Dollywood

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How y’all doin’, guys?

Just get used to it if you ever plan to visit Tennessee. This kind question is asked on every street corner, in every shop and in every restaurant. And believe me: there are lots of street corners, shops and restaurants in Tennessee. We hear it while having breakfast with typical American pancakes, while ordering an exotic cocktail at Margaritaville and while entering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park tourist centre. People in Tennessee always seem to smile and they always seem interested in hearing about the adventures of three Belgian guys on a theme park tour. So let me get straight to the point: I absolutely love this state. That’s not only because of the friendly locals, but it’s also thanks to the presence of a well-known amusement park. It’s finally time to discover a legendary place called Dollywood. And believe me… that’s quite exciting.

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The ride between North-Carolina and Tennessee is simply beautiful. After visiting Carowinds yesterday, we head westward and we quickly arrive in a green, hilly area. These are the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, a national park of epic proportions. We’re not on a tight schedule during this part of the trip, so we opt for a scenic route straight through the park. It takes a little longer to get to our final destination, but the natural beauty is definitely worth the detour. The Great Smoky Mountains consist of lush forests, cute mountain streams and winding roads. The highlight is both literally and figuratively our pit stop at Clingmans Dome, the highest point within the park. Despite sunny and spring-like weather conditions, there’s a good amount of snow left here. Locals tell us that it’s actually one of the first nice days of the year and they even had a severe blizzard only two weeks ago. I’m very happy with our timing.

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When the snow-covered peaks of the Smokies are behind us, we suddenly encounter two sizable cities. Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge lie right next to the hills of the national park. Both places are rather famous in the States and they’re beloved as a holiday destination for Americans. It somehow remembers me of Las Vegas, minus the desert, the sins and the gambling. Pigeon Forge for example also boasts a main boulevard (a.k.a. The Strip) with dozens of hotel resorts, souvenir shops and expensive tourist traps. The enormous amount of karting tracks and two Alpine Coasters are the most striking features, but I’m also intrigued by a Titanic replica, the giant King Kong which is attached to a NYC skyscraper and the oddly looking ‘Jurassic Jungle Boat Ride’. It’s quite charming, but it all feels a little outdated as well. Would you expect that there’s a world class theme park within a few miles from this place? Nope, me neither.

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But yet there is Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s own theme park. As a Belgian, I’m not that fond of country singers opening their own amusement park. That’s because we’re used to Bobbejaanland, a park with a similar background story. Unfortunately, Bobbejaanland is everything but exceptional since it was sold to Spanish investors. But the park has known its better days, as the Schoepen family (the original owners of the park) invested in new rides nearly every year. Dollywood remembers me of those days because this park is still expanding rapidly. For example: 5 of Dollywood’s 8 rollercoasters have been inaugurated during the last decade. One thing is clear: Dollywood is a park which should be on every theme park enthusiast’s bucket list. And the latest addition – a huge rollercoaster built by Rocky Mountain Contruction – only made it more interesting.

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How y’all doin’, guys? We’re welcomed by a cute granny and she hands me my annual pass. We will not be visiting Dollywood several times this year, but this season ticket is the best option to get access for the next three days. Just a little further, this annual pass is scanned for the first time by another adorable grandma. At that moment, we’re officially entering Dollywood and that’s a good feeling. The park welcomes us with Showstreet, a detailed kind of ‘Main Street USA’. The eyecatcher within this area is the ‘Showstreet Palace Theater’, a beautiful show venue. We feel obligated to make a selfie with the Dollywood sign which is right in front of this theatre. We then immediately put that photo on Facebook, hoping to evoke some jealous reactions.

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May I give you a tip? Walk to the left hand side of the park in the morning. The main street automatically tries to pull every visitor to the right hand side and practically nobody seems to find the small pathway on the left. This path leads to an area with several must-do rides, including Thunderhead. This wooden coaster opened in 2004 and it’s built by GCI, the manufacturer which is also responsible for some great coasters in Europe. ‘Wodan’, ‘Troy’ and ‘Joris en de Draak’… they are all characterized by high speeds and surprisingly forceful curves. ‘Thunderhead’ offers a comparable ride experience and it also makes use of its hilly location. The result is a coaster which is beautiful to look at and extremely fun to ride. The first descent is intense, the bends are powerful and there is a good amount of airtime. You might notice that it’s a little less smooth than most other GCI coasters, but that roughness actually doesn’t bother me.

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At the time I’m writing this, I have just lost the Dollywood coaster bingo. That’s due to ‘Whistle Punk Chaser’, a kiddie ride which would open a few weeks after our visit. This Zamperla kiddie coaster is built between ‘Thunderhead’ and another 2017 novelty: ‘Drop Line’. This 60 meter high free fall tower won’t open until May, but we already notice that it perfectly fits within the Timber Canyon themed land.

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The most beautiful ride of Timber Canyon is without a doubt Mystery Mine. It seems as if this mine tower has been there for ages and it fits perfectly between the green Tennessee hills. Despite stunning architecture, there’s one major issue with this ride: the manufacturer Dollywood hired to build it. ‘Mystery Mine’ is a so called Eurofighter, constructed by the German company Gerstlauer. If you know Eurofighter type rides, you may know what to expect: strange pacing, uncomfortable vertical lift hills and some rough transitions. Especially the first coaster section is tight, pointless and unpleasant. Luckily, everything before and after this part is actually rather good. ‘Mystery Mine’ begins with a surprising darkride segment and it ends with a sensational climax. The second vertical lift hill seems less uncomfortable thanks to its great theming and the two final inversions generate some unique hangtime. Anyway: just cut the middle part of ‘Mystery Mine’ and you end up with a great coaster. The setting and the atmosphere are so incredible this ride would even fit within a Disney or Universal theme park.

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Except ‘Lightning Rod’, all of the rollercoasters are located on the same side of Dollywood. That’s why we are quickly adding lots of credits to our coaster counter. The next one is Firechaser Express, another ride designed by Gerstlauer. I didn’t consider that as a positive thing in the previous paragraph, but it’s different in this case. Gerstlauer actually delivers some pretty good family coasters and this is a perfect example. This ride is fun, fast and it’s incredibly smooth. The background story is amusing as well: it’s about a fire department hurrying to a fireworks warehouse in flames. Unfortunately, those firefighters are a little too late and ‘Big Bertha’ (the biggest rocket of them all) is about to explode. At that moment, the train is lauched with a loud bang and the coaster continues backwards. Just like ‘Mystery Mine’, this ride successfully tells a story during the ride. There’s just one small thing bothering me: the fact that you can clearly see that ‘Big Bertha’ scene and the backwards launch from the waiting area. It would have been much more surprising if these parts of the coaster were hidden, but hey… that doesn’t mean that I hate the ride. On the contrary: ‘Firechaser Express’ is an excellent family rollercoaster, featuring an awesome location and an impressively themed station building.

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The wait time for ‘Firechaser Express’ never exceeds the twenty minute mark and the neighbouring Wild Eagle is even walk-on at every given moment. Despite the fact that most seats are empty, this B&M wing rider operates with two trains all day long. Is Dollywood the theme park of my dreams? The answer is definitely yes when it comes to capacity. But will ‘Wild Eagle’ be the rollercoaster of my dreams, too? First of all, I want to compliment Dollywood with the stylish station building and the incredible location: it stands on top of a hill and that’s why the coaster’s elegant blue tracks are towering above the entire park. It makes ‘Wild Eagle’ look a lot higher and mightier than it actually is. That may be the reason why I wasn’t expecting an average coaster, but that’s exactly what ‘Wild Eagle’ is. The lay-out is standard, the final curves don’t add much to the experience and ‘Wild Eagle’ has the same annoying vibration as most wing riders. It doesn’t feature near-misses like Gardaland’s ‘Raptor’ and it lacks the originality of ‘Flug der Dämonen’ at Heide Park. Don’t get me wrong: ‘Wild Eagly’ isn’t a terrible coaster, but it actually is the first Dollywood ride which didn’t meet my expectations.

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All those previous coasters were built since 2004 and they look rather modern. The next one, however, seems very old. Tennessee Tornado looks rusty and it was built by Arrow, a manufacturer which I automatically associate with the 80’s. But don’t be fooled by its appearance. This ride only opened in 1999, so it’s not that old to coaster standards. That can be felt during the ride. Although I brace myself for a shaky ride full of pointless banking, it’s a very enjoyable and smooth experience. After a surprising first drop – which disappears in a tight tunnel – the train gracefully flies through three inversions. These inversions are taken so rapidly that I even feel the beginnings of a grey-out. That means that ‘Tennessee Tornado’ isn’t just smoother, but also particularly more intense than I anticipated. So please don’t judge this coaster by its rusty looking tracks alone: thanks to a great location and high speeds it’s hidden gem.

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The oldest coaster in Dollywood is also the most peculiar one: Blazing Fury. We get seated in a coaster train, there’s a drop and it’s on coaster count, but this attraction feels more like a classic darkride. The dated interior of the station makes us think that it’s an old ride and that seems correct: ‘ Blazing Fury’ has been here for nearly 40 years. That respectable age can also be seen in the different darkride scenes and it somehow reminds me of some classic darkrides at Phantasialand. But despite its faded glory, ‘Blazing Fury’ is still a fun ride to visit. The scenes offer some funny details and the finale (ha! that’s why they call it a coaster) is very surprising during a first ride. You could define it as an old-fashioned and unteresting darkride, but you can’t deny the fact that it contains a soul. That’s why this ride actually feels rather charming in a park like Dollywood.

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Thanks to ‘Blazing Fury’, we have arrived at Craftsmen’s Valley. This is a very cozy street which is surrounded by local fastfood stalls and traditional looking shops. We encounter a few American eagles in a gigantic aviary and we get asked ‘How y’all doin’, guys?’ several times. It all feels so incredibly American and there’s even a church to attract catholic locals on a Sunday morning. You wouldn’t expect such a thing in Walt Disney World, at Universal Studios or at Cedar Point, but it feels right in a place like Dollywood. The busiest spot in this area is the Dollywood Grist Mill. This place sells the famous cinnamon bread and there’s even a decent queue during these quiet spring days. Don’t be scared by these lines, because you definitely need to try Dollywood’s signature specialty. At first, it looks like a sticky and messy pile of dough, but it’s actually delicious.

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I already told you that the Great Smoky Mountains got a fair amount of snow recently. Pigeon Forge was cold too, but it’s hard to imagine those freezing temperatures today. It’s early April, but it’s already quite hot here. It’s nearly 30°C and the sun is shining in full force. Water rides are desired with such heat and Dollywood offers three of them. Unfortunately, the most unique water ride remains closed during this time of year. The curvy water slide ‘Mountain Slidewinder’ looks incredibly fun on video, but I’m not able to experience it myself. The alternative is Daredevil Falls, a rather underwhelming log flume. The ride features just one descent and we don’t get that wet. It’s a fine family ride, but it would be considerably more interesting if there was a second drop or more elaborate decoration.

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Dollywood offers many thrills on coaster tracks, but classic flat rides aren’t that common here. There is, however, one great thrill ride and it’s called The Barnstormer. This attraction type is called a Giant Swing and it provides a ride experience with loads of airtime. This one is themed to represent a farm and Dollywood did an awesome job. Have you always dreamed about flying through a barn at high speed? Then I guess you will love this ride.

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A themed land called The Village clearly isn’t based on the scary movie of the same name. At Dollywood, this area consists of cute facades and a massive steam carousel. During the afternoon, we also visit a film screening in The Village called Heartsong. Dolly Parton plays the leading role and the show includes some beautiful Smoky Mountain visuals, but it’s a little boring if you’re not into country music. We’re hoping that we’ll like Enra at the ‘Showstreet Palace Theater’ better, but that’s sadly not the case. This performance combines modern dance and an enormous video wall, which can be entertaining for 15 minutes. This show, however, lasts for 45 minutes and that’s just way too long. I’ve got great respect for the very dedicated Japanese performers, but this is just not the perfect show for a family park like Dollywood.

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On of the lesser known must-do rides is the Dollywood Express. Unless most train rides in theme parks, this ride isn’t really meant to give an overview of the park. A ride on the ‘Dollywood Express’ actually takes you outside the park and it shows nature in all its beauty. That may sound a little uninteresting at first, but it’s a very authentic experience. I would just ride it again to hear that antique whistle and to enjoy the lovely southern accent of the narrator. They even offer a souvenir to every rider: a cinder-covered T-shirt!

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The Country Fair is an area which does exactly what its name promises: it’s a collection of fairground rides on a small square. Despite minimal theming, it’s a charming place for the younger guests. During the hottest hours of the day, however, the three of us prefer a refreshing ride on Smoky Mountain River Rampage. Dollywood’s third and biggest water ride is quite impressive: the raging river winds through a wonderful green landscape and whilst watching, we notice that it’s comparable to most US rapid rivers when it comes to wetness. In other words: there is a fair chance of getting drenched. After boarding a raft, the fellow passengers once again warn us that our jeans probably aren’t the best choice for this ride. I quickly understand why: the rapids are wild, the waves are tall and spectators can make it even worse with several water guns. The most soaking moment lies at the end: an enormous waterfall hits nearly every boat waiting to re-enter the station building. The grandpa on the loading dock shouts ‘Y’all enjoyed that ride, didn’t ya?’ while we arrive. I smile and I point at my soaking wet T-shirt. Oh yes, this was lots of fun!

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Have you been waiting for my opinion about Lightning Rod since the beginning of this report? Then I do have some good news: we are finally arriving at Jukebox Junction, the area where this brand new rollercoaster was built. This must be the only themed land in Dollywood that isn’t filled with wooden facades and western-like furniture. Jukebox Junction is based on the fifties and it features shiny old timers and rock ‘n’ roll music. The atmosphere is cheerful and we approach the new coaster’s entrance in a good mood. But will ‘Lightning Rod’ be in a good mood? Although the coaster opened nearly one year ago, it still has a lot of downtime. During our stay, the ride closes multiple times for technical reasons. Those problems are usually fixed relatively quickly, but it may also take a few hours to get the ride running again.

What I’m trying to say with that previous paragraph is: don’t ask for seats in the front or back if that means that you have to queue longer. ‘Lightning Rod’ is so unpredictable that it may break down at any given moment. And believe me: this coaster delivers a huge thrill for every rider in every single seat. That incredible experience starts with an uphill launch. This part looks quite tame, but as a rider I notice that it’s surprisingly powerful. After reaching the highest point, we have to rely on the strength of our lap bar for the first time. The amount of airtime ‘Lightning Rod’ produces is simply absurd. My thighs are constantly pushed into the safety restraint with such an incredible force that it starts to hurt a little. I have ridden some breathtaking airtime machines before, but I never experienced it so intensely as here. Between all those moments of ejector airtime, the train speeds through crazy curves at the speed of light (pun intended). Especially the curve which is banked 90 degrees in the wrong direction is legendary.

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Let there be no doubt: ‘Lightning Rod’ is out of this world. This is the type of ride that will even amaze the most experienced coaster enthusiast. Dollywood and Rocky Mountain Construction really pushed boundaries with this one and it’s without any doubt the most intense rollercoaster I’ve ever ridden. But does that also mean that it’s the best coaster I’ve ridden? Not in my opinion: ‘Lightning Rod’ is simply a little too fierce. I adore the feeling of airtime, but can you still consider it as fun if airtime becomes painful? Furthermore, ‘Lightning Rod’ was less smooth than expected. I totally understand that these top speeds and turns demand the utmost of the train’s wheels, but I didn’t expect any rattle after riding the RMC coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain last week. If I would ride ‘Lightning Rod’ twice in a row (nearly impossible because of those technical difficulties…) I guess I would have a terrible headache. The only seat in which you don’t notice any of the roughness is the front seat. So I would like to take back what I wrote earlier: there actually is a good reason to queue a little longer for the front seat.

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Despite its unpredictable nature, we would eventually ride ‘Lightning Rod’ five times. That’s not too difficult, because the queue for this beast never gets longer than 15 minutes during our visit. Luckily, the park offers plenty of places to relax between those intense RMC rides. This isn’t just an attraction park; it’s also a meeting place for locals. They come here to enjoy a small-scaled country concert or to have dinner at a charming restaurant. The southern comfort food at Dollywood includes fried steaks, corn and pulled pork sandwiches. It’s all delicious and it’s all served with a sincere smile. We encounter the best example of Tennessee hospitality at an all-you-can-eat restaurant in Showstreet. We enter the place about 15 minutes before closing time and we expect to be turned away. But we’re not. Staff kindly welcomed us and service was great. At most other theme parks, we would have been kicked out promptly at 8 PM. But at Dollywood, they seem to understand the importance of a welcoming atmosphere.

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While we exit the park through a huge souvenir shop, the cashier granny yells ‘Hope y’all had a good day’. Oh, yes we did. I fell in love with Dollywood almost instantly. My expectations about this park were pretty high, but Dollywood exceeded those expectations with great success. This park really offers anything I could possibly desire: the attraction line up is top notch, food and beverage outlets offer value for money, theming is at a high level and the (mainly elderly) employees are amazing. Put all those elements together to create a place with an uncomparable atmosphere. I haven’t felt this way about a theme park since my visit to Tokyo DisneySea.

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‘How y’all doin’, guys?’ Well, actually not that great. That’s because we’re about to start the very long ride to Richmond. We will need at least 8 hours to cover the 400 miles full of roadworks and traffic jams. It’s clearly not the part of our trip which I was looking foward to. On top of that, we need to say goodbye to Tennessee, the Smokies and this unique theme park. That doesn’t feel good, but I’m sure that our next destinations will ease the pain. During the next few days, we will be visiting some other well-known East Coast theme parks. Tomorrow, for instance, we will need our Cedar Fair Platinum Passes at Kings Dominion. An incredible thirteen coasters, including the legendary ‘Intimidator 305’, are waiting there for us. So gentlemen… start your engines. We’re going to Virginia.

 

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