Dollywood's Lightning Rod Thunders Past Wooden Coasters

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, its opening moments are merely a prelude to the orchestrated chaos about to ensue.

It 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, Lightning Rod 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.

Ride Stats and Info

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 at the time it first opened).

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.

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. 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 my 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 because the band of steel is extra-wide and completely covers the wood, 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. (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.

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.

Lightning Rod makes the list for the best wooden coasters. Not surprisingly, it also makes the list for The 8 Best Things About Dollywood.