Some people at work kept asking me if I’m a big Dolly Parton fan, because they couldn’t understand why else I would make my family travel 8 hours to go to an amusement park in Tennessee. So then I gave them a condensed version of the explanation I’m about to pour great detail into below, and they were just like, “….oh.”
I watch a lot of theme park vlogs because I am a
huge dork cool person with lots of various interests. My obsession with amusement parks typically shapes the way our vacations are planned, too, and watching these vlogs is how I knew that when we were in Korea, we had to take a bus to Everland and ride the T-Express. I have always loved wooden coasters, and over the years, I’ve realized that the steel coasters do less and less for me, and I will take a big thick woodie (lol) over a coaster with 78792837 inversions any day. But it wasn’t until I rode the T-Express that something REALLY clicked for me — it was the wildest wooden coaster I had ever ridden at that time. It holds the #1 position in Asia for a myriad of factors, and was once even the top dog in the whole world. It still ranks in the Top 10 for a lot of different factors* though and it ignited in me a fiery urge to seek out more like it.
*(Per Wiki, as of this writing, it’s the world’s ninth fastest, fourth tallest, and sixth longest wooden coaster.)
That’s where Dollywood comes in. In 2016, they debuted the world’s first ever LAUNCHED wooded coaster. It’s also, at the time of this writing, the world’s fastest wooden coaster. However, it’s been plagued with mechanical problems since it’s debut and was shut down for most of the 2016 season. This season wasn’t much better with reliability, and the theme park blogosphere was flooded with angry posts from coaster enthusiasts who had traveled just for a ride on the world’s most infamously finicky woodie.
I developed a major obsession over it and NEEDED to stuff my ass in a seat on that plighted coaster. I kept stalking it online, checking tags on Instagram, and grew cautiously optimistic when I saw that it had reopened in October, with some slight barely noticeable modifications, and that is when I settled on Dollywood for our Thanksgiving Theme Park getaway.
Henry was less sure about this and muttered, “If we drive 8 hours and that thing isn’t running…”
I mean, if a real life Wally World sitch is going to happen to anyone, it’d be us!
The other factor was weather. Look, Christmas lights are cool, but that’s not why I’m going to a theme park, OK. I want to ride the rides. And coasters usually won’t operate below 40 degrees. I obsessively checked the weather (I added Pigeon Forge to my weather app — I still have Seoul and Busan in there too, ouch my heart) numerous times a day like I have a meteorology fetish, and it was looking pretty fucking good – low 60s and rain. Of course, the rain part wasn’t preferable but I was OK with it.
But it ended up being BEAUTIFUL on Sunday! A high of 66 and partly sunny! I demanded that we leave the hotel before 10am and Henry was like, “WE ARE LITERALLY FIVE MINUTES AWAY FROM THE PARK AND IT DOESN’T OPEN UTIL 11!?” He knows better than to try and reason with me when a day of FUN is on the line, so we piled into the car and drove literally five minutes, no exaggeration, to the Dollywood entrance and the lot was open already so Henry sighed, paid the parking lady, and we set off for Parking Lot B for Butterfly.
Chooch was just so thrilled.
(He HATES butterflies, lol.)
“I don’t know why we’re in such a hurry, the park doesn’t even open until 11!” Henry muttered again, so I said we could just sit in the car until the BIGBANG song we were listening to was over. (“Cafe”, never forget.)
On the short walk to the park, Henry sarcastically said, “Yeah, better run. All these people and their walkers are going to get in line for Lightning Rod before you.”
I mean, he wasn’t wrong to be sarcastic. When we lined up at the gate, I did a precursory glance around me and it was pretty much 90% elderly people. This is how it was the last time we were there too! I guess Dollywood is well-known for having really great shows or something, and that brings all the olds to the yard.
While we were in line, two women behind us from Texas were freaking out about getting their show vouchers, and one of them was annoyed that the other made her get there so early. “Now we have to stand here for an hour!” she cried.
But then an old person with a good hearing aid piped up and said that the park actually opens at 10:30!! I looked at my phone and it was already 10:10! I started to get really excited but also nervous because I get really anxious when it comes to beating crowds. Again, Henry mumbled that he didn’t think I had anything to worry about.
Right before 10:30, some weird quartet came out and sang the Star Spangled Banner. Most everyone took their hats off but I purposely kept mine on because fuck patriotism. I looked around and some people were legit crying, lol.
“Dammit!” I said later to Henry. “I should have taken a knee!!”
“Yeah, you’re in Tennessee. Those people would have killed you,” Henry laughed, but I could see that he was relieved that my idea was belated.
Once the gates opened and we had our tickets checked, Chooch and I took off to the right while honest to god, a horde of octogenarians clanked and wheeled their way straight ahead to the theater to maul the workers for their show vouchers. It was a spectacle.
And then, a minute later (I knew exactly where it was because I studied a map at work last week) we made it to the Lightning Rod. The doors were still closed because none of the rides opened until 11, but there were only about 15 people in line ahead of us. I started to get a nervous stomach—what if it wasn’t running that day?! I couldn’t see a sign that said anything about it, but I was still nervous.
Once the super annoying teenaged trio in front of us left the line, the rest of the wait went by pretty quick. Halfway through, a test train was sent out and everyone cheered when they saw it. And then, at exactly 11AM, someone came out and opened the doors.
WE WERE IN!
We could have potentially gone on the first run of the day, but there were only two groups in the queue for the front row so I was like, “Fuck it, we’re waiting for the front row.” Who knew what the lines would be like later?! I wasn’t blowing this opportunity.
Of course, Henry had to ride by himself in the second row, though, lol. In the bitch seat.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous waiting in line for a woodie before. I was doing the pee-jig, for sure, and when it was our turn to load in, I honestly thought I was going to start crying. As the car pulled out of the station and turned right, and that fucking dominating lift hill loomed ahead, I started having major doubts about my choices. Especially knowing that the launch was going to happen at any second, with the sounds of revving engines surrounding us on both sides of the track.
And then it happened. We were launched up that hill, and I’ll tell you what — no amount of YouTube videos could have prepared me for just HOW FAST that car was going to shoot us up that lift hill. IT WAS, in a word, HORRIFIC. I didn’t have enough things to hold on to. I wanted my stuffed dog Purple. A rosary. A parachute. It was that scary. And then you come over the crest of that hill, down a short dip, and right back up and over another crest where you goddamn PLUMMET down into the abyss of Dollywood and everything after that is a blur. I couldn’t figure out if we were going left or right, if we were upside down, still alive…I had no idea.
By the time we got to the much-anticipated quadruple down portion of the ride, I had been screaming SO HARD that I was having actual chest pains and wasn’t sure if I had broken my collarbone from all the vocal exertion, and was that even possible?
When we rolled back into the station after the last mind-bending bank that makes no sense to me when I look at that portion of the track, I had to wipe the tears off my face. Sure, most of it was caused by the massive amount of cold wind that continuously cold-cocked me through the duration of the ride, but I’m not going to pretend that some of that orbital wetness wasn’t actual tears.
Short version? IT WAS AMAZING!!
It felt like being in a cartoon, in some high-speed chase that’s humanly impossible in real life, and you’re going from A to B by glitching. It was insanely fast, but not rough – I’ve seen people online complaining about the restraints or bumpiness in the backseat, but I personally did not experience any of that, and I was hashtag-blessed to ride it FOUR TIMES that day.
Throughout the day, we rode it in the 6th seat (though in line, we had a FRONT ROW seat for some weird family feud that was happening in front of us) and the 3rd seat, which were equally as fantastic, leading me to believe that there just isn’t a bad seat on this ride.
Stoked for Lightning Rod! I asked him if he had anything to say for this blog review, and he started singing Papa Roach’s “Last Resort,” which is what he did on every roller coaster that day at Dollywood and it was infuriating because ew, Papa Roach, but also hilarious because how random.
Toward the end of the night, we wanted to ride it one last time but we got coaster-blocked by the dumb parade, ughhh. There was absolutely no way around it and no other way to get to the Lightning Rod without having to actually cut through the parade and I had a feeling that Henry would probably go out of his way to prevent us from doing that. So we had to wait “patiently” for it to end and Henry was like THERE IS NO TIME. THE PARK IS GOING TO CLOSE. YOU WILL NEVER MAKE IT but I guess Henry has never heard the saying, “WHERE THERE’S A WILL THERE IS A WAY.”
It’s a shame that I don’t live by that when it comes to other things in life, like I don’t know, a career.
When the parade ended, the crowd dispersed alright, but they were all flooded right in our direction, so now we were fighting our way upstream past all these Old Folks, but it was worth it because we fucking made it and there was hardly ANYONE in line! We ran straight for the back row, with only two sets of riders in front of us. I was so excited! Back row at night, it was going to be awesome!
After about 10 minutes, it was our turn. As soon as everyone boarded and the restraints came down, the ride attendant who was checking my restraint gave a thumbs down. Apparently, the red lights were going off, which meant that it was in need of a maintenance check. The ride operators didn’t seem too concerned about this, but still, everyone had to get out of the car and go back into the queue. They said there was no way of knowing how long it would take, and that we were welcome to stay in line. Most everyone opted to stay, and it was kind of exciting watching the maintenance men come off the elevator, like the Men In Black, and I was trying not to crack up because it’s probably the only time in their lives they looked cool.
Meanwhile, the ride attendant on our side of the car, a young guy named Kenneth, was SO NICE to us. He made casual small talk and asked Chooch and me if we wanted him to turn on the heat lamp. He said he just wanted to make sure we were comfortable!
Like, the legit embodiment of southern hospitality.
Look, if that’s me, and I’m standing there in a ride station in a theme park that’s due to close in 5 minutes and now I have to stand here even longer waiting for the maintenance men to fiddle around and make it go again, because we told these park attendees that they could stay in line, I would be huffing and puffing and fucking my life, you know?
But, after about 10 minutes and two test runs (one with a Dollywood worker who volunteered as tribune — Chooch said, “Let’s applaud if she comes back on it” and I was like I HOPE SHE COMES BACK ON IT!!), we were good to go! I was fucking scared to ride it after that, but I did it and it was the best ride of the day. We could even see the pretty lights of Dollywood for a split second but then I nearly whiplash when Lightning Rod yanked me in another ungodly direction.
(“Look at the pretty li—AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH@@#$$%%#$!!!” was all I was able to scream.)
Oh for God’s sake, that ride. THAT RIDE! Chooch and I were doubled over in laughter when we reunited with Henry on terra firma. It’s just that good.
I don’t know what it was about Kenneth, maybe the fact that I’m used to the teenagers at Kennywood not giving a fuck about anything, but it really stuck with me, so much that when I went back to work on Tuesday, I thought to myself, “I have to do something about this” so I went to Dollywood’s website and did the OPPOSITE of what I’m used to doing: I opened the contact form and tap-tap-tapped out a POLITE COMMENT, completely devoid of swears and threats, to let them know that Kenneth’s kindness really went a long way, especially since we were kind of freaking out about the fact that the ride went out of commission while we were sitting in it. He assured me that this was normal and that the only surprising part was that it had lasted all day up until then without this happening.
The next day, I received a response from some broad named Paula who does something at Dollywood! She said that she was so pleased to read my nice comments and shared them immediately with Kenneth’s supervisor, and that they have an internal employee recognition program that his name has been added to! IS THIS WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE HUMAN?! I texted Henry and said, “I’m a nice person now!” and he was like, “LOL no your (sic) not.”
He didn’t care, but my co-workers did! (OK, Lauren did. Glenn was just like, “Why are you like this.”) The best part was the NEXT day when I was watching Lightning Rod videos like the completely normal person that I am, I noticed that KENNETH IS IN ONE OF THEM! I screenshot it and sent it to Lauren who was like, “Wow, look at him pressing that button! *swoon*” Lol. I also sent it to Henry who said nothing.
I was going to talk about this in a meeting on Thursday, but instead I said to myself, “Reel it in, Erin.”
I added all that stuff to the picture, in case you didn’t know. Lol.
This ride was 100% worth traveling for. I was so worried I had it over-hyped in my head, but no. It’s the real deal, man. Dollywood is officially on the map!
And for anyone reading this who might be interested, here’s a Lighting Rod front seat POV video: