We arrived at the front gate just before the park officially opened and strolled around the entrance plaza before eventually making our way to the Q2Q kiosk. The park did not appear very busy when we arrived, but we decided to go ahead and utilize the line avoidance system. For the two of us, Q2Q cost us $20, which seemed like a pretty modest fee. We had read about the system before arriving and heard that it was almost essential on busy days to ensure seeing all of the best shows, and while the day did not appear to be extremely busy, we were glad we made the investment in the system. For those that have used the system at Six Flags, it works very similarly, but the way it’s used at Dollywood is even better. Guests are required to reserve their shows when purchasing the system through a touch screen at the kiosk, and are able to cancel those reservations at any time. However, if you want to reserve another show, you need to return to the kiosk to make new show reservations. Unlike Six Flags, guests can make ride reservations from anywhere at any time, a significant improvement over having to walk up to a box at the ride you’re interested in riding and securing a reservation for a later time. You can even make a reservation for a ride while you’re riding a ride or waiting to get on a ride, which is something we took advantage of throughout the day.
Once the park officially opened, we made our way to the Timber Canyon section of the park, and the former #1 rated wooden coaster in the world, Thunderhead. This GCI creation is not even close to the tallest, fastest, longest, or most extreme coaster, but it is definitely amazing. The 100-foot lift takes you up to a twisting first drop that serves more to give the train its momentum for the course more than anything else. The one thing this coaster does possess is airtime, with shots of air around virtually every turn and at the top of every hill. The Millennium Flier trains provide an exceptionally smooth ride as the coaster maintains its intensity through its 3,000+ foot track length. The only “gimmick” this coaster has is a fly-through station that doesn’t really do anything for riders, but definitely gets the adrenaline of those waiting to ride pumping. While this coaster has topped many wooden coaster lists since it was completed in 2004, it wasn’t quite good enough to crack my top 3 (Phoenix at Knoebels, The Voyage at Holiday World and El Toro at Six Flags Great Adventure).
After riding Thunderhead, we went over to ride Timber Tower. This interesting looking flat ride from Huss is one weird piece of machinery. Guests are seated in a circle facing away from the center of the ride (like most tower rides) and are hoisted 100 feet into the air while rotating. This is when things get truly strange---once at the top, the tower begins to teeter back and forth as if it were going to topple over, as guests continue to rotate. Water and sound effects enhance the experience as riders topple back and forth through the ride cycle. While the movement of this preposterous contraption looks peculiar, the sensations are surprisingly predictable and rather tame. From on the ride, the experience is more entertaining visually than it is physically.
Once we got off of Timber Tower, we made a reservation for Mystery Mine. Dollywood’s newest coaster (completed in 2007) is one of the most unusual looking steel roller coasters you’ll find in the United States. The coaster features trains with two rows of 4 seats each that look just like mining cars. The cars are very similar to the ones found on Revenge of the Mummy, except the two rows of seats are at the same height, which creates a vastly different experience in the back row than the front row. Riders in the back row might as well ride with blindfolds on, because the front row of seats completely blocks the view. The coaster does feature a number of cool dark ride elements with music, lights, and special effects. It also features two vertical lift hills, one past vertical and one near vertical drop, a heartline roll, and an incredible dive loop where riders are suspended complete upside down for over a second. The coaster takes up a surprisingly small footprint, and packs a pretty good punch while still being rather accessible for most riders.
After a couple of rides on Mystery Mine, and the unique Lumberjack Lifts, it was time to head to our first show reservation of the day. In addition to getting a guaranteed seat in the shows, Q2Q also provides a special section of reserved seats near in the front of all of the theaters. Our first show of the day was a special Kidzfest show starring the Kratt Brothers and their amazing animals. I’d never seen Zoboomafoo, the PBS show these guys are from, but their Jack Hanna-esque act was pretty predictable with some enjoyable and interesting appearances from a porcupine, beaver, a couple of snakes, a zebra and a lemur.
We then decided to take a stroll through Craftsman’s Valley, which seemed very much like a renaissance faire set in the late 19th century rather than a theme park land. Everything along this stretch is extremely authentic, right down to the blacksmith’s shop. As we made our way through Craftsman’s Valley, we eventually came to the Tennessee Tornado. The 1999 Arrow Dynamics creation features three inversions and a top speed of 63 MPH. I was particularly impressed with this coaster’s smoothness, as it is one of the smoothest riding coasters I’ve been on built by Arrow. The two vertical loops are not your run-off-the-mill loops, as the gigantic inversions feature a slight rotation to the track as the train circumvents the element. The third inversion, a sidewinder, whips riders upside down and turns them over as the train goes back to the station. While the coaster is relatively short, it really packs a punch, and was actually my favorite coaster in the park.
Before heading off to our second show, we enjoyed a quick lunch in Market Square. This collection of quick-service restaurants features just about any food you could want, cooked in a giant skillet. We chose a potato dish that featured sautéed red bliss potatoes with onions and bell peppers, topped with chili and cheese. It was delicious, and I only wish we had more time so I could have gotten another. Alas, we had reservations for the next showing of Sha-Kon-O-Hey! (an Cherokee term for “land of blue smoke”) The show is Dollywood’s response to the trend of theme park shows towards Broadway-style productions and features an original score composed by Dolly herself. The show follows a family that is planning on leaving their home in the Great Smokey Mountains to seek a more stable financial situation. The family learns through songs and dances that the Smokies will always be their home and about the history of the area. With a very complete production and number of catchy tunes, Sha-Kon-O-Hey! is a solid show that is certainly worth taking time out of your day to experience.
After the show, we started making around the park for a second circuit, checking out the Wings of America Bird Show. The show is your standard bird show, with southern charm and predictable uber-patriotism. We eventually made our way around to River Battle, which is a water ride where guests use on-board water cannons to shoot nearby boats and passersby. I was a little disappointed in this attraction despite its cuteness and great theming because of the lack of a competitive aspect to the ride. There are numerous targets along the circuit, but hitting them simply means that you or one of the people next to you in your boat end up getting wet. This is definitely a perfect ride for an extremely hot day or for those little ones that just can’t get wet enough.
Near River Battle is the park’s newest attraction, Sky Zip. The ride is pretty much what you would expect from its name, a giant zip line. However, this upcharge attraction ($40 for non-passholders) is described as a 45-minute extreme zip line experience consisting of 4 zip lines that circumnavigate the upper portion of the park. We didn’t want to spend the money for the new attraction, but it definitely looked pretty cool if you’ve got the time and inclination.
We then took a ride on Blazing Fury. This dark ride/coaster experience is one of the most interesting rides I’ve ever been on. The first part of the ride was a pretty normal and boring low-budget dark ride, but when the coaster portions kick in, the ride becomes rather exciting and surprising. This ride won’t wow the hard-core coaster enthusiasts, but for the normal theme park guests, it packs a surprising punch.
It was now time to get to the last show of the day, the 1-hour Dreamland Drive-In, which is a jukebox show of more than 50 pop songs from the 60s and 70s. The show is full of high-energy singing and dancing and a collection of songs that seemingly never ends, but guests will find themselves tapping their feet or perhaps even singing along with the very talented cast.
As the day wore to an end, we took a quick tour through the Chasing Rainbows Museum (a.k.a Dolly’s collection of everything Dolly), admiring all of Dolly’s awards and costumes. We also took a run on the Dollywood Express Train, featuring a real steam engine and a figure-eight circuit through the park. We wanted to cap off our day with dinner at one of the park’s three all-you-can-eat restaurants, but all three were closed more than an hour before the park’s official closing time. We were pretty disappointed, since we had been anticipating the nice meal at the end of the day while walking around the park and smelling all of the delicious looking food. I don’t blame a park for wanting to begin closing down parts of the park before the official closing time, but to shut down three restaurants more than an hour before closing time seems a bit unnecessary (most of the quick service restaurants were closing up more than hour before closing too), particularly when service hours are not listed on the maps or menus outside each of the restaurants.
Aside from the slightly disappointing end to our day, I was very impressed with this small, quaint, independent theme park. All of the rides and attractions are pretty accessible to all guests with no ride that I would classify as “extreme” like most of the bigger parks have. The park has a great lineup of shows that will keep just about any non-rider busy for the entire day, and all of the performers and cast members treat guests with that wonderful southern charm. I was extremely pleased with our choice to use the Q2Q system even though the park wasn’t extremely busy (the longest standby wait was about 45 minutes for Mystery Mine), but because of it, we never waited for more than 15 minutes to get on a ride, and got up-front seating for each of the big shows we saw.
Dollywood may be a bit out of the way for most people on the east coast, and is definitely hard to get to for those traveling from longer distances. However, it is definitely worth a side trip if you are planning a family vacation to the Great Smokey Mountains or are coming within 5 hours of this amazing little park.
I am a little disappointed that the new zip line flyer added this year is an up-charge attraction and that it has such a steep fee. But, I guess Herschend is feeling the economic pinch just like everyone else. Still, up-charge attractions seem so Six Flags and out of place at this type of family focused park. Were there many people willing to pony up and ride it, I wonder?