I’ve always thought a big key to a great theme park day is a great start. Nail it, and you’re ahead of the game. Falter, and you could find yourself playing catch-up the rest of the day.
The stakes couldn’t be higher! Okay, maybe they aren’t that high, but I do think it’s worth putting some effort into planning your theme park day start.
If that day includes tackling Dollywood’s coaster roster, then a big part of your great start is picking the right coaster (or coasters) to kick off your day.
Where Should You Begin?
How do you pick the best kick-off coaster? The answer is all situational, isn’t it?
Maybe you’re visiting with a coaster newbie and want to avoid starting with an intense coaster like Lightning Rod. Maybe your child has just met the height requirement for DragonFlier and they are itching to ride. Or maybe you’ve been looking forward to riding Thunderhead all off-season and simply want to start there.
Where We Begin
The point is, no one size fits all.
Instead of trying to guess your situation, I suppose we should look at how our family typically begins our Dollywood coaster day. From that, maybe you can extrapolate the bits and pieces that best apply to your situation. For context, my family consists of:
• Wife – Motion sickness on anything that moves
• Daughter – Roller Coaster enthusiast
• Son – Just tall enough to ride FireChaser Express
• Me – Famous Dollywood Insider
So, keep your hands and feet inside the coaster at all times…and let’s go!
Here’s the itinerary
While you can queue up for Lightning Rod or Thunderhead pre-official park opening time, we usually pass on this option. Why? Because, frankly, we rarely arrive to the park early enough to be at or near the front of these queues – something we need to achieve for our “great start” strategy.
Instead, we’ll take a slight right on park entry toward Rivertown Junction to hold for the official park opening. We like this roomier holding point more than its counterpart in Timber Canyon.
We’re headed to Wilderness Pass, home to three Dollywood headliner coasters – Wild Eagle, FireChaser Express and Tennessee Tornado.
If all three coasters are loading guests on arrival, we begin with FireChaser Express because the entire family can ride and wait times often build quickly. We then head to Tennessee Tornado and finish up with Wild Eagle. Wild Eagle is third, because it has the highest capacity of the three and sees nominal wait times even on popular days.
Why Wilderness Pass?
Starting in Wilderness Pass is key to the “great start.”
Here, all three coaster entrances are within 50-ish feet of each other. If there is a longer opening wait time for one of the three coasters, we can quickly call an audible and move to the next with very little friction. Also, because it’s the farthest point from the entrance, guests don’t make it to this area quickly. As result, we’re all but guaranteed to get a ton of rides on some combination of Wilderness Pass area coasters before wait times begin to build.
From here, we usually double back to Lightning Rod or Thunderhead. By this time, the folks that queued pre-official park opening have typically cycled though and wait times have normalized a bit for both coasters. So, you can kind of see how starting in Wilderness Pass puts us a step ahead with regards to our coaster ride itinerary for the day. By the time we get to the afternoon timeframe, we’re likely re-riding favorites or catching shows.
Where We End
While great starts are key, there’s also nothing like a great finish to your theme park day.
Fortunately, a great finish is pretty easy to achieve at Dollywood as the park takes on a whole new persona when darkness falls. We like to hang around for re-rides on our favorite coasters during this time as wait times typically subside and rides are at peak speed. Honestly, if you haven’t crested the lift hill of Wild Eagle at sunset, you haven’t experienced the best Dollywood has to offer.
Back to the Beginning
Circling back to our “great start” strategy, I think you’ll find two concepts you can potentially use beyond our scenario – doing the opposite of conventional wisdom (ex: bypassing pre-opening coaster queues) and leveraging flexibility (ex: Wilderness Pass’s close-proximity coasters). I know these are keystone concepts for our family when visiting theme parks in general.
One last note – If (when) the unexpected happens and you falter a bit out of the gate, take a deep breath and move on. You don’t want to get so caught up in missing a great start that you impede the inevitable enjoyment of the rest of your day. I say inevitable because you’re at Dollywood, and for that reason, I’m willing to bet you’ll have a great day anyway.