In the great theme park bragging rights war, you often see "biggest, fastest, longest, whatever-est" thrown around pretty freely. Some parks even resort to limiting the scope just so they can claim the "-est" title. I actually heard a queue line recorded spiel a few days ago that claimed the coaster I was about to ride is the "tallest, fastest, full-circuit inverted coaster in this region." Wow, that's just being desperate.
But all of those "-est" labels are for naught if the ride experience is average. Enter Dollywood.
Dollywood decided to go for "first" rather than for some "-est" record that would eventually be broken. You can't ever take away the record for the first-ever something, after all. So they came up with Lightning Rod, the world's first wooden coaster with a launch rather than a lift hill. Oh, and they also nailed one of the "-est" records in the process: World's Fastest Wood Coaster.
Now some of you may have ridden "Son of Beast" at Kings Island in Ohio, the previous record holder for fastest wood coaster, and are now thinking that you want no part of Lightning Rod whatsoever. Who could blame you? Son of Beast was a torture machine with a ride so brutal that it was closed forever just nine years after it opened. Lightning Rod, however, uses the new track system from Rocky Mountain Construction called "topper track." It insures a smoother ride with a lot less upkeep, so you're going to have a really good time while you race along at more than 70mph.
Those extra braces and the thicker top rail keep the track from warping, providing a ride that feels like a wood coaster while being almost as smooth as a steel coaster. The best of both worlds, in other words. So let's see what the fuss is all about...
If you arrive at the park late, you're likely to see the queue stretched out well beyond the station. Lightning Rod is a hugely popular ride and even with long waits, riders are seen getting off the ride and running right back to get in line again. This is a good sign! Once in the queue, the hot rod theme kicks into gear (pun intended).
The station is themed like a mechanic's shop and the ride operators dress like grease monkeys as well, with possibly the coolest ride op uniforms ever.
Then there are the trains. Dollywood and Rocky Mountain Construction have completely outdone themselves with theming on these. They are absolutely beautiful, both front...
During your queue time, you'll catch the launch in action. The train rolls slowly out of the station, you hear a hot rod engine rev up (nice touch!), then as it lines up with the 20-storey incline, you hear tires squeal and the train just rockets up the hill and is gone. It's like nothing you've ever seen on a woodie and it's an attention-getter.
After that, the train is invisible to anyone in the park, having topped the ridge and dipped out of sight. From the ride, when you crest the hill you're going to be catapulted out of your seat and while you're giving thanks for those lap bars that are making friends with your thighs, you notice that what you thought would be a big drop is just a dip followed by another hump.
Some quick positive Gs in the dip lead to the crest of the second hump, this one with even stronger airtime than the first, and the drop on the other side is unspeakably steep and it's a long way down. Lightning Rod uses the natural terrain to accent and enhance the ride. You'll have time to appreciate that later - at the moment, you're still floating, the track is curving downward at an impossible angle, and holy hell this thing is fast!
Racing up out of the valley into the sky, you lean over a full 90 degrees into a wave turn. This is a maneuver that debuted on Outlaw Run at Silver Dollar City (see article here ). It's like a "high five" banked camelback hill, but it's got just a bit of an outward bend at the top that gives you airtime parallel to the ground while giving you laterals at the same time. It's deliciously disorienting and Lightning Rod's wave turn is massive. I had been looking forward to this moment ever since the plans for this thing were announced and it does not disappoint.
But Lightning Rod isn't content to simply best its little brother in Branson with this bit. Immediately after this, you dive into the valley again and then race up into a new thing called an "outside banked tophat". It's like a wave turn, but it's banked beyond 90 degrees and it enters and exits in the opposite direction of the wave. It's confusing to describe and it's mind-blowing to ride.
Just look at that. As wicked as it looks, imagine flying through that hot mess at more than 60mph. It's basically just a big speed blur that tries to throw you out of the car. It's incredibly intense, it's absolutely terrifying, and it's smooth as glass. How they managed that is beyond me, but it works better than any coaster element I've ever experienced. It might just be my favorite wooden coaster moment of all time.
Another dive into the valley brings you back around the other way and into a twisty hill they're calling the "twist and shout."
I would say that this is the one part of Lightning Rod that doesn't quite reach perfection, but I don't want to make it sound like it's bad. It's not. It's better, in fact, than most elements on any other coaster - it's just that everything up to this point has been so jaw-droppingly perfect that any slight oddness seems amplified. The airtime on this hill is huge and the twist at the top can be a tad awkward in a few of the seats, especially on the left side of the train. The fact that I'm having to be this nit-picky to find something to critique on this coaster says volumes. No matter, though, we're racing back up out of the valley and back over the ridge that separates us from the park.
What happens next was the stuff of legend before the first train ever rolled out of the station: the Quad-down. Now almost every coaster has a drop. Some special ones have double-downs, where the track drops, levels off, then drops again. The second half of those drops usually produce boffo airtime. Lightning Rod takes that concept and doubles it into a quadruple drop with twists and banking all the way down. When those plans were revealed, the coaster enthusiast community just lost it. People began speculating how incredible the airtime would be by the time you got to the fourth part... little did they know that you'd get massive airtime on every part. Lightning Rod absolutely screams over the hill that leads to the quad-down, gives you strong airtime on the first part, insane airtime on the second part, makes you grab onto anything you can find on the third part, and by the fourth part you're barely even aware of what's going on. Even after multiple rides, you still can't even believe how fast it is.
After all of that insanity, you get a speed hump (more airtime!) and an absolutely enormous rising overbanked turn that's pretty much just there to sap some of the speed before you hit the brakes. Even so, you're going to get airtime at the top of this thing, too. It's just freakishly, insanely, unbelievably fast.
How fast? How much airtime? Have a look at the track in the photo below. Notice all the gaps where there's no stripe? The road wheels on the train have never touched that part of the track. Not once. Not ever. And the total lack of a stripe means that not just the front or back seats got lift - the ENTIRE TRAIN was riding the upstops. Beautiful.
Let's have a quick look at just how fast this thing moves. Keep in mind, people, this is the END of the ride, when most coasters are meandering back to the station. Also keep in mind that this is about as slow as this ride goes. All the hidden bits are even faster.
So while Dollywood will always have the First Launched Wood Coaster and currently has the Fastest Wood Coaster, I propose that they also have the world's Most Intense Wood Coaster. Dollywood doesn't allow back-to-back rides (even for employees) and while I find that concept generally silly, I can absolutely understand it for this ride. Morning rides are really good, but by the time the heat of the afternoon has warmed everything up, Lightning Rod becomes another thing entirely. It changes from a crazy-fast yet accessible romp through the woods into a monster that tests your endurance and stamina. When you get to the end, you're exhausted and dazed, wondering what just happened. When I first saw this thing hit the end brakes at such high speed, I thought they could easily add another 500 feet or so of track. After a dozen rides, I'm glad they didn't. Lightning Rod is just long enough to wear you out without trying to do you in.
But that shouldn't keep you from riding. It's not intense due to brutality like some other coasters, it's just intense due to speed, airtime, speed, wicked turns, speed, and more speed. In spite of all that, the ride is smooth, the transitions are perfectly engineered and the overall experience is like nothing else in the world. The fact that it sits in Dollywood, one of the best amusement parks on earth, only makes it that much better. Rev it up!
Let's have a ride, courtesy of Upstop Media.