Dollywood surprised us. Instead of the tame rides and tacky décor we expected, the 125-acre Tennessee theme park delivered gut-wrenching thrills, engaging attractions for young kids as well as good music, all in a prettily landscape setting of dogwoods, rhododendrons and greenery. The log fences, old saws and wooden barrels dotting the park reminded us of the region’s mountain heritage.
Since we grew up happily yelling on wooden coasters, we headed straight for Thunderhead, Dollywood’s homage to the amusement park staple. Just moments after strapping in, we careened down the first incline, then flew around curves and up and over more peaks, dropping 100-feet at speeds up to 55-mph. Nearly all swift movement, the two-and-a-half minute ride left us little time to catch our breath. We loved it.
Still rocking from Thunderhead, we begged off on Barnstormer, Dollywood’s 2011 star. On this high-flying version of a pendulum ride, two giant arms swing the willing back and forth at speeds reaching 45 mph. On the last swoop up in the air, friends, flushed with excitement, reported they were practically parallel to the pavement, but just for a stomach-churning nano-second.
Our group’s coaster aficionados lined up for two more scream machines. Mystery Mine, set in an abandoned coal operation, immerses riders in the dark, scaring them with half-loops, roll-overs and drops. The smooth Tennessee Tornado, all steel girders and a gigantic orange loop, flipped our pals upside down, plunging them 128-feet at approaching 65 mph.
Adventure Mountain, which opened in 2009, delivers interactive thrills on beginner, intermediate and advanced ropes courses. Harnessed and attached to a safety cable, takers traverse rope bridges, climb net ladders and step on platforms that rise a few inches to 36 feet above terra firma. A nice touch: the experience isn’t all-or-nothing. To avoid a particular element that feels too challenging, just use the adjacent pathway. There’s no walk of shame back to the start.
Another nice touch: placing engaging attractions for little kids near each thrill ride. While teens—and adults-- test their skills on Adventure Mountain, youngsters can cross mini-rope bridges at Camp Teachittoomee. While big kids go bug-eyed at Barnstormer, tots can crawl through logs at Granny’s Garden and skip though dancing fountains at Pig Pen. The mix of wild and mild attractions makes it easy for families to explore the park together and the juxtaposition does much to eliminate the whining that results when one sibling must wait for another.
In addition to monster rides, mountain heritage rates at Dollywood. After all, Dolly Parton, who co-owns Dollywood with an amusement company, grew up not far from the park’s Pigeon Forge location. Dollywood offers daily demonstrations of blacksmithing, hand-blown glass making and other skills. There’s plenty of music too and not all of it constitutes country crooning. While lunching on barbecue chicken, we listened to a steel band play island as well as popular tunes on a nearby stage. Dreamland Drive-In, a perennial favorite, is a toe-tapping fifties and sixties rock n’ roll revival.
A budget-stretching tip for high season: enter after 3:00 p.m. and your ticket gets you admission for that day plus the next day too, an especially good deal in summer when the park remains open late. Dollywood also packages admission passes with lodging. Through Dollywood Vacations, our group stayed in a four bedroom, four bath, luxury log cabin whose back porch, complete with rocking chairs, afforded fabulous mountain views.
When you tire of man-made thrills, remember that Dollywood is just a ‘hoop and a holler’—five miles—from the natural wonders of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.