We had originally intended to start our day with a visit to the Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster. However, we elected to go with a relaxed morning instead after arriving into our hotel after midnight. The decision was made more palatable by the realisation that there are currently two more alpine coasters under construction in the Smoky Mountains, one in Gatlinburg and the other at the famously bizarre Goats on the Roof attraction in Pigeon Forge. Our next trip to the area will almost certainly include a dedicated day to visit them all.
It was well after opening by the time we arrived at Dollywood, and the enormous car park was already very busy. Despite the crowds, however, the process of parking and boarding a tram to the entrance was extremely efficient thanks to large numbers of staff on marshal duty. We were inside the park less than ten minutes after arriving at the vehicle entrance, several orders of magnitude faster than what we would have achieved had this been a Six Flags or Cedar Fair park.
Our first stop was always going to be FireChaser Express (#2097), the Gerstlauer coaster added to Dollywood this year. The new ride is an interesting one, beginning with a low speed launch out of the station into a few turns that lead to a substantial chain lift. This drops into a series of gentle floating hills and a dead stop in a show area filled with fireworks. A series of flame effects take place at this point, followed by a backwards launch into a turn, a decent drop, and a small hill leading to the brake run. The train then reverses back into the ride station, making it what I believe to be the only full circuit roller coaster with a one way station. The ride was definitely a family coaster rather than something for thrill seekers, but it was a jolly little thing and well worth riding a second time.
There was a distinctive and mildly unpleasant rattle on Wild Eagle today, likely exacerbated by my decision to sit in the outside seat of the back row. Despite that, the ride was enjoyable and even intense in places, especially in the first turnaround where it caused me to grey out briefly. Unfortunately the ride broke down in an empty the station sort of way when our train returned, as the barrier in front of the train got stuck in the fully open position. We sat on the brake run for around ten minutes before the operators began to release restraints manually. This was apparently a two person job, with one person doing something behind the car and another pressing something above. The delay gave us time to reflect on the vest restraints, which had become uncomfortably tight during our ride in a similar manner to those on Banshee a few days before. I'm broadly in favour of anything that eliminates the need for a traditional overhead restraint, but I'd rather endure a few knocks to the head if the alternative is restricted breathing by the time I get to the brake run.
Operations resumed after about an hour delay, with one train rather than the two the ride had started with. The resulting three quarter hour wait passed fairly quickly, and in due course we were seated in the left hand front seats. The rattle was largely absent in that location, and the result was a much more enjoyable ride; if the wait had been shorter we'd have gone back for another lap.
After disembarking we spent a few minutes looking for a good photo spot, but the only option available today seemed to be the up-charge zip line attraction that neither of particularly wanted to pay for. The best shots of the ride are almost certainly those taken during the Wild Eagle All Access Tour, available on Saturday mornings for $150 per person. This four hour experience involves a walk up the ride lift hill to watch the sun rise, followed by a backstage tour of the ride maintenance bay and an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. It would be certainly be interesting to do a tour like this, but the price point seems excessive given that it is almost twice what Busch Gardens Williamsburg charges for a much more elaborate experience.
The ride operator on Tennessee Tornado was exuberantly chatty, prattling on at length about how his ride was the tallest and fastest coaster at the park despite the fact that five more coasters have been added since. This raised an interesting question in my mind; how many amusement parks are there that have added five or more roller coasters without altering their own height and/or speed records? The only example that I can think of is Six Flags Magic Mountain, though perhaps there are others. Only one train was in use today, though the second was hardly needed as we were able to board row four after a one train wait. This ride was once smooth, but no longer; defensive riding was a prerequisite thanks to some fairly unpleasant shuffling in the sidewinder inversion. It'll be interesting to see if this gets worse in the future.
We decided against riding Mystery Mine today, but instead spent the rest of our visit on Thunderhead, which for some bizarre reason was a walk-on. It was a little hard to believe that this ride is now ten years old, given how clearly I remember the enthusiast brouhaha over it when it was new. The ride was running fairly well, with only a couple of points on the track in need of maintenance. The operators were being reasonable with the lap bars and the backup seatbelt had no impact on the legendary airtime.