Trip report: Dollywood, May 19, 2012

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, May 22, 2012, 4:26 PM | comments: 0

We had our first event at Dollywood last weekend. While I'm not happy with the number of people we had, or the time we had to promote it, the small group ended up having an extraordinary time.

The Family Puzzoni was already spending the week near Asheville, NC, so we were a quick 90-minute drive to the park. We shared a cabin with the Neus, who have a boy just a year behind Simon. It's fun to do a little trip like that with other young parents, trade stories and what not.

We rented one of the Dollywood cabins, and a week or two before, they upgraded us for some reason to a larger one. The amount of space was pretty ridiculous, but our little guys enjoyed it. Truth be told, we didn't use the hot tub or seven TV's. Our room even had two DVD players, for some reason. We did use the theater room for Simon's Pajanimals DVD. It was also his first time sleeping in a "big boy" bed, in his own room. Overall, it was fairly nice, and worth the $300/night with taxes, especially split with another couple. The only serious complaint I had was that I was sticking my toes on carpet tack strips all over the place.

Tyler and I started the day early at the park for the backstage tours while our boys and wives stayed at the cabin. First was a walk-through of Mystery Mine, starting in the maintenance shop. The ride has a neat scissor lift to bring cars down to the shop, which is under the station. The park's lead maintenance guy walked us through the technical aspects of the ride. There's a fair amount of complexity because there are so many blocks, plus stops and starts. On top of that, there's the show pieces that interact with the ride.

After the mine tour, we walked up the hill for some interesting views of Wild Eagle. Fortunately the ride was running, as they had early entry for season pass holders. It's remarkable how well the ride fits, sitting on top of the hill in the middle of the park. It's an excellent use of the topography, and they built a beautiful station for it.

Our families joined us around 10, and we made the call early on to get a Q-bot. (That reminds me, I owe Tyler $30!) At $15 per person, this was a no-brainer. This is probably the fairest of the virtual queue systems (if you care at all about fairness... I don't), because you still have to wait, just not in a line. We didn't entirely think it through. Because we had the kids, someone always had to stay behind. Either we should have got the Q-bot for three, or get two of them, for two each, so we could ride in pairs while the other pair watched the boys. Meh, it wasn't a deal breaker, but now we know if we ever do something like that again.

We didn't go to a single show, which is unfortunate, but I don't know how realistic it would have been to do so with the kids anyway.

The park overall has a great deal of charm, and people are very friendly. The emphasis on being nice really carries over to every part of the park. It probably doesn't hurt that there are a great many retirees working there.

In terms of operations, I thought they were generally pretty solid. Waits for food were a little on the long side, but my perception was that this was just because of volume, not incompetence. Ride operations were also, for the most part solid, though I think Wild Eagle needs a little work (I'll get to that).

We started with Tennessee Tornado. Wow... everything people have said about it in terms of it being the best Arrow looper is right on. It's a little short, but what a fantastic ride. That the classic simplicity of those trains works well on better designed track is interesting to me. Excellent use of the terrain.

Blazing Fury seems to get a lot of love and hate, but it was mildly interesting for what it is. My friends indicated it used to have a splash ending, but that's gone. At first I wondered how anyone could call it a coaster, but it got there eventually.

Thunderhead was the biggest surprise for me. GCI rides tend to be interesting, but other than Lightning Racer, and maybe Renegade, I haven't been that excited about them. Since we were Q-boting, we decided to ride in the front. It was hands down one of the best wood coasters I've been on. It was relatively smooth and felt expertly engineered. From the front, it seemed every direction change or hill was an airtime moment. It exceeded my expectations in every single way.

I didn't get Mystery Mine until the ERT, and unfortunately, Diana did not, as she took Simon back to the cabin. We had Q'd it earlier, but it was down a good chunk of the afternoon. ERT got pushed an hour later because they kept the park open an hour later. Overall, I really liked it, even having seen all of the spoilers on our morning tour. I found it to be fairly smooth in the way it tracked, but as was the case with Spongebob in the Mall of America, I think Gerstlauer pushes too hard on turns and dips because the platform allows it. Extend the radius of curves and hills, and the dynamics won't be so adversely affected by nuances in temperature and wheel material. In any case, conditions were right for a really nice ride, and I was into it.

We Q'd Wild Eagle twice during normal hours, both times in the front left seats. Let me start by saying that B&M has come up with their best variation on seating to date. It's better than the inverted model. The sensation of flight is really fantastic. The feel of the ride is solid, inside or outside seats. The only minor complaint I have, and I didn't notice until I had several re-rides, is that the "vest" tends to compress you a bit as the ride goes on, to the extent that it might cause some back discomfort. My taller friends (read: all of them) indicated this was a problem. Actually, Diana, who is shorter, said it bothered her as well.

Dollywood went all out on the ride. The location fits nicely on the hill, the station is one of the nicest I've seen for any ride, anywhere, and the eagle sculpture out front is something to behold. As B&M rides are often considered the nicest to own and maintain, it makes sense to build something nice around it.

For the haters who complain about B&M being "forceless" or whatever, that word does not apply to Wild Eagle. Ride in the back, and it yanks you over the top. Ride anywhere, and feel the G's at the bottom of each drop. The pullout on the first drop is compact, and it feels like it (especially if you just had a milkshake). You can feel the turns. The ride is surprisingly intense, and I didn't expect that at all.

Apparently, they're doing about 800 people per hour, which is kind of low, but there are some obvious reasons. The first is 7-row trains, which I found odd. The second is that the ride operators are almost too busy being nice to people, and not checking restraints fast enough. Also, it seems like there are an unusual number of people too large to fit in the ride. I watched one guest do the walk of shame only to be replaced by another one who did the same thing. I thought maybe the test seat should be more prominently placed at the entrance, but who wants to be embarrassed in a more obvious place? The one thing they could do is consistently get the gates open as soon as possible. It varied by operator, with some opening right when the train stopped, others when the outgoing guests were on the move. Surprisingly, despite the awkward loading to both sides, opening the gates immediately was effective.

I did the two front seat left rides before close, and I think that's the money seat. During ERT, I did 8 more laps, including two on the right front, two in the back and the rest in various places. I should have quit after four, because that milkshake was killing me on every drop, but it was hard to walk away when the front seat is open. One more lap and I might have had a second look at that milkshake. Others quit before I did, but I was on the last train. It's a really outstanding ride. It's really special in the dark, though the on-ride photo camera flashes really screw with your vision... wish they could turn those off.

We almost had a disastrous encounter with some jackass on an electric scooter. He had a little girl on his lap, and went flying into a group of people standing next to me and Simon, and hurt a little girl in the process. A few dozen inches to the left, and he would have hit Simon, who was looking through a railing at a water feature. I can feel the rage building just thinking about what I would have done if he hit him. I bring it up because the scooters are out of control at this park, and the paths are narrow.

Overall, I was really impressed with the park. There were a lot of things I would have liked to do, but that's how it goes when you have a toddler. My expectations were still exceeded overall, and I can see Dollywood becoming a place that we'll go back to in the future. It certainly helped that so many of distant friends were able to be there (we missed you, Carrie!). As nice as it is to keep up with folks via the Intertubes, it's better to see them in real life. Dollywood was an excellent place for that to happen.


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