Thunderhead! - Dollywood 7/25 & 26

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Who ever expected Dollywood and GCI to build one of the finest wood coasters in the country? Then top it off with excellent theming, beautiful scenery and some great ride operations?

Thunderhead is GCI's 2004 creation, the combination of a seriously twisty, overbanked and hilly track with their in-house designed Millennium Flyer trains has resulted in one sick and twisted coaster!

As got off I-40 on Sunday afternoon (7/25), the rain started pouring down in sheets and thunder echoed in the distance. I immediately thought 2 things: 1) I might be washed out of riding Thunderhead tonight and 2) this might be the best rain ever since it would create riding conditions very similar to the finest SRM and other coaster rides I've ever had!

Once I reached the park, after dealing with 45 minutes of heavy Pigeon Forge traffic, the storm faded away, leaving some serious clouds and heavy humidity and heat. I parked, got my enter after 3pm, get tomorrow free ticket, and immediately made a left turn after going through Dollywood's beautifully themed entry area.

A few steps presented me with Thunderheads entry sign and a winding pathway uphill. The path was carved out of the hillside, landscaped with lovely flowers and trees and themed with logging tools and implements, and with only a glimpse of Thunderhead through the trees upslope. After crossing under the Railroad trestle, you enter Thunderhead Gap.

OMG, its a jewel in the valley, the way Thunderhead is placed prevents you from seeing the whole coaster at once - your first view shows the seriously overbanked curve which enters the station flythrough - more on the flythrough in a second. The area itself is themed like a logging camp, with the station perched up on the hillside, with plenty of stairs to climb over and over again for those inevitable rerides.

The que was light due to the rain earlier, so I hopped in the front row line. 2 trains later I was blown away.

Thunderhead has pacing that rivals the finest coasters in the class - Raven, Legend and Tremors. Its got a perfect balance of air, laterals and intensity that isn't seen very often. Off the lift, the curving first drop leads in a huge floating airtime filled overbanked U-curve, followed quickly by a run under the lift hill, into another highly banked turn which suddenly drops and then rises into the overbanked curved into the station flythrough. Thunderhead delivers air at places you wouldn't expect, its usually before you crest the hill or curve, not when or after and it maintains it through the curve giving you some awesome lateral airtime into these head chopping curves. Yep, head chopping curves - they are so highly banked that if your sitting in the left side of the train, you definitely get the feeling that your head is destined to meet the railing.

I don't know if it was the rain and heat, or if Thunderhead normally runs this fast and furious, but the train roared through the first half of the course and the flythrough. The combination of speed, airtime and laterals gives a great out-of-control feeling without a hint of roughness. The flythrough the station produces a roar that echos through the valley, people in the station always look up as the train races through and the screams of the riders rain down upon those waiting.

Thunderhead never lets up, after you leave your quick visit to the station. You immediately head down hill again into a modified overbanked partial S-helix, getting great laterals and airtime the whole way. A rising curved hill, the train still flying along with pops of lateral air leads into a quick section of almost trick track, another overbanked curve leads into a curving hill onto the brake run.

As I exited the train, you could see the flushed excitement on all of the riders faces. It really gets the adrenalin going!

Airtime - check, in spades;
Laterals - check and double check;
Intensity - through the whole course, never has a real dead spot or lets up, the flythrough would really be the only "breather" point;
Smooth - heck yeah, just a touch of classic wood coaster "roughness" in the back seat

GCI has created a classic.

I immediately went for a reride and got another quick front-row ride since they pair up single riders if the opportunity presents itself. Second time was better than the first! Its no fluke, my third ride was in the back seat, which offered a fine ride as well, with some differing feeling in the airtime (little more pop, but less actual air time itself) and some more intensity in the laterals but the front 2 rows are where the action is at. I looked down at my watch and noticed it was about 6:30pm by this point and Thunderhead seemed to be starting to speed up - I was anxiously awaiting for 8pm to roll around to see what kind of ride I would get at that point, but it was not meant to be. The coaster shut down a few minutes later when a lightning warning was issued by the park. After waiting an hour and half with cloudy but seemingly storm free skies it did not reopen for the day. I promised myself to come back the next morning and get a bunch of rides if the weather cooperated.

Come dawn the next morning, it had rained seriously overnight and mist evaporated off the Dollywood parking lot in large clouds of eerie fog first thing in the morning. Thunderhead opened with the park, and I managed to get 12 more delightful rides between 9am and 11am, for the first 45 minutes of operation, the crowds were so light that the ops allowed rerides if your row wasn't being waited for!

The rides were just as good, if nto better than the evening before - the rain slicked track and the heat were a perfect combination for some more fast and furious rides! I managed to ride the front row, 2nd row, back row and 2nd to back row several times and decided that the first 2 rows were the "prime" riding spots.

The balance of airtime (both floater and pops), laterals and intensity in the front was a better combination than the pops of airtime offered by rides in the back row. In comparison, Thunderhead isn't as intense as some of the finer CCI creations, but its better integrated as part of the experience and is a perfect complement to the airtime and lateral and smoothness of the ride. If you don't leave your ride on Thunderhead feeling flush with excitement and ready to ride again then you need to cut down on your medication.

At 11am the crowds really started setting in (and on a Monday no less!), so I decide to catch the train for a panoramic view of the coaster from above - getting some great video of the coaster in operation as we chugged by.

Overall, Thunderhead hit #4 on my list, right behind Raven, Tremors and Legend. It offers a great ride, and I think I'm going to return during the fall when Dollywood is open until 10pm for its fall celebration - I can just imagine what full nighttime operation after a day of running would do to this coaster, intense may not be enough of a description if it exhibits the late night ride characteristics of its brethern.

Have Fun!


Wow, great TR! After hearing that, I assumed it was your new #1, but it's behind Raven, Legend, and Tremors?!? Wow.
Glad you enjoyed Thunderhead and the park!

Did you get a chance to ride Tennessee Tornado or any of the other attractions?

*** Edited 7/29/2004 5:51:35 PM UTC by Dukeis#1***

Little bit how I rank coasters (and shamelessly borrowed Mike Saunders' coaster ranking criteria):

My top 5 are basically almost interchangeable - all of them deliver awesome rides IMHO.

Thunderhead could be my #1, but like I mentioned in the TR, I'd have to see it in late night "insane" mode - ala Raven and Legend at SRM and Tremors at CAC.

I rode Tennessee Tornado once, its still one of the best Arrows in existence. Always a really fun ride and not really rough at all.

Other than the train and a walk around the park to soak in Dollywood's great atmosphere (and lunch!), I didn't ride anything else since I've done them before on other trips or didn't feel like getting wet from their water ride collection this trip.

Anyone know whats going to operate during the November/December holiday season when they close at 10pm? Hopefully both Thunderhead and Tennessee Tornado will be. Might have to visit again for some real night riding.

Have Fun!


During the ACE event earilier this year Pete Owens, the parks P.R. Rep said that they were going to try and run both coasters this year during the harvest and christmas celebration.

However I wouldn't count on Tornado since they closed it down last year during these festivals for the first time since it's been open.

They said they just weren't getting the ridership that they needed to even keep a one train operation running which is about all they do with the Tornado anymore except when it's extra busy (ala weekends).

Flying over metal is a beautiful thing! TNcoasterman
I wonder if Tennessee Tornado didn't meet the park's expectations after it was built. I actually remember the mine train having longer lines (and filling the que house down to the entrance ramp) running three trains than Tennessee Tornado gets running one.

I guess the loops scare a lot of riders away with Dollywood being so family oriented.

*** Edited 7/29/2004 10:10:41 PM UTC by Dukeis#1***

Not only that, Thunder Express was alot longer than TT, so it kept lines, even on light days. TT is over so fast, that it can't keep much of a line.

Pardon our dust...Signature is building for your future enjoyment!

Well I hope that the chatter that I hear from the park is true about them wanting to expand behind Thunderhead Gap all the way up the valley to connect it with Craftsman Valley.

I personally believe that if ridership on Tornado doesn't stay above some magical number they'll rip it out. Lest we forget Buzzsaw Falls. It was maintenance intensive and ridership had faltered since it's opening so they pulled it for better things.

I think Tornado still has some life in it but I'm going to make sure I continue to ride it often and not forget it.

Flying over metal is a beautiful thing! TNcoasterman
I'm pretty sure the park will eventually expand to create a full midway loop. I think it will be very interesting to see how the Dollywood grows back to the TN Tornado area. There's a lot of room back in there, and I'm sure the Logging Ride area would be a great first step. (And would fit in with the Thunderhead theme)

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