5 Reasons Why (I Think) Thunderhead is Better than Lightning Rod

Yes, you read that headline correct, I think Thunderhead is a better ride than Lightning Rod. Let me tell you why.

Last year when I visited Dollywood, it was the first time I had been there since Lightning Rod opened. The hype was there — five years worth. Needless to say I was pumped to finally ride this coaster. So we hopped on and two laps later I was very happy…but not blown away. The ride, while fast and full of airtime, seemed awkwardly short, rough, and just didn’t seem to measure up to what I thought it would be.

Fast forward exactly one year, I am back at Dollywood and excited to give Lightning Rod another shot. Perhaps I had caught it on a bad day the year before or maybe the extensive retracking from Rocky Mountain Construction over the off-season had drastically helped the ride. So I board again hoping for a better experience.

Do not get me wrong, Lightning Rod is a very solid ride, but it still did not hit that mark for me. The retracking definitely made the ride quicker, but did not eliminate all of the rough spots.

Now let’s switch gears real quick and talk about Thunderhead. I have always been a big fan of the now 17 year-old GCI. Along with Lightning Rod, it also received new track over this off-season (and past few off-seasons as well), so I couldn’t wait to see it in action!

So without further adieu, here my five reasons why Thunderhead is better than Lightning Rod:

1. It’s silky smooth

Before Dollywood began the process of fixing Thunderhead’s track, it was a little rough in a few spots, but it didn’t take away from the ride experience — it was the good type of rough you expected from a wooden coaster. Unlike Lightning Rod’s retracking, Thunderhead’s did wonders for the layout; the ride is practically brand new. The trains absolutely fly through the twisted mess of track now, without even a glimmer of backache. I have had rougher rides on B&M hypers than I had on Thunderhead.

2. Significantly longer ride time

When I compare ride quality, one big factor I look at is actual ride time. I’m talking from station to break run. If we take a look at these two rides, one significantly beats out the other. Thunderhead clocks in at around 1:50 while Lightning Rod is only 1:10. That’s nearly a 40% longer ride experience! And when you factor in the wait time to ride time ratio (which we’ll talk about next), it’s a no-brainer. Sure, you can argue that Thunderhead is only longer because it has a traditional lift hill, but I love a good slow ride to the top…it builds the anticipation! More on Lightning Rod’s lift later.

3. Wait time

In each of my last four visits to Dollywood, Thunderhead has averaged a 5-10 minute wait. Even this year when the park was at capacity during COVID (parking lot still 80% full), the coaster was a walk on. One time I had about an hour and a half to hit up the park and I only went knowing I could get a good marathon in on Thunderhead and got 10 rides in.

On the other hand, Lightning Rod is usually a good one or two hour wait. There is no re-riding here, unless you want to spend half of your day in one queue. Hopefully the recent work done on the ride will help with reliability and a higher capacity in years to come.

4. No lift-hill letdown

On a traditional lift, the excitement builds as you go up and crest the top and carries out through the rest of the ride. On Lightning Rod there is a launched lift, which looks incredible and is a blast, until you get to the last 50 feet or so. I never had a chance to ride the coaster before the launch was throttled down, but talk is that it was sheer coaster perfection. Now that there is a significant slow down at the top, all momentum is lost. I wouldn’t even mind if the launch was slowed down from the start if it meant being consistent through the top.

5. More interesting layout

Finally, I think Thunderhead simply has a more interesting layout. On this coaster you are never just going straight; there is always a turn, a hop, or a drop. It’s like it is keeping you on your toes from start to finish. There are an astonishing 22 turns and 32 crossovers on this coaster! While Thunderhead has a quite a number of small elements, Lightning Rod has only a few large elements — most notably the incredible quadruple-down at the end of the layout.

credit: Joel Rogers 2004

It all boils down to preference as to which coaster experience you prefer, but being the only two (mostly) wooden coasters at Dollywood, I thought it was worth taking the time to share my opinion and maybe help give Thunderhead the time in the spotlight that it deserves!

What are your thoughts on these two world-class rides? Do you agree or not at all? Let us know!


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5 Responses

  1. CED says:

    This isn’t April 1st yet. That’s how serious this article you wrote should be taken.

  2. Nick says:

    Hopefully I’ll be able to fully weight in on this in two weeks, so since I’ve yet to ride LR I’m also team Thunderhead at the moment. I’ve never been on a bad GCI. I just timed them on YouTube and from the top of the lift to the first brake, LR is 46 sec and TH is about 51 sec. I count 12 elements on LR (though the three after the first drop seem very similar) and about 15 on TH.

  3. Josh says:

    Thunder head isn’t that fun and it’s rough as crap and last weekend I went on it and the restraints wouldn’t stay latched and the people in the station told me and my kids that it happens all the time. My kids I looked at them like they was crazy for still running it that way. And as for the track I’m surprised it’s still standing. I used to work there at Dollywood with a contracted company and if you seen some of the stuff I seen rigged on that one and Tennessee tornado you wouldn’t ride either one. As for lighting rod it’s best when ridden after dark. And it’s less strain on you body then thunderhead.

  4. JT says:

    #6 TH actually runs reliably. And yeah you gotta love all the triggered RMC fanboys over this article lol but I do agree with this assessment and I also think LR is incredibly overrated and overhyped. Lets face it, it had the worst reliability/downtime of any modern coaster that it became a poster child for theme park memes and parody videos for unreliable rides. Also I cannot stand the uncomfortable RMC trains that squish your thighs and shoulders and beat up your shins. I marathoned rides on TH while LR was and and done despite it being a slow day at the park. Ironically I was gonna get one more ride on LR before I left for the day but it as broke down again. (who woulda thought? lol)

  5. Jonathan says:

    Okay, I’ll admit I thought this was a rather crazy opinion when I first read this article, but after visiting Dollywood again last month I 100% agree.

    The launch on Lightning Rod is *significantly* slower in 2021 than it was in 2016. This means that the pre-drop, which previously offered loads of floater airtime, is now taken at a much slower pace. Honestly, this used to be my all-time favorite element on any coaster, so riding it again was a big letdown. The rest of the ride was blazing fast and quite intense, but the forces were all a bit too abrupt for my tastes.

    Thunderhead, though—man has that ride improved with the retracking. I thought it was extremely smooth and thrilling, and with such a short line, riding it over Lightning Rod is a no-brainer.

    I did not see this coming, but Lightning Rod dropped from my #3 to #10, and Thunderhead rose to #8. If Dollywood were to increase the launch speed and run two trains to shorten the line, I would hop back on the Lightning Rod bandwagon, but for now, I’m with you Kyle.

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