Dollywood’s annual Thrills in the Hills event treats roller-coaster fanatics and Dollywood enthusiasts to a weekend of extended ride time on some of the park’s top attractions, behind-the-scenes tours, great food, reserved seating at shows and much more.
This year, attendees had the chance to climb (yes, climb) to the top of Thunderhead’s 100-foot-tall lift hill. The wooden coaster features a 100-foot drop and reaches a top speed of 55 mph. It’s one crazy ride – pure fun from start to finish.
As much as I love roller coasters, I’m ironically afraid of heights, especially when I’m not strapped into a coaster seat. But I couldn’t resist the opportunity to see a view of Dollywood that I often only see briefly while riding Thunderhead.
Below are 5 things that I learned from our tour guides while at the top of Thunderhead.
1. Criss-Cross, Criss-Cross
I never realized how twisted Thunderhead’s 3,230-foot-long track is until I saw it from 10 stories up. In fact, the ride crosses over and under itself a whopping 32 times.
2. Daily Inspections
Thunderhead – like all the rides and attractions at Dollywood – undergoes rigorous inspections on a daily, weekly and yearly basis.
Every single one of the 250,000 bolts on Thunderhead is checked by a wrench at least once a year.
It takes maintenance workers about six hours to walk the entire 3,230 feet of track. That job is usually split between two employees. They start their trek very early – roughly five hours before the park opens each day.
3. Four Trains
While you’ll only see two trains operating on Thunderhead’s track at one time, the coaster actually has four trains total.
Three trains rotate in and out during the season while the fourth train is completely refurbished and rebuilt.
Learn more about how Dollywood maintains its roller coasters here.
4. Wood Like Steel
Dollywood is in the process of completely replacing Thunderhead’s track with a more durable type of wood.
Rather than pine wood, the park is using a Brazilian wood called “ipe” (pronounced ee-pay). The wood is incredibly strong.
In fact, it has the same structural characteristics as steel. It’s so dense that it sinks when placed in water.
The retracking won’t be complete for a few more years, but you can already tell a difference – the track really does feel like a smooth steel coaster.
5. A New Chain
Thunderhead is sporting a brand-new lift hill chain – the coaster’s third since it opened in 2004. The chains last about six to eight years. This chain pulls Thunderhead’s trains to the top of the lift hill.
The iconic “click-clack” of a traditional chain lift hill is made from the “dog” on the bottom of each train as it passes over these jagged anti-rollback “teeth.”
This prevents the train from rolling backward as it ascends to the top of the lift hill.
The climb was well-worth the workout. I walked away slightly winded but with a newfound appreciation for Dollywood’s first wooden coaster. As soon as the park opened for the day, I hopped in line for a ride on the “wildest ride in the woods.”