It all began as the previous event for the Thunderhead media day was cancelled, and moved to a date that was available on my schedule. I was interested in going to Dollywood for the 3 new credits, and it was only a 4 hour drive. After working out the details with my friend Bill, the deal was sealed and I was registered for the first ERT sessions on Dollywood's new coaster, Thunderhead.
Fast forward to Friday, April 16th. After taking the day off to rest, we pulled out of my garage at 2:30 on our way from Atlanta to Pigeon Forge, where we would be staying for the night. Unfortunately, traffic was a nightmare and what should have been a 3 1/2 hour drive turned into a 6 hour ordeal. Not only did we have to bypass an accident getting out of Atlanta, we hit rush hour in Chattanooga and Knoxville.
After arriving at our luxurious accommodations at the Sleep Inn of Sevierville, we headed out towards Pigeon Forge to see what types of nighttime activities awaited us. Not more than a mile down the road, we were met with more traffic. There was a classic car event (called a Rod Rally), and traffic was unbearable all the way into Pigeon Forge. We turned off at the NASCAR Speedzone and grabbed a game of min-golf. Of course I sucked and lost, but it passed the time. It was also entertaining, as Bill was wearing his Top Thrill Dragster polo which was an exact replica of the employee uniforms at the NASCAR place.
We decided to not even bother with heading further down the road to Pigeon Forge and headed back to the hotel for TV and sleep. Has anybody seen the Real World/Road Rules Inferno show? It was the only thing on, so we got sucked in. It was nice to see that Julie girl get kicked off, as she was quite annoying. This show was followed by the weekly VH1 expose, The Best Week Ever. This show reminds me kind of like what Talk Soup was to talk shows, but encompasses everything in the media the previous week. Enough TV – we wanted to get to sleep and wake up early to beat the rush into town.
After a 5:30 wake up call, we were off to Pigeon Forge, with a brief stopover at the Cracker Barrel for breakfast. This was a deluxe CB, with expanded gift shop and a huge smoking section. Next it was off to Dollywood. Did I mention it was freezing cold and I was wearing shorts? Oh well, the sun was on its way up and the coasters were waiting for us.
A small group was gathered outside the front entrance helping prepare the badges for the event, so Bill and I jumped in to offer some help too. Registration consisted of a sticker name badge, lanyard with Coasterstorm badge attached, wristband, admission ticket, and a meal ticket. After gathering our goodies, we decided to get our season passes process before the rush. We walked right up to the counter, paid $18 each, and had our passes within 10 minutes. We were planning on returning to the park in the morning for a few more rides, so we figured this would be the best option for us.
It was now only 8:20AM, but the gates to Dollywood had opened already (official opening time wasn’t until 9:00). After milling around the entrance to Thunderhead Gap, an employee told us they would be starting the ERT on Tennessee Tornado a half hour early, so we decided it would be best to head that way and start riding instead of waiting for Thunderhead to open.
Dollywood had an interesting upside-down T-shaped layout. The entrance is at the bottom left, with the path to Thunderhead splitting off to the left of it. The rest of the park is in the opposite direction. A smaller arm headed through the 50’s themed area and into the County Fair themed section. There is also one long main arm traveling down the middle, which houses tons of food, arts and crafts, a kiddie area, and 2 water rides. At the end of this arm we found Blazing Fury and Tennessee Tornado, the parks 2 other coasters (I count BF because of the hills).
We headed down this long path all the way to Tennessee Tornado and were greeted with an empty station and 2 trains. We got in the 2nd row and were off through the heavily braked maintenance shed and up the lift. The drop portion of the ride cannot be seen from the park, so we had no idea what a treat we were in for. After a small dip at the top of the lift, the coaster takes a tight right turn, and then goes back up before diving into a tunnel. After emerging from the tunnel at the bottom of a large, airtime filled drop, the train enters its first inversion, the Spiroloop. It’s basically a large vertical loop, but has great hangtime and a weird twisting element upon entering the inversion. Next is an overbanked turn, followed by Dolly’s Iron Butterfly, the signature element made up of a vertical loop followed by an inversion that resembles the 2nd half of an Arrow butterfly element. After another overbanked turn, the ride rolls up into the brake run with a pop of air. The smoothest Arrow I had ridden – only giving one moment of headbanging towards the front and none in the back rows. We took several more rides on the Tornado before tiring of it and decided to head back to Thunderhead.
On the way, we stopped and took a ride on Blazing Fury, as it was a walk-on and weren’t sure how capacity would be later on. This is a powered coaster that rides through several scenes of a town on fire. There are some funny lines, like “We need more hose (hoes)” and “Fire in the hole!” This ride also includes a few drops that gave some good airtime in the back rows. The finale sends your train through a pool of water with cannons going off all around you. I guess this is why the signage upon entering the ride says it is a water ride/roller coaster.
So we were finally onward towards Thunderhead, and our first of a total of 19 rides we took over the weekend. The queue area is surrounded by track, which includes the on-ride photo section and a large curve that the ride takes before heading into the station flyby (reminiscent of the Millennium Force final curve). Other than a few other curving, elevated pieces of track and the top of the lift, the ride is totally hidden. As we headed up the lift on our first ride in the back row, the entire layout was presented on the right side, but there was no way to tell how the train was going to traverse this twisted course. Once we headed over the top, the ride was a complete blur, other that some handrails that became headchoppers and the station flyby, which is the only straight piece of track on the whole ride other than the lift and brakes. All I could do was say OH MY GOD as we entered the station and ran around for another ride in the front row.
I was worried that this ride was being overhyped, and I am not a fan of twister style coasters. The only other GCI I had ridden was Gwazi, which is not anywhere near the top of my list (either of them). Thunderhead completely blew me away. Each twist gets tighter, every hill gives airtime before throwing you into the side of the train, and the banked curves change their angle of banking throughout the turns themselves. Even when the payout became sort of familiar, it was still impossible to remember every nook and cranny of this ride that made it incredible. The only other rides that seriously made me shake after riding have been TTD (due to the anticipation mostly), SROS @ SFNE, and Boulderdash at Lake Compounce. This ride will blow you away!
Ok – enough raving about Thunderhead, and how back to the rest of the day at the park. After taking these 2 rides on Thunderhead, we decided to check out the rest that the park had to offer since the line had grown to about 25 minutes by now. Even at the height of the day, the line was no longer than this, by the way. Our first stop was the in-house rapids ride. This was a nice change from other rapid rides, in that it was fairly calm, and each person got slightly wet, unlike other rides where 1 or 2 people are soaked and the rest are dry. The ride interacted with the park very nicely, and was surrounded by lush landscaping and several nice water tricks.
Since we were slightly wet, we decided to find the Mountain Slidewinder. A park employee sent us in the wrong direction, but we found some friends and consulted a map and headed up the hill to the Slidewinder. If you haven’t seen the Travel Channel special on Dollywood, the MS is an in-house waterslide that is taken in custom built canoes. The weight limit is 850 pounds, and the four of us weighed in at 820 - not something to be proud of, but it made for an awesome ride! The whole way down the raft went all the way up both sides, soaking us from all directions. It was a lot of fun, and only a 10 minute wait.
The natives (us) were getting restless (hungry), and lunch/dinner wasn’t scheduled until 3:00PM. We decided to try one of the famous Dollywood skillets. The one we found was near the county fair section, and was a fajita-like meal. The food at this park is one of the attractions, and was VERY tasty. Nothing like the processed quick meals found at other major parks, Universal and Disney included.
After eating, we meandered into the county fair section and took a ride on the Swingamajig (Yo-Yo), which gave a nice ride, including some great rocking motion! We also got on the log ride, and were paired up with two other large adults, resulting in a large splash. The water ride theme continued, as we took a ride on Daredevil Falls, which had a horribly designed splash at the top of the lift. It reminded me of the tiny hill on Journey to Atlantis in FL that sends a wave in your boat. After a couple more rides on the Tennessee Tornado, it was back to the locker to get our cameras and other belongings and head to the Blue Ribbon pavilion for lunch. Lunch was hamburgers, barbeque, and the traditional sides. We were also greeted by some HR folks. The highlight of lunch was Robert’s announcement that the 2005 ACE Spring Con will be held at Dollywood and Lake Winnie! Everybody was having a good time, and I’m sure many that were there will make the trip back next spring.
To let the food settle, next up was the Dollywood train ride, which wound its way up the mountain and around the park. It was very relaxing, and included some country scenes and views of Thunderhead, Tornado, and the flat rides in the county fair section. Due to the long lines for the flat rides, we headed back to Thunderhead for a couple more rides. It was running noticeably faster, and made me even more excited for that evening’s ERT session.
After a quick visit to drop of cameras and on-ride photos in the car, we made our way back through the park and took a ride on the Ferris wheel and soaked in the atmosphere of Dollywood. We also got some VERY good homemade ice cream. This park is very magical, and each employee seemed happy to be there. There was a sense of pride among the park staff hat I’ve only seen once before, at Holiday World. Everybody asked about the ACE event and how we were enjoying our day at the park.
We slowly meandered our way back to Thunderhead Gap to prepare ourselves for the nighttime ERT on Thunderhead. The event attendees had gathered around the area, and the line had closed to park guests to prepare for us. At 8:00 on the dot, the queue opened and the station filled. We were offered double rides on Thunderhead to allow for faster dispatches, and to not make us walk around after each ride. It didn’t matter where on the train we sat – Thunderhead provided a consistent, intense ride all over. The station flyby added to the fun of ERT as everybody screamed while going through the station. We logged in10 rides that evening, each one getting better and better as the sun set into the mountains, immersing the ride into pitch darkness. The night finally ended, and everyone agreed that Thunderhead was a very special coaster, many comparing it and declaring it better than their current #1.
After dinner at Fridays (with no liquor thanks to the Pigeon Forge blue laws), we headed to bed, preparing ourselves for day 2 at Dollywood.
We returned to the park at opening, and got 5 more rides on Thunderhead as well as a couple more on Tennessee Tornado. We also hit the gift shop and candy store before heading out back to Atlanta. Rather than take the traditional route via I-40 and I-75, we opted for the back route through the Smoky Mountains via 441. This was a very scenic and relaxing drive. It only took 4 ½ hours to get back, including traffic in Gatlinburg and several stops on the way to take pictures of the breathtaking views. If you’re going to make the trek from Atlanta to Dollywood, I recommend taking this route, at least one way to the park.
Upon arrival back home, I sat down and relaxed. Thunderhead had worn me out, but was well worth it. My legs are still sore from the lapbar hitting into me, but that didn’t matter. The rides were so incredible, that I would take that pain anytime. I’m very glad I decided on getting a Dollywood season pass, and am hoping to return very soon. Many attendees decided to get passes after riding Thunderhead because it was that good! Some Atlantans said “We don’t care if we ever use the passes – we feel like we owe Dollywood an additional $18 just for building this ride.”
If you can get to Dollywood, get there! If not, make plans for the next Spring Con early, as it will be one to remember. Special thanks to Robert & Matt for putting this event together for us, and especially everyone at Dollywood, for making this day awesome!
I think everyone was blown away by Thunderhead. I was afraid that it may not live up to all the hype that I had heard before hand but that wasn't the case. And the night rides were just unreal!! In fact, I was in the front seat for the last 2 trains of the ERT. What a way to end the night.
Also, we were all surprised how much we liked Tennessee Tornado. I usually hate Arrow loopers but this is my personal favorite. What a great little ride!
We also upgraded to a season pass. I mean, what a deal! I will be back soon. Luckily the park is open year round.
I posted these pics on another DW trip report but I'll show them off here as well in case someone missed them.
I was also there and had a blast! I was very concerned that Thunderhead would not live up to what everyones been raving about but the later it got the more I got to thinking that this is a serious contender for the best wooden coaster ever built!
I'm glad that everyone I've talked to/heard from so far had a good time. Dollywood is my home park and I've felt for a long time that it was a diamond in the rough when it came to enthusiasts.
I also upgraded to a season pass (like I do every year). And I'm going back this Thursday after work for nothing but Thunderhead till they make me get off of that coaster!
I'll be there as much as I can this summer, I'm only an hour and a half away from the park! :-)
btw, don't expect those 25 minute lines for much longer, as busy as they were on Saturday, they do actually get much busier then that during the summer. They have parking lots thru letter G plus overflow parking at Splash Country and I have seen them full!
Last year Dollywood was not quite as crowded on April Car Show Saturday(It was in the mid-50s last year as well). I think the congestion had to do with the large number of groups in the park. The Bus parking lott looked full around 2:00.
The hangtime in the loop, the smoothness of the transitions and the cool way it follows the topography make it my favorite Arrow coaster besides X. I never though I'd like such a short coaster, but it definitely had the right stuff.
And everything you said about Thunderhead was right on. What an insane piece of wooden structure. I still can't get over that it's a GCI. I will admit though, the ONLY part of the ride that didn't live up to the hype was the first drop. I thought it was pretty mediocre of a drop if I'm being honest. Oh well, small gripe to the overall amazing speed and airtime (and laterals) this thing gives off.
Glad you had fun!
Joe, can't wait for the event in Sept.
This just means I don't have to write a TR now.....lol.
Oh yes, that traffic. We were actually going to try to go to Ober Gatlinburg Friday before Coasterstorm but didn't quite make it out of the city limits thanks to that insane traffic. lol.
Thunderhead was running better than ever Saturday night......and yes, it literally wore me out as well. Sweeeetttt.
I got a season pass on opening day so I am sure to get back down there at some point this year.
If this event takes place, I will be a very happy man! I'm all for more rides on Thunderhead this season. I can't imagine how sore my legs will be after 2 hours of nighttime ERT.
I kind of agree about the first drop. I'm not a big fan of twisting drops. I usually prefer a plain, straight drop. It still doesn't impact my opinion of what a great ride this is. My current (previous?) #1 is Boulderdash, and it's first drop didn't grab me either.
One concern I did have on Thunderhead was the seatbelts. The park was being VERY strict - if your seatbelt was undone when you came into the station, you couldn't ride again. On 3 of our 19 rides, the belt came undone, due to the fact that the buckle was rubbing up against the lapbar. Riders beware - check your belt on the brake run if you want to avoid being banned from the ride.
**EDIT - I can't spell!
*** Edited 4/22/2004 3:01:34 AM UTC by Matt D***
I don't blame the ops being strick with unfassened seatbelts one bit. It protects their jobs and the park. I think zero tolerance is a good thing. Just so they don't pull the seatbelt tight to the point of loss of blood circulation. *** Edited 4/22/2004 5:42:34 PM UTC by coasterpunk***
Matt D said:
On 3 of our 19 rides, the belt came undone, due to the fact that the buckle was rubbing up against the lapbar.
We also had this happen to us during the ERT. It came undone after our first lap on one of the double rides The op didn't say much since we had been doing double rides for the past 45 minutes. Just said let me buckle this. The lapbars on this ride do far more than a seatbelt could anyway though. By the time you got back to the station, the forces pushed the bar down to the point you can barely breath sometimes much less move.
I don't remember the Museum but I am not a Dolly Parton fan so...........;-) Seeing her on the big screen during the Smokey Mountain Adventure was enough. lol.
Thunderhead this! Thunderhead that!
All I keep hearing and reading about is this damn Thunderhead coaster.
That's it. I have to do something about this.
I wasn't planning on visiting Dollywood until July but I have just decided to go next month. I need to see what all the hype is about as this is the first time since Shivering Timbers opened that I have heard such praise for a wooden coaster.
The only time I have been to Dollywood was on the way down to Atlanta for the 1999 ACE Spring Con. I was only at the park for a couple of hours and I didn't get to ride a whole lot. As much as I loved Tennesse Tornado, I just didn't have a desire to go back unless I was in the area. I can't wait to go back now!
Oh, and Matt. Great trip report and all that jazz.
You will LOVE it Sean. Trust me. It lives up to the hype and then some.
You know how I love to rave on about GCI's but I am sure you will have as many Thundergasms as the rest of us. ;-)
*** Edited 4/25/2004 9:25:18 PM UTC by coasterqueenTRN***
The ride REALLY is that good.
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