Editor’s Note: Since reopening, guests have been reporting issues with the Lightning Rod coaster, mostly related to launch failures. No injuries have occured, but it looks like this our beloved coaster might not be ready for full-time operation just yet. The following article was written prior to the park’s 2021 season opener.
Dollywood is known for its innovative, record breaking rides and Lightning Rod, is no exception.
Located in Jukebox Junction, Lightning Rod currently boasts two incredible accolades: It’s the fastest wooden coaster in the world and it’s the only wooden launch coaster in the world.
Let that sink in for a moment: In. The. World. When one rides, one wonders to themselves: “Has Dollywood discovered a way to break the laws of physics?”
However, it’s not always easy being an innovator.
Since its debut in 2016, the coaster has required a great deal of maintenance.
This ongoing maintenance has resulted in an unusual amount of downtime, especially compared to its sister coasters inside the park.
Last summer, the ride was finally shut down for the season with a sign at the entrance of the attraction that read: “Lightning Rod is closed for the balance of 2020 as it receives an upgrade from manufacturer Rocky Mountain Construction. In 2021, lightning strikes twice.”
When will Lightning Rod reopen?
As promised, the necessary upgrades are now complete and the coaster has once again reopened to the general public for the 2021 season.
What upgrades did Lightning Rod receive?
Lightning Rod has had a significant portion of the ride retracked to become an I-box track.
This upgrade has made the coaster smoother, more reliable and will likely improve maintenance going forward. The layout of the coaster will remain unchanged.
An I-box installation enforces the existing wooden support structure with steel ledgers. In layman’s terms, this means that a portion of the track has essentially been wrapped in metal.
These changes will allow Lightning Rod to maintain the current look and feel of a traditional wooden coaster while minimizing maintenance and providing for a smoother ride.
Thunderhead, Dollywood’s other wooden coaster is currently in the process of being retracked. Some of the old wood is being replaced with a newer sturdier wood, a process that will take nearly four years to complete.
My first Lightning Rod experience
Since the coaster was built in 2016, my own first Lightning Rod encounter is still fresh in my mind.
I clearly remember the first time I set my sights on the new tricked-out wooden-steel hybrid and its 165-foot drop.
My husband and I were queuing up in line behind a young girl (who looked like she was probably about 11 years old) and her mom.
The young girl, who could clearly read the apprehension on my face, turns to me and says in a comforting tone: “This is my new favorite ride in the park – you’re going to love it!”
Moments later, I was being launched from zero to 45 mph, 20 stories uphill feeling my butt lift off the seat as I wondered if I had just met the bravest 11-year-old ever to walk the face of the earth.
Lightning Rod, as it turns out, is not for the faint of heart. Lightning Rod has all the speeds and heart-racing maneuvers of a steel coaster, with the adrenaline-charged thrills of a classic wooden beast.
It features launch (similar to the steel Hulk at Universal Studios), speeds of up to 73 mph and boasts nearly 20 seconds of “air time” for those brave enough to ride.
In case you’re wondering what “air time” means – please see prior “butt off the seat” reference.
For comparison, Universal’s Hulk launches riders from 0 to 40 mph with max speed of 67. Lightning Rod is basically like a bigger, faster Hulk on wood. In short, it’s terrifying, and I love it.
Lightning Rod coaster receives acclaim from coaster enthusiasts
In 2019, Coaster101.com asked their readers to nominate their favorite attractions in a variety of categories, and named Lightning Rod “Coaster of the Decade”.
“Lightning Rod was undoubtedly one of the most defining moments of the past decade for wooden roller coasters. From having the first launch on a wooden coaster to the world record-breaking speed, Lightning Rod has amassed widespread acclaim from the coaster enthusiast community,” said John Stevenson, a writer at Coaster101.com.
“Lightning Rod has become a favorite among coaster enthusiasts who have ridden it and a must-ride for those who haven’t. It redefined the limits of a wooden coaster and provided thrill seekers a ride like no other.”
Lightning Rod coaster has not only scored Dollywood notoriety among even the most discerning of coaster critics, it has literally changed the standard against which all future coasters must now compete.
Welcome back, Lightning Rod.