On Friday, March 15, I had the privilege of attending the media event for Dollywood's opening to their 2019 season. A special thank you to Wes Ramey and Amber Davis for the invite. I also rented the Nikon D850, widely-considered to be one of the best DSLR's on the market. I wanted to spend some time shooting with it before I decide if I want to upgrade from D750. I'm definitely thinking about it after this weekend.
I drove down to Corbin, Kentucky (the birthplace of KFC) on Thursday night and finished up the last two hours of the drive on Friday morning, arriving right about 9:30am, which was when registration opened for the event. I met up with our GOCC Vice President Dave and also ran into my friend Jim from WildGravityTravels (check them out on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook).
After standing outside near the media tent, we were escorted into the park via the preferred parking entrance and led to DP's Celebrity Theater, where media members were sat in the middle while other guests were given access to the outside sections.
After what seemed like an eternity, a voice on the speaker introduced us to Litz Alfonso Dance Cuba, the dance and music ensemble from Havana. They previewed their 45 minute show for us with a 7-10ish minute performance of dancing, tapping and hopping around. It was extremely entertaining and I'm sad I didn't have time to see the full show while I was at the park.
After Cuba Vibra!, Dolly herself came out to address the crowd and to talk about the upcoming season, not really revealing anything more than we already knew about Wildwood Grove or the upcoming season. She introduced us to Cuban Celebrity Chef Pepin, who has brought some wonderful international dishes to the park. She also told us she had sold the rights for several of her songs such as "Jolene" to be made into Netflix series in the very near future.
She then introduced Drumstruck, a drumming ensemble from South Africa. Now normally, drumming itself would be kind of boring outside of the occasional solo, but these guys added energy, spinning the drums, jumping around, chanting. It was really a spectacle in itself, despite only being a short preview of the actual show.
After Drumstruck, Dolly returned again, this time with the two butterflies. I think its very cool that Wildwood Grove is being themed to its own unique characters and not anything preexisting, like we so often get with parks invested in their own or others' intellectual properties. Dolly showed a quick video and then revealed that the opening weekend for Wildwood Grove would be on May 10-11, 2019.
After Drumstruck, we were walked over to the covered seating area outside Reds, where we were fed samples of various new food items including paella, pretzel bites with cheese, macaroni salad and Cuban sandwiches. The portions were pretty small, but hey, it was free. We also received drinks and dessert.
After lunch, while we were waiting to be taken to the parking lot to retrieve our mud gear for the WWG tour, we were told that we wouldn't leave until 12:45 (it was about 12:10 at the time). Lightning Rod was showing a 25 minute wait, so Dave and I ran over to get in line. 5 minutes later, Jim messaged me that they were leaving. Dave and I waited about 10 more minutes to ride and then headed out to the parking lot, where everyone was either still gathering their gear or getting in line outside of the gate to see Wildwood Grove.
The first thing we encountered while entering Wildwood Grove from the construction entrance was Dragonflier, which is nearing completion. The workers were working on the lift mechanism while we were taking pictures and we got our first glimpse of the train. I would compare it to Flying Ace Aerial Chase at KI / Kiddy Hawk at Carowinds, except it looks to be more intense, with some really cool elements.
We were then briefly walked through the indoor play area (more on that in a bit) and out the other side into the main area of WWG. It was really hard to envision what would be where. The WWG tree was simply a concrete slab with a vent sticking out of the top. Many of the covered areas for character meet-ups and other areas were being worked on while we were touring. We were taken back towards the first drop of Thunderhead - which is wide open for pictures now from areas never before available. Their flying scooters-type ride was already in place, as was their swinging pirate ship. They were still working on various aspects of them, but those were the only rides really done. The construction manager said that they were right on time for the May 10 opening, despite the current state of the area.
We were then walked back through the indoor play area complete with netting, slides and all kinds of things kids would love to play on while mom or dad get out of the sun for a bit. Dolly met us inside, took a couple questions and then we were led back out into the parking lot.
With that, media day was over.
Dave and I went back into the park to get a couple rides on Lightning Rod and Thunderhead before he departed. I ran back into Jim near Lightning Rod later and he introduced me to Matt who runs coasterjunkee on Instagram (check him out too!). I stayed at the park for about 3 hours before heading out around 5 for dinner, knowing I'd be back bright and early the next day.
I knew opening day would be extremely busy, so I got to the park around 9:30am, took care of getting my media comp ticket and then went into the park and over to the Timesaver building. I picked up Timesaver unlimited for Nick and I, which ended up being a great move based upon the crowds of the day. That said, it didn't get AS busy as I expected. Lightning Rod stayed between 50-70 minutes until they took 1 train off for maintenance, then it jumped up to about 90. Nick and I didn't wait more than about 10 minutes for anything with the Timesaver pass. I highly recommend it if you're going on a busy day.
I'm not going to go too much into the details other than to make some observations - we lapped the park 4-5 times, walking a total of 11 miles according to Nick's watch.
Nick rode everything multiple times, being his first time in the park since 2004. I rode Lightning Rod multiple times, Tennessee Tornado and Thunderhead twice and everything else once. No, I did not get the kiddy credit because I don't credit whore unless I have a kid with me or unless there's ERT on something.
Nick and I left around 6pm to head back to our hotel in Corbin before completing the rest of the drive home on Sunday morning.
- The park looked great as usual. The Festival of Nations ambiance is always really cool and I love how nice the workers are and how themed everything is.
- Lightning Rod was running really well. Not having the front part though is really bizarre looking. That front row ride was something else though.
- I wish Wild Eagle had Gatekeeper's layout but in the same mountain setting on top of the hill. I just find WE to be really overrated and boring.
- Tennessee Tornado is still my favorite Arrow. X2 might be the only thing that changes it.
- Firechaser still sucks in terms of capacity. The Timesaver line was even out into the queue at several points during the day. Luckily, Nick and I rode everything once really early in the day for the credits, but it was the only thing Nick didn't get to at least double up on.
- I waited about 20 minutes for cinnamon bread, and it was still well worth it.
- We had lunch at Reds, whose food I find to be typical park fare, but still better than Johnny Rockets or Coasters or similar restaurants in Cedar Fair parks.
- The WWG area is MASSIVE. I know its only 6 acres, but when you're inside of it and you see how large it is, its mindblowing. Its definitely going to open up the rest of the park capacity-wise and help on busy days.
- I still don't like Thunderhead. Its not a "good rough" like some people claim. The front part that was retracked was way better, but the rest of the ride is still brutal. I don't talk bad about most GCIs, but this and Wildcat are terrible.
- Mystery Mine was down both days. I was disappointed because I was really underwhelmed with it the last time I was on it and wanted to give it a second chance. Plus I wanted Nick to get the credit, but that didn't happen either.
- I didn't realize in my previous two trips that the train was on a set schedule like that, so once I realized it, I still kept missing it. I'll definitely have to take it at some point when I'm able to get back down there.
- I can't believe people were riding the water rides when the high was about 45 or less until mid-afternoon. Sometimes I'd be like "oh its just some crazy kids", but there were a bunch of big groups, kids and adults alike. Maybe I'm just a freeze baby, or maybe I'm old, but I barely ride them mid-summer.
- My suitcase nearly ended up in the river behind Tennessee Mountain Lodge after I set it in the parking lot to grab my camera bag out of the back seat. Thank goodness for a small curb across the street that caused it to fall over or that sucker was gone.
- No Way Jose's Cantina was great. I had tacos and for the first time in my life, fried ice cream. It was glorious.
- I got a chance to ride Rocky Top Mountain Coaster after I left Dollywood Friday and before dinner, and it was pretty awesome.
Again, thank you to Dollywood for the invite and for a great weekend at the park.