27.11.23 — Travel
My flight from Burlington was quite an interesting one, being just over an hour in a small plane which took me for a quick layover at Washington DC, the country’s capital. I rushed off the plane rather anxious about making my connection, which was just 40 minutes after this first plane had landed, but upon leaving the airbridge I turned a corner to run straight into the gate for my second flight. Easy peasy!
This took me further south and down to Tennessee, where Danni would be picking me up from Knoxville Airport. From there, she drove us the an hour eastward and up to Pigeon Forge, where we’d be staying for a few days whilst we lived one of our collective dreams: we were going to Dollywood!
For those of you who might not know, Dollywood is a theme park partly owned by Dolly Parton herself. It’s themed to all things country and southern, and is nestled in the middle of the Great Smokey Mountains. Me and Danni are huge fans of both roller coasters and Dolly Parton, so this trip promised to be an absolute blast!
As I’d arrived quite late, the only thing for us to do on that first night was to head to bed in the hotel that Danni had already got us all checked in to. We’d then have breakfast in the tiny reception area of the hotel the next day, and that was quite an experience! We watched all the locals pile their plates high with biscuits and gravy, waffles and syrup, and sugary cereals with milk. We followed suit and I discovered that American gravy, even if weirdly different to what I’d call gravy, is pretty damn good.
Having eaten approximately 5000 calories each for breakfast, we hopped back in the car and drove the short distance to Dollywood. We parked up, grabbed the trolley (what they call a tram) to the entrance, and made our way inside. We were finally here!
What then followed was a lovely day of rides, snacks, and shows, but I’m going to skip over all of that for now as I want to get to the highlight of that first day: the dinner show we went to see.
When booking our Dollywood tickets we’d discovered that Dolly’s entertainment empire also includes some live shows, including one called Stampede. Intrigued by the promise of a cowboy spectacular, we booked in to see it on the very first evening, which meant cutting our theme park day short to head back to the hotel, have a quick nap, and then walk the short distance across the road to the custom built Stampede theatre.
It took us 15 minutes to walk between two places that are a mere 98m (320′) apart across a road. I know it’s that far because I just measured it on Google Maps. Thanks to the brilliance of the US’ prioritisation of cars over all else, we’d to walk a while down the road before finding a crossing, wait for ages at the traffic lights which were obviously prioritising traffic, and then walk all the way back down the other side of the road. We found the whole thing rather funny: a great example of America’s terrible urban planning.
This trek was worth it though, as the show was a real experience. We arrived as busses full of local retirees were also showing up, so we knew it was going to be a good one. We were ushered to our seats around the sand-filled arena, asked what we’d like to drink during the show, and then the lights dimmed.
The show itself was a lot of fun, with comedic relief and audience participation amid plenty of stunts performed on horseback. We were somewhat distracted when our food showed up halfway through though: we were served a whole roast chicken each! It was a small chicken admittedly, but we wound up munching through an ungodly amount of food whilst watching the action unfold.
I think the funniest moment of the whole evening was right at the end of the show, when the whole thing turned very, very American. To the dulcet tones of Dolly’s ‘Color Me America‘, the presenter shouted “stand up if you’re proud to be an American!”, a rallying call to which me and Danni jumped to our feet and started to hoot and shout louder than the rest of the actual Americans in the room. When in Rome…
As we filed out of the arena me and Danni were in absolute hysterics, something which didn’t let up as we hit the gift shop. We tried out a selection of all manner of cowboy goodies, but our favourite was undoubtedly this cowboy hat which was emblazoned with the American flag. I don’t know if you’ll be able to tell in the photo, but we’d been crying tears of laughter as we put them on with a mighty yeehaw!
We left the venue relatively early at night, so we decided to go for a wander to explore a bit more of Pigeon Forge. This took us past the Dollywood sign and then by plenty of neon-clad restaurantes and attractions. These included some shops which we headed into on a search for some pyjamas, only to find ourselves very uncomfortable as we were suddenly surrounded by souvenirs with questionable messages and propaganda on them. It was like the Blackpool of the American South…
After heading home for a good night’s sleep, the two of us were ready for a full day in the theme park. We’d ridden quite a lot the day before, but we’d still plenty to check out, so off we set to do what we do best and strategise the best way of riding all the big coasters whilst avoiding the longest queues.
The sun was out and our plan was working perfectly: we were able to get on all the main coasters before the evening came around. These included:
- Blazing Fury: an old indoor wooden coaster with a few little surprises.
- Thunderhead: the best wooden coaster I’ve ever been on which may even be the best coaster I’ve ever been on regardless of type.
- Mystery Mine: an indoor coaster with a beyond vertical drop.
- Big Bear Mountain: a new and fun family coaster.
- Lighting Rod: a wooden coaster which is unique in that it launches you up a huge hill and then through a crazy collection of huge turns and hills.
- Wild Eagle: a wing coaster, meaning that you sit suspended on each side of the track.
This last one was the perfect example of what made Dollywood so special. Its mountainous location means that most of the rollercoasters begin in the valley, rise up following the slope of the mountains, and then disappear out of sight for the bulk of the ride. This makes for a disorientating surprise as you’ve no idea what’s coming, alongside some great near-miss moments as you zoom close to the ground.
It was also one of the rides that we bagged a photo on. Here’s the two of us trying to compose ourselves as we fly down the side of one of the Rockies!
Once the sun had set things only got better at Dollywood. Alongside the thrill of zooming around a ride in the dark, there was also a spectacle of lights to enjoy. We wandered around to take all of this in, passing by all kinds of illuminated sculptures, walkways, and even a spooky nighttime disco. This led us back to Thunderhead, my beloved wooden coaster, which we wound up riding three consecutive times as there was simply no queue that late at night!
The next day we were back at the park again for our third and final day. This time we had other goals in mind, including riding a one last coaster and hunting down some of Dollywood’s famous cinnamon bread. As the sun was out and things were heating up, we first made a trip to the log flume, where we snagged two rides as the station was empty after our first trip. Success!
After some more rides we were ready for some sweet treats. We had a snoop around a candy emporium but then decided we’d finally take the plunge and try and get ourselves some cinnamon bread. We’d to wait for a while for it to come out of the oven, but this huge loaf turned out to be a gooey and heavenly combination of cinnamon, sugar, and butter. We’d have kept some for later, but the bag was so greasy that we decided to finish it off there and then!
Now full of bread, we decided to head for a ride that we knew would have a long queue: Lightning Rod. Not only is this coaster unique in the world and therefore very popular, it is also famously unreliable, being known to be broken down almost as much as it is up and running.
With the sun beating down, we were in with a bit of luck as the ride was running and the queue was open for us to jump in and get some shade. However, it would turn out that we weren’t the only ones suffering with the temperature, as the launch system overheated and broke down just as we were the next ones to ride.
Now stuck just behind the gates, we’d to decide whether to wait for the thing to be fixed or abandon ship. Not ones for giving up and curious to see how such a ride reset worked, Danni and I plonked ourselves on the ground and watched as the ride crew sent empty car after empty car around the circuit.
Eventually the all clear came, a moment which we all celebrated with cheers and applause, as the poor ride crew seemed as fed up with as we did. At least we got the payoff of being able to ride this absolutely crazy ride – we even grabbed a photo to mark the occasion. The poor girl in front of us looks to be having a rather rough time of it!
We were particularly keen to get on Lightning Rod as many times as we could because 2023 will be its final year operating as it currently does. As the launched lift hill is such a headache, over winter the launch system will be replaced by a conventional chain lift, so we wanted to ride it in it’s current crazy form whilst we could!
Now content to have been on all the rides, eaten all the food, and seen all the sights, we asked some other tourists to take a photo of us together under the iconic Dollywood sign before we left the park for one last time. We bought some goodies in the gift shop, grabbed a tram back to the car, and then headed out for one last little surprise adventure before the end of our trip.
Near Pigeon Forge was a petrol-station-cum-huge-supermarket called Buc-ee’s that Danni had told me about and that we were keen to visit. On our way there, I wanted some snacks and chewing gum, so we stopped off at a local supermarket chain to pick up some goodies.
As we entered I spied a line of what, for me, epitomises America: the electric shopping carts that you see people riding around in supermarkets. I’d never had the chance to ride on one of these, so I went over to get one after checking that there were plenty left for people who might actually need one.
I then began scootering around the supermarket whilst Danni – rather understandably – didn’t want to be seen anywhere near me. I filled the basket with crisps, chocolates, and other goodies without even rising from my seat: the epitome of human laziness and consumerism. It was a good laugh, even if it made me a feel a bit grim about the state of humanity.
Anyway, here’s what your’e all here for: a video of my new ride:
Once we’d paid and I ditched the thing, we head off to Buc-ee’s, parking up and heading into what would be a whole other level of American experience. It was a cathedral to high-fructose corn syrup and saturated fats, with a whole wall of fizzy drinks machines and fresh brisket sandwiches and hot dogs for days.
After the awe of the spectacle had passed, me and Danni grabbed some “soda” and greasy grub. We ate this just outside the supermarket on top of one of the barbecues that they had on sale: a perfectly trashy way to end a few days down in the American South.
All that was left for us to do the next day was to get up, get packed, and head off back to Knoxville Airport together. There I waved Danni off as she flew onwards to New York for last few days of her US trip before I boarded the first of my two flights back across the pond.
During my layover in Charlotte Douglas Airport, I got talking to a very chatty lady who recommended me some more obscure Dolly songs to listen to during the second leg of my journey back to Madrid. One of her suggestions was “Mule Skinner Blues“, which I have found myself to be quite fond of. Who’d have thought I’d come back from Tennessee listening to some yodel music?
I’m sure you can deduce from all my tales that I had an absolutely amazing time down in Pigeon Forge, an experience made possible by and infinitely bettered by the presence of one of my oldest friends. Stay tuned for the plans we’ve got for next year and then our big 30th celebrations in 2025…