Our itinerary for today had us visiting four separate alpine coasters during the morning, followed by much of the afternoon at Dollywood. We left our overnight hotel at the crack of dawn in order to get to the Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster for opening, and after almost three hours on the road we arrived at an empty car park. Two minutes with Google revealed the truth: a passenger had been thrown a few days prior to our visit and the state had ordered the ride shut down. There was nothing to do except curse quietly and move on to our next destination.
10th July 2016
The unexpected closure of the Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster resulted in us arriving at Ober Gatlinburg about twenty minutes before the advertised opening time. It is common practice for most facilities of this type to open their parking lot early, but that wasn't happening here; the barrier remained down until the absolute last minute, causing a tailback of cars on the narrow road. This policy seemed quite odd to me in a park that operates on a pay-per-ride basis; it would surely have made more sense to allow people to purchase attraction tickets a few minutes early in order to maximise sales.
The main entrance building looked unchanged from my visit four years ago, with an ornate carousel standing in front of an ice skating rink, a restaurant, and a selection of shops. We walked directly through it to the outdoor area and Ski Mountain Coaster, the fifth alpine coaster to be built by American company Aquatic Development Group. We learned at the ticket desk that the price was fifteen dollars per person, regardless as to whether we shared a car or not, and given that we decided we might as well ride independently. (It's worth noting that there was a weight limit of three hundred pounds per car, and while we'd have been marginally under that we did think it a surprisingly low value for a ride designed for the American market).
Our first impression of the hardware was that the support structure seemed remarkably convoluted compared to the elegant simplicity of the Brandauer and Wiegand installations, with a variety of struts connected at odd angles throughout. The cars were quite a bit larger than the norm, and featured a solid fiberglass back rather than the more usual netted roll bar. Part of the difference in scale was apparently due to the equipment on board, notably a collision avoidance system that sounds a piercing alarm and applies the brakes automatically should a rider get too close to the car in front. There were a whole series of dire warnings on the lift hill about various things that would cause the car "to beep", including any attempt to unlock a seat belt. I found myself lamenting the European approach to these things, which boils down to just three words: "don't be stupid".
The layout of the ride was actually very good, following a twisted path down the mountain punctuated by airtime hills and forceful turns. That being said, the track quality left an awful lot to be desired. The car shuddered continuously for almost the entire descent, and there were regular sharp bumps along the path where the individual track segments didn't quite line up correctly. Some of these were really quite nasty, to the point that it was tempting to apply the brakes manually in order to slow down a bit. It was a huge shame to see a good paper design ruined by shoddy implementation; if Arrow Dynamics had built alpine coasters they'd have felt like this. We chose to eschew the unflattering pictures produced by the on-ride photo system, despite the fact that they captured our opinion of what we'd experienced rather nicely.
It would have been nice to renew my acquaintance with the Alpine Slide, but we discovered on walking over to it that it wasn't due to open until "later". Neither of us felt like waiting around, and thus we decided to move on to our next stop.
Goats on the Roof of the Smokies
10th July 2016
In the past few years two separate alpine coasters have been installed less than a mile from each other on Wears Valley Road in the outskirts of Pigeon Forge. The more recent of the two is at Goats on the Roof, a tourist curiosity described on the official web site as the goat-feeding-est, gem-mining-est, fudge-eating-est, ice-cream-licking-est, cool-gift-shopping-est attraction in the area. I'd driven past the place on a previous trip to the area some years ago, and though I'd chosen not to stop it did stick in my memory as somewhere to visit in the future, possibly after a few pints.
Goat Coaster is a Wiegand installation, albeit with some customisations for the local market, chiefly an automatic braking system. In theory this was only supposed to slow the cars in the event of an imminent collision, but for my ride at least it seemed to kick in briefly in the run up to each corner, reducing the lateral forces considerably. The layout was decent enough though, and the overall experience was augmented by a sound system installed all the way along the three minutes and thirty seconds of lift hill. Standard tickets were once again fifteen dollars per ride, but there was a five dollar discount with our ACE cards that was very much appreciated.
Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster
10th July 2016
The Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster is proudly advertised as "the original", reflecting its status as the first ride of its type to open in Tennessee. The wording is perhaps a little bit aggrandising, given that the first American alpine coaster opened in 2005, though it is perhaps forgivable given its local competition down the road. The original idea for the installation came from a husband and wife team who now divide their time between their campground in Germany and their new venture in the United States.
There was a wait time in excess of twenty minutes today even though the cars were being dispatched at the maximum possible rate. I found myself wondering just how much money was being made, assuming that the majority of guests were paying the fifteen dollar price, and did some quick calculations on the back of an envelope to try to figure it out. Even allowing for quieter periods I concluded that gross takings on a good day would comfortably exceed $25,000, and while salaries, insurance, taxes, and maintenance expenses would have to come out of that figure there was no question in my mind that this ride was a license to print money.
While we waited we were treated to a recorded safety announcement recited in a dull monotone that reminded me very much of one of the teachers at my school many years ago. Most of the language was vanilla, but it was interesting to be told not to slow down, as cars behind would be travelling at up to twenty-seven miles per hour. Those in line were told to make a thumbs-up gesture so that the camera system could record their acceptance both of the safety rules and of liability for any damage to cars or track that might result from an accident, an efficient alternative to having all guests sign a waiver.
The track length was noticeably longer than our earlier ride at Goats on the Roof, making it somewhat better value for money, but in all other respects the experience felt very similar, even down to automatic braking on the way into corners. Though the impact this had on the ride was minimal I sincerely hope that the same thing doesn't find its way to European installations, as they need to remain brakeless for my friend David to make more viral videos.
10th July 2016
Towards the end of last year Dollywood captured the attention of the enthusiast community with the announcement of Lightning Rod, a wooden coaster from Rocky Mountain Construction with a launched lift hill and an exceptionally thrilling layout. The design broke new ground from a technological perspective, and perhaps unsurprisingly this resulted in a somewhat troubled start to life. The ride premiered several weeks after it was supposed to, and was still in Technical Rehearsal status for our visit, indicating that it could shut down at any time, possibly for extended periods.
The reader has probably already interpolated where this is going, but there's a story that needs to be told here so please bear with me. As we approached the park gate, we found a large sign that quoted the same information that we'd read on the park web site about ten minutes before our arrival:
This sign turned out to be more than a little misleading. Rather than being in a rehearsal state today, the ride was closed for the day. The entrance doors were locked, and the posters in the window made it crystal clear that this was not a temporary situation. We learned subsequently that it had been closed for several days prior to our visit, but it was not until July 20th that the web site was updated to reflect that.
We made a polite enquiry about the discrepancy in language at guest services, and were told that there was a clear sign in front of the park indicating the attractions that would not be operating today. It is perhaps instructive to show this sign in comparison to the technical rehearsal sign:
Here's a close-up, for those who might miss it:
Still can't see it? Then perhaps further zooming is necessary:
The point in this slightly protracted photo essay is that it is surely not unreasonable for a guest to make an assumption that a sign about technical rehearsal indicates a ride will be operating on an intermittent basis rather than one which is definitively closed for an entire day. There is a world of difference between might not operate and will not operate, and the lack of clear signage indicating the latter constitutes dishonest sharp practice on behalf of management, especially when a single day admission is far from cheap. We felt that we'd been cheated out of our money, and disappointed that an otherwise excellent park would stoop so low.
It's important to reiterate that none of the above would have been written if there had been a clear and obvious sign on the way into the park saying that Lightning Rod was closed for the day. I'm very sympathetic to the fact that problems can occur with new rides. However, there is absolutely no excuse for deliberately misleading information, and if the park's Facebook page is anything to go by I'm definitely not the only one to feel this way.
With both star coasters out of commission (and yes, Thunderhead was down too) we decided to cut our losses with one lap apiece on the worthwhile operational credits, namely FireChaser Express, Wild Eagle, Tennessee Tornado, and Blazing Fury. The operators were keeping trains moving efficiently and as a result all four had wait times of less than fifteen minutes. There were other rides that we could have enjoyed too, but we decided that we'd enjoy an early dinner more.