In advance of the 2014 season opening, Dollywood invited local media to try out the newest roller coaster at the theme park, the FireChaser Express.
The ride is a firefighting-theme, dual-launching roller coaster that carries riders both forward and backwards. It was originally announced on Aug. 21, 2013, along with the announcement of the Dollywood DreamMore resort, which is slated for completion next summer.
In addition to simply riding the ride, Dollywood also offered the option of riding the roller coaster with a gopro camera mounted to the front of the ride to capture the user’s experience on video.
I was the lucky one drafted at my office to attend the media event. My PR contact at Dollywood told me to be at the park at 10:30 a.m. Apparently another media member was scheduled at 10 a.m. and would be finishing up by 10:30. Sounded good to me.
When I arrived at the park, I was looking for the bus parking lot, which is where the PR person told me to park. After passing through the front gates, however, someone told me I would be looking for lot B, which is the media parking lot. I found lot B, and it was empty and sectioned off. Obviously this other person was misguided.
I called the PR person on his cell and he told me how to find the bus parking lot and that things were running behind, so I should be in no rush.
As I was making my way toward that parking lot, the photographer at our office called me to see where I was. I pulled up behind his truck, not to block him in, but to make sure that no one else could block him in. We noticed that there were a few other media people standing around.
We got out and stood near them and just shot the breeze for a little while until the PR person came around and apologized for the inconvenience. Apparently a reality tv show was filming a special thing at Dollywood and it was going a bit longer than they had anticipated. No big deal, though, it was a pretty nice day.
After standing around for a little more than half an hour, he came back with good news: we could make our way over to the roller coaster. Awesome.
We made the trek through the park, eventually coming to the ride. It looked pretty cool — you could see the twists and turns along the track — but there was no word on when we would actually be able to ride it. So we stood around some more, talked a little with some of the other people there, but not too much.
About 20 minutes went by before we got the word that it was going to take a while for the camera to get mounted, as well as the process of changing out one of the two “normal” rides with the one equipped with the camera. The PR people at Dollywood apologized and we continued to tell them that there was no reason to be sorry. These things happen, it was no big deal.
While the media people waited, the ride was opened up to some of the other people who were there. Who these people were and why they were important enough to go on the ride this early, I don’t know. I asked a few people who weren’t sure, and I probably could have gotten the answer from my PR contact, but it slipped my mind. I didn’t really think it was all that important anyway.
The photographer from my office who was with me suggested that I get one of the people who was on the ride, an excited child maybe, to give me a few quotes for a story and he could snap a picture. So I scouted out the people walking off the ride. There was a little boy with his mother and their eyes were lit up and they were already talking about how exciting it was between each other. Perfect.
They were more than willing to share with me and I got some nice quotes. I was already mentally putting some of the pieces together for the story I would write later. After they walked away from me, a tv reporter said, “and now you can be on tv!” And proceeded to ask them the same questions I did. I don’t know that there’s anything ethically wrong with doing that, but it’s not something I would have done. Maybe tv people are just a little different from print people.
Anyway, after this the traffic on the roller coaster died down fairly significantly. We got word that it would be another 15-20 minutes before the roller coaster was ready. I sat on a bench and did some people watching, which is always cathartic in its own interesting way.
I don’t know how much time elapsed, but the photographer spoke up and said that he didn’t see any of the other media people. For a few moments I was angry, thinking that the PR person had ushered them to the ride, forgetting about me.
When we caught up to them, waiting around the docking area for the ride, we were told it would be at least another 15 minutes before we could get on, so there was no rush to get over there. The photographer was not going on the ride because he had several neck surgeries, so he said he would wait for me outside that area and try to get some pictures while I was on the ride.
Every once in awhile we would get another update as to how long it would be before we could get on the ride. I was probably there for more than half an hour by the time the cart was actually ready.
The PR contact came over and tried to set an order for the media people. Those who wanted to camera footage had to be in the front, since the camera is only going to pick up the front seat. He said that because he knew this one tv person had to leave soon, that this person should go first. I thought that was a bit odd; we’re all media professionals who are on the clock. We had all spent far more time there that day than we had originally planned. We all had to leave soon.
He asked me if I had anywhere to be. I explained that the bigger issue was that the photographer needed to be elsewhere and he couldn’t leave until I did. So I moved up one spot in the line. I’ll give the PR contact credit, he’s good at his job. He managed to get everyone there leaving with a smile, even after all the delays.
I noticed the people who went ahead of me saying that it was scary not having anything in front of you. So I already had that in my head a little bit. I sat down in the seat, pulled the lap bar down and waited for the exciting part of the day to begin.
One of the operators of the ride asked if I was going on the ride by myself. I shrugged and said I guess so, looking back to see if anyone else there wanted to get on the back. I think maybe because I was the only one in the front seat, they didn’t want to be on camera by sitting behind me.
There are ride operators on either side of the roller coaster who check that all of the lap bars are secure and push a button while saying, “clear.” After that, there’s is a third clear, which marks the beginning of the ride.
Under normal circumstances, this is a fairly tame roller coaster, the kind of thing you can bring your young kids to ride. But without a front to the ride, it really is pretty scary. I’m terrified of heights anyway, so there’s that too.
It immediately shoots you off at a high speed, and it maintains that speed for a little bit before going up a steep hill and slowing down. I didn’t do any of the normal roller coaster cliches, like waving my arms in the air, because I was on a roller coaster.
If you’ve never ridden a roller coaster alone, it’s a strange feeling. I think one of the enjoyable things about riding a roller coaster is probably that it’s a shared experience with everyone there, usually many of whom are complete strangers. It’s a really unusual place to feel lonely.
After you pick up speed going down the hill, the ride comes to a stop inside a building filled with novelty fireworks. The idea is that when you’re in this building, a big explosion send you backwards at full speed back to the beginning of the ride.
Going backwards at top speed on a roller coaster is a pretty unsettling feeling, meaning that it’s a great addition for what the ride is trying to do. When I was first flung backwards, the lap bar kind of punched my stomach, but not in a literal way in which I would be in pain, more in a “wow that caught me off guard somehow even after I’ve seen other people on this thing” kind of way.
When the ride pulled up beside where it docks, it just sits there for a little while. The entire ride was fun, thrilling even, particularly because of the lack of anything in front of me making me 10 times more frightened. But this part was absolutely the scariest part for me.
I already mentioned that I am scared of heights. Well, when the ride is moving, the fear of heights is more of an added adrenaline rush. When it’s sitting still? It’s just horrifying.
The ride slowly backed into place at the docking area after the cart that was sitting there launched out. The lap bar came up and I got out. As I did, one of the ride operators asked me how it was. I laughed and said it was kind of lonely. But it was fun.
I headed back to the office, knowing I’d be at Dollywood again the following morning for the big reveal of the ride for VIP members.