When planning my travels this year I couldn't decide which coast of the United States to prioritise. I put together a number of different route options before eventually settling on one with both, connected by a relatively relaxed day of travel. There were direct flights available from San Francisco to Atlanta, but as I had no particular time pressure I decided instead to take a radically cheaper connecting service with a three hour layover in Houston. This saved me money while also giving me long enough to tick off the only Hard Rock Cafe I hadn’t visited in the lower forty-eight, a definite win/win situation. And yes, I am a nerd.
Fun Spot America Atlanta
5th July 2023
My first thought on arrival at Fun Spot America Atlanta was that I’d made a mistake with my planning. It was 9:58am, two minutes before the opening time I’d recorded in my notes, and there were no cars in the parking lot at all. The toll booths at the front of the lot were unattended, so I drove around them and parked up. A few minutes minutes later another car did the same thing, followed soon after by a third. When that one disgorged its passengers I decided to follow the herd, and while the shutters were down at the park entrance, the music system was switched on which I took to be a good sign.
At 10:10am a few members of staff appeared on the horizon. Most of them headed towards rides, but one of them approached the half-dozen of us standing at the entrance. She wasn’t tall enough to take the protective cover off the ticket price display screen, but I was able to help with that. Five minutes later I was equipped with a wristband and was ready to ride coasters.
Under ordinary circumstances I’d have started my day with ArieForce One, an IBox coaster from Rocky Mountain Construction that premiered at the end of March in the presence of Colonel Doug Hurley, but I’d noticed on arrival that the transfer track was out, indicating a ride that would be opening late (if at all). The unhurried start for the park coupled with single figure guest numbers suggested that there’d be no huge urgency to get things going, and with that in mind I decided I might as well tick off Sea Serpent, a E&F Miler family coaster relocated from the now-defunct Heritage Amusement Park in Colorado. This ride was everything I thought it would be and more besides; I completed three laps in the back seat before moving on.
My next stop was at the Ferris Wheel, a 72 foot tall model with sixteen cars that was perfectly placed to confirm what I already knew; the ride I had flown in for was under maintenance. One train was parked in the station, and the second was positioned half way across the open transfer track with an engineer crawling underneath it. It looked very much like an operation to manually move the train had stalled half way through, blocking things up – but on a happier note, work was underway to resolve the problem.
Rather than wait in place I made my way across the park to Hurricane Coaster, another E&F Miler product, albeit one aimed at thrill seekers rather than children. The world’s only 38ft Hi-Miler began its career in 2002 at Wild Island, a family park located in the north-west corner of Nevada, before being moved to Georgia at the start of 2007. When I rode bait a year later my review described it as enjoyable but noted somewhat questionable cornering ability. Fifteen years later every direction change feels like a controlled car crash; those with significant personal padding (not exactly a rarity in Georgia) might enjoy the experience, but for everyone else it’s definitely a one-and-done.
The park is home to several sets of Go Karts, and I figured it’d be no harm to try at least one track while I waited. I settled upon the Road Runner Speed Course, and completed perhaps ten laps. The cars were reasonably lively by amusement park standards, though still sedate enough to be driven at full throttle throughout, even in the corners. There was a PA announcement at the unload area, which looped “Please remain seated until directed to exit” over and over again; it didn’t appear to be working, though, as later on I heard a guest getting yelled at for disembarking before the cars behind him had stopped.
At this stage I’d done everything I wanted to do except the new coaster, so I found a shaded bench and sat down to wait. I had about an hour to kill before my planned departure time, and I figured that I could flex things a little if it looked like my target was close to opening at my planned cut off. As things turned out I need not have worried; I’d been in situ less than five minutes when a test train went out, and at 11:25am an operator removed the closed sign from the entrance.
It’s worth pausing for a moment here to talk about the name ArieForce One (#3075), which the park website states is “to honor John Arie Sr.’s love of flying, innovation and exploration”. I don’t generally go out of my way to ridicule others (notwithstanding those who think powered coasters are credits) but there’s something very weird to me about naming a roller coaster (or indeed any ride) using your family’s surname. Word is that the park tried to secure a naming rights deal with the Atlanta Hawks and that this was a fall-back plan, and as true as that might be, I’d suggest that there have to have been better options (starting with “Roller Coaster”).
On the plus side, the product is at least worthwhile (unlike John’s Incredible Pizza; I know I haven’t said much about that lately). The new ride is the second-tallest roller coaster in Georgia, and an eye-catching landmark that puts a small regional park on a map. It is an aggressive thrill ride of the sort that enthusiasts salivate over, with an 83º first drop, a dive loop, an outward-banked airtime hill, a zero-gravity roll, and a barrel roll. It outshines virtually everything at nearby Six Flags Over Georgia, and I can see many younger enthusiasts putting it in their top ten lists.
The reason I’m not going to is the ending: a series of violently aggressive airtime bumps that are more painful than fun, followed by a ridiculously harsh final brake that feels much like slamming into a brick wall. Two years ago I made my feelings known about a virtually identical ending on Steel Vengeance and the same general thoughts apply here; what should be a top tier coaster is essentially ruined by going a bit too far in the final few seconds. I managed two rides in the front and one in the back and that was my limit. I’d easily have gotten in a few more, as the ride was walk-on with more than half the seats empty, but I couldn’t face a further repeat of the final section.
5th July 2023
In late 2022, my younger brother found his way to Dollywood during a business trip to Tennessee. The draw for him and his friends was Dolly Parton and country music rather than roller coasters – he never caught the enthusiast bug despite my best efforts to indoctrinate him – but he was kind enough to send me a collection of ride photographs, including several showing Big Bear Mountain (#3076) under construction. They piqued what was already a nascent interest in the longest roller coaster in Dollywood’s history, making it an essential stop on my route this year.
The drive from Fun Spot America Atlanta took a little over four hours, excluding a brief comfort break at the half way point. I considered detouring via Highlands Outpost for another alpine coaster, but decided upon reflection that it was better to budget as much time as possible at the big park. This decision also allowed me to avoid a cross-country route in favour of a longer but faster journey along I-75 and I-40.
The new ride begins with a gentle launch and curve, followed by a more aggressive launch into what is most easily described as an out-and-back section of track routing along the side of the Wildwood Grove area of the park. This section of layout features a turn very two seconds or so, as well as an artificial waterfall, and it’s pure fun from start to end. It is followed by a third launch, parallel to the second but in the opposite direction, which accelerates the train to its maximum height of 66 feet. This prefixes a series of low helices, some aggressively banked turns, and a below-ground tunnel.
The experience is accompanied by an on-board soundtrack blending a catchy tune with a series of dad jokes recited by a comedy American accent (“we bear-ly made it!”) and the result is absolutely sublime. I found myself compelled to ride over and over, completing six laps in total despite a twenty minute queue. I can’t remember the last time I did the same coaster so many times in a row when it wasn’t walk-on. At the risk of repeating myself, the engineers from Vekoma have created a masterpiece that is by some margin the best new family coaster I've ridden over the last few years.
I thought about doing a lap on Lightning Rod but decided that I didn’t care enough to wait in the posted 45 minute line. Instead, I caught a quick walk-on back seat ride on Thunderhead on my way to the exit. From that location the comfort level was perfect, and a great way to wrap up my visit.
5th July 2023
I was pretty tired leaving Dollywood but decide there was just enough fuel in the tank for a brief stop at SkyLand Ranch en route to my hotel, as I wanted to try my first second-generation Wiegand alpine coaster. As is usual in America the advertised $18.99 ticket price became $21.96 when I actually bought one, and I had to sign a legal waiver before riding. I found myself wondering whether these are actually worth the paper they’re written on; it’d be interesting to see whether they would stand up in court, especially if the cause of an incident was found to be negligence on behalf of the ride owner.
The upgraded sled design looks far more robust than the original Wiegand carts, while also being somewhat wider, a revision that should hopefully result in fewer persons of size being turned away. The tracking felt a bit smoother than normal too, though that could have been because Wild Stallion was almost new. Either way, the ride was fun; the layout covered a wide area with two lifts and some respectable drops. It was a great way to finish my evening.
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