Country music superstar Dolly Parton is giving Dollywood theme park employees something to sing about: a free education. Whether they’re working “9 to 5” or part-time, starting on Feb. 24, Dollywood is offering free books and tuition to all workers interested in furthering their education. “I’m kind of addicted to the feeling of giving,” she says. “Knowing that I’m doing something good for someone else.”
The country crooner should be proud of the new affordable education perks that are offered through Dollywood’s operating partner Herschend Enterprises’ Grow U program, in partnership with Guild Education, a private edtech company based in Denver. “We know that when our hosts are happy and feel cared for, they are going to pass that along to our guests,” explains Eugene Naughton, president of The Dollywood Company. “The creation of the program allows another avenue for us to care for our hosts.”
Dollywood Values Its Employees
In 1986, Dollywood opened in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The singer’s fans and thrill-ride enthusiasts flock to the amusement park in the Great Smoky Mountains every year to ride the roller coasters and beat the heat with the water attractions at Dollywood’s Splash Country. Plus, the famed dinner show, “Stampede,” delights diners with horse-riding stunts and musical acts throughout the delicious four-course meal.
The ability to identify personal strengths and weaknesses has been a business asset of Parton’s for decades. “I have all kinds of companies, like Dollywood. It was my idea to have Dollywood, to have a theme park, but I knew I didn’t know anything about running it, but I knew I would find people,” she explains. “So I always do that, though, with anything. I hire people. I see what I need and what I want, but I know I can’t do all that by myself. In some cases, I am not educated enough to do it. In some cases, I’m not smart enough to do it, but I’m smart enough to know what I want and what I don’t want. I’m smart enough to know what I can and can’t do, and that is how you have to look at it.”
That’s one reason why Parton brought Herschend Enterprises on board to help run the park, and now they teamed up with Guild Education to create the affordable school program. “One of The Dollywood Foundation’s key tenets is to ‘learn more.’ This program is created with that very tenet in mind,” says Naughton. “We want our hosts to develop themselves through advanced learning to fulfill the foundation’s other tenets: Care more, dream more, and be more. When our hosts strive to grow themselves, it makes our business and our community a truly better place.”
Parton explains, “I’m a good boss, I think. I try to rule with love and compassion. But also, there’s a fine line that says, ‘She’s not a pushover.’ I’m a fair and honest person. I like to be as friendly as I can and love the people that work with me, and I like to have them love me.”
Guild Education Powers The Grow U Program
Advertised as “the friendliest theme park in the world,” Dollywood currently has approximately 3,000 employees. Those employees are not the only ones gaining access to affordable education; it’s available to anyone employed by Herschend Enterprises, which is the largest privately owned themed-attractions corporation in the United States. Its other attractions include Kentucky’s Newport Aquarium, Kentucky Kingdom and Hurricane Bay, Pink Adventure Tours located in Tennessee, Nevada, and Arizona, Georgia’s Wild Adventures, Adventure Aquarium in New Jersey, and Silver Dollar City in Missouri.
Through the partnership with the workforce education platform Guild Education, Herschend’s Grow U program will cover 100% of the tuition, books, and fees for any of its 11,000 full-time, part-time and seasonal employees who choose to pursue further education.
“Whether it is to pursue a new dream or advance their career with us, we care about our employees’ personal and professional growth because we believe that their futures should be grown with love, not loans,” says Herschend Enterprises CEO Andrew Wexler. “Our team members’ success is our success. And that is why we are thrilled to make this benefit available to all, regardless of their role in the company and without the burden of debt.”
Guild Education: Making Education Affordable and Accessible
Through the Grow U program, Dollywood and all Herschend Enterprises employees will access diploma, certificate, and degree programs via 30 learning partners. In addition, it offers programs in culinary, finance, business administration, leadership, marketing, and technology. Through the program, the company also provides partial funding, up to $5,250 a year, for 150 other programs in such fields as engineering, human resources, art design, and hospitality.
Guild Education offers similar programs to employers of major companies, including Target, Chipotle, The Walt Disney Company, Taco Bell, Lowe’s, and Walmart. Guild Education’s learning partners included Southern New Hampshire University, Oregon State University, eCornell, and the University of Massachusetts Global.
According to a statement from Guild Education’s president and Chief Commercial Officer Natalie McCullough, “We are proud to partner with Herschend to provide their employees with an equitable education program to advance their careers. With this program, Herschend is preparing its workforce for the jobs of the future with new skills and mobility opportunities.”
Dolly Parton’s Philanthropic Endeavors
Free tuition through Guild Education’s Learning Marketplace isn’t the only way that the “Jolene” singer gives back to her community and works to make the world a better place. Through her Dollywood Foundation, she gives away millions to local Tennessee groups. And her Imagination Library, in partnership with local communities, provides children free, high-quality books from birth to age 5. To date, it has donated over 170 million books. Parton also did her part to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic when she donated $1 million to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center for their Moderna vaccine development research.
Those are just a few reasons many people consider the singer a national treasure, celebrities included. “She’s an angel,” raved comedian and former talk show host Rosie O’Donnell about the affordable education news, while journalist and TV personality Katie Couric tweeted that Dollywood’s plans to offer free school through Guild Education’s platform is “good news.”
Parton stays modest, despite her profoundly charitable track record. “I’ve learned you can’t just say, ‘Oh, my dream’s come true, and I’m walking out of here.’ No, you’ve got to show you’re grateful and show that you’re not going to just leave it all in the hands of other people,” she says.