As we bid ado to Atlanta in the rearview, the darkening skies as we crossed into Tennessee were lit ablaze with numerous makeshift (and a few professional) displays celebrating America’s Independence Day. We made a brief stop at a Culver’s just outside of Knoxville for a late dinner before rolling into our hotel in Sevierville (just north of Pigeon Forge). My wife and I had not visited Dollywood since 2007, which was before our son was even a glimmer in our minds, so there were lots of new attractions and experiences in the park where we felt that 2 days would be needed to fully enjoy the park. Like many other theme parks, multi-day tickets represent a significant value over 1-day tickets, and the 2-day tickets we ultimate bought were only $20 more than single-day tickets. However, since we didn’t think we would need 3 days at the park, the additional $10 to add an extra day to our 2-day tickets didn’t seem worthwhile.
Also, since we knew we were visiting during a holiday week, we anticipated the likelihood of heavy crowds on both days of our visit with the heaviest anticipated crowds on Monday, July 5, 2021. On our last visit to Dollywood, we used what then was an electronic-based “Quick-Queue” system similar to Six Flags’ Flash Pass. We were given a device that allowed us to reserve a spot in a virtual queue with a return time to ride the designated attraction with little to no wait. The system was a real time saver for us on our last trip, especially since many of Dollywood’s biggest rides can see some ridiculous lines. Because of our previous experience in the park and the timing of our visit, we investigated Dollywood’s current line avoidance system call “TimeSaver” (pretty original there huh?). Dollywood has ditched the electronic system we used on our last trip (managed by a company call LoQueue), and gone with 2 simple, low tech solutions. Guests can add a standard TimeSaver to their ticket for $49.99, which gives them 8 front of the line passes for selected rides and attractions (including all of the big roller coasters and the 2-most popular theater shows). You can choose to use TimeSaver on 8 different attractions/shows or use it 8 times for the same ride. However, once you’ve used up your 8 turns, that’s it unless you open your wallet to pay for another TimeSaver. The other option with TimeSaver is to purchase TimeSaver Unlimited. For those who have used Universal Express, TimeSaver Unlimited works very much in the same way. You’ve essentially got FOTL access for the entire day for $64 (pretty much a no-brainer if you want more than 2 rides on each of the big coasters in the park), but the park only sells a limited quantity of these passes each day, so if they sell out online before you arrive at the park, they won’t sell you one at guest services.
Dollywood’s ticketing website will tell you how many TimeSaver Unlimited passes are remaining for each day, so if you track the trends over a few days in advance of your visit, you can get an idea of how busy the park might be when you plan to visit and whether TimeSaver Unlimited is close to selling out. We watched the trends for about a week before pulling the trigger on our 2-day tickets with a single day of TimeSaver Unlimited for our first day in the park.
Once you’ve purchased your tickets, Dollywood will also let you pre-purchase parking. However, unlike many regional theme parks, there are actually options to paying exorbitant theme park parking fees, especially for a lot that is really far from the front gate (why Dollywood can charge more than twice as much for preferred parking). The City of Pigeon Forge has a public transit system that operates a number of trolly routes around the area. One of these routes happens to originate at the transit center hub (with free all-day parking) directly to Dollywood and back on 20-30 minute intervals. The cost of a day pass for the Trolley is $3/person (or $2.50 per ride), so the $9 it cost for our family of 3 to ride the Trolley to and from the park was more than half the cost of parking in the Dollywood lot. The Trolley takes about 10-15 minutes to go between the 2 stops, but we did find that getting back to your car can take some extra time if you have to wait for multiple Trolleys because of crowds leaving around park closing. However, the savings here are pretty significant, and the Trolleys start running a full hour before Dollywood opens and continue to run an hour after the park closes.
Even though we had TimeSaver Unlimited for our first day, we always take advantage of the most a theme park has to offer by arriving before the official opening time. However, while Dollywood starts letting people in their gates before the posted opening time, none of the rides or attractions open early, and some may take a few minutes to start running. After picking up our TimeSaver Unlimited passes from the service’s administration desk, we immediately set off to Lightning Rod. However, even as 10:00 came and went, the queue wasn’t open, and the coaster wasn’t even testing. We hung out with the crowd in a line-like mob, and after a few minutes the RMC trains started launching up the track. It seemed to take forever as empty trains screamed through the course, but eventually a ride op came to open the queue. We weren’t the only guests with TimeSavers in the queue, so even though we reached the front the queue before the regular line, we had to wait 2 cycles before we were sent upstairs to the loading platform of the first (and still only) launched RMC coaster in the world.
Lightning Rod is themed around the 50’s car culture, which fits in perfect with the surrounding Jukebox Junction. There are plenty of nods to the theme outside the entrance, inside the queue, and on the trains themselves. Once secured in the familiar RMC trains with seat belts and cushioned lap bars, trains make a slow right turn towards what appears to be a lift hill. However, this lift hill is equipped with LSMs that propel the train much faster than traditional chain lift and even faster than cable lift hills or Maverick’s slow-paced LSM hill. The closest comparable to Lightning Rod’s hill would be Incredible Hulk at IOA, but this hill stretches a bit further, and instead of powering over the top of the hill and into the course, the train’s speed is slowed and measured as it crests the top no doubt to keep the forces over the rest of the course manageable for human consumption. I guess that would be one of my few critiques of this coaster since the start of the launch hill is pretty intense, and you feel like the train is gaining incredible speed only to level off and slow down just before you hit the top.
However, once the train crests the top, there’s very little to complain about. The coaster dives into a valley out of view from the station and rest of the park, and then into an intense left turn before hitting its signature moment, an outward overbank stall. This maneuver was simply breathtaking as you’re tilted completely sideways and flung out of your seat at the same time. Twisted Cyclone had a similar outward overbank as does Steel Vengeance (which for me was the signature of that coaster as well), but the airtime and pure euphoria of this element on Lightning Rod is incredible. The coaster then makes a tight turn to the left to go back down in the valley. This part of the coaster is likely why the speed on the lift hill must be controlled. The bottom of the hill is borderline rough (a rare critique for RMC creations) and took me by surprise on our first ride. The train next makes a right hand turn before negotiating another outward overbank stall, though this second one is not nearly as good or as big as the first. The coaster then makes a quick 180 across the valley before doubling back on itself with a series of iconic RMC bunny hills with tons of out-of-control airtime. As you work back towards the station, the train seemingly picks up more and more speed as you make your way out of the hidden valley. The finale is a high speed 180-degree inward overbank leading to a brake run.
Lightning Rod is absolutely an iconic coaster not only for the uniqueness of its LSM lift hill, but the oodles of airtime and insane out-of-control elements expected from RMC. The forces never let up, and that first outward overbank stall is worth the price of admission alone. I haven’t had an opportunity to ride Steel Vengeance since 2019, so it’s hard to say which one is better given the amount of time between rides, but I do think Lightning Rod is in the upper echelon of RMCs along with Cedar Point’s record breaker and Goliath at SFGA. Thanks to TimeSaver Unlimited, we would ride Lightning Rod a total of 9 times over the course of the day with the standard line averaging 90-120 minutes throughout the day.
Since we had TimeSaver, we took a more measured approach in walking around the park on Monday. Because we wouldn’t have to wait in the standard lines for all of the big rides, we took time to ride all of the smaller rides as we made our way systematically counterclockwise around the park. Without TimeSaver, we probably would have been sprinting from coaster to coaster to try to take advantage of the shorter lines for the bigger rides over the first hour of the day, so not only did TimeSaver Unlimited allow us multiple rides on all the best coasters, it saved our feet by not having to make multiple laps around the park.
We rode Smokey Mountain River Rampage, which is a pretty standard middle of the pack raft ride. There’s nothing special that stands out on this attraction, but it checks the box as a way to allow guests to cool off on a hot day and does a pretty good job of making sure every seat gets splashed at least once along the course.
We next moved on to the Country Fair section of the park where there are a number of small and medium-sized flat rides. None of the rides here are unique or particularly thrilling, but they offer a wide range of different experiences for guests of all ages.
Next to Country Fair is The Village, which is where the Dollywood Express Train Depot is located. While we waited to ride the train until Tuesday, this is an experience you don’t want to miss. The historical coal fired locomotive makes a long and winding trip through the park and up the nearby mountain before turning around and descending the same tracks back down and through the park. The train is a true throwback providing some excellent views of the park (and drone/fireworks show staging area) and surrounding countryside. I would recommend trying to get to the station early to avoid being seated near the front of the train because of the earsplitting train whistle and flurry of soot from the smokestack that will make you look like you just emerged from a coal mine (lesson learned there).
As you continue to work counterclockwise around the park there is Owens Farm and Craftsman’s Valley. Owens Farm is a relatively new area of the park that houses a toddler play area and just one ride, Barnstormer. No, this isn’t like Goofy’s roller coaster at MK, but it does have some solid theming that frankly is even better than what Disney did. Barnstormer here is an S&S Screaming Swing that can be found in various sizes at other parks around the country. For my money, these types of rides are some of the best flat rides because they’re accessible, intense, and relatively high capacity (mostly because they can be cycled rather quickly). A few of these get added every year around the world, and at some point, I think they will become ubiquitous.
Craftsman’s Valley is where you will find the more traditional “western” theming in the park (though much of Dollywood has an old-west feel). As you would expect, the park’s log flume, Daredevil Falls is located here. Daredevil Falls is a pretty traditional ground level log flume with a single lift hill. The top of the hill is enclosed and themed as a sawmill before riders reach the soaking drop. It’s not Splash Mountain or Dudley Do Right, but this an upper tier log flume worth a ride.
Next door to Daredevil Falls is Blazing Fury.
This indoor powered roller coaster is one of the most unique roller coasters in the country. The exterior of the attraction is pretty unassuming, and my guess is most strangers who don’t bother to read the park map have no idea a roller coaster is inside. Blazing Fury feels like it was the prototype for future indoor themed roller coasters like Revenge of the Mummy, Rock ‘n Rollercoaster, and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringott’s. The train works its way through a number of scenes portraying a small town and a fire that erupts within it. There are plenty of classic dark ride elements like animatronics, special effects, and soundtrack. The coaster itself isn’t overly thrilling with just a couple of bunny hills and quick turns, but it’s the overall package that makes this ride so unique and fun.
Further up Craftsman’s Valley is Tennessee Tornado. This coaster is a late 90’s Arrow looper with a custom layout that makes excellent use of the adjacent hillside. After reaching the top of the lift hill, the train makes a slow right turn before plunging down a 128-foot drop through a tunnel and into a gigantic vertical loop.
After making a high-banked right turn, the coaster then goes into a double-inverting sidewinder element (similar to Viper at SFMM) followed by a couple of quick turns and bunny hills before returning to the station. Tennessee Tornado is one of the best Arrow loopers still running today with a much smoother ride than many others around the country, and a good pacing to the elements that is unmatched by other Arrow creations. There are certainly other coasters out there that would rank far ahead of this coaster, but for the age and type, it’s upper tier with my only criticism being the short duration.
As you round the back corner of the park by Tennessee Tornado, guests reach the Wilderness Pass section of the park. This is where 2 new coasters installed since our last visit to Dollywood are located. FireChaser Express is a family coaster themed around the brave men and women that battle forest fires. Set on a wooded hillside, the coaster uses multiple friction launches along a one-of-a-kind track to create a fun and exciting experience accessible to all but the smallest Dollywood guests. The track twists and turns, but is never too fast or intense. The coaster also includes a dark-ride style scene that plays out while the train is stopped at what appears to be a dead end, similar to Everest. After the scene, the coaster is launched backwards to complete a few more twists and turns in reverse before returning to the station. Experienced thrill ride fans probably won’t think much of FireChaser Express, but like many Disney roller coasters, this coaster uses theming and accessibility to elevate an otherwise mediocre coaster layout. This coaster could probably use some more trees and vegetation beneath the elevated track, and the capacity is pretty low, which can result in some slow moving lines, but is worth a ride on any visit to Dollywood.
Just across the path from FireChaser Express is Wile Eagle.
The first B&M wing coaster built in the US, Wile Eagle is appropriately perched on top of the hill in the center of the park. The coaster climbs the hill and plunges down a 135-foot drop on the other side. Wing coasters are known for their large, sweeping, and smooth elements, and Wild Eagle is no exception. After the first drop, the train goes through a giant, 110-foot vertical loop followed by a slow-motion zero-g roll, huge Immelman, and massive corkscrew before a sweeping helix returns the train to the station. Wild Eagle has a good mix of positive and negative g’s, but is lacking the near miss elements found on other wing coasters. However, the setting atop the hill and the silky, smooth maneuvers still make it one of the best coasters in the park. The size and reliability of Wild Eagle also mean it’s one of the highest capacity rides in the park with lines that rarely exceeded 30 minutes over our 2 days in the park. Considering that there still aren’t many B&M wing coasters in the US, it’s definitely worth a trip to Dollywood to experience even though Wild Eagle might not be the best (in my opinion, Gatekeeper is the class of the lot followed by Thunderbird at Holiday World, and then Wild Eagle and X-Flight at SFGAm.
As you continue around the park past FireChaser Express and Wild Eagle, you eventually reach Mystery Mine. This custom-layout Gerstauler Euro-fighter continues the trend of well-themed coasters at Dollywood. When we last visited Dollywood in 2007, Mystery Mine was the park’s newest coaster, and featured 2 vertical lifts and drops. However, over the past year, the first of those drops was reengineered to provide a smoother experience. Having ridden the coaster so long ago, it was difficult to compare the before and after, but the new layout was pretty smooth.
However, Mystery Mine is more about its theming and the maneuvers over the second half of the course highlighted by a stalling dive loop, which provides some of the most hangtime you can find on any coaster in the world. Speaking of that theming, even after 14 years, Mystery Mine is still one of the best themed roller coasters outside of Disney and Universal, and I think it would even give some of those coasters a run for their money in terms of overall theming and experience. Unfortunately, Mystery Mine was closed for almost all of Tuesday (ran for @1-2 hours in the morning before we made it around to that section of the park), so we only got 5 rides on it on Monday thanks to our TimeSavers.
The last time we were at Dollywood, Timber Tower was located near Mystery Mine. The topple tower was an ingenious design where riders were pulled to the top, and the entire tower structure would lean over making you feel like you were going to fall into the surrounding lagoon. However, Timber Tower was plagued with technical issues no doubt arising from its unique movements, and was replaced with Drop Line, a more standard drop tower. The new tower is taller but has nothing to separate it from other larger drop towers you can find elsewhere in the country.
Near Drop Line is the entrance to Dollywood’s newest land, Wildwood Grove. This land represents the largest expansion in the park’s history at 6 acres and is geared mostly towards families with smaller children. There are a number of smaller flat rides themed to the whimsical country fantasy motif that sets this section apart from the rest of Dollywood that is decidedly grounded in historical reality. Wildwood Grove also has a splash pad intricately themed around a southern fruit-picking festival and an iconic Wildwood Tree, which obviously took some queues from DAK’s Tree of Life to form the perfect backdrop for the park’s Sweet Summer Nights show that I’ll discuss in my next installment.
The biggest attraction in Wildwood Grove (and the only one we rode over our 2 days) is Dragonflier. This Vekoma family inverted coaster doesn’t look like much but is easily one of the best of its type anywhere in the US. The coaster features a drop through an underground tunnel followed by a number of surprisingly forceful turns over its 1,486-foot course. This coaster might be aimed at families with kids that can meet the 39” height requirement, but even coaster fans should view Dragonflier as more than just a credit on their coaster tally. The big drawbacks here are that Dragonflier is located at a dead end, and with just one train with 20 seats, it can have long, slow-moving lines. In fact, even with TimeSaver, it took us nearly 15 minutes to board Dragonflier. However, those with the patience are rewarded with a really good coaster experience appropriate for the entire family.
Beyond Drop Line and the Wildwood Grove entrance as you make your way back towards the front of the park is Thunderhead. Thunderhead was voted as the best wooden roller coaster in the world by Amusement Today winning the Golden Ticket in 2005 and 2006, but even after over 15 years it’s still one of the best wooden coasters in the US. Thunderhead was one of the first GCI coasters designed to utilize the company’s Millennium Flier trains that offer a much smoother and consistent ride. Thunderhead features a twisting layout with a “fly-through” station and seemingly endless pops of ejector air throughout its 3,230-foot course. As with most wooden coasters, there are a few rough spots, but it still ranks up there in my book as one of the best wooden roller coasters I’ve ridden (a bit below El Toro though).
Over the course of 2 days, we rode every major coaster in the park multiple times, and while Lightning Rod and Wild Eagle were decidedly the best of the bunch, the well-rounded lineup of coasters here can match all but the biggest iron parks (namely SFMM and Cedar Point). What sets Dollywood’s best rides apart from other regional parks is their theming, and you can tell when the park goes the extra mile to integrate an attraction into its surroundings to create a story around the ride. The one drawback to the rides at Dollywood is the way they’re distributed around the park. While the “big” rides are well spaced around the mostly circular design, the smaller and medium rides tend to be group together with large gaps between those sections of rides. You can tell that rides have been added to certain spots because they fit, not because they make the most sense from an overall pacing and layout perspective. This is where having TimeSaver Unlimited was a big advantage, and while the park seemed a bit more crowded on Tuesday when we didn’t have TimeSaver, it was still a massive advantage on Monday. We were easily able to quadruple our ride count on the day, and I cannot recommend it more highly, despite the additional cost.
Next up – Dollywood Part 2 – The ShowsTweet
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