Who says the season has to end in October? Earlier in the year I thought about how I wished I had had the chance to go to Dollywood for Thunderhead this summer, as it looked amazing. I checked the Dollywood website to see when they opened up for the season the following year so that I could plan a visit, but I noticed that Dollywood is opened thru December for their Christmas festival, and that the coasters are open unless the temperature drops too low. I thought that maybe it would be a great way to end the season and I told a couple people about it, inviting them along.
Little did I know everyone would take my trip and do all the planning for me. When I mentioned it again, Danny told me that it had been discussed and that we were planning on the 10th of December. This just happened to be the day of another even that I wanted to avoid and since Friday was not good for most people we switched it to the 11th. As with most plans that I make far enough in advance, something drastic comes up and I have to cancel. So I didn’t have my hopes for actually making it to Dollywood but when it came down to it, I was able to go and I talked a friend into going and meeting the 8 others that had committed to the trip.
For most of the week prior I had some slight dread that everything would fall thru, but on Saturday morning around 8:15 am Jamaal and I started to head southwest from our homes in southern WV. I was a a day sleeper during this period of my life due to work and as such I was unable to sleep the night before. Well, I guess the caffeinated Iced Tea I had for dinner/breakfast didn’t help much either. But I decided that I would drive down, that way Jamaal could drive back that evening and I could sleep.
The drive down was nice. We stopped at a Burger King that was about an hour from the house, right before the interstate to grab some food. It was a long enough drive, but its always nice to have a travel partner. We listened to music, talked, and saw an incredibly large guitar once we stopped at a rest stop in TN. I had never been to Tennessee before this year, and over the summer had to attend a convention in Johnson City. I had wanted to hit Dollywood then, but I hadn’t been at my job for a month yet, and didn’t want to ask for an extra day off. So here I was, back to the Smokey Mountain area for my first ever trip to Dollywood.
The traffic in Pigeon Forge was not good. Plenty of X-mas shoppers and everything down there is still pretty much open year round for holiday shopping. My first impression of the area was Myrtle Beach sans ocean and add mountains. It was surprised at how much it reminded me of WV, but then, we were still in the Appalachian Mountains (and thanks Dawn Marie for saying it correctly). There were attractions everywhere, and we didn’t even head into Gatlinburg on this trip. Jamaal said we should come back next year, and this was before we even got to Dollywood.
The park is situated back in a hollow, and up on a mountain side. It’s an odd trip back into the woods and mountains to get to a parking lot that is very long, but not very wide. We parked in lot C and headed over to the tram. But alas, I forgot my hat and gloves. It was cool in Pigeon Forge but still coaster riding weather. After purchasing ticketst and getting through the front gate we headed over to Thunderhead where the group was supposed to be. But as we head up to Thunderhead Gap I called Danny and he said they were at Tennessee Tornado. Since Jamaal and I were already this close to Thunderhead I told them we were going to take a spin, and would meet them over at Tornado. There were plenty of people in the park, but the line for Thunderhead was only a 3 train wait. We got in line for the front.
I was excited to finally ride Thunderhead. We opted for the front row. Two things that I noticed in the station were that the ride ops were all older and extremely friendly. The pumped the crowed up and kept the trains full and moving even with only a 1 train operation.
The station was immaculate. Much like the area of the park I had already seen there was no trash, no gum on the rails, and no names scratched into the pain. Granted this ride is new for the year, but it’s the end of the year and stuff like that usually happens pretty quickly. I guess it can be attributed to good park operations, cleanliness, and the type of crowd at Dollywood. The guy and son in front of us were really cool and chatty. Jamaal later would note that I seem to be able to talk to anybody at a theme park. Standing in line, the overhead station pass-thru was really neat.
Thunderhead-The helix at the beginning was fun and, to me, the lift seemed steeper than normal. The first drop was nothing short of great. The track is twisted, the trains were comfortable, and you get major laterals though not a lot of sustained air. The wind chill was much colder, but I was having fun. The ride doesn’t seem very long when you are waiting in the queue, but it gives a pretty long ride. I loved the look of the ride and the station fly-thru was really cool on ride as well. I really enjoyed the ride
It was time to head over to Tennessee Tornado. Having the designation of the smoothest Arrow ever, I was excited about trying it out. Jamaal and I walked from Thunderhead Gap over the 100,000 miles and up the mountain taller than Everest to get to the group and give it a shot. i may have exaggerated the amount of walking, but it was a lot.
Danny said they were over by Blazing Fury and, after trekking halfway cross Tennessee to find them, I saw a strange group of people standing in the middle of the midway. What a motley crew it was indeed, a bunch of coaster geeks! I immediately felt right at home. I went up and got hugged by Tina first, then Kristin, Beth, and Dawn. Then shook hands with Mike, Jeff, Diane and then Danny, whom I’d met at Kings Island over the summer.
After introductions we headed up to Tornado. I really like how Tornado is situated on the mountain. It’s very nice and, again, the station was very clean and was decently themed. Tornado was a walk on so we got in the middle. One thing I noticed was the train. I had seen pictures of it before and thought it needed a paint job but in reality, the paint job made the train look distressed.This was definitely a different type of Arrow. It really is a shame that they got their act together so late in the game before bankruptcy and buyout.
Tennessee Tornado-You exit as is usual on a lot of Arrows, with a dip out of the station and then a turn, on this one to the left. You go thru the storage shed where some sound effects of wind blowing start playing, then dip again, turn to the right, and start up the lift hill up the side of a mountain. At the top there is the usual steep dip and banked turn that goes into the real drop. The actual first drop on this coater is thru a tunnel in the mountain, and was really great. Then it’s into that wonderful looking loop-screw before turning and flying through a vertical loop and sidewinder. You end flying around another highly banked curve and hop up into the final brake run. Smoothest Arrow ever? You betcha! Too short? Absolutely!
I didn’t mind it only having three inversions but it could have had a few more hills. Oh well. The great thing about Tornado is that the line was never long enough to have to wait so re-rides are all too easy.
At this point, the rest of the group was hungry. Jamaal and I had a late breakfast but decided to eat with them anyhow at one of the many restaurants. This one was themed to back stage or something. Even though there were 10 of us we didn’t wait long for tables. Our waitress was really cool. I had Sirloin Tips with fried corn and onions, mashed potatoes, and of course, fresh baked bread (‘I think it comes with all entrées, ya know’).
We sat and ate, Jamaal, Dawn, Diana, and myself at one table, and the hooligans at the other. The food was good, the service was better than most regular restaurants, and the bread was really awesome.
After lunch we headed back towards Thunderhead Gap. I’m glad they’re getting a fairly good expansion the next year, but can we please get something to transport me from Thunderhead over towards Tornado or, for that matter, anywhere else in the parksometime soon? A chairlift would be okay with me, if not just a path. We kept getting told that Thunderhead will shut down at 40° so we wanted to get in quite a few more rides incase that happened. The day was already cold, the sun barely shined except at sunset, and the wind was picking up. It was around 42° as it was. We all got inline for more Thunderhead after meeting up with Beth’s friend Nathan. Mike wanted to ride with me in the back of the train and after about 10-15 minutes we were off.
The back seat ride was even better! Half the gang was on just before us so we waved and I yelled at them on the helix before the lift. Again, the first drop is great and there does seem to be a little more air in the back of the ride. I really love the trains, very comfortable. It was getting rather cold with no gloves and hats, darn me for leaving them in the car.
After our back seat ride on Thunderhead we all got in line again. This time I rode with Jamaal in the middle. We even did some hand slapping between riders in the train and us waiting to get on in the queue as the train was rolling into the station. I was going to get my gloves and hat before this ride but the temperature was dropping fast. For this ride, however, the wait was even longer because someone who had been told not to wear a hat on the ride wore one and lost it so they had to cycle the train empty, then with only a ride op, then had to stop again before we got on because someone found the hat on the coaster. Why can’t people follow directions? Anywho, this ride was better than the last. The ride is relentless, even flying through the station was fast and furious, right before that dip down and then up into a banked curve.
I desperately needed my toboggan and gloves, so I left everyone to run to the tram and out to my car. I like the ticket idea at Dollywood as its much like the way you ride the Metro in D.C. You get your admission ticket, stick it in a machine, then the ticket card pops out of the top and you can pass. Really nifty, and you don’t have to get a hand stamp that I’m always afraid will wear off.
I met back up with the group at Thunderhead and we walked in the park over towards Tornado. The sun was setting and I wanted at least another ride on Tornado in case the temperature dropped as we were all hoping for night rides. Mike and Kristin left to go out to the car to get something, so the group was waiting for them in the middle of the park where I think they did some quick shopping, and Dawn got more Dollyfood. I told them that Jamaal and I were going to head to Tornado and Blazing Fury and that we would meet them over there. It is a lot more confusing to get to Tornado at nite.
I wanted to do the motion simulator, but never got around to that little section of the park. We stopped by Blazing Fury next, which didn’t seem to have a line. It looked cool outside; I was excited for a new coaster.
Blazing Fury-I didn’t know what to expect. The queue was kinda neat and the station was nicely themed. My only problem was that it had an odd odor. We walked on to the back seat. Unlike Thunderhead and Tornado, Blazing Fury was running two trains. So off we were. I didn’t know what to expect. The dark ride elements are very nicely done, though there could be some sound effects at some of the more quiet moments. I was wondering when I was going to see some real action. It was just like going…going…going…going…and then it dropped. I did enjoy the drops, and the last one, while thankfully not too wet (was that controllable?) was rather dark. I would have liked to see more of the surroundings. It was very fun for a few rides and thankfully, it doesn’t close for weather.
After our back seat ride we headed for the front and actually had to wait a cycle. This time I got a little more wet in the front. I took my gloves and hat off for it this time and unzipped my jacket. The drops were much more violent in a good way from the front, and I actually seemed to get more air from the back.
When we got off of Blazing Fury we walked back to Tornado. We did wait for about one cycle to ride in the front. One thing that they do enforce is a single rider rule. It’s posted that no single riders after dark, but they will let you on as a single rider if there are at least 3 people in the car with you. I found that a bit odd.
Jamaal is quite shorter than I and did get a bit of head banging on the horse collars in the middle of the ride. The front was different for both of us though as the restraint came down on more but his head cleared it. Because of my height and my shoulders Arrow restraints don’t come down too far, and I’m usually getting around a 7 inch gap from chest to restraint. They do their job, but with the hang time on this one it feels weird. The restraint came down to my chest on the front, however. This ride was at nite and, though it was cooler and darker in the tunnel, the course is lit up. I think it would be much better with the lights off because you’re in between the mountains and it would be very dark.
After that, we rode again in the middle. I called the group to see where they were and they had headed over to Thunderhead, which was still running, so we hurried over to Thunderhead Gap once again (darn that walk!) to meet up with the group.
This time I was much warmer with my gloves and toboggan. I rode with Jamaal in the front for the first nite ride. This, however, was much different than the front seat ride earlier. Thunderhead is good in the day. Thunderhead is awesome at night. It’s totally out of control. There seems to be more airtime, you don’t know where you are going in the dark, and when that train races thru the station, you don’t see much of the line, and the people in line don’t see any of you. Very dark indeed. Later on, one of the older gents running Thunderhead who had flashing lights on his hat said that I made him feel less silly with my toboggan. Great ride ops! I really do want to clone them and send them everywhere.
Next I rode with Danny in the back row. This time since it was dark I took my glasses off. It is so much better in the dark. It seemed faster and every element just seemed to deliver. I went back around for another ride. Danny and Jamaal sat this one out as Jeff and I rode in the middle. I slipped and hurt my hand going up the stairs, but it didn’t stop me from riding. The middle seemed to have the best air at nite, the laterals sending us flying into each other at each turn.
The plan was to go to ride the train and Dawn wanted to watch a Christmas show with lighted trees, but she missed the first showing, and thought it was over, though it would be playing again as we headed out of the park. Instead, we headed for our last rides of the nite on Tornado. On the way we stopped to get some Cinnamon bread that was out of this world, and cheaper thanks to Dawn’s gold season pass. We headed back up for our last rides on Tornado.
Jamaal and I got in line for the back. He kept saying “We’re not going to ride with everyone else if we get in the back” because there was a 1 train wait but I wanted my back seat ride. Everyone left in the train, but no one else got in line, so when the train unloaded the group Jamaal and I were the only two people to get on. I had jokingly asked the ride ops to let us ride by ourselves, and they said they’d do all they could to try. As soon as the train was unloaded, they opened the gates and we got on, the op at the controls gave a quick spiel, and dispatched us before anybody could get on. Did I say these were the best ride ops in the world? They smiled and waved and Jamaal and I got a great ride all to ourselves.
The restraint in the back didn’t come down as far as I thought it was, and because of the hang time I was being held in by the restraints with so much hang time. It was scary cool. Jamaal decided to sit one out so Jeff, Kristin, and I rode again. I was in the front and they were behind me.
That was my last coaster ride of the nite. We walked down the hill and as the gang was heading towards the Train Jamaal and I said our good byes, hugged everybody and headed our separate ways. The ride home was long and mostly uneventful. I slept most of the way while Jamaal drove. In Wytheville VA he took a wrong turn and ended up going on some back roads till he hit a deer. Did I mention we were in my Xterra? He screamed and woke me up. Thankfully, the deer ran off unkilled and my Xterra was fine. I went back to sleep. He found a way back to I77 and we headed home. We arrived in good ole’ McDowell County around 3 a.m. tired, and hoarse
I’m glad our trip was a success. I met some really cool coaster enthusiasts. The park was beautiful, the staff was super friendly, the food was great, and the coasters were outstanding.