Lightning Rod is a wooden roller coaster which was slated to open for the 2016 season at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Due to complications with its prototype launch system, it failed to open as scheduled and struggled to remain open consistently that whole year. In 2017, and hopefully beyond, it seems to have turned the corner.
An Unfulfilled Trip
It was a crisp morning in late June when we got the news: Lightning Rod was closed… again. My Dad and I put down our Krispy Kremes in near sync, as we both absorbed the news from our Twitter feeds at the same time. This wasn’t good.
We were 7 hours from home, and still another 4 from Dollywood. We were all in for the park, and really, for Lightning Rod. And man, were we rolling the dice. This was a coaster that wasn’t operational until a few weeks prior—months after the originally slated March 21st opening. We decided to take the gamble and head down to Pigeon Forge.
And why not? I mean, even with only a slim chance to ride it, you had to take those odds. The thing is a monster. From the first time I watched the POV, I just knew it would be a legendary ride. It checked so many boxes: it interacted with the terrain, had insane airtime moments (a quadruple down!!!), and took the mark as the fastest wooden coaster at 73 miles per hour.
Upon arrival in the park, I still felt the same way. Seeing the lift scale a mountain, with the track disappearing off into a valley hidden from view, only served to heighten my anticipation. Unfortunately, the anticipation remained just that — anticipation. Lightning Rod was still closed.
And over our 2-day visit, it remained closed. We held out hope for just a chance — a chance — to ride. So, when the coaster began a test run, and the train rolled out towards the lift hill, our hearts jumped a beat. Could it be? Could we get our chance?
Our hope was quickly extinguished as the train never even made it up the lift hill. It had to be pushed back into the station… manually. Watching 15 people drag that hot rod train back for maintenance was one of the saddest sights ever.
This was my first experience with Lightning Rod, and I think it exemplifies most people’s feelings about the ride in 2016: amazing potential and anticipation marred by inconsistency and disappointment.
Thankfully, 2017 has been a different year. Now don’t get me wrong — Dollywood is a great park (Check out Bobbie’s recent trip report). I still enjoyed my first visit, but there was definitely something missing. So when I got to return with Lightning Rod actually open and running, I jumped at the chance for roller coaster redemption.
The Set Up
Walking towards the entrance, you feel transported to the 50s. A heavy use of neon along with retro architecture accomplishes this end well. In that backdrop is a vintage gas station that acts as an entry portal and the Ace motor and repair shop which doubles as the queue.
There are plenty of details in this multi-leveled queue. You walk through what feels like an actual repair shop before ascending the stairs, taking in a collection of authentic theming details all the while.
The Ride Experience
Soon you’re strapped into the hot-rod themed train and after a small turn, you are off! Where traditional wooden coasters have slower, methodical chain lifts, Lightning Rod has a high intensity magnetic launched lift hill that thrusts you right into the action. The fact that you are launching at an incline only multiplies the G-forces and the subsequent rush of blood flow.
This intensity truly does not let up for the rest of the ride. You don’t just go over the top of the lift, you are yanked over. It’s a good kind of yank though, the kind that delivers the ejector airtime that enthusiasts crave.
After that first crest the trend-bucking RMC design continues; where most rides go right into the first, biggest drop, Lightning Rod teases you with a small drop into another little hill before you plunge all the way down to the ground. The purpose of this little hill was likely to maximize the length of the drop. All this means for us, though, is that we get a double dose of airtime before even going down the full 165 feet!
The best way to describe it is as if El Toro and The Beast got together and had a child — relentless intensity and ejector airtime surrounded by enveloping, isolating terrain.
And man, is that drop incredible. Going down, it feels every bit as steep as the 73 degrees it’s listed as — and more. That initial speed boost going into the drop really amplifies how steep it feels. From there, you zoom down into the valley, shaving off blades of grass as you pull out towards the next element — a 90 degree banked airtime hill known as a wave turn. Lightning Rod has two of these, and they both deliver very unique sensations. Getting thrown out of your seat vertically while your body is horizontal is amazing.
After the first wave turn, you cross the valley again into the second one. This one banks away from the direction of the turn, meaning that you get wicked lateral G’s as the train transitions into and out of the element. The lateral G’s continue as barrel over a high speed banked bunny hop before rising towards Lightning Rod’s coup de grâce: the quadruple down.
It is absolutely relentless. Extreme ejector airtime over and over and over again. Airtime so strong that it’ll give your legs slight bruises if you marathon it enough. After this insanity, you peel into a sharp turnaround and hit the brakes with authority. As the train finally slows, you can breathe again.
Although it’s struggled to remain open consistently, when it is open Lightning Rod redeems all its past operational sins. The best way to describe it is as if El Toro and The Beast got together and had a child — relentless intensity and ejector airtime all surrounded by isolating terrain. Behind the cover of a mountain, you feel totally separated from the park and off in your own slice of the Smokies. This is especially notable during Lighting Rod’s legendary night rides. Only the lone, distant light of the moon breaks what is otherwise utter darkness.
Although the experience is great, it is not perfect, as no coaster is. The intensity and frequency of airtime means your legs are under constant pressure from the lap bar. This can be uncomfortable, but for me it didn’t cause pain like, say, Skyrush does. Also, Lightning Rod doesn’t give the longest ride time. At about a minute long, it’s just okay. But wow, that is one jam-packed minute.
In the end, these negatives are negligible. Lightning Rod is a one-of-a-kind coaster experience that is totally worth the wait.
Final Rating – 10.0
What’s your take on Lightning Rod? Have you gotten a chance to ride it? Or has that chance still evaded you? Share your thoughts below!
This review is the first in our 12 Days of Coasters series. Every day until January 5th we’ll be dropping a new coaster review. Come back and check out our gifts to you this Holiday season!