There’s a weekend every year when I turn down my frugal sensibilities. It involves what’s probably one of the least frugal places on earth, Dollywood. (Yes, Dollywood.) As someone who identifies as a liberal-hippy-kale-eating Pacific Northwesterner, this always comes as a surprise to me too.
I grew up in Tennessee and usually had a season pass to Dollywood courtesy of my grandparents. They knew a lot of the old timers who worked in the Appalachian artisans’ section and they always enjoyed the live music and country food (my grandmother, who grew up in northern Europe, particularly loved the pickled pigs’ knuckles … ick!). I liked the rides, the carnival games, and the cotton candy. Now my family makes a trip back about once a year to give my nephew the same anchoring childhood experience, one quite different from what he sees at home in the big Northeast city where he lives.
As a kid, I am certain I never once thought about how much it cost to get a pass, a ball toss, a frozen lemonade or a turkey leg. Now, I can tell you it’s insane: $62 for an adult ticket, $20 for lunch, and ridiculously expensive other treats. As an advice-giver, I should tell you to buy your tickets with a coupon in advance, pack your own lunch, and avoid the carnival games that are quite literally the equivalent of throwing your money into a bottomless pit in exchange for, at best, a jumbo plush donut stuffed with made-in-China styrofoam worth at most $2.
I follow none of this advice. How come? I’ll admit, I’m at a bit of a loss. My grandparents, children of the Depression and my frugal muses, followed all of these rules and more, so it’s not like I had terrible role models growing up. I know I’m a victim of the classic marketing ploy of evil corporations from the beginning of time (“spending money = fun”), but for whatever reason, Dollywood to me feels different. There is something about the combination of the being there with my nephew, my sister, and my mom, watching them have so much fun bucking the rules, and wrapping it all in a blanket of nostalgia that is contagious. I don’t care about the absurdity of a two-dollar SkeeBall game, a four-dollar lemonade, or the whole atmosphere of ridiculous overconsumption and absurdity in every form. Somehow, I only feel slightly guilty when it’s over and we’re home with empty wallets and a sugar hangover. This is not like me at all!
So am I telling you to go to Dollywood and spend your hard-earned, hard-saved money on sugary drinks, fried pies, crappy prizes, and neck-breaking roller coasters? No, absolutely not. If you’ve never been to Dollywood or Disneyworld or other American tourist oddities, don’t go — it’s weird, it’s gross, you’ll probably (hopefully, for The World) hate it.
But if this story sounds familiar — if you have a place in your life like my Dollywood, one where you can still find a childish joy as a jaded adult, communal fun with your family amidst the drama and difficulty of adulthood, and the gustatory pleasures of foods you normally snub as off-limits for whatever reason, I encourage you to reconsider your rules and go. Don’t go often, for goodness sake don’t buy the season pass, and maybe even take your own snacks. (OK, yes, you should definitely take your own snacks.) Make it something special for the kids or grandparents in your life and savor every moment while you’re there — there’s a reason the evil genius marketing folks call the moments like these priceless: they are, in my frugal heart of hearts, worth every penny. Except maybe the turkey leg.