My last visit to Dollywood back in 2016 was memorable for the wrong reasons. Park management blatantly lied about the state of what was then a brand new roller coaster, and to add insult to injury, Thunderhead was closed for maintenance. I felt cheated, and decided to vote with my wallet; though I was in the general area in 2018 I didn't bother with a detour. Today's visit happened primarily because I had been gifted a free admission ticket by a fellow enthusiast; while it was still necessary to hand over $20 for the privilege of parking my rental car, I decided that I was prepared to suffer that for a park with three potential credits available to me.
Once through the gate I turned to the right and headed towards Lightning Rod (#2946), a launched coaster manufactured by Rocky Mountain Construction. The ride premiered with wooden track in June 2016, though it was extremely unreliable; in its first season it was closed as often as it was open, and it had several periods of extended downtime in 2017. It missed virtually all of summer 2018, and while things were better in 2019 and 2020 enthusiasts hoping to score the credit needed the help of a benevolent deity. A friend of the writer based in the north-eastern United States finally got a lap in after six separate trips and around $4,000 in travel costs. Clearly something needed to be done.
In 2021, it was announced that a little over half of the original track would be replaced with steel rail, and while nothing has been said officially it seems almost inevitable that the rest of the layout will be replaced over time as the original wood wears out. If today was anything to go by at least some of it already has; while the new steel track sections were flawlessly smooth, the same could not be said of the wood portions, which featured some definite potholes – a significant issue on a ride with an advertised top speed of 73 miles per hour. (Whether that speed remains post-conversion is a open to debate; I personally suspect the answer to be no, primarily because there's a discrepancy of a several seconds between the before and after footage.)
The experience begins with a slow turn out of the station followed by a thrilling launch up an inclined lift hill. This clearly requires quite a bit of power; a large number of cables can be seen in trays running from the station building to the lift base. The acceleration feels quite dramatic for a few seconds, though as of this writing at least it doesn't stretch to the top; today the train was cresting the peak at little more than walking pace, giving several seconds to admire the view from what was originally intended to be an airtime-filled pre-drop. On a happier note, however, the 165 foot main drop was excellent and everything I'd expected it to be, particularly towards the back of the train.
Following this a series of sharp direction changes prefix the highlight: a quadruple down with decent but not overly ridiculous airtime over each bump. This section is wonderful, but it and the launched lift were the only portions of the layout that I really enjoyed. The potholes significantly impaired the rest of the experience, to the point that I was content to move on after two laps despite the queue being minimal. If and when the remaining track is replaced I could could see the ride making its way into my top hundred, though I honestly couldn't see it breaking into my top fifty. (It’s worth digressing briefly to note the comedy of a well-known yet utterly worthless amusement park poll – one that mostly rhymes with “molten crickets” – which declared the ride to be the Best New Amusement Ride of 2016, despite the fact that it was barely open that year.)
I disembarked and began walking across the park in the general direction of the new suspended coaster, but before I got there I had a very pleasant surprise. Whistle Punk Chaser (#2947) was listed as closed on the park website due to the current staffing environment, yet I found it fully operational – a reverse of what normally happens. The ride is a new generation Zamperla 80STD, albeit without the smoothness of some of the other examples; my front seat lap was memorable for three laps of clatter. I did enjoy the theming, which featured a small steam engine that blasted out a puff of steam as the train goes past. I discovered later that the ride was my 34th of the type – I am not proud.
Resuming my walk brought me into Wildwood Grove, a major addition to the park that opened in 2019. Construction required the removal of many of the trees that surrounded Thunderhead, and for reasons best known to themselves management decided to strip out the rest, leaving a big empty scar on the landscape. They planted a few strategic replacements in the new space, and that area looks faIrly good, but the immediate surroundings of the wood coaster have definitely been downgraded from what they were just a few short years ago. I've included comparison imagery below; the difference is pretty stark.
Having said that, the coaster that anchors the Grove is a gem. Dragonflier (#2948) is the first and currently only American installation of the 453m Vekoma Suspended Family Coaster, a design that I'm particularly fond of. There’s nothing to be said here that I haven’t said many times before; this is a top class family coaster that represents the absolute pinnacle of the genre, and it's great to see an example in the United States. I particularly like the way that there’s no brake run; the train comes to a halt in the station with what’s left of its potential energy. I took one lap at each end of the train before moving on.
My next stop was at Mystery Mine, a fourteen-year-old themed Eurofighter that has never been a particularly comfortable ride. For this season park management decided to change part of the layout, removing a near vertical drop and U-shaped turn in favour of a less intense descent complete with trim brake. The original track has been left in place, providing a neat visual fake-out effect. The new section is an improvement, though there is enough of the old track left that the experience remains an assault that I felt no desire to repeat. In all honestly, I can’t see myself riding this again unless something major changes; while the ride theming is great, the comfort level most certainly isn’t.
Having done everything new (and recently changed) my next priority was Thunderhead, now a seventeen year old wood coaster. In its early years this ride was widely regarded as the best of its type, and while its poll-topping days are behind it it remains a crowd favourite. Today the experience was a mixed bag. The first and last bits had evidently been retracked in the very recent past, and were as close to perfection as any wood coaster can be. The middle section of the ride was not in the same league; while I wouldn’t call it bad, it definitely wasn’t the ride I remembered. It seems likely that I caught it half way through a rebuild; with luck the project will be finished by the time these words are read.
I caught a quick lap on FireChaser Express then crossed the midway to Wild Eagle. It was great to see two train operation despite an empty queue; I was able to walk straight into the back row on the left hand side. From this location the experience was flawless, with no vibration of any kind. The station was almost completely empty when we returned, but the operators would not allow guests to stay on board for a second lap; instead, there was an audible instruction over the PA for those who wanted to ride again: they should walk down the stairs, out the exit, and back into the entrance again. I wasn’t bothered enough to do that; I’m really not sure what a policy like this achieves other than to irritate guests. What’s wrong with letting people take empty seats?
There were two more coasters I had yet to ride, and I figured it’d be rude to skip them. First up was Tennessee Tornado, which remains the best looping coaster Arrow ever made. This ride originally had two trains, but the second was nowhere to be seen today; I can’t help but wonder if it might have become a parts donor to keep the first active. With that done I enjoyed a ride on Blazing Fury, a combination dark ride and roller coaster with some particularly elaborate scenes. For over three decades the ride concluded with a splashdown finale that doubled as a natural braking system. This was pretty wet (my own trip report from 2005 noted as much) but it added a huge amount of excitement. Sadly the effect also caused significant maintenance issues; Coaster101 reports that management didn’t want to make changes, but it was a choice between doing that or scrapping the ride entirely. Today the last scene has a magnetic brake instead.
There was nothing else on my must-do list today, though as I walked towards the front of the park I spotted Barnstormer, an S&S Screaming Swing with two separate gondolas. Only the blue and red one was in use today, though in fairness the queue didn’t justify operating both. I’d forgotten just how much fun these rides are, especially since the compressed air acceleration feels very different to similar swing rides powered by more traditional motors. I’m glad to say that I had no nausea issues at all, though that may have been aided by quite a short cycle.
On my way out of the park I caught two more laps on Lightning Rod, waiting less than five minutes for each. If the comfort level had been a little better I’d likely have stayed for a few more, but it just wasn’t where it needed to be today.