Dollywood home to #1 coaster in Thunderhead

Can you tame the Thunder?

by Chris Godsey, ThrillRide/

Dollywood, nestled in the Great Smoky Mountain has upped the coaster ante this season by introducing Thunderhead-the wildest ride in the woods. This Great Coasters International designed woodie broke the mold by designing a ride that has it all- speed, height, G's, airtime, and a disorienting layout that even the most knowledgeable coaster enthusiast would be lost in. ThrillRide was invited to the opening weekend of this ride and we can say without a doubt that Thunderhead is the number one wooden coaster on the planet. How can we say that, you ask? Well, we hope to explain in this review why we feel it is the best by showing you awesome photos and videos of the ride. Hopefully, by the time you finish reading this, you will want to hop on over and see for yourself.

Let's begin with the media day events. The day began wil temps in the lower 40s along with light rain. But, the weather didn't stop our host Dolly Parton from opening the ride in only a way Dolly can. Dolly enters the station on the coaster, but states that she till not ride due to the fact she would fall apart(hair, nails, etc.) As you can see by the photo, Dolly had a special outfit made for the opening of Thunderhead complete with a purse shaped like an ax and a custom designed jean jacket with the thunderhead logo in sequin.






Dolly jumped out of the train and gave up her seat to a member of Dollywood management. While the train was on it's inaugural run, Dolly spoke to the media in the station. The inaugural train was filled with members of Ace, dollywood personnel, and several GCI employees.

One of the main features of the ride you will notice when you see it is how twisted the layout is. Just in the first 30 seconds of the ride, you will cross over and under track 8 times. There are total of 32 cross-overs and -unders making the Thunderhead the most twisted ride on the planet. We dare you to come off of the ride and draw out the layout without looking at the ride. It's impossible to get it right the first time! Thunderhead is GCI's tallest coaster to date with a 100 foot lift hill and several other unique features such as 78 degree banked turns and the first ever station fly-through element.

Once the train crests the lift hill, the craziness begins early with an insane twisted first drop. If you ride the back seat, you will notice near standing airtime similar to the Legend's first drop here.

After the insane first drop, you enter the infamous S-Curve. You really can't appreciate the HEAVILY banked turns in this section until you ride it for yourself. 78 Degrees doesn't sound so impressive with several steel coasters with turns over 90 degrees, but once you ride this coaster, you understand just how insane 78 degrees is on a wooden coaster. People, that is 2 degrees less than Millennium Force's first drop.

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As you can see from this close up photo, the side rails basically become headchoppers for the riders. This portion of the ride is done very fast, but the sensations are heightened by the dizzying banks and wood rails flying by your head.


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Now, the ride goes from heavy banks to airtime galore. Next up is the double-up. After the s-curve, the train begins a series of nice pops of air leading up to the next signature element, the station fly-through. During the final portion of the double-up is where you find one of the greatest pops of air on a coaster. Notice in the photos how the back part of the train is experiencing heavy negative g's.




We move from the double up to another airtime portion of the ride and where the on-ride photo is taken. SMILE PRETTY FOR THE CAMERAS!!! This portion is right before the turnaround into the fly though element. Notice the airtime is seen in the front of the train this time.

The next element might look familiar to you Millennium Force fans. Take a look at this photo:

This turnaround is very similar to Millennium Force's final banked turn. This portion of the ride is as smooth also! After this turn, the fun REALLY begins. What lies ahead is an element that has never been done before- The Station Fly-Through . When you get close to the station, it looks as if you are going to hit the roof. If you are in the station, you hear silence, then a loud roar and screaming guests as the zoom overhead at 40 miles per hour just a matter of feet above you!

I apologize for the lack of photos of the last part of the ride. This portion of the ride is the furthest portion from the queue area and most of its track is obstructed. The rest of the ride consists of several high speed turns complete with numerous generous pops of air right up into the brakes. In short, this rides has it all. It basically combines the greatest elements in today's best coasters and gives it all to you in less than 2 minutes. At night, this thing turns all out insane. With little or no lights along the ride's course, this coaster thrills even more in the dark. While riding this at night, I couldn't help but think about past Stark Raven Mad events at Holiday World and hope that Dollywood can do a similar event for enthusiasts in the future. ACE is sponsoring an event in the next couple of weeks at Dollywood complete with night ERT on Thunderhead. That is the first chance for enthusiasts to truly realize Thunderhead's awesome potential.

Finally, I leave you with some closing photos of the day and a recommendation- Do WHATEVER you can to get to Dollywood and ride this amazing coaster!

GCI truly has outdone themselves with this ride and Dollywood is now on the coaster map for enthusiasts. If you have never ridden a GCI coaster, this is a great one to start with! Special thanks to Dollywood and GCI for allowing us to ride the coaster after close on Saturday night. Dollywood, prepare for greatness!

Thunderhead Stats-

Tallest Drop -100 feet
Top Speed -55 mph
Length of Track -3,230 feet
Ride Duration - 2 minutes, 30 seconds
Number of Turns -22
Number of Cross Overs/Unders -32
Number of Trains -2 Millennium Flyer Trains
Number of Concrete Piers -1,600

Other Interesting Stats- They used over 700,000 board feet of Southern yellow pine (enough to fill 30 tractor trailers!), 3,600 yards of concrete, 250,000 bolts, 2 million screws, and 185,000 feet of rebar steel in the construction of Thunderhead. The overall construction crew was made of up of individuals from Tennessee, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and California which required the use of 300,000 tons of heavy equipment.




© Robert Coker
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