Walking past the Dollywood Express train station and into the new Victorian-era village, I heard a Gavioli pipe organ playing a familiar tune. At first, I couldn’t place the melody, then it hit me. The song was the Dolly Parton/Kenny Rogers song “Islands in the Stream,” which spent two weeks in the No. 1 position on the Billboard country music chart in late October 1983.
The tune caught my attention because the country hit was being presented in a totally different genre: carousel music. As I watched the ride and enjoyed the song, another Dolly song followed. “What a great concept,” I thought.
That was on opening day in 1990, and the new-to-the-park Dentzel Carousel was spinning in all its glory, enjoying its role as the centerpiece of Dollywood’s new area. The carousel was on lease from its owners, Kimberly and Tom Wolf. The antique crowd pleaser had been in Kimberly’s family since her grandfather purchased it from William Dentzel in 1925. Dentzel craftsmen had rebuilt it the previous year, adding the 1901 Gavioli organ and animals from other carousels, some dating back to 1885.
It was the perfect addition to Dollywood as Peter Herschend, one of the owners of the park, told me as we climbed aboard for a ride later in the day. “We took this section of the original park, dating back to 1961 and created the Victorian village. I love the music,” he said as we started to turn. “It’s been at a park before and was very popular.” Indeed it was. It was a major attraction at Rocky Springs amusement park near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for more than 60 years, a park owned by Kimberly’s family. Tom worked at the park and knew the carousel better than anyone. He had been keeping it going and maintaining it for many years.
Tom and Kimberly were able to rescue the ride from a bank trust after Rocky Springs park closed in 1982 and soon found a home for it in a city park in Lake Lansing, Michigan, but due to high insurance rates, Tom and Kimberly mothballed the horses in 1987. The Dollywood agreement was signed in 1989, and the ride opened the following spring, remaining there until the close of the 1998 season. It was replaced by a Chance carousel which still turns at the Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, park today.
Tom recalls in 1999, the now-defunct Rocky Springs Carousel Association raised $1.3 million to purchase the carousel and return it to Lancaster. Plans were to fully restore it and house it in a glass building in the downtown area of Lancaster. Fast forward to 2019. The horses have not been restored, there is no glass building, Tom believes the mayor doesn’t want it on public land, the carousel association has been disbanded, and everything remains stored in a location known only to a few.
Will it ever spin again?
“I doubt it very much,” Tom told me recently. “Even if they did get it going, they would have to operate it correctly. We ran it as a 1925 adventure, not just a spin on a wooden horse. That’s why it was so popular when we had it.”
Tom is very attached to the ride. “She talked with me through the years and told me what was bothering her, and I was able to keep her in good shape. I had a moment of tears after I packed up at Dollywood. I had a feeling I would never see her run again,” he says.
Tom is still hopeful that one day he will get a happy call from Lancaster. Me too.