Dollywood's Lightning Rod Thunders Past Wooden Coasters

Review of the Record-Breaking Ride

Lightning Rod coaster at Dollywood
Dollywood's Lightning Rod is one of the planet's best wooden coasters. Dollywood

Screaming up its lift hill at an attention-grabbing 45 mph, Lightning Rod takes hold from the get-go and never lets up. The world's first launched wooden coaster (and as of 2020, only launched wooden coaster), its opening moments are merely a prelude to the orchestrated chaos about to ensue.

Lightning Rod quickly hits 73 MPH and navigates some seriously over-banked turns and other wacky elements that send the train and its passengers to and fro. Yet, the attraction remains surprisingly smooth throughout its journey–despite the fact that wooden coasters are known to give notoriously rickety rides. And it liberally sprinkles moments of glorious airtime along the way.

Dollywood and ride manufacturer Rocky Mountain Construction (RMC) have captured lightning in a coaster.

  • Type of coaster: Launched wooden (first of its kind) upon its debut; in 2021, it will be a hybrid wooden-steel coaster. (See “Lightning Rod Update” below.)
  • Height: 206 feet
  • First drop: 165 feet
  • Angle of descent: 73°
  • Top speed: 73 MPH (world's fastest wooden coaster when it debuted)
  • Track length: 3800 ft.
  • Ride time: 3:12
  • Ride manufacturer: Rocky Mountain Construction
  • Height requirement: 48 inches
  • Opening date: March 2016
  • Reviewed: In 2016
Dollywood Lightning Rod Coaster
Herschend Family Entertainment Corporation

Lightning Rod Update

In late 2020, Dollywood announced that it would be making some changes to Lightning Rod’s track. Since it opened in 2016, the prototype coaster has been plagued by problems and lots of downtime. Many people have planned visits to the park only to be frustrated and disappointed to learn that the ride is closed. To help combat the issue, its manufacturer, Rocky Mountain Construction, will be replacing about half of Lightning Rod’s Topper track (which is explained below) with the company’s patented IBox track (which is also addressed below). The layout of the ride, and presumably all of its stats, will remain the same.

The coaster is expected to reopen for the 2021 season with the new track sections. While that would (hopefully) address the problems and keep the ride reliably up and running, it would also mean that Lightning Rod would no longer be considered a wooden coaster. Instead, about half of its track would be wooden (albeit with Topper track), and the rest would be steel IBox track, which would render it a hybrid wooden-steel coaster. After the makeover, it’s likely that most park enthusiasts, let alone more casual visitors, won’t particularly care about the designation of the “Franken-coaster” as long as Lightning Rod retains its wonderful, smooth ride.

Hot-Looking Rod

Located in the retro Jukebox Junction section of the park, the ride has a hot rod theme. To get into the queue, passengers enter the service bay of a nicely outfitted mid-century gas station. They pass a hot rod on display and other racing artifacts as they make their way up to the loading station. The lead car has the front end of a sharp-looking, fire-emblazoned, header-piped, injector-scooped hot rod tacked onto it.

The train departs the station, rounds a bend, and approaches the base of the lift hill. At the moment it would typically engage a traditional chain lift, linear synchronous motors instead kick in and deliver a jolt of electro-magnetic propulsion. That sends Lightning Rod's train revving up the hill and its passengers gasping for breath.

Fun fact: An odd looking cupola atop the apex of the hill is there to help keep hornets away. The pests have sometimes made nests on the park's other coasters. Not that Lightning Rod's riders would have much of a chance to see the structure as they furiously fly past it.

After the giddy ride up, the train releases into a fake-out short drop, crests a small hill, and then really drops. It plunges 165 feet at a hairy 73 degrees. That gives Lightning Rod enough oomph to hit 73 mph. It also gives Dollywood bragging rights to the title of fastest wooden coaster in the world (at least as of 2020; as explained above, Lighting Rod will no longer be considered a wooden coaster starting in 2021).

From there, the coaster soars through elements with silly-sounding names such as "breaking wave turn" and "outside banked top hat." (The names are courtesy of silly-sounding name-happy RMC.) Translation: They bank beyond 90 degrees and impart plenty of lateral G-forces. Towards the end of the course, Lightning Rod delivers a quadruple down element that sends the trains plummeting not twice, not three times, but four times in quick succession. That's followed by a final swooping over-banked turn before the train returns to the station.

Lightning Rod coaster banked turn
Herschend Family Entertainment

On Track for Coaster Greatness

Given RMC's, er, track record, it's really no surprise that Lightning Rod is such a glorious ride. In just a few years, the innovative ride manufacturer has shaken up the industry by building remarkably smooth and just plain wonderful wooden coasters. (It is also designing groundbreaking steel coasters such as its single-rail ride, Wonder Woman: Golden Lasso at Six Flags Fiesta Texas.) Precision engineering and exceptional layouts account for some of the wonderfulness. But what really sets RMC's wooden coasters apart are its patented tracks.

You can read about the "IBox" track that the company uses to rev up run-down wooden coasters in our article, "What is a Hybrid Wooden and Steel Roller Coaster?" Lightning Rod, however, was built from the ground up and incorporates RMC's "Topper" track. Because it includes a band of steel atop wooden stacks of track, Lightning Rod is still considered a wooden coaster (but will lose the designation in 2021 when steel coaster sections are added). Because the band of steel is extra-wide and completely covers the wood, however, the ride is able to behave more like a steel coaster. That helps explain why the Dollywood woodie is so smooth. (While it's a fine ride, the park's other wooden coaster, Thunderhead, offers a more characteristic rough-and-tumble experience.)

Lightning Rod is not as smooth as some of RMC's hybrid coasters such as Iron Rattler at Six Flags Fiesta Texas and, especially, the silky smooth Twisted Colossus at Six Flags Magic Mountain. But it is about on par with Goliath at Six Flags Great America. (Note that our review, including our determination of relative smoothness, is based on experiencing the coaster in 2016 before steel track sections were added in 2020. When the coaster reopens in 2021, the ride experience may be different.) By the way, the Tennessee ride nabbed the woodie world speed record from Goliath be going a mere 1 MPH faster. Like Lightning Rod, the Six Flags ride is an RMC wooden coaster that uses Topper track. Unlike Goliath and most other recent RMC coasters, Dollywood's Topper track ride does not include inversions. But it has something that those rides–and all other wooden coasters–don't have: a magnetic launch system.

There are plenty of launched steel coasters, so it's not all that novel. Still, it's a wild experience to catapult up what should be a poky, click-clack-click lift hill. In its first year of operation, Lightning Rod's opening was delayed, and it suffered a lot of downtime after it did open. The problems apparently stemmed from its prototype wooden coaster launch system. The ride still experiences occasional downtime, so be prepared. (Modifications in 2020 will likely make the ride more reliable starting in 2021.)

Lightning Strikes Especially Well at Night

The record-breaking ride continues Dollywood's evolution into a thrill ride destination. Known for its abundant live music and top-notch shows (what else would you expect from Dolly Parton?) as well as a great collection of family rides, the park has been aggressively expanding and adding world-class thrill machines such as the multi-inverting wing coaster, Wild Eagle, in 2012. At a breathless 73 mph, coupled with the impact of its launch system, Lightning Rod takes thrills to a whole new level, however.

Located in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, Dollywood includes lots of elevation changes. As with most of the park's other coasters, the woodie is nestled in hilly terrain and uses the natural topography. Some of the ride is visible from the midway, but most of it is hidden. The mystery helps make the experience suspenseful. Hugging the terrain also makes the speed seem even faster.

Any time of day is a good time to ride Lightning Rod. But a nighttime ride, which adds the shroud of darkness, ups the suspense factor and the relative speed. It's even more out of control (but in a good way) at night.