Lightning Rod Chain Lift Review and Reaction

I recently rode Lightning Rod at Dollywood for the first time since its launched lift was converted into a traditional chain lift for the 2024 season. Here’s what I thought of the new ride experience.

Lightning Rod’s launched lift hill as seen in June 2016

First, some backstory. The world’s first launched wooden roller coaster, Lightning Rod opened in 2016 to rave reviews. However, the Rocky Mountain Construction (RMC) coaster experienced extended bouts of downtime in its inaugural and later seasons of operation.

Watch video of Lightning Rod with its launch in June 2016:

After years of attempts to resolve its reliability issues, the park announced in September 2023 that it would close Lightning Rod in October to “install a variable frequency chain lift in place of its linear synchronous motor (LSM) launch system.”

Lightning Rod chain lift

Lightning Rod’s chain lift hill as seen in March 2024.

RMC revealed in an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit that “the precision needed for a launch system isn’t too easy to hit on a flexible wood structure.”

In the Lightning Rod chain lift announcement, park officials reassured fans that, despite the launch system’s removal, the ride experience would remain the same post-lift hill.

The Dollywood Company President Eugene Naughton and VP of Marketing and Public Relations Pete Owens making the Lightning Rod chain lift announcement in 2023

Lightning Rod reopened on March 8, 2024, for the park’s annual season passholder preview day.

Watch video of Lightning Rod’s new chain lift on our Instagram and TikTok (also embedded below).

@coaster101 Lightning Rod’s new chain lift @Dollywood Parks & Resorts ♬ original sound –

I visited the park last week to try out the Lightning Rod chain lift hill for myself. I avoided reading reviews online beforehand, as there are so many factors that can influence speed on a coaster — specifically temperature and train weight. For that reason, I also prohibited myself from watching any POV videos online. I did not want my opinion or experience to be tainted.

My Verdict

After 10 rides on Lightning Rod with a chain lift hill, I can say that the coaster is still very fun. It’s still the most intense roller coaster at Dollywood. However, I very much miss the launch.

Even though the launch slowed once the train reached the top of the 20-story lift hill, it still offered something no other wooden coaster could. (Approximately half of its Rocky Mountain Construction [RMC] topper track was replaced with its all-steel I-BOX track in the 2020-2021 off-season, so technically was no longer an all-wooden coaster.)

Cons of the Lightning Rod Chain Lift

Let’s start with the negatives.

There’s no launch (duh)

This one is a given. The launch was one of the most thrilling parts of Lightning Rod — it’s what made the coaster one-of-a-kind.

I was very lucky to have ridden Lightning Rod many times over its eight seasons with a launch. Although it had become less intense in its later season, it was still an intense acceleration.

Lightning Rod’s launch would start near the base of the lift hill, as seen here in this 2016 photo.

After 10 rides on the lift-hill version, I still found myself “bracing” for the launch as the train approached the lift hill.

But rather than accelerating, the train slows as it prepares to engage the chain lift mechanism. It will take some getting used to.

The chain lift is loud

Some riders have complained about the chain lift being loud. It’s certainly on the louder end of the lift hill noise spectrum, but I didn’t find it to be bothersome. Aside from those with noise sensitivity, I don’t think it will detract from the overall ride experience.

A more intense brake run

This isn’t directly related to the chain lift hill, but another change I noticed was that the final brake run to be much more abrupt than before.

Pros of the Lightning Rod Chain Lift

While the cons might outweigh the pros for devout fans of the launch, there are several advantages of Lightning Rod’s switch to a chain lift hill.

Increased reliability

More uptime. Less downtime. That was the rationale behind the conversion from launch to chain lift. And while it’s too soon to tell if the ride will be consistently more reliable (let’s regroup at the end of the season), anecdotally I never saw the ride close during my visit to the park. In the “pre-chain lift” times, it was always a toss-up as to how long the coaster would operate each day, if at all.

Especially for those who live far away and have to make special plans to come to East Tennessee to visit Dollywood, this is huge. Hopefully, once the coaster has proven to be consistently reliable, the fear of the coaster being closed for days on end will be quenched.

Increased capacity (a shorter wait)

Lightning Rod was running both of its two new “first-generation” RMC trains. The coaster had been reduced to a one-train operation for several seasons. The park was not busy on the day of my visit, so I was able to enjoy walk-on rides in the afternoon — even on a slow day, that would be almost unheard of in the “before times” with as often as the coaster would close for maintenance.

One of Lightning Rod’s original RMC trains, as seen in 2022.

The two new trains are very similar to the originals, at least in their appearance.

One of Lightning Rod’s new trains, as seen in March 2024.

They did not seem to have a huge impact on the ride experience.

More time to admire the view

This was a surprise that I didn’t realize I would enjoy so much. As fun as the launch was, it was a launch — you didn’t have much time to enjoy the scenery and track around you.

Lightning Rod’s quadruple-down element, as seen in 2018 before the I-BOX steel track was installed.

I enjoyed getting an extended look at the quad-down element from an angle not previously possible — looking around as the train was propelling you to the top of the hill didn’t give you much time to notice your surroundings.

My Closing Thoughts

If Lightning Rod was built with a chain lift instead of a launch, I wouldn’t be writing this today — it would be the only Lightning Rod we ever knew. And I’d probably love it just as much. Even with a slower climb to the top, Lightning Rod is still an amazing coaster, one that is worth a trip alone. And it seems that, for now at least, that trip is much less of a gamble given its increased reliability.

Innovation inherently comes with risk. I applaud Dollywood and RMC for taking a chance on pushing the envelope to build a launched wooden coaster. They proved that it could be done, but not flawlessly. And I think the decision to make the change to a chain lift was a smart one. Especially if the alternative had been removing the coaster entirely.

Am I mourning the loss of Lightning Rod’s launch? Of course — it was incredible. Will I move on and relish the fact that Dollywood is home to one of the best RMC hybrids in existence? Absolutely. And I’m looking forward to many more rides on it.

Have you ridden Lightning Rod with its chain lift hill? Share your thoughts about it in the comments section below.