PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — Once upon a time, during the summer of 2017 exactly, I stood in the middle of a parking lot outside Walt Disney World sweating through a neon protective jacket and Mickey issued parking attendant skort.
That was my job at the “happiest place on earth." Parking operations at EPCOT is as glamorous as it sounds, which is to say I swapped strapped-up sandals for thick white sneakers and spent months directing traffic, dodging irate minivans, and doing my absolute best not to crash the 117-foot-long tram entrusted in my sweaty hands to drive.
It was a heated, drippy existence. Yet borne from my time in the lot came a skill not many cultivate in their adult life:
I know my way around a freaking theme park.
^^^ Peep that celebratory 'six parks, one day' pin in which I went to all six Disney parks in one day, for proof.
I’m aware of which apps to download before you go, why a little backpack is my go-to theme park bag of choice (thank you, Target), where to park (obviously), and the ideal times to stop for lunch (2 p.m. after the lunch rush, pack power bars to munch on before that).
Since I moved to Knoxville eight months ago, the theme park geek in me has been dying to go to Dollywood. I got a taste of it with the opening of Wildwood Grove, but wondered: what would it be like to spend all day, my whole 9 to 5, at Dollywood?
So I zipped up my theme park backpack and headed down Dolly Parks Boulevard to find out.
Ride #1 - Thunderhead
Soon after the initial thrill of park open, I learn there are two types of Dollygoers: the ones who get lured down Main Street by the scent of a 25-pound apple pie, and long-timers who eat coffee for breakfast and bank left after bag check.
If you’re getting to the park early, old-timers will tell you turning immediately left is a crucial move because it puts you in close proximity to several high-profile attractions (think Drop Line, Mystery Mine, Tennessee Tornado) at Timber Canyon and Craftsmen’s Valley. In the summertime, the key to navigating Dollywood is to think counter-intuitively. Whatever you think more people will do, do the opposite.
That means Thunderhead is your first stop! Dollywood’s only true wooden coaster (it’s swankier younger sister, Lightning Rod, is technically a hybrid) has been a staple at the park for over ten years. Crossing over and under itself 32 times and topping speeds of 55 mph, this is an experience best done early in the morning that you might not feel up to later in the day.
Dolly Song It’s Most Like: Why’d You Come In Here Lookin’ Like That?
DOLLOMETER SCARE SCALE - 5
Ride #2 - Whistle Punk Chaser Jr. Coaster
Adorable though the standard occupants who whip around this little track may be, the Whistle Punk Chaser Jr. is still very much a coaster.
Crafted in the style of your favorite fair coaster, this is also a fantastic photo-op for parents with little ones. There’s a nice (shaded!) waiting area near one of the more intense banks. And with three generous rides around the track, you get several chances to snap your little one on a coaster that potentially preps them up for Dragonflier or Fire Chaser Express for later in the day! You get to cherish those last few baby coaster moments.
Dolly Song It’s Most Like: Coat of Many Colors
DOLLOMETER SCARE SCALE: 1
Ride # 3 - Drop Line
Once, as a brace-faced thirteen-year-old, a clique of Hollister-wearing choir geeks, also known as my friends, pressured me onto a ride just like this at King’s Island in Ohio. As we ascended far above the other attractions, I watched my pink Crocs fade into tiny specks off the concrete below.
I hated every second of that then and even now - as a Crocs-free adult - I don’t love it.
This style of ride isn’t my favorite. I know it’s going to drop, and I’ve got too fragile a constitution to handle the stress of it all. At 20 stories up, it’s hard for me to enjoy that bird’s eye view without considering how profoundly happy the people on the ground look.
Eventually, it only takes you about three seconds to drop back down to the ground. Until then though, I’m only thinking so long, fair world. It’s been a good run. I will always love you.
Dolly Song It’s Most Like: I Will Always Love You
DOLLOMETER SCARE SCALE: Yeah that's a hard 5 from me, my guy.
Ride #4 - Lumberjack Lifts
For all the steps you’re sure to get in after a day at the parks, consider this ride your arm workout for the day.
It’s a drop-style ride in the same family as Drop Line, but a heck of a lot shorter: it’s 25 feet as opposed to 20 stories. It’s also appealing to kids because not only do you decide how high you go, you decide when to fall!
I made it to the top and did feel like a boss independent woman. The kid in the seat next to me did too, but his dad helped him literally the entire time.
Dolly Song It’s Most Like: Working Girl
DOLLOMETER SCARE SCALE: I'm giving this two Dollys. It's tame, but it's still pretty high and letting go of the rope yourself would be scary for little ones.
Ride #5 - Mystery Mine
After my glorified workout, I’m onto Mystery Mine, a ride which holds more labyrinth twists and spooky special effects than I initially suspect from my vantage point in the line. This attraction does a wonderful job of bringing you into the story. Point blank, there are few things I cherish more in this world than animatronic critters prophesying about my impending doom.
^^^ I live for that. I also lived for the ride’s initial vertical climb, and the surprises inside that make it worthy of its name. I won’t spoil them for you here because I’m not a psychopath, but they’re surprising and very worth it. This ride had more of a storyline to it, and it's fun to follow along while winding through all 1,811 feet of an abandoned coal mine.
Dolly Song It’s Most Like: I Really Got the Feeling
DOLLOMETER SCARE SCALE: 4. It's thrilling, but falls short of being terrifying.
Ride #6 - Firechaser Express
The Firechaser Express pays homage to working men and women in a wonderful way, with action that puts you in the middle of a pack of fireworks that's threatening to explode any minute! It's also the nation's first dual-launch family coaster, and combines the storytelling of Mystery Mine, smoothness of Wild Eagle, and kid-friendly fun of Dragonflier to fantastic effect.
It’s more gentle, and even more fun, than it looks from the ground, so it’s a perfect option for a first-time coaster! And if you’re exhausted from the park already, this ride is calm enough that it functions really well as a filler coaster to cool down if you’re hitting the intense rides really hard!
Dolly Song It’s Most Like: 9 to 5
Dollometer Scare Scale: 3. This ride is right in the middle between kid and adult, which makes it perfect for everyone!
Ride #7 - Wild Eagle
Up until I rode Lightning Rod – more on that later – Wild Eagle was my favorite ride. Even though it doesn’t seem physically possible, it feels like you spend more time upside down than right side up. There’s no train on the track, which gives you the sensation that you're really flying
Dolly Song It's Most Like: Islands in the Stream. If giving this song to Wild Eagle and not a water ride feels a little off-brand, consider that this song gave Parton her second #1 pop-country hit and was certified platinum. It was a winner out the gate, just like this coaster.
Dollometer Scare Scale: 5
Ride #8 - Daredevil Falls
Daredevil Falls is more relaxing than the name suggests. But you do get wet. I love water rides, so it’s fine. But it’s also key to point out that fashion matters at Dollywood. My go-to theme park outfit has always been a light romper and cork shoe sandals. Both are comfortable, dry easy, and let you bear the stickiness that always seems to come with the price of admission.
Dolly Song It's Most Like: River of Happiness
DOLLOMETER SCARE SCALE: 3
Ride #9 - Blazing Fury
This ride was a surprise from start to finish. It was Dollywood’s first-ever coaster, and if the animatronics and style of the ride seem outdated... don't tell Blazing Fury's loyal fanbase. The coaster has boasted a devoted following since it opened in 1989, back when Dollywood was Silver Dollar City.
There’s some kind of storyline going on here, but as the coaster jerked through hotels on fire, bat-filled caves, and boozed up animatronic robots, I had no idea what was happening. According to Dollywood’s website:
An out-of-control fire is just minutes away from engulfing this 1880s town, and the chaos ensues as the town’s residents, a cast of characters ranging from firefighters to gunslingers and damsels in distress, hurry to escape the blaze. Riders scream through town on this indoor roller coaster, taking each hill and curve with great speed as they try to outrun the fire.
So we'll stick with that I guess.
Dolly Song It's Most Like: Hush-A-Bye Hard Times
DOLLOMETER SCARE SCALE: 2. This ride has some subtle drops that won’t be a big deal for anyone fresh off Wild Eagle or even Daredevil Falls. But the dark nature and freaky animatronics may frighten some little ones.
Ride #10 - Tennessee Tornado
Ripping right through Craftsman’s Valley, this traditional steel coaster is solid even if it gets outshone a little by newer coasters around the park. It’s a triple spiral-looping coaster that offers a good combination of air time, thrilling drops, and upside-down action. In short, this ride has it all …. just like The Volunteer State.
It also turned 20 years old this year! So give it some love and go twice if you end up visiting this summer.
Dolly Song It's Most Like: Tennessee Homesick Blues
DOLLOMETER SCARE SCALE: 5
Ride #11 - Barnstormer
Fresh off the whirl of the Tennessee Tornado, I forgot how thrilling other rides that aren’t coasters can be when I got in line for Barnstormer.
I took in the jovial 1920s farm aesthetic and overalled costumes of the attractions as evidence this ride would be tame. It was not.
What makes it scarier than you expect is the lack of shoulder restraints: you’ve only got a type of lap bar to hold you in even as you swing up to a 230 degrees rotation at 81 feet in the air. That means you face the ground feeling like you’re upside down, about to fly out of your restraints before swinging right back skyward.
For context, I turned to the teenager next to me when the ride hadn’t even reached maximum height and said: “I don’t know how I feel about this.”
She screamed: “Oh, it gets a lot worse.”
Dolly Song It's Most Like: Here You Come Again
DOLLOMETER SCARE SCALE: 4
Ride #12 - Lightning Rod
It felt right, after waiting a few hours due to lightning in the area, to hop on Dollywood’s world-famous attraction: Lightning Rod.
People love this ride because, unlike other coasters that take their sweet time getting you to the vertical drop, Lightning Rod shoots you from 0-45 down a 165-foot drop to eventually propel you to 73 MPH. That makes it the fastest wooden coaster in the world, and a perennial Dollywood “must-do” since it opened in 2016.
From start to finish, you really feel like you’ll fly off the tracks in the best possible way.
Dolly Song It's Most Like: Jolene. Across Dollywood, this coaster is the Jolene of the bunch: fast, sexy and here to steal your man. Hang on to bae ya'll, this coaster is here to snatch him up.
DOLLOMETER SCARE SCALE: 5
After Lightning Rod, it began to rain for a second time that day, and many outdoor attractions closed while I was in line for Rockin' Roadway. While I still had Smoky Mountain River Rampage and all of the rides at Country Fair to complete before 5:30 p.m., I called my workday quits given the inclement weather.
I really thought it might be possible to ride all the rides at Dollywood in one day.
But frankly, the 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. was brutal even for a seasoned theme park goer like myself.
Unlike Walt Disney World, which boasts maybe one or two true thrill rides throughout any one of their parks, Dollywood is packed with attractions for all levels of park-goer. The sheer amount of thrill rides you need to get in for this challenge makes it, for someone who struggled mightily on the Lumberjack Lifts, a truly physical accomplishment.
If I had to go back and do this challenge again, I'd take more time and prioritize the bigger rides I want to go on. I'd still go left of course, because that absolutely got my day started off right. But I'd also add in some time for all the amazing shows and delicious food Dollywood has to offer that I didn't get a chance to experience!
It was fun to challenge myself and see if I could truly ride them all. While I doubt this would be feasible for the average park-goer, I think it's good to go into Dollywood with this goal because you don't dawdle.
And if you're someone who lives in the area and needs a way to spice up a day at the parks, this is the perfect solution!
*Reporter's Note: I waited in line for "Lightning Rod" for about half an hour before hopping into the TimeSaver line. This is the only ride I did this on, because nearly all the attractions had a 0-10 minute wait time the day I went! That RARELY happens, and the Dollywood guide who was with me was also shocked. If the rides had been longer, we probably would have skipped the lines as well. So if you're looking to do all these rides in one day in the middle of summer, that TimeSaver pass is absolutely something to consider ...you'll likely not get through the challenge without it!*