From Southwest to Southeast: Dollywood <3

Sean: We all know Dollywood, the Dolly Parton theme park. Known for good food, better shows, and some highlight roller coasters that make the park a heaven for pretty much any theme park enthusiast. It was finally time to leave some of the usual California attractions behind and visit the, arguably, best wooden coaster on the planet! Let’s take a look at all that Dollywood has to offer and some highlights during our trip to the Tennessee park. Most importantly, how does it compare to some of our beloved California attractions?


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Upon arrival I was pretty much too excited to contain myself. Seeing Wild Eagle in the distance, hearing Thunderhead run and eventually seeing the king of the woodies run: Lightning Rod.

You may have figured that Lightning Rod didn’t run particularly consistent the first season, so seeing it run before the park had even opened was a much welcomed sight after traveling all the way to Dollywood. My excited self was captured upon entering the park:

During our visit one of Dollywood’s infamous events took place, the Festival of Nations to be exact. The park featured special shows and lots of food options. One of the things I yelled out shortly after entering: “This is so European”, and indeed it was. Notice the globe with all the nations on it, located next to the old entrance to the park.

I HAVE SPOTTED LIGHTNING ROD. WE MUST HEAD OVER THERE FIRST! It’s also the definite closest attraction to the entrance of the park, but either way we must venture to the World’s fastest wooden coaster! The coaster had yet to open when we got to the entrance of the ride, but the line was relatively short and we hopped right on.

And then, damn. What do I even say? It was phenomenal, and this was early in the morning before the ride really warmed up. The launch is unlike anything I’ve experienced before, not only because it is an upward launch, but it accelerates surprisingly quickly. Lightning Rod just flies up that hill like it’s nothing. The rest of the ride is just pure bliss. Constant airtime and just hops over the hills at an insane speed.

When we rode Lightning Rod a few times later in the day it was absolutely insane, it warmed up significantly and everything just became a blur. Incredibly fast and forceful. Unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Now Lightning Rod isn’t that long, but it sure is the perfect length. Much longer and the intensity would make it an unpleasant ride.

Besides all this, the ride is also beautifully located in the Great Smoky Mountains and the visuals are very pleasing while on the ride. You fly around the hills and trees all ride long with the spectacular quadruple jump down the hill back towards the park. I can confirm that Lightning Rod is every bit as amazing as people say it is.

You know what else is amazing? Dollywood’s Cinnamon Bread. This is made fresh all day long at Grist Mill which is relatively close to Lightning Rod. I have heard many people talk about this culinary highlight, but it wasn’t ‘til Alex took me to try it out that I understood the excitement.

This stuff is seriously GOOD. Best breakfast I’ve had in years!

Before we move on to more coasters, let’s take the time to appreciate how incredibly beautiful the park is. Very aesthetically pleasing and amazingly well maintained. It should not be a surprise that Dollywood is the only theme park in the US to hold weekly services in their little church.

NOW IT’S TIME FOR BLAZING FURY! Calico Mine Ride meets roller coaster elements and classic theming. Welcome to Dollywood’s oldest coaster. This ride is a lot of fun and quite honestly nothing like I expected. The theme is a town on fire and you’re on a fire truck, passing burning buildings and lots of very old-school animatronics on your way up the long lift hill. Once on top there’s three major coaster elements, all themed to something different in the story line, including a collapsing bridge, a train collision and a set of special effects (which replaced the classic splashdown scene). An adorable classic Dollywood ride worthy of a #blazingfuryselfie.

Before we head over to Wild Eagle… did you know that Dollywood has an eagle conservation and rehabilitation center?! There’s a ton of these winged creatures in the area. Surprise highlight of the park for sure!

Okay let’s head over to Tennessee Tornado before getting on Wild Eagle… If you know me personally then you are aware I try ride Viper at Six Flags Magic Mountain at least once a week, and if you have been an avid California Coaster Kings reader, then you know that pretty much our entire team is filled of huge Viper fans. Several rides on this trip made us think of Viper a lot, including Arrow’s last looper, and the most outstanding of them all: Tennessee Tornado.

Tennessee Tornado uses the same type of Arrow trains that we find on Viper, but unlike Viper, it’s an incredibly smooth experience. The ride has been designed by none other than the famous Alan Schilke (who also designed X2, and most of the RMC coasters). Besides the coaster being incredibly smooth, it also has the most unconventional layout for an Arrow looper. With a pre-lift that utilizes the old Thunder Express storage track space, a lift hill that takes you to the top of the park’s mountainous terrain, a pre-drop in which you pick up quite a bit of speed and then the actual drop of 128 feet through a tunnel in the hillside. Sound awesome yet? It’s about to get even better. The first inversion…

The ride’s first inversion is a giant loop. As you may have seen in videos the banking on the inversions on Tennessee Tornado is funky, and rushing through the loop feels rather interesting.

The next element on the ride is a quick transition into an elevated banked turn over a hill, which for any other Arrow looper would’ve been a good ol’ headbangin’ fest, but in Tennessee Tornado’s case it’s an incredibly smooth quick change of direction flowing into the next element on the ride.

That next element is another vertical loop, again with some weird banking mid-element, but also butter smooth. After which there’s a Dollywood exclusive butterfly element, which is pretty much a sidewinder. This also would’ve been a serious headbanger on the older Arrow coasters but is amazingly smooth and well paced on Tennessee Tornado.

Unfortunately the ride is very short, as most of the budget went to adding an underground tunneled first drop, so the sidewinder element is followed by another sharp banked turn into a little hop into the brake-run.

Comparing Tennessee Tornado to our beloved Viper in SoCal, Tennessee Tornado is definitely a smoother experience, and has a natural setting unlike any other. But when it comes to forces and length, Viper takes the win. Viper’s drop is more intense, elements feel much more intense, and the ride is much longer. If you’re fine with a quick but very smooth experience, a B&M type of smoothness, Tennessee Tornado is exactly what you’re looking for. But for a more forceful experience, it’ll be Viper.

Okay now it’s time to hit up the park’s most scenic coaster, a coaster for which Dolly Parton wrote and released a special song… the 2012 coaster: Wild Eagle! Wild Eagle is located on the top of the park’s biggest hill, in the center of the park, and offers amazing views of the park and surrounding mountains. There was no line all day so we got the chance to ride both sides a few times, with the front seats being my personal favorites.

The ride itself is a tad forceless, if anything the straight down first drop is the best element in my opinion. The rest of the ride is very smooth, very enjoyable but simply didn’t stand out to me. The real appeal for this ride, besides the blatant winged rider position, is the natural setting that you soar over and pass by. The layout combines some elements that are rare on wing coasters, including two helices. These two helices, which mark the ride’s ending, aren’t necessarily forceful but offer head and foot choppers as well as great views from both sides of the park.

Next up was the adorable looking, and crazy popular FireChaser Express. If there’s one coaster that is family-coaster goals, it’s FireChaser Express. I would love to see a coaster like this at pretty much any Californian park, it’s that perfect for families. What makes it even more perfect is the Dollywood landscaping and theming on the ride, combined with wonderful operations. The ride utilizes the park’s Adventure Mountain Ropes Course structures, which the ride’s track weaves through several times. (The wooden towers). The ride is not necessarily forceful, which I expected it to be to an extent, so my first ride on it was a bit of a disappointment. Soon after, when we rode again, in the front row this time, I fell in love with the coaster. Though there’s more force in the front row, the ride just perfectly combines what a family is looking for. It’s a large ride, friendly for any rider of any age, features forwards elements and backwards elements, as well as two launches. I can’t think of many more family coasters that are this perfect, besides rides like Manta at SeaWorld San Diego, which is also an absolute perfect thrill ride for families!

Let’s head down to the Timber Canyon section of the park, but before we get there the area surrounding River Battle shows off how amazingly the park has located Wild Eagle. It towers over the park!

Speaking of River Battle, it’s one of three major water rides at the park, the other two being Smoky Mountain Rampage, near Lightning Rod, and Daredevil Falls, near Tennessee Tornado.

Daredevil Falls was a very fun Hopkins flume ride, a tad short and basic but like all Dollywood rides, beautifully located! The ride’s splashdown cannons are one of my favorite elements of the ride’s theming, luckily they are less of a soak-factor than the cannons on Jurassic Park- The Ride at Universal Studios Hollywood! 😛

Onward to Timber Canyon! (This sign is a new sign for those of you who visit Dollywood often)… but OH MY GOD! I spy Mystery Mine!

Mystery Mine is so aesthetically pleasing it’s ridiculous. The ride looks perfect from every angle and is well integrated into the area. Now it may not exactly look like the concepts once predicted it would, but it sure is my favorite looking coaster at Dollywood.

Mystery Mine was Dollywood’s first attempt at excessive theming on a coaster and it shows. But in a way that everyone can appreciate. The ride is well themed but a lot of the details are dated. It’s very charming and instantly made me think of Blazing Fury. The pre-lift combines a lot of different effects and themed elements and throws you around a few times, just how I like it! The first half of the ride, following the first vertical lift, is a combination of lots of small elements, including the quick drop off the bridge, which is amazing! The ride is very rough, something not everyone realizes, luckily that’s not an issue for Alex and I as we’re both much taller than 6 feet.

The second half of the ride includes the second vertical lift-hill, the brake and fire effects on top of the lift. Speaking of these fire effects, the flame thrower(s) are right in front of the train and seriously surprised me. It’s one thing to quickly race by a flamethrower like on X2 or Apocalypse, but it’s a whole different story when the train is about to drop down a vertical drop while flames blast in front of your face. The drop following the effect is quite good and turns on the way down, the real surprise element of the ride follows right after, which is the heartline roll followed by the dive loop. This element was added after Gerstlauer suggested adding elements after the drop, as the original design featured brakes after the drop. The element is indescribably quick due to the first inversion being low to the ground. The combination of theming, many different ride elements, and fire effects may just make this my favorite steel coaster at Dollywood!

On our way over to Thunderhead we passed by the new Whistle Punk Chaser, a Zamperla Family Gravity Coaster, which is colored a bright orange and will replace an old playground. It may not necessarily be a spectacular coaster by any means but it fits just nicely next to Thunderhead.

Also new this year is the Funtime drop tower Drop Line, which is located beautifully just a few feet away. It’ll be the park’s tallest attraction and is surrounded by water. It sure will look nice and add some more rides for guests to enjoy on that side of the park.

We ate at the pizza place right in front of the new Drop Line attraction, which also served Festival of Nations dishes. Just like all food at Dollywood, it was so good! (Fun note, we ate lunch next to the Funtime guys) 😛

Next up… Thunderhead!

Though Thunderhead was reportedly running quite rough last season while all the attention was focused on Lightning Rod, I’m excited to report I did not notice any of that and had incredible rides on this large scale GCI woodie. The ride has a great first drop, has several very good elements, and has amazing transitions.

The ride felt incredibly similar to Gold Striker at California’s Great America. Both coasters have vastly different layouts, but both have the same length of about 3,200 feet, same height around 105 ft, and the same maximum speed of 53.7 MPH. Unlike some other GCI’s out there, both Gold Striker and Thunderhead are amazing in the front row because of the transitions in the turns and hills. Thunderhead is the Gold Striker of the Southeast, or Gold Striker is the Thunderhead of the Southwest, and I am not mad about it. Great rides!

Thunderhead is located on top of the hill on the opposite side of the entrance from Lightning Rod, nicely locating both woodies on opposite sides of the park, and yet having them conveniently close to one another. The path leading to Thunderhead from the entrance, and to the entrance from Thunderhead has recently been widened and is very well maintained.

It also passes under the train tracks. Dollywood has their own set of steam trains that run through part of the park and then around an area of future development in the hills above Dollywood. It is most definitely an attraction you do not want to miss!

The train station is located near the park’s original area, Dollywood’s County Fair, which features many old school and modern fair rides with patriotic color schemes. The area can use a little touch up, unlike the rest of the park (seriously everything is amazingly well-maintained, a very welcomed sight for a Six Flags Magic Mountain neighbor).

Dollywood is a park I can’t wait to visit again. A complete experience with amazing theming, a wonderful natural setting, and a world-class collection of roller coasters that exactly fit the park’s needs. A well rounded experience that I could take anyone to and everyone would love it. I absolutely love Dollywood.

Let’s finish off with some Lightning Rod, shall we?


Thanks for reading this Dollywood report! In a theme park line-up as diverse as that of California, we do not have a park like Dollywood. Another park with an amazing line-up of attractions is Carowinds, which may soon be the way we California’s Great America will look! Stay tuned for our Carowinds and Six Flags Over Georgia reports!

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1 thought on “From Southwest to Southeast: Dollywood <3”

  1. Thank for you writing such a thorough post on the park and rides. I’m going to Dollywood in three weeks and I’m really looking forward to it!

    Also, I’m curious – what do you use to take your photos? They look great. I’ve been using a point and shoot camera with a protective case which I could fit into my pocket but I’ve just upgraded to a DSLR, and now I’m concerned about how to photograph the parks without negatively affecting my ride time too much. (And leaving my camera unsecured while I ride.) Do you have any tips or posts on this?

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