Pigeon Forge, TN - July 2022 (Dollywood, Splash Country, Alpine Coaster, and...Zorbing?

Vater's avatar

A few months ago Liz and I planned a vacation for the last week in July to coincide with my son Jake's 16th and daughter Katie's 12th birthdays (they are 3 days apart). We decided on Pigeon Forge, TN, booked a nice little 3 bedroom Cape Cod in Sevierville (Dolly's hometown, apparently) through Vrbo and planned a loose itinerary for the week:

Sunday 7/24 - Drive (checkin to property at 4pm)
Monday 7/25 - Pigeon Forge stuff
Tuesday 726 - Dollywood
Wednesday 7/27 - Pigeon Forge stuff
Thursday 7/28 - Splash Country
Friday 7/29 - Drive home (checkout at 10am)

Thanks to Facebook's algorithm that I normally hate, a Reels video popped up a couple weeks before vacation that showed a couple people "Zorbing", which looked fun...then I noticed that it was located in Pigeon Forge and they mentioned it was the only place that offered the experience in the whole country. I showed it to Liz and she thought it looked fun enough to do, so we bought tickets for Monday morning at 9am...suddenly we had a pretty cool kickoff to the vacation planned.

I'll start off by saying that mistakes were made: my company has a referral bonus program, and I had referred someone I knew who started on my team in April. There are two levels of bonus pay: the larger amount for a "tech role", and 30% of that for a "non-tech role". Up until I received the bonus, I was 100% certain I was in a technical role (I've been a technical support engineer for decades), but days before my bonus paid out I discovered I was incorrect, and that the differentiation is purely based on which of the two main organizations the team falls under. Since my team is technically under "Client Services", I suddenly found that our vacation budget was far, far less than we had planned for--the bonus paid for about 1/4 of all our expenses instead of...well, the whole shebang (plus some leftover).

Oh well, we had a decent amount in savings that were able to pull from, but splurging for things like Time Saver passes or preferred parking at the parks was not going to happen.

Sunday

The drive from Charles Town, WV to our house in Sevierville, TN was long, but uneventful. Got to the house sometime between 4 and 5pm, and it was really nice. Had everything we needed, plus a nice front porch with swing with a great view of the Smoky mountains across the street, hot tub on the back deck, game room with a small (7 foot?) pool table and a retro arcade cabinet with 100 games or so, and a foosball table up in one of the kids' rooms.

We settled in and then went to dinner in Gatlinburg, which was a really neat town but far more touristy than I ever realized. There was even an observation tower (Intamin?) that resembled the ones at SFMM and SFoT. Parking was via pay lot only it seemed, which sucked since we were suddenly budget-conscious. Mellow Mushroom pizza for dinner, which is always decent, then back home to chill and get some much needed rest after a long day of travel.

Monday

Up early and went Zorbing at Outdoor Gravity Park! The gist: get bussed up a giant hill, climb into a huge (11' diameter), clear plastic ball full of water, and roll down. It was crazy fun! Much, much faster and out of control than it looked when observing from the bottom of the hill. We chose the most popular red track; it was the longest duration and zig-zagged down the hill. Purple was a straight track for speed (I can't even imagine how nuts this would be), and orange was an extreme zig-zag for solo riders only. Jake and I went together, and Liz and Katie went after us. Thankfully we didn't go blind.

Hung out at the house for a bit, I watched the French Grand Prix from the day before (thanks to the plethora of smart TVs in the house that allowed casting from the F1 app on my phone), then off to dinner back in Pigeon Forge. We ate at Calhoun's which was advertised to have the best ribs in America (it said so on the building). In fact, these were easily the okayest ribs I've ever had. An all around mediocre experience.

Tuesday

Dollywood! Liz and I last visited here twenty years ago. We stopped for a few hours on our way back to VA (where we used to live) from our friend's wedding in Fort Worth, TX. A lot has changed in two decades. It's no longer the quaint little amusement park it once was, boasting two whole roller coasters. It's still beautiful, but has obviously expanded in both size and by number of attractions and was barely recognizable from when I was here in 2002. Jake was my primary riding partner as unfortunately Katie still doesn't like roller coasters all that much. She's been on 7 now, including Candymonium and sooperdooperLooper, but she gets uptight when we try and convince her to ride with us on any of the bigger rides. Lightning Rod was down for the day, which really bummed Jake (and myself, to an extent) out. Park was crowded, but queues weren't too bad at all save for a couple.

Tennessee Tornado: front row walk-on early in the day. Still as smooth and fun as I remember; Jake really dug it too.
Blazing Fury: 10-15 minute wait, back 2 rows. The whole family did this, and Katie actually liked it. I had vague memories of it, but it was about as good as I could recall. Some fun blind drops toward the end.
Wild Eagle: 10-15 minute wait, front row. Pretty solid ride, Jake liked it a lot. This was my first wing coaster, and having no track under me was neat, but nothing to write home about. Typical B&M elements and intensity which are always good. Inversions do me in at my age though....and the heat was getting to all of us already.
Smoky Mountain River Rampage: 30-40 minute wait. With the rising heat and humidity, we all decided getting soaked was necessary. This is one of the better rapids rides I can remember, but it didn't get me as wet as I'd hoped (Katie and Liz, on the other hand...). I prefer only Kings Dominion's and IoA's versions more, but this one was fun.

Didn't take long for all of us to dry off and start roasting again; we were all hungry so we looked for an indoor joint with AC. Front Porch Cafe is a full service restaurant toward the front of the park, which was a bit of a surprise for us. Standard American fare, but the food and service were quite good, and allowed for a nice break from the heat.

Dragonflier: 40-45 minute wait, middle rows. We all rode this, though it took some convincing to get Katie on board. Turned out to be her favorite ride of the day, go figure. I was happy about that, as I thought it would lead her to want to try other coasters, but nope. For me it was...a credit. I've been on the Vekoma jr. inverted at Kings Island and it was about the same from what I can remember.
Daredevil Falls:
20-30 minute wait. I hade vague memories of riding this with Liz twenty years ago and getting absolutely soaked. As we were waiting in line it suddenly came back to me why: we had ridden in the front row and as the boat dipped down into the trough off the main lift, the water spilled into the footwells from both sides and drenched our lower halves. This time I wised up and we sat in the middle and rear rows, and didn't get nearly as wet. I like this ride, it's a bit more elaborate than the typical shoot-the-chute, and well themed. The drop is excellent, but Katie would disagree. She wasn't happy we convinced her to ride it.

Toward late afternoon Jake and I split off for a bit to ride the rest of the coasters we hadn't hit. Again, passing by Lightning Rod was disappointing, but we came to terms with it and moved on.

Thunderhead: 10 minute wait, middle row (toward the rear). While waiting for the train in front of ours to dispatch, the other train came roaring through the station overhead. Totally forgot about that, what a cool feature. Jake and I really enjoyed this one; it gave me a slight headache due to its intensity (and my exhaustion at this point in the day...and my life), but what a fantastic wooden coaster.
Mystery Mine: 20-30 minute wait, front row. This was the surprise of the day (to that point) for both Jake and me. What a blast from beginning to end. I thought this one was going to beat me up a little, but I came off exhilarated. Half coaster, half dark ride, all silly fun.
FireChaser Express: 45 minute wait, back row. Fun ride, but an odd coaster for this park as the entire layout was completely visible making it pretty easy to predict. That said, the elements are really twisty and the backwards section, while a bit nauseating for an aging Vater, was really fun. Thankfully, being in the last row allowed us to turn around and sort of see where we were headed.

At this point it was after 7:30, and with the park closing at 9, we were pretty wiped and felt we'd done everything we wanted to do so we headed for the exit. On our way, I happened to spot out of the corner of my eye a Lightning Rod train full of people rocketing up the launch/lift! Liz was totally cool with me and Jake checking it out, so we got in line while she and Katie went to get cheesecake.

Lightning Rod: 1 hour wait, longest (and slowest moving) of the day. It was so slow that at one point I thought it was only running one train, but I was wrong. This coaster was absolutely worth the wait and instantly became my #1....holy $%*&. Whether or not RMC packs "too much" into their layouts in a tradeoff for "pacing" or whatever, I don't give a flying crap. This was a freaking maniacal ride from start to finish, in all the best ways. There's one long return section full of...dare I even qualify them as "bunny" hops...that throw you out of your seat over and over and over. Insane! I nearly lost my voice.

We left the park still a little before closing, so we beat most of the traffic. We grabbed some fast food at Hardee's (ugh, but we're being budget-conscious) and unexpectedly caught the tail end of Dollywood’s fireworks display from the parking lot.

Wrap up: a good day at one of the most beautiful parks around. It was at times insufferably hot, which resulted in some irritability at times between the four of us, but overall we had a good time. It was fun to visit this park and ride the rides I remembered from 20 years ago, but it was a little weird to see how far it had progressed since then.

Wednesday

It's Jake's birthday! We slept in. A lot. Worked on a 1000 piece Simpson's jigsaw puzzle Jake brought. Went to an arcade in downtown Pigeon Forge, which these days are nothing more than casinos for kids. Gambling to win a bunch of virtual tickets which buys them cheap crap they could've bought for a lot less elsewhere. But they had fun.

Jake requested crab legs for his bday dinner. We opted for Joe's Crab Shack. Not sure if I've ever eaten at one of these, but it will likely be the last time. Market price for a bucket of snow crab legs was $50. We let the kids get one each and Liz and I opted for a less pricey meal...all the food was subpar. Even Red Lobster is almost always better than this was. The service was good though, and they very successfully embarrassed both Jake and Katie for their birthdays. $220 for a crap seafood dinner for 4.

Thursday

Splash Country, a place we were all looking forward to after such a brutally hot day at Dollywood. All week it'd been in the 80s-90s, so spending a lot of time in water was appreciated. The forecast showed rain/thunderstorms later in the day (it had all week, actually, but so far we’d lucked out). This is a nice, not terribly large water park, but it's got most of what every other major water park has...except for a Tornado slide (are these even in operation anymore? Wasn't there an accident some years back?). That disappointed me, as I'd seen one at another big water park we passed driving into Pigeon Forge. But not a big deal...they had one of those big toilet bowl slides, which Jake, after jokingly calling it God's Toilet, ultimately led him to name it the Holy S***. Oh, and there's a water coaster! Uh, nope, never mind...the water coaster was closed all day. We hoped we'd get lucky like we did with Lightning Rod a couple days before, but it was not in the cards.

High points: Lazy river, the Holy S***, the Big Bear Plunge (big 4-person innertube slide), and the Bear Mountain Fire Tower, which is one of those huge play areas with the giant bucket that douses everyone every minute, geysers, slides, rope ladders and such. All of us had a blast there. Then we finished the evening lazing in The Cascades, a large pool area with a couple low-thrill slides, waterfalls and stuff.

Low points: after a 45 minute wait, Jake and I had just sat down in the two-person innertube about to ride the Holy S*** when the lifeguards closed the ride for lightning in the area. We regrouped with Liz and Katie and took shelter under the roof of a food stand for the next hour while the skies opened up. Jake doesn't process disappointments well and was hard to be around for a couple hours. The brooding teenager apologized later, and we did ride it right after everything reopened and all was well. Definitely not worth a 3 hour wait though.

On our way back to the house, we stopped for a quick bite (McD's...double ugh) and then queued up for the Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster, one of about 3 or 4 alpine coasters in the area. Katie was willing to ride and she picked me to be her riding partner. Jake rode with Liz, and...well, hindsight really is 20/20...

Katie and I loved this thing. I'd never ridden one of these so I'd been looking forward to it since we first started planning the vacation. I'm surprised Katie enjoyed it, honestly. On our way up the eternal lift, she expressed that she didn’t want me to go crazy fast on the way down. Well, I only applied the brakes a couple times, and not very hard; our ride was fast and pretty insane, careening seemingly too fast around many of the curves. We were laughing the whole way down until we finally stopped, and as we sat on the brake run we looked back and waited for Liz and Jake to emerge from the trees on the final section of track behind us. I expected them to be traveling at a reasonable—if not crawling—pace, knowing Liz is not the thrill seeker I am, but they emerged at a comically blistering speed as Liz emitted some high pitched shrieks that I'd never heard before. "Never again!" they both said as they climbed out of the vehicle, looking like they had just had a brush with death.

Turns out they both misheard the guy's instructions in the station: he told them to not use the brakes while climbing the lift, but they didn't hear the "while climbing the lift" part...so they careened down the entire track with zero brakes. I would've loved that, but they, not being familiar with these rides, thought the whole vehicle was going to leave the tracks and go plummeting down the mountain. They were quite literally preparing for death. I asked if there was a point where they thought, “maybe I should apply the brakes”? But I guess they were both in such a panic that it never entered their minds. Again, hindsight: the weight of their car was likely significantly more than ours (Jake's taller than I am, and Katie's still pretty small), so I wish they had both ridden in separate cars. I was bummed they didn't enjoy it, but we definitely laughed about the whole thing afterward.

Back at the house, we finished the jigsaw puzzle. Good times.

Friday

We left our lovely vacation home at 9:50am and grabbed some breakfast at Hillbilly's Restaurant about a minute up the road. This turned out to be the best meal of the trip...granted, it's hard to screw up breakfast food, but this was friggin' good.

We'd noticed that Liz's car (VW Tiguan) was shimmying a bit during the week when we were traveling at any significant speed, and it kept getting worse on the drive home. I chalked it up to an out of balance tire or an alignment issue, but those thoughts were gone once the rear passenger tire blew out while doing 70mph somewhere on I-81 in Virginia. Thankfully I was able to gain control and pull off on the right shoulder (I was in the right lane). I directed Liz and the kids to get out and stand a good bit off the shoulder (last thing I needed was for a sleepy driver to plow into us at 70+mph), had to remove our belongings from the hatch to get to the spare, and as I had the car on the jack and had nearly taken the blown tire off, a VDOT truck pulled up, set up cones and assisted with the tire change. Didn't really need him until I realized the spare was low on air, so he filled it up and we were on our way within a half hour, taking back roads the rest of the way home as the stupid spare donuts are only rated for up to 50mph.

Overall, this was a great vacation and despite the fact that it wasn't all that relaxing, we all felt recharged and ready to get back to life as usual...sort of. As for myself (and Liz), I'm pretty much over the unbridled excitement I used to have for amusement parks. My tolerance for extreme rides has dwindled; the g forces give me headaches a lot (especially on hot days), and the fatigue is real. We both look forward to our next vacation which will consist of lots of relaxation on the beach or at a lakehouse.

Last edited by Vater,

Very Good Report!

The thought of popping a tire or hitting other types of car issues on vacation makes me anxious. Not enough to not go...but when you are a stranger in a strange land, with kids, it's easy for someone to take financial advantage of you.

I am glad you made it back ok.


Here's To Shorter Lines & Longer Trip Reports!

Oh, I am sooooo glad you got Lightning Rod, I was feeling very sorry for you. I count it as one of my favorites and that trip back down the side of the hill is indeed one of the best coaster sequences ever. I rode it both as a wooden coaster and as a hybrid and could find no difference between the two.
I’ve ridden all of the mountain coasters in the area and I think you chose the best one. I no longer hesitate to run my sled flat out- the cars are designed with magnets that prevent rear-end collisions and the track has periodic magnetic trims that keep the speed in check. I love them and have quite a few on my list, with the latest being the really long one in Park City, Utah. It had to be one of if not the best in the country.
Lastly, I have friend who is a blogger/influencer/travel writer who recently wrote about her family’s Zorbing experience on the same slope. I wonder if it’s the same gal- she is Adventure Mom, Nedra McDaniel, of N. Ky/Cincinnati. If it is then that would be a really odd coincidence that I’ll be sure to tell her about.
Thanks for a great report, full of fun and just the right amount of suspense.

Last edited by RCMAC,
Brent Sullivan's avatar

Man... the more I hear about Lightning Rod, the more I want to ride it.

Steel Vengeance is my #1 coaster, but sounds like this would give it a run.

Glad your trip was good and glad you made it home safe.

Vater's avatar

Yeah, I'm really glad Lightning Rod opened. I'd heard about it being down a lot and wasn't too surprised when we first saw it closed, but I honestly thought it was just going to be down all day. Interesting that you noticed no difference between the wood and steel tracks, I'd wondered if it had changed much when the I-beam track was installed.

I did some poking around and I now see there are at least seven alpine coasters in the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg area. Smoky Mountain was the first one built in the area, which explains the 11k 5-star reviews on Google it has--the next highest I think was Rocky Top with around 3k. And I'm pretty sure I saw another under construction on our way out of Pigeon Forge Friday.

I looked up your friend and no, I'm pretty sure it's not the same person. Can't find the original video now, though.

kpjb's avatar

Nice TR.

We were there for our one and only time in '19. I did not realize how touristy it was going to be... I thought I was going to a forest with Dollywood nearby and it ended up looking like Myrtle Beach without water.

We did probably 5 of those mountain coasters. Our favorite was the one at Goats On the Roof. There's one that boasts the longest track, and it was a disappointment. It was technically the longest track, but it had about 4 lift hills which added to the overall length, but killed the excitement. If I had known what zorbing was we'd have most likely done that, too.

IIRC, they redid about 1/2 of Lightning Rod to steel track while the other half is still traditional wood track. Did you notice a difference? We absolutely loved it when it was all wood, but I can definitely see how it could tear itself up.


Hi

Vater's avatar

Goats on the Roof was closest to our house, but I read a handful of negative reviews, mostly with regards to the staff, not the coaster itself. I always take them with a grain of salt, but when I compared the other two (Smokey Mountain and Rocky Top), they each were a solid 5 stars while Goats was 4.5. And again, Smokey Mtn had 11k reviews to Goats' 3k, so that was the deciding factor. I'm sure any differences are minimal.

Yeah, I read on rcdb that Lightning Rod was a little over 50% steel track now, and no, there was no noticeable difference. In fact if I didn't read it after the fact I would've thought the whole thing was steel.

eightdotthree's avatar

You can tell the difference once you get over how overwhelming it is on that first ride.


Vater's avatar

Vater:

I'll start off by saying that mistakes were made: my company has a referral bonus program, and I had referred someone I knew who started on my team in April. There are two levels of bonus pay: the larger amount for a "tech role", and 30% of that for a "non-tech role". Up until I received the bonus, I was 100% certain I was in a technical role (I've been a technical support engineer for decades), but days before my bonus paid out I discovered I was incorrect, and that the differentiation is purely based on which of the two main organizations the team falls under. Since my team is technically under "Client Services", I suddenly found that our vacation budget was far, far less than we had planned for--the bonus paid for about 1/4 of all our expenses instead of...well, the whole shebang (plus some leftover).

Update: I apparently caused a ruckus. My company has updated its bonus program based on my complaint and I was informed yesterday that my team should, in fact, be considered "tech" and that I'll be getting the rest of what I was originally expecting with my next paycheck.

Raven-Phile's avatar

It's a good thing you didn't put a down payment on an inground pool in anticipation.

Vater's avatar

Believe me, Clark's monologue went through my head many times over the last few weeks.

Kpjb I do hope you visited Great Smoky Mountain National Park while there, that along with the blue ridge parkway is where you get the forests, mountains and critters you would expect.


2022 Trips: WDW, Sea World San Diego & Orlando, CP, KI, BGW, Bay Beach, Canobie Lake, Universal Orlando

Vater:

Yeah, I read on rcdb that Lightning Rod was a little over 50% steel track now, and no, there was no noticeable difference. In fact if I didn't read it after the fact I would've thought the whole thing was steel.

I rode when it was all wood and halfway through the ride I was thinking "this feels just like a steel RMC". Famous last words, when we got into the triple down coming down the mountain there was a small section with significant shuffling and hammering (not just RMC wild craziness, but rather Raging Wolf Bobs level bouncing around ) which nearly ruined the ride for me. This was late 2019 and thought parts of the ride might evolve into Mean Streak level pain in a few years. Happy to hear they got ahead of that and it's all fixed.

kpjb:

I thought I was going to a forest with Dollywood nearby and it ended up looking like Myrtle Beach without water.

Ha! I thought the same thing heading in and then leaving. The Smokies are probably the most beautiful areas in the eastern US and Dollywood might be the most beautiful well kept theme park I've been to. Almost everything in between them was a seedy tourist trap it was hard to process the difference. Next visit will be strictly at Dreammore and/or a cabin up in the hills, and taking the Gatlinburg bypass to the Smokies.

Last edited by Joe E.,

At quick glance that model pool looks like Clark is holding an iPad

Joe E.:

Next visit will be strictly at Dreammore and/or a cabin up in the hills, and taking the Gatlinburg bypass to the Smokies.

I usually stay between the Parkway and Veterans Blvd in Sevierville. Dollywood from there is an easy shot down Veterans Blvd with none of the gack along the Parkway. You can get to the National Park by Veterans and the Bypass with only one or two traffic lights on the Parkway, and miss almost all of it. The only other time the Parkway is unavoidable is making a grocery run (at least, I haven't figured out how to do it yet).

I did run the Santa Hustle half marathon there. The course is basically "run down the Parkway 6.5 miles through the worst of the tourist trap stuff, and then turn around and run back." I only did it because I was already going to be there on race day--I won't make the mistake of running in it ever again.

Yuck.


kpjb's avatar

Touchdown:

Kpjb I do hope you visited Great Smoky Mountain National Park while there, that along with the blue ridge parkway is where you get the forests, mountains and critters you would expect.

Not sure what the parkway is, but we did several drives and hikes in the Smokies while we were there.


Hi

The Blue Ridge parkway is a national scenic byway 469 mile long that connects Smoky Mtn NP to Shanendoah NP in Virginia driving along the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains is an absolutely fabulous drive that everyone should do at least once. I hit the Smokies every spring and as long as it’s open I try to do the Asheville to Smokies portion as part of the trip. A few summers ago I did drive the entire thing and would love to do that again.


2022 Trips: WDW, Sea World San Diego & Orlando, CP, KI, BGW, Bay Beach, Canobie Lake, Universal Orlando

kpjb's avatar

Ah, I don't think we did anything on that road. We came in on 81, stayed in Pigeon Forge, and drove in to the National Park from there. It was still a nice drive once we were past the touristy stuff, though.


Hi

Oh, you would absolutely remember. The Blue Ridge Parkway is Mother Nature’s scenic drive and one of the most beautiful in the country. Thousands of tourists and scenery enthusiasts take it every day for the vistas through the windshield and from overlooks where you can stop, rest, and take photos.

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