Dollywood coaster

Eugene Naughton, president of Dollywood, and Pete Owens, vice president of marketing and public relations, look over the recently improved Lightning Rod roller coaster at the theme park in Pigeon Forge.

PIGEON FORGE

Dollywood’s iconic ride, Lightning Rod, has held the title of fastest wooden roller coaster in the world since it debuted five years ago.

That designation may be lost when the theme park opens for the 2021 season after renovations to the ride turned it from a more traditional wooden roller coaster to a hybrid track structure that includes both the wood stack Topper Track in some sections and a new steel ibox track in others.

“It’s an iconic attraction for Dollywood Parks and Resorts and it’s one that wasn’t operating as consistently as we wanted it to,” said Eugene Naughton, president of Dollywood.

Lightning Rod’s top speed is listed at 73 miles-per-hour. It features a 165-foot drop and 3,800 feet of track. The actual ride will be similar to what guests have experienced in the past, but with improvements that should keep the ride open more consistently. The ride has been shut down for repairs on multiple occasions since opening in the summer of 2016.

“One thing I’ve learned since living in Tennessee, there’s big swings in temperature. It goes from really cold to really hot and, go figure, that’s not a really good idea for wood to expand and contract which made for the inconsistencies,” Naughton said. “We’re really, really excited that our transition has happened and we’ll be ready for opening.”

Lightning Rod is a destination ride for many roller coaster enthusiast, but one that was only available about 70% of the time, which was considered unacceptable for the quality of guest experience Dollywood’s management wants to maintain.

The ibox tracks have been installed at roller coasters in other locations around the country and have moved operational efficiency from the 60-70% range to a percentage in the mid-90s, said Pete Owens, vice president of marketing and public relations. Owens said everything guests love about the ride will still be there.

“The launch speeds and the speed of the trains are the same or a little bit better,” he said. “I think what’s most important is, for guest comfort, it’s going to be a much more enjoyable ride for our average guest.”

The new track was placed in the more dynamic sections of the ride where the most action took place. Owens said riders won’t notice a difference in the ride experience, except it may be a bit smoother in some sections.

“All the things you love about the ride, the wave turn on the back side, the quadruple-down that comes around here, it’s all there,” Owens said. “We worked with the original manufacturer and it’s a great solution. They had a technological solution to do this and that’s what they recommended. We worked with the same engineer that designed the ride originally and got it all done.”

Lightning Rod is not the only roller coaster on the property to see renovations during the off-season. For the past few years the park has been in a retracking program with the other wooden roller coaster, Thunderhead. They are about halfway through the program with 25% replacement per year.

“We’re replacing the original track bed that went in between 2003 and 2004 with a South American wood that’s called Ipe (pronounced ‘ee-pay’) that is a very, very strong wood. As a matter of fact they call it ironwood. It’s more dense than steel and it sinks when you put it in water,” Owens said. “That has already improved sections of Thunderhead.”

A maintenance project is also taking place at the park’s popular indoor roller coaster, Blazing Fury.

“That is original equipment I guess you’d say for Dollywood. It was built in the late 70s and we’re working through a retracking program on that ride attraction as well, so that it’s the best guest experience that we can have for that particular ride so we can continue to conserve and nurture that ride,” Owens said.

Blazing Fury was opened in 1978 and is one of the remaining attractions at the park that predates the rebranding from Silver Dollar City to Dollywood that occurred in 1986.

“It really means so much to the heritage of the park. It’s a first-ride coaster for probably three generations of people who are in this area,” Owens said. “It certainly means a lot to our guests and we want to make sure that we preserve it and protect it and make it a great ride experience into the future.”

Over in Timber Canyon crews are working on Mystery Mine to replace track and rework the ride and are not expected to be done in time for the park’s opening on March 13. As part of the project they are extending a section after the first drop to reduce some of the lateral movement and give a better guest experience.

Mystery Mine opened in 2007. The delay in opening is expected to only be about two weeks and is a result of it taking a little longer to get steel for the project from overseas.

“That’s four big coasters that we’ve done work on this year,” Owens said.

With Wild Eagle, The Tennessee Tornado and Fire Chaser also at the park, Dollywood has a lot to offer roller coaster enthusiasts.

“Once you get up to the top and you get to that point of no return, really God takes over,” Owens said. “It’s all about gravity from there.”