Dollywood's FireChaser Express roller coaster is fun for the whole family

Jun. 20, 2014 @ 06:14 PM

Last summer, at a lively event in a Dollywood theater, Dolly Parton for the first time described the resort planned to open in 2015 at her thriving entertainment complex.

The bold announcement signaled that Parton and her Dollywood partners, Herschend Family Entertainment, were following the example of the theme park pioneers at Disney, and getting into the hotel business in a big way.

Amid the excitement of the hotel news, you might almost have missed the day’s other big announcement: A new roller coaster was planned to open for Dollywood’s 2014 season, FireChaser Express.

“My favorite part about this ride is that little bitty kids can ride it,” Parton told the cheering crowd. “They’re going to be so excited.”

I’m not a little bitty kid, but I’m here to tell you: FireChaser Express is pretty exciting.

I rode it on a weekday morning in May, before the summer tourist season got fully underway. The park wasn’t very crowded that day, but there was a long line for FireChaser Express.

Little bitty kids were indeed riding the coaster.

The height requirement is 39 inches, substantially less than what’s required for many other Dollywood rides – especially the 50 inches required for the intense Wild Eagle coaster, just across the way from FireChaser Express. (The day I rode the new ride, there was virtually no wait for the Wild Eagle.)

That morning, FireChaser Express passengers included a nervous-looking little girl in line behind me. Throughout the nearly hour-long wait, she vacillated. She wasn’t sure she wanted to ride. The woman I took to be her mother finally coaxed her on.

During the ride, the girl moaned, even as the woman laughed her head off. Moments later, as we disembarked, the girl beamed and announced proudly, “I did it!”

I laughed too, at the ride’s abrupt twists and turns, and at a suspenseful interlude involving fireworks, and especially at the surprising moment when the ride took us hurtling backwards.

It’s a fun ride. It’s appropriate for little bitty kids, but I wouldn’t call it tame. It’s a real coaster.

“It’s not terrifying, but it’s exciting,” Ralph Nielsen told me.

Senior art director with Herschend, Nielsen helped come up with the FireChaser Express theme, found artifacts that are on display at the ride, and worked with the engineers who built it.

“We wanted a ride that anyone could ride and enjoy,” Nielsen said, noting that the coaster has no loops. “People need to be the right size for you to do loops and inversions.”

FireChaser Express was built by Gerstlauer Amusement Rides, the German company that also built the park’s Mystery Mine roller coaster. “They’re very good at coming up with solutions to problems,” Nielsen said.

The ride’s theme is volunteer firefighting. “Firefighting is really important to kids,” Nielsen said, referring to the coaster’s young riders. “They’re the first heroes kids think of.”

There is a story, though you might not grasp all the elements during your ride. “You go into the woods to do an inspection, and while you’re in the woods, you find a place owned by a guy who sells gasoline,” Nielsen said. The guy has decided to expand his business by also selling fireworks, Nielsen noted. Coaster mayhem ensues.

The storytelling elements aren’t confined to the ride itself. Sound effects and music develop the fire theme in the waiting area, where the decor includes fire hoses signed by firefighters based in various parts of Tennessee. The ride hosts a firemen’s memorial, and there is firefighting gear from local fire departments on display.

Storytelling is essential to every aspect of the Dollywood experience, Nielsen said, because of the park’s emphasis on shows and entertainment. “We have to really focus on stories,” he said. “If rides aren’t entertaining as well as thrilling, we’re not going to get a good response.”

Nielsen knows the business of theme park storytelling. His decades-long career includes work at various Disney parks, including Florida’s Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Animal Kingdom, as well as the Disney facilities in France and Japan.

He has worked on iconic Disney attractions like the Haunted Mansion, the Jungle Cruise and (a favorite of mine), the late, lamented ride based on “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” the Kirk Douglas film. “I was always fascinated with that movie,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen is a production designer. “You have your concept designers, who write on napkins,” he said. “I work with those guys.”

He began his career working on movies. “Because of my film background, story is important to me,” he said. “Even if it’s a simple ride, it has to have a story.”

FireChaser Express was not designed to appeal especially to hardcore roller coaster fans. Still, Nielsen said, “I think even hardcore people have enjoyed it.”

“It doesn’t have that extreme thrill factor that a lot of people look for, but that’s exactly what Dollywood wanted,” noted Shawn Clisso, a recent West Virginia college graduate who is a theme park enthusiast and a Dollywood fan. Clisso answered questions via email.

Dollywood planners “wanted something fun but not extreme, so everyone could enjoy the ride, and in those terms, it’s a good family coaster,” Clisso reported. “I’ve been on numerous rides designated as a family coaster, and FireChaser Express does a great job of delivering a ride that is fun, comfortable and interesting.”

Clisso praised the detailed theming of FireChaser Express, and declared it a good fit for the park. “For a long time, Dollywood has focused on coasters that deliver high thrills, so they really lacked that moderately thrilling ride that appeals to the whole family,” Clisso observed.

FireChaser Express closes that gap, Clisso noted. “I can definitely tell by the length of the lines and by the expressions on the faces of the people getting off the ride, especially the children, that it’s a huge success for the park.”

After a ride like FireChaser Express opens, Nielsen likes to listen to patrons as they leave the attraction.

“I’ll ask people how the ride was, and people will always tell me what they liked and what they didn’t like,” he said. “As a designer, I want to know what didn’t work.”

Nielsen enjoys his life in theme parks. “It keeps you thinking like a kid,” he said. “You need to keep your kid-ness your whole life. It makes your life better.”