With how much of a bang my 2020 got off to as far as travelling goes, 2021 was definitely a lot slower. Apart from a trip to Orlando in February, I haven’t left the Bay Area until now. And what a good way to start what’s going to be a busy couple of months for me: with Dollywood! I’ve wanted to get out to Dollywood for a while now after hearing about how amazing both the park is itself as well as the continual praise for Lightning Rod. I actually had a trip planned and booked for October of last year but cancelled a couple of weeks before after hearing that Lightning Rod would be down for the rest of the year. Well, with Lightning Rod opened again and running more reliably (allegedly - you’ll see what I mean) I had to make my way out. So I did what I normally do, red eye on Friday night, park all day Saturday then park in the morning and the last flight back to San Francisco on Sunday.
After getting in a little ahead of schedule I made the drive from Knoxville to Dollywood, dropped my stuff off at my hotel and headed into the park at around 11:30AM! My first stop after getting a locker for my stuff: the wait time boards to see about Lightning Rod. And my worst fears appeared to be coming true: it was down. I walked over to the ride and asked the crew there whether it had opened earlier in the day which it luckily had. So I figured it wasn’t something extremely serious and more of a temporary closure. But at that point, what more could I do? So I headed deeper into the park for the other most anticipated part of the park: Cinnamon Bread. And it definitely lived up to the hype, that stuff was amazing! It was such a larger helping than I expected but it was so good that I ate the entire thing. After eating my bread, I kept walking until I got to my first coaster: Blazing Fury.
What an interesting little coaster! So I’ve been on Fire in the Hole at Silver Dollar City but don’t remember it much so I unfortunately can’t compare them but I imagine they’re pretty similar. I liked the cheesy animatronics on this one and thought that the drop parts of the ride were surprisingly strong especially only with a little bar holding you in.
I can’t say I’ve ever been a big Arrow looper person. This might be heretical but I wasn’t sad to see Vortex go and won’t be when Viper leaves. I get that they’re historic and important in the development of this industry but I think they’re uncomfortable and I ride them once for the credit and then not again. Well, Tennessee Tornado was better than the average Arrow looper in my eyes but as you can tell, for me, that’s a pretty low bar. Luckily it was relatively smooth with just a couple headbanging moments in the last two inversions. I guess I was just kinda unimpressed by the layout and thought it was a little short. Glad I got to ride it but don’t have a ton of interest in riding it again.
Next up was the ride that I honestly expected the least out of. This ride gets basically no love, getting called Mild Eagle, and IIRC gets regularly ranked as the worst of the wings in the U.S. Well, I feel the complete opposite and think it is the best Wing in the U.S for one reason: that straight drop. Sitting in the back row, I got a ton of airtime going down the drop and actually a decent amount of airtime in the rest of the course as well which I don’t remember getting in any of the other U.S Wings (or Swarm, my other international Wing for that matter) although to be fair, both of my two rides on Wild Eagle were in the back. Other than that drop and airtime, I loved the setting on the top of the hills and enjoyed the view of the rest of the park. So yeah, my previous view of Wings as being defined by near miss elements was kinda tossed on its head and I walked out with a new favorite Wing coaster!
After getting surprised by WE, Firechaser Express disappointed me, keeping things balanced I guess. I expected a family coaster with some surprisingly forceful moments or at least a good launch. Instead I got a relatively tame ride. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the desired audience for the coaster and I’m sure that it’s a great stepping stone coaster for kids to work their way up to LR but for me, it didn’t really do a ton. The best part was definitely the fire effect in the backwards launch room!
Yuck, I did not like this ride much at all. This was by far the roughest and most uncomfortable of the Eurofighters I’ve ever ridden. The themeing was really cool and I liked all of the little pieces, especially the fire effect but it was just too rough to be enjoyable, even the new section of track. The highlight of this ride is by far the final set of inversions where you get some delightful hangtime through the roll and dive loop. I never felt the need to ride this one again.
After riding Mystery Mine, I checked the Dollywood app to see that the park’s bird show was happening soon so I figured I’d check it out and grab lunch immediately after and maybe then Lightning Rod would be open. The bird show was one of my favorite parts of the trip (which in a trip filled with a couple of great coasters, that’s a high compliment!). I loved that the keepers took the birds out into the audience letting us see these birds up close. And it was really cool seeing a Bald Eagle up close. They are a lot bigger than I expected. I’d always wondered how an eagle or hawk could take and eat a small dog but now I can completely see it. After the show and checking to see whether Lightning Rod was open (it wasn’t) I went and got some BBQ from next to the bird show stadium. I ate it right next to the eagles habitat and got to watch Dollywood’s flock of 20+ of them. I also got to hear their call a bunch which I didn’t realize sounded more like a seagull than the majestic cry we have been taught. But as I was finishing up lunch, I checked the app to find the message I was looking for: Lightning Rod was open!! I scarfed down the rest of lunch and fast walked my way over the ride.
This was maybe the most nervous I’d been on a coaster in a while. Not because I was scared of the ride itself but I was afraid of my expectations for the ride. I know that you’re not supposed to listen to other enthusiasts when you’re learning about rides to try to protect yourself from having your opinion colored but after hearing years and years of praise for this ride, how can you not have expectations? I was most nervous since the last time I’ve had this high of expectations for a coaster was The Voyage and you can read that TR to see what I thought about it (TL;DR hella overrated). Well, I’m glad to say that Lightning Rod lived up to the expectations and then some.
We hear all the time about how amazing the quad down is, and it is. Especially in my rides later Saturday evening you absolutely flew down the side of the hill with the ride forcibly trying to eject you. It’s an amazing finale to the ride. But what I wasn’t expecting was the wave turn to be as awesome as it was. In the back of the train, not only do you get the really cool sensation of sideways airtime but you also get yanked down to the bottom of the valley to chase the front half of the car. The entire thing in the back is just a 4 or 5 second sustained airtime moment and an element that made me laugh every time I rode it. The ride was also glass smooth and incredibly fast. I can only imagine what a night ride would look like, especially if the trees around the ride were (re)planted to where it was in a little forest.
And funnily enough in the most Lightning Rod moment, as my train pulled into the brake run, the ride staff was announcing that the ride was down again (which it would stay down for the next hour or two). Although I was definitely disappointed that my marathon hopes were dashed, I was so relieved that even if the ride went down for the rest of the day, I would’ve ridden it which made the whole trip out worth it for me.
The next coaster I needed was Thunderhead. This is a ride that I feel like I hadn’t heard a ton about, kinda falling prey to hype about the park’s other wooden roller coaster. But I walked away extremely impressed with this GCI, thinking it’s in the top half of their works, about level with Gold Striker. First, it was surprisingly long. I didn’t realize just how much the ride crossed over and under itself through its course. And most importantly, from my seat in the back the ride featured an awesome mix of some great airtime as well as the laterals and intense direction changes that characterize GCI’s best work. Plus it was just rough enough to add some flavor and remind me that this was a wooden roller coaster but not too rough to be uncomfortable. It didn’t quite have the same feeling of speed that I remember from Renegade which is why it’s not my favorite GCI but it sits solidly in the top tier of GCIs for me.
It’s a kiddy coaster ¯\(ツ)/¯
The final coaster I needed for the set was Dragonflier. After making the long trek to the back of Wildwood Grove, I was lucky enough to get the front row where I was treated to a great little ride. I’ve been very effusive about my praise for these new Vekoma family inverts and this one isn’t any different. It’s smooth, surprisingly forceful and just a ton of fun.
Lightning Rod x3
My next three rides somehow managed to all be in either row 11 or the back row.
After getting a mini marathon on LR, I took a lap around the park to take some pictures. I was tempted to stop and ride some of my other favorite coasters around the park but LR was calling and with my time running out, it was the only thing I wanted.
Lightning Rod x4
And flipping the script on it’s head, my four rides to close out the night were all in the first three rows. After riding in the front and the back, I can say that I definitely like the back over the front. Although the front was a ton of fun with the wind in your face, I think I prefer the yank that the back of the train gives you.
At that point, I was done with my first day at Dollywood. I headed back to my hotel (Dreammore Resort - highly recommended, the tram service and skip the line passes made the expensive resort worth it in my opinion) and get ready for a quick day on Sunday.
(No) Thanks to Delta moving my flight from Knoxville to Atlanta up 2.5 hours, I only had about 3 hours in the park on Sunday before I had to leave. I filled it with some more rerides of my favorite rides from yesterday as well as some video footage. Didn’t get as much as I wanted but I guess that just gives me an excuse to go back again!
Lightning Rod x3
I was already about 15 minutes late when I got in line for LR but I had my heart set on another ride and I always budget more time than needed to get to the airport so I knew that I could afford to be a little late. Luckily the TimeSaver line for LR was short and I was able to get in and out quickly and made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare.
I went in to this trip with high expectations but left with even those lofty expectations exceeded. Not only are the coasters amazing but the park featured a good collection of flats I didn’t even get to touch, shows I didn’t get to experience enough and some amazing food (I already miss Cinnamon Bread). Whereas most parks I go to I leave saying “I enjoyed it but probably won’t come back unless they add something new”, Dollywood immediately was added to my list of parks I will get to at least once or twice a year, along with CP, KI and Universal. So yes, if you’ve ever thought about getting out to DW, please do, I bet you’ll enjoy it just as much as I did!