I love Dollywood. It’s without a doubt one of the country’s best parks. It truly has something for everyone. All can enjoy the homey atmosphere and mouthwatering food. But for us coaster enthusiasts, we have arguably the world’s best coaster in Lightning Rod (when it decides to run).
Lightning Rod blew me away when I rode it two years ago during Smoky Mountain Christmas. Why? It was actually open when I visited after numerous failed attempts to ride it. But the persistence paid off as it immediately became my favorite coaster.
Needless to say, I was looking forward to getting some rides on Lightning Rod in warmer weather. But that didn’t happen. Lightning Rod had been running pretty reliably thus far in 2019. As we turned towards Jukebox Junction, the all too familiar doors were closed.
Fortunatley it was just due to weather. The day prior had been a beautiful 75 degrees, but overnight the temperature plummeted into the 30s. So after a few minutes, Lightning Rod opened. Better yet, I didn’t see the coaster go down once. I felt like I won the lottery.
There isn’t a moment of wasted track on Lightning Rod. A chain lift would be too mundane for Lightning Rod. So instead it has a deceptively forceful launch. The initial kick seemed off (the audio seemed to start 2 seconds before the launch), but the rest of the ascent had some nice sustained Gs.
Dolly’s humps provide two modest pops of air before Lightning Rod goes berserk. The big drop is as good as any drop on a RMC outside of Iron Rattler’s. It’s powerful, sustained ejector air. That’s followed by a colossal wave turn. I love wave turns and the sheer size of Lightning Rod’s is astounding; it produces 3-4 seconds of sustained lateral airtime.
That’s followed by a turnaround that’s best classified as WTF. It banks one way, then another. The transition would be crazy without airtime, so it’s pure lunacy when you mix in sustained airtime. That’s followed by a banked airtime hill with (you guessed it) crazy sideways airtime.
Then Lightning Rod goes berserk and provides six of the most powerful and abrupt pops of airtime on the planet. Everyone knows about the legendary quad down. The airtime is so strong that you feel it the next day. But the tiny hills before and after give equally as great airtime.
And there’s a funky half-loop/turnaround that gives you one last pop of airtime before crashing into the brake run. I know it’s not as fast as Kingda Ka or Top Thrill Dragster, but it feels equally as fast as you charge into the brakes. I was speechless after every single ride.
After numerous rides, I can say unequivocally Lightning Rod is still my favorite coaster. Nothing is close. Not even my number two, Steel Vengenace. Three of my favorite aspects of roller coasters are pacing, setting, and reridability. With Lightning Rod, you have an ungodly fast, glass smooth airtime machine on a heavily wooded mountainside. That sounds too good to be true, but it’s reality. 10 out of 10
We could have very well ridden Lightning Rod all day and been happy. I call that the Lightning Rod effect. The Lightning Rod effect also caused Dollywood to remove the old banner from Thunderhead advertising it as the world’s best wooden coaster.
I regrettably skipped Thunderhead on my last visit. I figured a bumpy wooden coaster wasn’t the best thing for a broken ankle. However, if Thunderhead tracked like it did this year, I would’ve been fine. Now I only rode towards the front, but you can tell Dollywood has been doing their diligence retracking it.
Thunderhead is one of GCI’s strongest layouts. It does everything GCI does best. You have no idea where you’re going next and every single hill gives an abrupt pop of air. 8 out of 10
On this day, Drop Line was deserted. Along with being a walk-on, it had the auxiliary benefit of allowing the park to run an extended cycle. Rather than dropping immediately when it reached the top, Drop Line held us up there for a solid minute. No one complained since the Smokies are gorgeous.
The drop isn’t quite as intense as an Intamin, but it’s close. That drop combined with the breathtaking views makes Drop Line a strong drop tower. 8 out of 10
Firechaser Express is one of the best family coasters. I would have loved if something like this existed at one of my local parks when I was a kid. The ride has an insanely low height requirement (below 40”) and offers a little of everything. This is a legit coaster and not some junior garbage.
The first launch packs more of a punch than coasters twice its size. Then you have a few pops of airtime scattered throughout. And the final backwards segment has one really wild transition right before the brake run. But the ride has quick reprieves in between elements to avoid ever becoming too much for its target demographic. 7 out of 10
Shockingly Tennessee Tornado was the most difficult coaster to ride during my visit. Usually that coaster runs like a champ, but it decided to take a half day. Thankfully the coaster did reopen and we were able to get one ride in the back row.
The coaster is short. There’s no denying that. But it rides different than every other Arrow. Gone are the cookie-cutter elements. In are custom inversions. The first offers nice hangtime. The second packs on the Gs. But most importantly, it’s glass smooth and you have that epic plunge through the mountain. That first drop is one of my favorites. Getting that much airtime in total darkness is bliss. 8 out of 10
Oddly Wild Eagle is rougher than Tennessee Tornado. That’s not a knock against Wild Eagle; that coaster is very smooth (just bouncy like most wing coasters). It’s more a testament to just how smooth Tennessee Tornado is.
My girlfriend hates Wild Eagle and sat that one out, but I enjoyed it. I wish more B&M loopers had straight drops, as the drop on Wild Eagle is fantastic. The first loop is decently forceful, but the rest of the ride is floaty. I also love the undulating speed of the helices towards the end. 8 out of 10
Even though temperatures were in the 40s, Dollywood opened their water rides because they’re awesome. I wasn’t foolish enough to ride Smoky River Rampage. Nor was any other guest. I didn’t see a single soul ride it. I was ambitious enough to ride Daredevil Falls. It’s one of the best flumes out there.
The ride has some decent theming along the route, multiple tunnels, and a great final plunge. I assured my girlfriend she’d come off dry. She didn’t trust me one bit. I came off dry. However, she got pretty wet. I don’t really understand how that happened since we rode in the same row. 9 out of 10
Coaster enthusiasts see Jesus when they ride Lightning Rod. We decided to see Jesus a second time by watching the Kingdom Heirs show. The vocalists were incredible; the four performers covered all ends of the vocal spectrum. And the music was fantastic too.
The only odd thing we noticed was the third performer from the left had a different demeanor than the rest. While the other three were smiling, the third one looked like he was dragged there against his will. I heard a few others saying the same thing as we left. He sounded great though!
We took advantage of the Festival of Nations and watched one of the seasonal shows, Cuba Libra. I think the show was very well done. The music and dancing definitely represented Cuba well. However, it just wasn’t our cup of tea.
The most fascinating thing for us was the dynamic backgrounds. The backgrounds were sort of creepy how they had blinking eyes and sporadic gestures.
From a food perspective, I was ecstatic Dollywood had empanadas for the Festival of Nations. They’re one of my favorite Spanish dishes. And the taste did not disappoint. However, I was shocked that I only received one single empanada despite the price.
My girlfriend went with the tried and true cinnamon bread. I avoid sugary confections like the plague, so she was ecstatic to have an entire loaf to herself.
We also made sure to see some of the demonstrations in Craftsman’s Valley. In my past visits, I’ve blown right past this area in pursuit of coasters, so it was interesting to see some of the touches that make Dollywood unlike other theme parks. We particularly enjoyed the glass blowing demonstration. The only thing that would have made it better was if we could do it ourselves.
Dollywood has so much to offer. For that reason, it was a bummer the park closed at 7 pm. If you see a few shows like us, it is absolutely impossible to do everything in a single day. Also the early closure denied pitch black Lightning Rod rides which can only be described as orgasmic.
Speaking of Lightning Rod, our visit ended on a slightly sour note. In all my past visits to Dollywood, I’ve never seen them close a queue early. But on this visit, they closed Lightning Rod’s queue 10-15 minutes early. I found it odd since the ride never posted more than a half hour wait all day and it was still cycling riders. Fortunately, it sounds like this may have been an isolated incident rather than Dollywood’s norm.
Also, Mystery Mine was down for the day. I knew this going into my visit, but it was still disappointing not to ride the positively screwed up (in the best way possible) EuroFighter. On the bright side, the bird was back by the entrance. And as of the time I write this, it appears Mystery Mine has reopened.
Dollywood is one of my favorite parks. Having the world’s best coaster alone would guarantee that. But when you mix in a picturesque setting, lovely theming, and a super friendly staff, you have a place that’s truly special.