We had to be out of our condo North of Atlanta by 10:00am on Saturday, but we didn't have to be back at work until Monday morning. Someone on rec.roller-coaster...unfortunately I don't remember who...dropped the very useful information that Dollywood was still operating with 'winter hours.' A thought occurred to me: I had never been to Dollywood. Furthermore, Dollywood did a coaster swap this season, so even if I had been there before, here was a roller coaster I had never ridden! Operating!
This was an unusual trip for me for several reasons. First of all, it is unusual enough to be riding a seasonal roller coaster in November, never mind that the air temperature was near 70 degrees all day. Second, the cast of characters was a little different...this time it was me, my Dad, my Mom, and her cousin. Between the four of us, I am the real ride nut, and Dad rides more than the ladies. We arrived in Pigeon Forge, avoiding the worst of the traffic by approaching from the South (note to Dave and Tim: The down side is that we had to sit in the traffic jam in Gatlinburg instead), found a motel, and parked my car. Then we headed for the park. $5 to park the car is more reasonable than a lot of major parks, but the parking lot is a most inconvenient arrangement...it's about six rows wide, and a mile and a half deep. Fortunately there is an effective tram system in this parking lot.
We entered the park, and headed immediately for the Celebrity Theatre. Originally, we had planned to spend a couple of hours at Dollywood, then attend the Dixie Stampede show in town. Well, that's what everyone else wanted to do; I would have been happy to just spend the evening at Dollywood. Luckily...er, no..."unfortunately" [Footnote 1], the Dixie Stampede was sold out for the night, so the plan changed..we'd stay at Dollywood. But having been shut out of a Dollywood show [Footnote 2] once, we heeded the advice to get (no-added-cost) tickets for the Celebrity Theatre. This is the huge theatre right down the midway from the front gate. We had just missed the 3:00 show, and tickets for the 5:30 show would not be available until 3:30. But we learned quickly that a few seats were still available for the 3:00 show, so in we went, eight minutes into the showcase musical program, "Christmas in the Smokies."
The theatre is enormous, probably seating well over 1,000 people. It is generally pie-shaped, with the stage at the narrow end, a formal proscenium stage with a band pit out front, and an elaborate system of lighting, stage effects, and sets. We were seated at the extreme left edge of the theatre (I was in a left-aisle seat, in fact). The sight lines to the stage were very good even in such a crummy seat, but the show's designer put one of the most significant areas of the set at the extreme stage-right upstage corner, partly ruining the theatre's good sight lines. Apart from that, though, the show was excellent. Remember, I am accustomed to amusement park entertainment, which has seldom been known for its stellar quality. Dollywood is different. Dollywood is a show park, meaning the shows are intended to meet a very high quality standard. Two technical items that stood out were first of all the outstanding sound quality, literally the best live production sound I have heard in a very long time, and second, the nature of the show's choreography. It is a very natural-looking show, devoid of most of the gratuitous hand-waving that usually permeates musical ensembles. The other thing that I almost failed to notice was the content of the show. The show is, "Christmas in the Smokies," and that is exactly what it depicts. This is not a 'winter fantasy' or a 'mountain holiday' or some other junked-up let's-not-offend-anybody lowest-common-denominator pablum show. It is a tasteful, unashamedly (but almost apologetically) Christian pageant. There is no tokenism in the show. The cast is not ethnically diverse, and the material does not pander to anybody. It's billed as a Christmas show, and that is precisely what Dollywood offers. Personally, I have no problem with that whatsoever. And in Pigeon Forge, such a program fits right in with the local culture. But just about any other park in the country would never put on such a show, for fear of offending someone. Dollywood does it, and does it remarkably well.
There was one problem with the show, though. It ran almost exactly an hour. What I noticed was that at almost exactly the 40-minute mark, people...especially people with small children...began leaving the theatre. When the show finally ended, most of the audience members didn't even give the performers enough time to finish their curtain call, preferring instead to move as quickly as possible to the exit doors, probably in search of the nearest toilets. As we left the theatre, we were accosted by a costumed park attendant who asked our opinions, and gave directions to people who were as confused by the park map as we were. It was gratifying to see a park employee freely admit that their park map is a useless piece of garbage. I mean, Dollywood has about the worst park map I have ever seen in any park that uses park maps. In fairness to Dollywood, I should point out that the map they were passing out at the gate was a specially drawn map for the park's Christmas celebration, so it may not be indicative of the park's usual map. I know that a number of attractions are not even shown on the map, for instance!
It was with some difficulty that we figured out that we needed to walk the length of Craftsman's Valley. This portion of the park is supplied with a healthy collection of craftsmen demonstrating their work [Footnote 3]. We admired the elaborate sluice which provides water power to all of the buildings in the Craftsman's Valley...or would, if it were filled with water. Instead, thanks to the threat of cold weather, the sluice was filled with blue chasing lights, which made for a really stunning display after the sun went down. It was more or less here that we lost Victoria and Mary Jayne, though Dad and I made sure Mom had a radio with her. All week we'd been carrying a pair of FRS-band radios, which proved to be quite handy. Meanwhile, Dad and I headed on down to the end of the valley, where a small plaza sits right in front of the Tennessee Tornado. I stood and looked at the ride, and began to shoot a couple of photos when suddenly I heard a voice calling out from the coaster:
"HEY DAVE ALTHOFF!!"
I looked at Dave Althoff. Dad looked at me and made some crack about who knew he was there. I remembered that something similar had happened to me at Bland's Park a couple of years ago. I snapped a couple of photos, and as the train approached the station platform, I looked for the exit stairs. Sure enough, Tim Melago and Dave Sandborg came walking down the stairs. "Hey, this isn't Kennywood!" observed Dave. At Kennywood, I had spotted them first (well, actually I had spotted Dooley Schwartz first) and ambushed the gang at the Gold Rusher exit. This was actually more like the incident where I bumped into Tim at Bland's Park.
We all headed for the entrance. Inside the queue house, there are several signs detailing mining equipment and some of the unexpected results of the big Tennessee Tornado. We hiked up the entrance ramp, and I noticed Darren Mullins half a ramp behind us. I think he spent the whole day riding the coaster. In the mid-evening he told me he'd taken 35 rides already, but he apparently left earlier than we did. We picked a couple of seats at random (though I was careful to pick an odd-numbered row) and a few moments later we stepped into the train.
The train on the Tennessee Tornado seems to be slightly larger than most Arrow looping coaster trains, and seems to have a higher step-over. It's decorated to look like an ore car, which is a little odd for a wedge-shaped Corkscrew car. Also, the cars have headrest pads which extend well above the top of the molded seatback, much like the seats on the Steel Phantom. The brakes released, and we headed down and around a 180-degree left-hand curve and into the train storage shed. Oddly enough, the train is braked heavily here, so that it is moving very slowly as it passes the very large speaker located under the downtrack end of the transfer table. From this speaker comes a very loud roar which is punctuated with both wind whistles and human screams. This is the sound we all think of as a tornado. The train goes through a quick 'Arrow-dip" [Footnote 4], then around a right-hand curve to the very fast chain lift. It's just a few seconds to the top of the lift, where a small drop leads to a right-hand turnaround and a small hill.
This is the build-up to the ride's longest drop, I think it is on the order of 130' into a dark tunnel. The tunnel is made even darker by the blinding photography flashes that go off as the train enters. In the front of the train, you can feel the angle of this drop increase in the dark; in the back of the train, there is some nice airtime here. At the bottom of the hill, the train starts back up, coming out of the tunnel and entering into the enormous vertical loop. This is the biggest Arrow loop I have ever seen, and it is more than a little odd. See, the train rolls slightly to one side before entering the vertical loop, a maneuver which becomes more obvious as the train pulls through the loop and exits offset a significant distance from the entry point. What makes this "Spiroloop" an interesting element is that unlike a vertical loop, where the train is parallel to the ground through the entire element, the Spiroloop has the train canted at a slight angle through the element. From the exit point, it is a quick ride into the butterfly, which basically looks like a big Boomerang. What I noticed, though, is that while most Arrow coasters have a few sudden, purposeful twists and turns to put the train in position for the elements, the Tennessee Tornado has instead almost continuous, much more subtle twists and turns. The result is that all of the elements are very carefully tuned in such a way that even the different seating positions in the train are accounted for. Dave and Tim talked in their trip reports about the 'hangtime' in the looping elements, and I have to disagree slightly. To call it 'hangtime' suggests the kind of force you feel on the Kings Island Vortex because the train is moving too slowly through the Corkscrew and Boomerang; the kind of force that often results in headbanging and sore shoulders. On the Tennessee Tornado, the forces are more tightly controlled so that there is just enough 'down' force going through the elements to keep riders pinned lightly to their seats. Gone is the typical Arrow violence usually caused by sudden transitions into and out of the various elements. Headbanging? What's that? This thing runs like the Geauga Lake Double Loop. It finishes up with a final trick that is 100% pure classic Arrow. After the final curve, the train pulls through a quick dip, with a sudden pull-up into the block brakes just uptrack of the station. For the front half of the train, this pull-up supplies a very strong pop of airtime, unfortunately missing at the back of the train as the brakes are literally immediately downtrack of the dip. But lest anyone discount the importance of this element, I must point out the words of a young girl who sat behind me on one ride. As we approached the dip she shouted, "And this is my FAVORITE PART!!"
The Tennessee Tornado is clearly an evolutionary step for Arrow, representing a combination of the classic Arrow design elements with some of the tricks tried on Drachen Fire, and updated design and fabrication techniques that clearly make Arrow's track building equal to anyone else in the industry. Tennessee Tornado is a smooth, exciting ride, even with the 25-year-old train design. They did this one right, building one of the best multi-element coasters out there. It's a little short for my liking, but I made up for that by taking a total of 17 rides, ten of those without getting out of the train. In many ways (I think a lot of it is the drop in the tunnel) the coaster makes me think of an abbreviated version of Marineland's Dragon Mountain.
Dad only took one ride before he rejoined the ladies for additional shows, including a ride on Dollywood's Turbo Tour theatre. "It's the ride of the future," Dr. Sandborg quipped, as we climbed the stairs for another ride on the Tennessee Tornado and Tim did a fairly decent Don Adams impersonation in reference to the Underdog show [Footnote 5]. I stuck with Dave and Tim
We made it a point to ride some of the other rides as well, beginning with the full-size steam train. Dollywood has a huge Baldwin locomotive. None of that narrow-gauge cotton plantation stuff here, this is a BIG train, built for commercial rail service. I thought it interesting that, according to Wayne the Conductor, Dollywood has not made any special modifications to the locomotive for use in the park and so it is being operated in much the same way it would have been operated 100 years ago. I thought that interesting because that same spiel began by noting that the locomotive was built in (according to my faulty memory) 1931, a mere 68 years ago. I may have the date wrong, but I know that I remember noting that if they were operating that locomotive the same way they ran it 100 years ago, they wouldn't be running it at all! 8-)
Anyway, the train ride was neat, though the dioramas out on the course are nothing particularly spectacular. Music plays through the entire trip, and the train is fully decked out with miniature Christmas lights, just like everything else in the park. The music was punctuated with some narration, which employed an interesting tactic: the recorded narration was done by the same guy who served as our conductor. I could tell the difference between the 'live' conductor and the 'Memorex' conductor because for live announcements, the microphone silenced the music while the narration was mixed. The trip is 2.5 miles up the mountain, then a turnaround and back down the single track, actually slower coming down than going up. If you like trains, it is certainly worth taking a ride.
We also rode the bumper cars and the Yo-Yo. As Yo-Yo's go, Dollywood's seems to be slower than most, but the head does tilt properly. Their bumper cars are also reasonable, but the bumper tires seem to be lower-than-usual pressure, so when the cars collide the action is a little mushy. We missed the Tilt-A-Whirl and the Scrambler, but we did try the new Chance carousel. It just doesn't feel right in this park. With the extensive 'country' theming, a Parker-style carousel would fit almost perfectly. But the horses really need to be wooden. The Fiberglas horses just don't seem right for this park.
It was getting late, so we stopped at a barbecue joint for dinner. I had the pulled pork sandwich (same thing that Tim had) and was a little surprised to find that the meat had not been prepared in a barbeque sauce, but once I squirted enough sauce onto it, the sandwich was pretty good. The fries, on the other hand, were limp, soggy, cold, and darned near inedible. As Tim noted, it was late in the evening and we were getting the leftovers, but still, for a park that is such an attractive place, that puts on such a good show, that has such a good coaster, that charges so much for a meal, this is really unacceptable. Fries should always be served fresh and hot, NEVER left to rot in a steam table.
We finished the night with a dozen or so rides on the Tennessee Tornado, including the last ride of the night. As we were hiking towards the exit, my radio crackled as Dad wanted to know where I was and when I was going to show up. I don't know where I lost Dave and Tim; Guys, it was great riding with you, and I am very sorry I vanished so abruptly!
A day at Dollywood finishes with a mandatory "Exit through retail" which creates a scene of mass confusion at closing time. It must work, though, as Mom ended up buying a quilt that we really didn't have room for in the cars......8-) The park is infused with a healthy dose of Smoky Mountain charm and hospitality. The ride package is severely limited and really needs some help, but apart from that, Dollywood is a really neat park. It's not a park I'm likely to try and visit every year, but particularly when it isn't real busy, it's a great place to visit with a tremendous new steel coaster.
--Dave Althoff, Jr.
Footnote 1: Mom reads these trip reports...[Return to text]
Footnote 2: The Dixie Stampede is also a Dollywood production.[Return to text]
Footnote 3: Most of which has nothing to do with tools from Sears.[Return to text]
Footnote 4: Ever notice how most Arrow coasters have, generally between the station and the lift, a very short, very sudden dip?[Return to text]
Footnote 5: More specifically, Tennessee Tuxedo.[Return to text]
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