Theme Park Road Trip: 4 parks/5 days from Virginia to Tennessee

Edited: March 27, 2019, 7:08 AM

I’ve been a registered TPI user for 17 years and yet I’ve probably only contributed enough posts to fill the front page. I moved away from my fantasy of becoming an Imagineer - I now own a brewery and bar with my friends, which could equally be considered a fantasy to many. And while I’ve seen many hobbies, passions and tastes come and go over the past two decades, there’s something about theme parks that never fails to excite me.

Two of my old engineering school buddies and I run our brewery business together. I like to think we do a good job of it, too. Like any business, ours can be quite stressful - very stressful as of late - and we found ourselves in need of an escape from it all. We talked about trying out an all-inclusive resort somewhere tropical, but the prospect didn’t excite us much. We enjoy a good cultural trip, but the logistics of navigating a place we are unfamiliar with sounded beyond our current mental capacity.

No, we decided we needed some childish, carefree, and even mindless theme park entertainment. We wanted to take a theme park road trip.

Our criteria for destination selection were simple.

  1. It had to be warmer than 12 deg. C (54 deg. F) in April

  2. It had to be close enough to three well-reviewed theme parks such that we could hit them all in one week.

  3. It had to start and finish in two major flight hubs to keep flights cheap.

Researching the trip was more difficult than anticipated. There are very few trip reports here or elsewhere in which the author had travelled across multiple states to multiple parks. This makes sense. After all, regional theme parks are distanced such that each one services a different market just out of comfortable driving range. AJ Hummel detailed a pretty incredible Midwestern trip, but that’s the only report I could find.

Guess we have to blaze a trail.

On Saturday, April 13th we fly into Washington, D.C. and begin our itinerary:
Day 1 - Richmond, VA (Saturday)
Day 2 - Kings Dominion
Day 3 - Busch Gardens Williamsburg
Day 4 - Drive to Charlotte, NC
Day 5 - Carowinds
Day 6 - Dollywood
Day 7 - Pigeon Forge (relax in the mountains)
Day 8 - Fly out of Nashville (Saturday)

This will not be a relaxing trip, but I’m sure it will be amazing. We’re a group of six old friends in our 30s and we are ready to rock. We love adventure. We love beer. And we love theme parks.

Feel free to weigh in with suggestions or thoughts. If there’s any demand for a trip report, I’ll do my best to whip up my sentiments after the trip.

Cheers, TPI. Nice to be back.

Replies (18)

Edited: March 25, 2019, 11:23 PM

Not going to lie I had a mini panic attack when reading that you planned on going to these parks on weekdays in April because many parks aren't open weekdays yet, but it looks like you are catching the holiday break in this so everything is open that week.

That's the good news of course. The bad news's a holiday break so the parks might be crowded. All four are solid parks and can easily be done in one day each so i'm sure you'll have a great time.

KD: Twisted Timbers is great, Intimidator 305 is really damn good, Dominator is pretty damn good, the rest of the park is meh but it does have some good flats and nice landscaping.

BGW: Great park in pretty much every way.

Carowinds: Unquestionably my least favorite of the four but still not bad. They have a lot of coasters, most all of which are mediocre, Fury of course is the standout but I wouldn't put it in my top 10 (but I know a lot of enthusiasts that would disagree with me).

Dollywood: Like BGW a great park in pretty much every way. Thunderhead is hit or miss i've had some amazing rides and some bad rides over the years, I haven't ridden Lightning Rod yet but you can't go wrong with an RMC so i'm sure its great, even their Arrow looper Tennessee Tornado is pretty unique (though short). The one coaster there that isn't very good is Mystery Mine as it hasn't aged very well but its not horrible either.

Edited: March 26, 2019, 8:58 AM

If you're looking for a destination warmer than 54-degrees F, you might be pushing your luck in the Mid-Atlantic. I live in Northern Virginia (DC suburbs), and while the temps usually average in the upper 50's to low 60's in early-mid April, it can still get a little chilly, especially after the sun goes down. In fact, the high temp today in DC is forecast to be 54, and 3 days next week are forecast in the low to mid 50's. Chilly days are a bit more rare during the week that you're visiting, but definitely not out of the question. Also, rain tends to be more prevalent during April, which makes those colder temperatures even more uncomfortable. This is why a lot of the theme parks in this region have been hesitant to expand their schedules into March, and some parks will cancel operations or trim hours if the weather is not looking good.

You should double check the operational schedules for each of the parks, because if you're flying in on Saturday, April 13, 2019, you will need to visit Kings Dominion on Sunday, because that park is not open on weekdays that following week (they're observing Spring Break during the first week of April). The other parks have weekday operations during that week, so it's not a big problem, but as I've noted they may cancel operations or curtail hours if the weather is not ideal (i.e. cold rain). So as long as you land on Saturday in DC with plans to visit KD on Sunday, you should be good.

The other item that I would note about visiting during this time of the year is that because it's so early in the season, the parks do not typically run all of their shows. Because so many of the performers are on contract (not park employees), the parks do not like to extend those contracts into months where they are not operating daily. That means most of the parks do not operate their full entertainment schedule until May, so if you're interested in the shows or unique entertainment offerings, particularly at BGW and Dollywood, you might be a bit out of luck. I'd also note that because of the lower crowds during this time of year, the rides may not be operating at peak capacity. Because of the stretching of the park seasons deeper into the winter, the off-season maintenance programs have gotten shrunk, meaning that there's still work to be done to get certain attractions operating at optimal capacity. For instance, I was at KD Sunday, and Twisted Timbers was only operating with 1 train with the second train not even on the transfer track because it was likely in the maintenance shed still undergoing its full off-season rehab.

Also, visiting so early in the season might mean early hiccups for the newest attractions. There's nothing new this season at Kings Dominion, so you shouldn't run into any issues there (though you'll be taunted by Volcano, which is still SBNO and the park has announced it will never run again). However, Finnegan's Flier at BGW (S&S swing) may not yet be open (park has not announced an official opening date yet), and Copperhead Strike, which is scheduled to debut next week, may still be going through its break-in period in April with intermittent operations and frequent shutdowns. Dollywood's newest addition, Wildwood Grove (themed children's area) should be open, but again might not be operating at peak efficiency because attractions are still being broken in.

The one alteration I might make would be to your drives. You've smartly given yourself a day to drive from Williamsburg to Charlotte (over 5 hours), but appear to be making the trip from Charlotte to Pigeon Forge overnight. Carowinds is open until 10 PM that week, so if you stay through park closing, you are not likely to pull in to Pigeon Forge until almost 2 AM. I might recommend stopping overnight at Ashland, NC (where there's a very vibrant brewery, food, and arts scene) or planning your Pigeon Forge exploration day BEFORE visiting Dollywood. This would put your Dollywood visit on Good Friday instead of Thursday, but I doubt there will be much of a difference in crowd levels between the 2 days.

I would say from a thrill ride perspective, Carowinds is the top park with Fury 325, Intimidator, Afterburn, and Copperhead Strike (along with plenty of other second tier coasters). BGW and Dollywood are very similar parks that combine more intricate theming with plenty of thrills. I would say if you had another day to squeeze in, you could also go to Six Flags Over Georgia located just outside of Atlanta, but that would probably be a stretch unless you changed your outgoing flight from Nashville to Atlanta.

March 26, 2019, 9:22 AM

Wow ... a schedule like that would kill me ... LOL !!! Although I am double their age. My road trip is very similar, but lasting almost 3 weeks, with Six flags over Georgia instead of Dollywood. I don't leave Orlando until Memorial Day though, so the weather should be a little warmer :)

3 new parks for me, with Copperhead Strike a new experience at Carowinds. Really looking forward to BGW. Being a SW platinum pass member it's a park that's been on my list to visit for so long. Never been to Williamsburg either, so I'll get my fix of American colonial history while I'm there.

Anyone got any "must dos" whilst in Williamsburg ?

Edited: March 26, 2019, 10:58 AM

Pierce's BBQ - It's about 10-15 minutes from BGW (adjacent to I-64), and has some of the best BBQ in the region.

While Colonial Williamsburg is the biggest draw (you can explore quite a bit without purchasing a ticket, so if you're looking to save some money, you might consider that), Jamestown is a far more interesting historical site IMHO. It's far less crowded, and has a much more intriguing story being the first major settlement in North America.

March 26, 2019, 12:50 PM

I wish you'd posted a little earlier in the planning, because I would have suggested either making it a loop trip to reduce costs or ending in Atlanta to add a day at Six Flags Over Georgia on to the trip. It's a bit late to change that now, but you've still got a solid four-park trip planned.

I agree with everything that Russell said in his post. It's a bit hard to tell from your schedule whether Kings Dominion is on Sunday or Monday, but it needs to be on Sunday as it's weekends only when you're visiting. The other parks are open on weekdays, but keep in mind that it is spring break so expect the parks to be at least moderately busy (except perhaps Carowinds, which is rarely crowded in my limited experience). Speaking of Carowinds, I recommend splitting the park over two days (afternoon/evening on the day you drive to Charlotte, morning/afternoon before heading out) to give yourself more time in the park and not force yourself to ride coasters non-stop until the point you get sick. Lastly, keep in mind that you've got a four hour drive from Pigeon Forge to Nashville, so plan accordingly.

Overall, sounds like a great trip with four great parks!

March 26, 2019, 1:13 PM

Thanks Russell .... I had Jamestown penciled in, so good to know it's worth a visit. I'm in the area for 5 days, so plenty of time to have a look around, especially as that includes the Sat/Sun after Memorial Day. I'll always try to make my park visits in mid-week, and just see the sights at weekends. Although I do have the BGW coaster insider tour on that Saturday !!

..... and I'll definitely give Pierce's BBQ a go :)

March 26, 2019, 1:27 PM

Also, don't forget about Water Country USA (BGW's sister water park). They're adding a new attraction this year (Cutback Water Coaster) in addition to a solid lineup of other water-based attractions. Your Platinum Pass will get you in for free. It's not Aquatica or Volcano Bay, but it's a pretty good water park - probably a touch better than Wet 'n Wild was.

Edited: March 27, 2019, 7:19 AM

Thanks for all the feedback, folks.

@ Russell & AJ - you're talking to me as if I'm not an Insider, baby! Prior to booking, 1. we verified all park hours (yes, we are doing Kings Dominion on a Sunday) and 2. checked the regional spring break schedule. While the parks advertise that week as being open for spring break, most of the school districts we explored in Virginia and Tennessee scheduled their spring breaks for other periods.

@ Russell - also, did you mean Asheville? It's more central between Pigeon Forge & Charlotte. We actually took our brewery/bar staff to Asheville in November and had a blast. What a great little city.

The Carowinds-Dollywood double-header is a pinch, but we were concerned about the Good Friday crowds, as you mentioned.

If the group consensus is that Dollywood crowd hours won't change much from Thursday to Good Friday, I'd much rather take an extra night in Charlotte and have a fun night out in a city I've never explored.

March 27, 2019, 10:17 AM

We are going to BGW this summer and were debating KD so I, for one, would love to see a trip report!!

Edited: March 27, 2019, 10:37 AM

Yeah, a bit of Freudian slip there Joshua. We were just down at KD this past weekend, which is just up the road from Ashland, VA. Asheville, NC is between Charlotte and Pigeon Forge.

I can't say that I've ever been to a theme park during the week before Easter, so I couldn't tell you the difference in crowd levels. However, logic would say that there probably wouldn't be a big difference between Thursday and Friday since Good Friday is not a holiday observed by any school systems that don't already have Spring Break that week or major companies (not even Chick-Fil-A closes), so visitors are likely taking the whole week off (spreading crowds throughout the week), or plan their visits over the weekend.

Edited: March 27, 2019, 10:58 AM

BGW is my favorite of the parks you ar e visiting. There is a lot of history in Williamsburg. Yorktown is good also.
As for bbq, skip Pearce's and save it for Lexington, NC.Lexington is on I85. There ar e over 20 BBQ restaurants in this small town just North of Charlotte. The best one is the place that invented Lexington style bbq, Lexington BBQ on business 85.
Also, in Colonial Heights,VA, which is on the way to I85, there is the world's largest Arby's
Whe n you get to BGW be there early, the parking lot usually opens 30 mins.before the park open. Ride The Griffon first then Invadar. Go to Germany next ride Verbolton. Next up ride Tempesto and Apollo' S Chariot Go back and ride LochnLoch Ness Monster and Alpengiest.Then if you are inclined do Mach Tower.Also one of the best shows at a theme park is Celtic Fyre. As for food in the park, I like Trappers SmokeHouse and the Corned beef Sandwich at Das Festhaus. Also the best craft beer in the park is at the Brauhouse in the back of Das FestHaus.
Have fun.

March 27, 2019, 12:43 PM

Vernon …. Thanks for all the recommendations. I’m in Williamsburg for 5-6 days, so I’ll try as many of the eateries as I can … :) Thanks as well to everyone for all the info supplied. Russell … not sure about the waterpark, being a lone 60+ traveler sorta’ kinda’ keeps me from going, but hey, if it’s 90deg out then who knows. Still deciding whether or not to go striper fishing, but other than that, I’m all set to roll out on Memorial Day for my first ever road trip.

March 27, 2019, 4:58 PM

Appreciate you taking the time to post this. Look forward to hearing about the trip report upon your return.

March 27, 2019, 5:01 PM

Makorider. Did not realize your road trip was coming up so soon. Please let me know what day or days you will be at Six Flags over Georgia. Hope to meet you there if possible.

March 27, 2019, 5:13 PM

Ed .... I arrive in the Six Flags area on Sat June 8th. Most probably late on as I'll get my early hour at Carowinds and then drive slowly over. I plan to visit the aquarium on the Sunday, and so I should be in the park Mon June 10, and Tues June 11. Maybe 1/2 day Weds before I head home.

Hopefully we can meet up, even if its in the evening ? as I see they are open until 8pm when I'm there.

March 27, 2019, 9:42 PM

Since you are going to be there that long,The last battleship on active duty is in Morfolk: The Wisconsin. Also in New Port News is the Mariners Meuseum.

March 30, 2019, 8:38 AM

Mako...June 10 or 11 look pretty good for me. I even have a season Gold flash pass that you are welcome to use. Lines will probably be pretty short on those dates, but it helps to have one for Justice League, Cyclone, DDD, Thunder River and Superman. I always enjoy visiting the park with SFOG "newbies". Admittedly, it's not the best park. But it does have some unique experiences to offer.

Joshua...sorry to use your thread and get off topic. FWIW, I have been to all the parks you mentioned. As you can see in my profile pic, I am a big fan of Fury325. I like speed and airtime more than loops and this coaster delivers the thrills I love. Daughter and I rode 9 times on the day of our last visit 2 years ago. Never got bored of it.

My advice would be to wear sunglasses with a strap. At 90 MPH, the wind is pretty intense. Also the potential for hitting an insect or anything else is a little daunting. Good thing you are going in the Spring. Summer visits there can be really hot and humid (more so than here in ATL).

At Dollywood, Mystery Mine is certainly unique and well themed. To address the roughness, we found that riding in the 2ND row to be a bit smoother than the 1st. I know that's contrary to most coaster experiences.

March 31, 2019, 6:16 PM

Thanks Ed! No worries about the thread.

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