Friday, August 26, 2011

The Great Smoky Mountain Treat - Part 1

My recent road trip afforded me visits to several parks, some that I've been to before (but not in years, meaning lots of new attractions to see), and some that were brand new to me.

One of these parks, Dollywood, has been near the top of my must-visit list for years now.  You can understand how excited I was to finally visit the park!

When you enter the parking lot of Dollywood you'd almost never know that you had just pulled into one of the best theme parks around.  Why?  Well there's no theme park to be seen at that point!  The park is quite literally situation among the hills and valleys of the Smoky Mountains, such that the parking lots are tucked away from the entrance.

When the tram drops visitors off at the gates, the high level of theming and atmosphere the park has is felt immediately.  Few parks have managed to give a feeling of being home via their entrance area - but Dollywood excels at this.

Dollywood first opened in 1961 under the name of Rebel Railroad, and had several monikers - including Silver Dollar City Tennessee - before becoming Dollywood in 1986.  It was at that time that a great amount of expansion at the park began, in fact Dollywood has doubled in size since being renamed.  The park received the coveted Applause Award in 2010, which was personally accepted by Dolly Parton.

After grabbing a map to become a little better oriented with the park, we noticed most guests turning right after entering, so that meant we turned left.  This small, winding path leads to the Timber Canyon section of the park, a somewhat recent addition to the park's themed areas.

Without a doubt, the view guests have when they enter the Timber Canyon area is one that will elicit excitement, as the park's wooden coaster, Thunderhead, stands prominently before you.  A bonus to the view is that you can't really see all of the ride, yet you know that its winding around the hillside, twisting under itself multiple times.

Thunderhead was added to the park in 2004, and marked the beginning of the Timber Canyon area, which eventually, with the addition of one more themed area, connected the park in a giant loop.  I had the benefit of visiting with that loop complete, making a trip around the park a breeze and easy to navigate.

But back to Thunderhead now.  It's an amazing ride, certainly worth the praise it has received over the years.  In fact, the ride has twice been named the best wooden coaster in the Golden Ticket Awards, something the park happily promotes.  After embarking up the lift to 100 feet above the ground, the train descends and the twisting begins.  Millennium Flyer trains, provided by Great Coasters International keep the ride smooth yet wild enough for a solid thrill.

As if the coaster's layout wasn't thrill enough, those waiting to ride in the station are treated to an extra surprise when the train comes roaring through at 40 miles per hour, only 8 feet above the exit stairs!  After reading for so long about how this coaster sits near the top of many fans favorite ride list, I now understand - Thunderhead really is a great coaster!

While Thunderhead was a wonderful surprise, my attention quickly turned around to the rest of the Timber Canyon area.  Just to the left of this photo is the Timber Tower, a unique flat ride that is not operating this season.  Beyond that, a dilapidated looking mine structure quickly drew my attention and beckoned me to head that direction.

The dilapidated appearance of Mystery Mine was done on purpose, naturally, as the theming standard at Dollywood is very high.  The ride is a part indoor and part outdoor coaster, but all fun.  While a thrill ride, Mystery Mine is still aimed at families, sporting a kid friendly 48 inch height requirement.  The structure is dark and imposing, but the ride itself is lighthearted and fun.

Riders sit eight to a mine car and load inside a dingy looking station, complete with flickering gas lamps hanging overhead.  The fun starts immediately - right after dispatch the cars drop down into a black as night hole in the side of the station.  Excellent.

From there I'd rather not ruin any surprises for future guests, but let's say there are two vertical lifts, two rockin' inversions, and even some fireballs!  Just make sure that canary keeps on singing, or that's a sure sign you're in for some trouble.  You'll know what I mean!

Mystery Mine is a Gerstlauer designed custom Euro-Fighter as far as hardware is concerned, but an excellent attraction as far as rides go.  Taking a ride that's (now, at least) somewhat similar to others in the area and adding a decisively thick layer of theming and story takes Mystery Mine from a ride into an experience. 

Once you get your thrill fix, then enjoy some eats at the LumberCamp, its time to head to the park's newest area, Wilderness Pass.  Immediately upon entering the area you'll see River Battle, a ride added in 2008 that along with a new walkway officially connected the Dollywood loop - as it could be called.

Wilderness Pass hasn't had the opportunity to truly 'grow in' quite yet, so it can be a tad hot in the sun. Thankfully River Battle is all about keeping riders cool by providing them about a gazillion ways to get soaked.  The boats that travel on this river are armed with spray shooters, and there's plenty of water guns stationed along the walkways surrounding the ride.  That leads to the Battle part of the attraction - it's hilarious to watch people on the ride duke it out with those on land.  Both parties eventually end up soaked!

Just past River Battle is an imposing yet beautiful structure on the side of the hill, this is the park's interactive course named Adventure Mountain.  If you take a ropes/obstacle course you might encounter at a fair or even the mall, then times it by ten, add in waterfalls, geysers, rock walls and other theming elements, well only then do you have Adventure Mountain.

Guests are able to choose which course they want to experience, and there's several so that everyone has something that 'fits' them, mild up to challenging.  There's even an adorable kids area named Camp Teachittome that's perfect for the young ones to experience.  It's attractions like Adventure Mountain that really set Dollywood apart from other parks I've visited.

Since we've covered two of the park's large coasters, we might as well hit upon the third right away.  After guests pass Adventure Mountain they encounter an open area (that won't be open for long, ahem, 2012...) and then reconnect with the 'original' part of Dollywood, in Craftsman's Valley.  At the very top of this area is the Tennessee Tornado, a large steel looping coaster.

The Tennessee Tornado is rather difficult to photograph, so forgive my lack of excellent photos.  While a bit mysterious to get an image of, the ride makes up for that with intensity.  At this point I've been on my fair share of Arrow designed looping rides, and the Tennessee Tornado is the most intense of its kind that I've ridden.  It's also the last of the traditional sit-down looping rides that Arrow created, having opened in 1999.

The Tennessee Tornado start outs innocently enough, with a traditional few turns before heading up the lift.  At the top there's a sloping right turn, a hop, and then a steep drop into a tunnel.  From there the train hits a massive 110 foot tall vertical loop, climbs into a banked turn, then plunges down below grade into another loop and sidewinder inversion combo.  A quick turn to the brakes and the ride is complete - and then it's time to catch your breath!

We've explored roughly half the park, but there's still plenty ahead.  Watch for the second part of my visit, coming soon!


Surya said...

Isn't Tennessee Tornado also the first (and last) looper of theirs which has a custom size loop in stead of their standard size one?