Just Published: Theme Park Insider: 2016 Year in Review
Once we had purchased our tickets and made our way through the front gates, we immediately headed for the ride that brought me. Thunderhead, in case you haven’t heard, is the new GCI wooden coaster the park just opened. I could probably dedicate an entire article on this rode alone, but in the sake of keeping the non-coaster fans from falling asleep, I’ll keep it short. To put it simply, Thunderhead is a perfection of a ride. It is a twisting wooden coaster that reaches a top speed of 55, but at times it seems so much faster. During the ride, you actually fly through the station at 40mph, just a few feet above the train loading below. And the most amazing part to me is the ride’s smoothness. By a factor of 10, the smoothest wooden coaster I have ever been on. If you closed your eyes, you would think it was a steel coater. The ride is very different depending on which seat you are in as well. When loading the furthest seat seemed to give you more feelings of power and force, while the nearer seat gave more air time and a “lighter” ride. The line was very short, and we ended up riding about 6 times in an hour, trying out different seats of the train. Just an amazing ride, a challenger for the best wooden coaster title no doubt.
Being about 1 o’clock we decided to get some food. We started wandering around the park aimlessly, just taking in the sights. The park is very well kept, very clean, no signs of needed upkeep, and the flowers were wonderful. The park made very good use of flowers that were in immaculate condition to make the park seem fresh and clean. The entire day I never did see a single plant that was not full of blooms and healthy. We headed back towards the back of the park to eat at Hickory House BBQ. Boasting the best pork BBQ of any amusement park, I had to give it a try. The results were middling at best. I’d give the food an okay rating. It didn’t do a lot for me. The amount of food you got was generous, but overall the food was not great. The chicken was fairly good, but I think most people would have called it overcooked. The ribs were nothing to write home about, and the pulled pork was decent. The plate also came with a scoop of baked beans (bland, overcooked) and a pile of French fries, which were good. Also, at this location there was a large skillet cooker with fried potatoes and sausage with onions and peppers. I sat eating my meal wishing I had those offerings instead.
After getting some food in the stomach, back to riding we went. We headed to the very back of the park to ride Blazing Fury, an indoor dark ride/coaster. The dark ride portion of the ride could really use some work, but being 33 years old, I am sure it was ahead of it’s time when it was built. It has a very nice ending, where you may get a bit wet, we got splashed a bit.
We then headed next door to the Tennessee Tornado, the only other coaster at Dollyworld. It was also a very nice coaster, but short at a ride time of around 1:45. The initial drop is worth the ride. Because of the layout, you go into the drop with quite a bit of speed, which really lifts you off of your seat. The “Iron butterfly” dual 110 foot high loops pushes quite a bit of force through the train, and you can certainly feel it, especially in the front couple of rows of the train. It was definitely worth riding several times, and we did.
It was pushing 3 o’clock by this point, and we still hadn’t seen about half the park. It didn’t seem that the park was that large, and the lines were very short, but still the time flies by. We headed up towards “The Village” part of the park, taking a few minutes to look at the bald eagle preserve which was on the way. As we entered this area, we noticed the Dollywood Express was stopped at the station, and still had some room for passengers, so we jumped aboard. While we waiting to leave the station, they had concessionaires selling Coke, water, popcorn and cotton candy along the train cars. We did wait a few minutes before departing on a ride up through the mountains and back down, around part of the park (the part we hadn’t seen yet), and back to the station. It was honestly a bit boring, there just wasn’t much interesting to look at, the dioramas were few and not very well done. We had seen a special on the Travel Channel on the park that made the train ride look very fun, with live action, which did not exist, so our expectations were definitely not met to say the least.
Next we figured we would finish looking around this part of the park, which I noticed was one of the most open and almost barren parts of the park. We watched a few minutes of the magic show, which was entertaining, and continued to wander. The carousel looked very nice, but we didn’t take time to take a ride on it. As we poked around in the shops, we noticed a congregation of security, which of course is not something you really want to ever see in a park. As it turned out they were getting ready to rope off a path for Dolly to come through and wave at all of us. They used a personalized kind of caution tape that read Dolly’s Route, and they strung up a parade route right through the park. I mean right through the park, making getting around very difficult, a fact that the security personnel did not seem to care about at all. The “parade” was to start at 4, and being 3:45 we figured, we stand still for 15 minutes to see Dolly parade by. While we were waiting, I grabbed a “sandwich” from Papa’s Flat Bread. It was a tortilla with beef (or chicken is you prefer), sautéed onions and peppers, loaded with tomatoes, cheese and lettuce, topped with sour cream if you want. Sounds like a fajita where I come from. It was absolutely the best thing I had to eat at the park. It may have been the best fajita I have ever had. Anyway, eventually Dolly came riding through on an antique car, surrounded by an entourage of security and staff that would rival the President. You wouldn’t think it would be necessary, I surely didn’t, but it was. There were certainly enough fanatics out that she needed the staff to keep them back from swarming her.
With that circus over, it was time to take on the Mountain Sidewinder. The park boasted that this ride was voted the number 1 non-roller coaster ride, but no made no mention of who voted or if rides from other parks were considered in obtaining this great ranking. The ride was a toboggan ride down a waterslide, which equals a wet bobsled ride down the side of a mountain. For all the hype, I must say it was kind of unimpressive. I thought the ride was too short, which seems to be a theme that recurs on each of the rides in the park.
Now that we were just short of being soaking wet, (I didn’t see anyone else get off nearly as wet as we got), we thought we would head back up to Thunderhead for a few rides to dry off. We stopped on the way to watch a short demonstration on glass blowing. Dripping wet, it wasn’t so bad standing within a few feet of a 2900 degree oven. We continued on up to the front of the park, and managed to ride Thunderhead a few more times until we were dry.
By this time it was well after 5 and we started to think about dinner. As we wandered through some still unexplored areas of the park, we took some time to ride Smokey Mountain Wilderness Adventure Tour. This was a 3D motion theater ride that was not the best I had been on. Actually, I thought it was quite disappointing, although my wife seemed to enjoy it. We next headed over to check out the Rockin’ Roadway, the ever present antique cars ride done up to a 50’s theme. The park gets cool points for using 57 chevys and corvettes as models for their cars. A note to parents, they will let anyone drive as long as they walk. No kidding.
We headed back towards the back of the park again. Those skillet potatoes that called out to me at lunch were starting to sound really good. As we arrived however, we found they had packed up for the night. It was around 6:30 and the park didn’t close for another hour and a half! So we headed up to Ms. Lillian’s Chicken House. Ms. Lillian was a riot, but I didn’t know how to tell her that her house smelled more like the henhouse. Needless to say we passed. We headed then towards Granny Ogle’s Ham N’ Beans, the menu there was not wide enough to meet the needs of everyone in our group of two…so we decided instead just to eat some junk food. We walked through the country fair section of the park that had all the old standbys, the rides you would find at any local fair, and was loaded with midway games. We shared a sno-cone (it was huge) and somehow it was time to get ready to leave.
We headed over to the Grist Mill, where we picked up a few goodies to take home with us, some fresh cinnamon bread and corn meal to cook with at home. As we headed up towards the front gates, I was hoping for a chance for another ride on Thunderhead before we left, (it was really that good!) but it was much too late. The park filters all of its guests out through the Emporium, the only “forced” shopping experience in the park, and right into the line for the tram back to your car. The line was very long, but it went quick. Many kudos to Dollywood for that. No one wants to stand in line to leave.
Overall I was very impressed with the park. With only a few thrill rides it doesn’t get the visitors or the attention that many parks do, but it was a great place to spend a day. We could have certainly used another day in the park, especially if we had wanted to see several of the shows. The food was hit or miss, but overall I put it much higher than the average theme park. There was a huge selection; there were restaurants we didn’t even go into. If you have many picky eaters, I assure you, they will find something to eat, but you will need to do a lot of walking, because the food offerings are spread out all over the park. The park also made it so you couldn’t walk ten feet without having a reason to take out your wallet. Very good for the park’s bottom line, very bad if you have a tendency to impulse buy. The park surpassed my expectations, and I would recommend it to everyone.
I would like to give it a second chance--Thunderhead and the Tennessee Tornado sound great, and I missed out on the water rides entirely last time.
The Dollywood Express DID have a train robbery show until July of last season. Unfortunatly, the park discountinued it so the train could make more runs during an operating day. (Increased from 8 runs per day to 16 runs per day)
I miss Thunder Express & the Flooded Mine as well! Too bad Dollywood couldn't find different locations for Tennessee Tornado and Daredevil Falls.
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