A Rainy and Lightning Rodless Weekend at Dollywood
Pulling into a packed Dollywood parking lot Saturday morning, I knew exactly what I had done. I drove three hours to ride Lightning Rod, a roller coaster that may or may not be open.
The a-frame signs standing in front of each parking toll booth announced that Lightning Rod was in technical rehearsal mode and was subject to “temporary closure or delays from time to time.”
“Okay, it doesn’t say it’s closed,” I thought to myself. “Maybe it will open at some point today.”
It was a typical hot, muggy June day. I broke a sweat while sprint-walking to Jukebox Junction, the area of the park home to Lightning Rod.
My heart began to race — I knew my hopes and dreams of riding Lightning Rod would soon be reached or crushed. Every step began to feel like a mile as I inched toward the coaster’s gleaming, retro entrance.
“Lightning Rod will not be running speed trials today,” read a small sheet of paper taped to one of the glass entrance doors.
My heart dropped like Lightning Rod’s 24-seat trains plummet down the 165-foot drop (or as I imagine they do). I was so close, yet so far.
I felt sorry for the Dollywood employee standing just inside the entrance, breaking the news to guest after guest who walked up hoping to ride. She was there for most of the day.
I was heartbroken and sweaty — I wanted to lay on the ground and cry to the tune of a sappy Dolly Parton song.
At least I could admire the coaster’s beautiful station and entrance/queue building. But as nice as they are, it just wasn’t the same.
I checked in on Lightning Rod throughout the weekend, holding on to a glimmer of hope that perhaps the coaster would defeat the odds and open.
I saw a few workers on the lift hill, in the station and even behind the coaster’s non-inverting half loop, cutting down tree limbs. I doubt those limbs have anything to do with the coaster’s delay, but at this point, I suppose anything is possible.
But otherwise, the coaster was silent. I don’t think the train sitting on the track behind the station moved an inch the entire weekend.
I spoke to a number of Dollywood employees over the weekend, casually inquiring about why Lightning Rod was still closed. While there were some differences between the responses, some vaguer than others, the recurring theme seemed to be that the severe storm and flooding that struck the park last Thursday (June 2) was to blame. I heard the coaster was struck by lightning (oh, the irony) and that floodwaters had affected some of the ride’s controls.
There’s no telling whether either of those stories is true. The park owes no explanation to the general public.
But enough about Lightning Rod. After a self pep talk, I realized that I was at one of the best theme parks in the country, and that was nothing to be sad about.
And so began what turned out to be a fun, rainy and Lightning Rodless weekend at Dollywood.
I began with a ride on Thunderhead, which was the longest (non-storm-related) wait of the day at 15 minutes.
The clouds gathered over the park within a few hours, but fortunately the rain held off until the late afternoon.
I rode out an hour-long storm in Mystery Mine’s station with a handful of other guests. I’m not a huge fan of the coaster so it wasn’t necessarily worth the hour wait, but the station was dry. The coaster would be so much better with the over-the-shoulder-restraints removed.
After exiting Mystery Mine, I found myself in a nearly empty Dollywood — the storm had driven droves of guests away, despite park closing being two hours away.
The sun began to peek through the exiting storm clouds. And with those rays of sun came a beautiful backdrop to the park’s coasters.
Many of the park’s food stands had closed shop, and the park’s coasters were nearly all walk-ons, even for the front rows. It was a no-wait Dollywood I’ve never experienced before, and it was amazing.
Even FireChaser Express, which typically draws a hefty line, was a walk-on.
The majestic eagle statue seemed to command repeat rides on Wild Eagle. I obliged.
This photo of Tennessee Tornado from Wild Eagle’s station may just be one of my favorite coaster photos. But not because of my photography skills (or lack thereof) — this is simply the beauty of the Smokies with a dash of Tennessee Tornado for good measure.
Some sort of Steampunk-inspired set was being constructed on Timber Tower’s old ride platform. If you know what it’s for, please let us know in the comments section.
Update: I’ve learned this is the stage for the park’s nightly fireworks show, which begins this Saturday (June 11).
Next up, it was time for a Thunderhead marathon. Unfortunately, the park’s policy does not allow for staying on the train for re-rides. But circling back around for another nearly empty train wasn’t a bad compromise.
I returned to Wild Eagle and was on the last train of the night. Afterward, I decided to take the scenic route through a nearly deserted Craftsman’s Valley. It was eerie yet calming — a perfect way to end the day.
I decided to take another detour on my way out to see Lightning Rod’s entrance at night, and I’m so glad I did.
Its neon glow looks like something straight out of a 1950s postcard. But everything behind it is nearly dark, aside from a string of lights on the coaster’s launch. I can only imagine what nighttime rides on Lightning Rod will be like.
Despite the rain, I considered day one a success. I knew the odds of Lightning Rod opening on Sunday were slim, but my season pass needed using. So I prepared for day two at Dollywood.
I returned to another nearly empty park on Sunday morning. The weather again was iffy, so I’m sure that deterred some guests from venturing to the park. The intermittent rain throughout the day ranged from light to moderate. But with no lightning, the rides never closed.
But the lack of guests (and lines) allowed me to casually stroll through the park to admire its beauty that I’m often hurrying past.
Between the mild temperatures and lack of guests, Daredevil Dive was running mostly empty boats. Knowing I would probably not have this opportunity again any time soon this summer, I hopped on the underrated flume ride.
Next, a ride on the park’s classic Dollywood Express train gave a different look at the relatively quiet park.
Cinnamon-infused air surrounded the Grist Mill, where loaves of Dollywood’s famous cinnamon bread were baking for the day. I wish the park had “day old” loaves you could purchase by the dozen. Or maybe it’s a good thing that they don’t.
I took advantage of the light crowds to get a number of rides on Tennessee Tornado, which opened late (around noon, I believe).
Tennessee Tornado has really grown on me over the years. Perhaps it’s because I’ve ridden some really rough Arrow creations since my first ride on the Tornado, Arrow’s arguably best sit-down looping coaster.
Its unrelenting pacing, drop-through-a-mountain and beautiful natural backdrop all combine for a truly legendary attraction.
I recommend the front row and anything toward the back of the train for two totally different rides.
After checking on Lightning Rod once more, I left the park mid-afternoon to make the trip back home.
Yes, I was devastated that Lightning Rod never opened. But when removing that from the equation, I spent two days at Dollywood with mild temperatures (thanks to occasional rain) and few-to-no lines…on a weekend…in June.
I should count my lucky stars.