it was the first thing we did during our trip and kicked things off on the best note.
Rhett likes to boycott all naps outside of his crib these days and since he didn’t sleep at all on the four-hour drive, we weren’t sure how he was going to do but he shocked us by hanging in there like a champ for our adventure. Since our kids are all serious animal lovers, they loved checking out all of the aquatic creatures. We were in awe of the giant green sea turtle that swam over our heads a number of times in the shark lagoon tunnel!
We also majorly lucked out when the penguin parade passed by our family at the end of our visit and the adorable birds waddled right by our feet!
Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort + Wild Bear Falls Waterpark
(Disclosure: Our family’s stay at this resort was hosted by Westgate as part of a social media collaboration that included a photography component where I provided them with images for their marketing efforts. I also wanted to highlight our stay here since we had so much fun!)
After the aquarium, we checked in at Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort so Rhett could get in a much-needed nap. We were invited to stay at the resort (as noted above) and the location worked perfectly for our family since it was within 20 minutes of both the aquarium and Dollywood, the two main attractions our family planned to visit over the weekend.
The mountain views were stunning and the accommodations were great – we had a one-bedroom room that also had a kitchen and living area with a pull-out couch where the big kids slept – and we loved that the resort had a lot of stuff for our boys to do close to our room (most notably mini golf, an outdoor pool and a playground). This came in super handy since Ryan and I alternated staying back with Rhett so he could nap in the afternoon while the other one took Chase and Ryder out for some fun.
The main highlight of the Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort for our crew was the Wild Bear Falls indoor waterpark located at the bottom of the mountain. We spent two hours at the water park in the late afternoon/early evening both Friday and Saturday and our kids were in heaven!
It was the perfect size for our young boys (5 and under) and included a lazy river (Chase’s obsession since he loved swimming fast along with the current), water slides of various sizes (two large ones that Chase also loved – he was the only one big enough for them), a shallow splash area Rhett and Ryder adored, a bigger play section perfect for Chase and Ryder and a main swimming pool.
It was so, so nice to have a built-in activity for the kids before dinner each night and had we not planned to fill our days with other activities, I know our boys would’ve happily spent even more time at the water park!
Ryan and I were both Dollywood first-timers and admittedly didn’t do a ton of planning going into the park. We knew we wanted to visit Dollywood since we’d heard so many great things about it but I had no idea it was so huge! Dollywood ended up being such a fantastic experience for all of us an I’m so, so glad we decided to just do it and not overthink it because I’m sure it would’ve been easy to feel overwhelmed at the thought of bringing 2 young kids and a baby to an amusement park.
One perk of visiting Dollywood with three little ones is that none of the boys could ride any of the huge rides which meant we didn’t have to wait in any super-long lines. We arrived about 25 minutes before the park opened at 10 a.m. and they were already letting people in so we majorly lucked out by hitting up some of the kiddie rides early and the boys walked right on.
With so many different areas of the park, we were able to explore Dollywood and the boys had plenty of things to do, see and experience so the four hours we spent at the park seriously flew by!
For anyone thinking of taking young kids to Dollywood, we asked the boys about their Dollywood favorites and they said they loved the Birds of Prey show, Hidden Hollow, the flying elephants ride, splash pad areas and the bear ride. Also, I must give an extra shoutout to the Hidden Hollow play gym. It is AWESOME and we stumbled upon it at the perfect time. It’s basically an air conditioned indoor facility with lots of sections for young kids to climb, run, slide, jump and explore.
Here’s a little Instagram Reel video I put together of our day at the park if you’d like to check it out:
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WNC Nature Center + Danny’s Fish ‘n’ Camp
We initially hoped to go for a hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park before heading home to Charlotte but it was a rainy morning on Sunday so we scrapped our plans and hit the road. We figured we could stop about halfway into our drive at the WNC Nature Center, a favorite of our family’s that we loved during one of our past mountain vacations. The nature center is home to sixty species of wild and domestic animals representative of the animals found in the Southern Appalachian Mountains and our boys especially loved the two three-legged red foxes that ran around together.
While we were at the nature center, Ryan read a few reviews for Danny’s Fish ‘n’ Camp online and thought our kids might enjoy it so we made a last-minute decision to stop by for some fishing before making the final trek home.
This spot was a slam dunk for our boys! Not only did they catch four large catfish, the larger trout pond had tons of other creatures for them to check out. They saw salamanders, toads, tadpoles and butterflies and loved this spontaneous stop!
Questions of the Day
Are you planning to travel at all this summer?
For those with kids, where are some places you’ve traveled that were awesome for families?