So What’s New (relatively)?
It had been five years since I visited Dollywood and during that time some significant changes had been made. Two coasters had been added, including one which is revolutionary in design. (The park also added a drop tower and drop line.) The prospect of experiencing something new in such a gorgeous setting was more than enough incentive to revisit Dollywood.
There was no doubt whatsoever that my first stop upon entering the park would be Lightning Rod, the ground-breaking coaster added in 2016. Unfortunately, my timing was slightly off. A team member informed me that the ride had been operating until about 20 minutes prior to my arrival but was currently being serviced by mechanics. Let it be said that Lightning Rod has an erratic track record. The coaster had experienced repeated technical problems since it first opened; I know people who went to the park to find it closed for an entire day or more but the fact that it had been running earlier was reason for optimism.
World Class Coasters
Dollywood features a very good, eclectic collection of coasters so I headed up the hill that leads to all but Lightning Rod. Providentially, I picked the perfect day to visit the park, as almost everything was a walk-on. I rode the coasters in pretty much the order in which they’re arranged and these are my impressions:
This twister remains on my top ten wooden coaster list. Breezing through over 20 turns is my idea of a good time and the station fly-through is a riot. I was delighted to discover that Thunderhead has not become at all perceptibly rough.
I’d forgotten how absolutely creepy this coaster is. The interior of the mine is a scene of death and decrepitude, enhanced by special effects such as the sound of cackling. At one point riders come face to face with a rather spectacular fire. Among the elements are two inversions (outside the mine) and a vertical lift hill (inside the mine) followed by free fall, a signature element of Gerstlauer Euro-Fighters. Mystery Mine gets high marks for originality although I found the inversions too rough, just as I had five years ago.
FireChaser wasn’t there when I last visited Dollywood so it was something new I could ride without any preconceptions. It proved to be a really fun ride with great theming and special effects. I especially enjoyed being propelled backwards from the fireworks storage area – where there are flames and sparks – over a couple of airtime hills before returning to the loading station. (Photo taken from loading station of Wild Eagle, as that was the only place where I could get a good angle.)
When it comes to loopers, this one deserves special mention for being smooth and painlessly re-rideable. The inversions are seamless and the descent into a tunnel provides a truly great moment of airtime, almost worth the price of admission. This coaster doesn’t seem to have aged a bit. I asked whether they were still offering on-ride videos and the ride ops said no, but Eagle was. (Photo by DollyFanJoie, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
The first wing coaster to be built in the USA, Wild Eagle is hands down the smoothest coaster in the park and in fact one of the smoothest I’ve ever ridden. I experienced a sensation of alternately floating and swooping. The concept, of course, is to soar like an eagle and the ride doesn’t do a bad job of simulating that. As to on-ride videos, the woman manning the photo booth told me that the videos don’t capture the entire ride, only about the first 15 seconds. No thanks.
One of the many nice features of Dollywood is the sign boards on which ride wait times are posted. I had just returned to Mystery Mine with the idea of going for another ride when I noticed the sign board and saw that a wait time of 25 minutes for Lightning Rod was posted. I could hardly believe my eyes but if a wait time was posted it must actually be up and running. Hallelujah! So with bated breath and intense anticipation, I headed in that direction.
The world’s first launched wooden coaster, Lightning Rod is one of the last two coasters built by Rocky Mountain Construction. (Others are in the works.) The hot rod theming is exceptionally well done. Built on a mountain, it’s largely obscured from view. The only things really visible from the entrance are the lift hill, so-called non-inverting half loop (more of an overbanked turn) and section of descending track. The inability to see what lies ahead makes it all the more intriguing. Anyway, time to go for a ride. Be prepared to climb a lot of steps. And be prepared to ride in whatever row to which you are directed by the ride ops.
With a right turn out of the loading station, the train is already in motion when it’s launched up the lift hill. The initial drop (after a short teaser drop) of 165 feet at a 73-degree angle is an adrenaline rush. From there the coaster takes riders through a course of steeply banked turns, swift directional changes and airtime hills. Fast-paced and largely unpredictable, it features a double up and quadruple down. What a ride! Awesome! If you asked me what just happened I couldn’t tell you because this is a lot to process. Of course I had to go for several repeat rides, probably not a great idea for someone with a rib contusion sustained on a coaster in New England last month, but with no plans to revisit Dollywood any time soon I was determined to get the maximum out of my visit.
Food and Hospitality
Dollywood is known for its outstanding culinary offerings and hospitality. (The park just won a 2017 Golden Ticket award for best food and friendliest park.) There are so many scrumptious things to eat that the choices are tough. I was tempted to bring a loaf of apple butter bread and other comestibles back home but it was simply too much to carry on a flight so I passed. As to hospitality, I cannot recall ever visiting a park where the staff was as hospitable and helpful as the staff at Dollywood. A lady in the bakery and sandwich shop went out of her way to help me get from the park to my hotel cheaply and without hassle (there’s a trolley that runs from Dollywood to a transit stop near the main drag in Pigeon Forge and costs 50 cents), even telling me where I could stop to pick up some wine.
What’s Your Take?
What’s your take? Have you been to Dollywood and/or ridden Lightning Rod and if so, what did you think?