The Lightning Rod Review

A Roller Coaster Redemption Story

Roller Coaster Reviews

Lightning Rod is a wooden roller coaster which was slated to open for the 2016 season at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Due to complications with its prototype launch system, it failed to open as scheduled and struggled to remain open consistently that whole year. In 2017, and hopefully beyond, it seems to have turned the corner.

An Unfulfilled Trip

It was a crisp morning in late June when we got the news: Lightning Rod was closed… again. My Dad and I put down our Krispy Kremes in near sync, as we both absorbed the news from our Twitter feeds at the same time. This wasn’t good.

We were 7 hours from home, and still another 4 from Dollywood. We were all in for the park, and really, for Lightning Rod. And man, were we rolling the dice. This was a coaster that wasn’t operational until a few weeks prior—months after the originally slated March 21st opening. We decided to take the gamble and head down to Pigeon Forge.

And why not? I mean, even with only a slim chance to ride it, you had to take those odds. The thing is a monster. From the first time I watched the POV, I just knew it would be a legendary ride. It checked so many boxes: it interacted with the terrain, had insane airtime moments (a quadruple down!!!), and took the mark as the fastest wooden coaster at 73 miles per hour.

Upon arrival in the park, I still felt the same way. Seeing the lift scale a mountain, with the track disappearing off into a valley hidden from view, only served to heighten my anticipation. Unfortunately, the anticipation remained just that anticipation. Lightning Rod was still closed.

The launched lift hill takes the coaster over the peak of a mountain and into a valley beyond the sight of parkgoers.

And over our 2-day visit, it remained closed. We held out hope for just a chance a chance to ride. So, when the coaster began a test run, and the train rolled out towards the lift hill, our hearts jumped a beat. Could it be? Could we get our chance?

Our hope was quickly extinguished as the train never even made it up the lift hill. It had to be pushed back into the station…  manually. Watching 15 people drag that hot rod train back for maintenance was one of the saddest sights ever.

This was my first experience with Lightning Rod, and I think it exemplifies most people’s feelings about the ride in 2016: amazing potential and anticipation marred by inconsistency and disappointment.

Thankfully, 2017 has been a different year. Now don’t get me wrong — Dollywood is a great park (Check out Bobbie’s recent trip report). I still enjoyed my first visit, but there was definitely something missing. So when I got to return with Lightning Rod actually open and running, I jumped at the chance for roller coaster redemption.

The Set Up

Walking towards the entrance, you feel transported to the 50s. A heavy use of neon along with retro architecture accomplishes this end well. In that backdrop is a vintage gas station that acts as an entry portal and the Ace motor and repair shop which doubles as the queue.

There are plenty of details in this multi-leveled queue. You walk through what feels like an actual repair shop before ascending the stairs, taking in a collection of authentic theming details all the while.

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The Ride Experience

Soon you’re strapped into the hot-rod themed train and after a small turn, you are off! Where traditional wooden coasters have slower, methodical chain lifts, Lightning Rod has a high intensity magnetic launched lift hill that thrusts you right into the action. The fact that you are launching at an incline only multiplies the G-forces and the subsequent rush of blood flow.

This intensity truly does not let up for the rest of the ride. You don’t just go over the top of the lift, you are yanked over. It’s a good kind of yank though, the kind that delivers the ejector airtime that enthusiasts crave.

After that first crest the trend-bucking RMC design continues; where most rides go right into the first, biggest drop, Lightning Rod teases you with a small drop into another little hill before you plunge all the way down to the ground. The purpose of this little hill was likely to maximize the length of the drop. All this means for us, though, is that we get a double dose of airtime before even going down the full 165 feet!

The best way to describe it is as if El Toro and The Beast got together and had a child — relentless intensity and ejector airtime surrounded by enveloping, isolating terrain.

And man, is that drop incredible. Going down, it feels every bit as steep as the 73 degrees it’s listed as — and more. That initial speed boost going into the drop really amplifies how steep it feels. From there, you zoom down into the valley, shaving off blades of grass as you pull out towards the next element — a 90 degree banked airtime hill known as a wave turn. Lightning Rod has two of these, and they both deliver very unique sensations. Getting thrown out of your seat vertically while your body is horizontal is amazing.

After the first wave turn, you cross the valley again into the second one. This one banks away from the direction of the turn, meaning that you get wicked lateral G’s as the train transitions into and out of the element. The lateral G’s continue as barrel over a high speed banked bunny hop before rising towards Lightning Rod’s coup de grâce: the quadruple down.

It is absolutely relentless. Extreme ejector airtime over and over and over again. Airtime so strong that it’ll give your legs slight bruises if you marathon it enough. After this insanity, you peel into a sharp turnaround and hit the brakes with authority. As the train finally slows, you can breathe again.

Lightning Rod’s final, furious turnaround. Note the 50s roadsters in the foregound from the neighboring Rockin’ Roadway attraction.

The Verdict

Although it’s struggled to remain open consistently, when it is open Lightning Rod redeems all its past operational sins. The best way to describe it is as if El Toro and The Beast got together and had a child — relentless intensity and ejector airtime all surrounded by isolating terrain. Behind the cover of a mountain, you feel totally separated from the park and off in your own slice of the Smokies. This is especially notable during Lighting Rod’s legendary night rides. Only the lone, distant light of the moon breaks what is otherwise utter darkness.

Although the experience is great, it is not perfect, as no coaster is. The intensity and frequency of airtime means your legs are under constant pressure from the lap bar. This can be uncomfortable, but for me it didn’t cause pain like, say, Skyrush does. Also, Lightning Rod doesn’t give the longest ride time. At about a minute long, it’s just okay. But wow, that is one jam-packed minute.

In the end, these negatives are negligible. Lightning Rod is a one-of-a-kind coaster experience that is totally worth the wait.

Final Rating    10.0

Your Turn

What’s your take on Lightning Rod? Have you gotten a chance to ride it? Or has that chance still evaded you? Share your thoughts below!

This review is the first in our 12 Days of Coasters series. Every day until January 5th we’ll be dropping a new coaster review. Come back and check out our gifts to you this Holiday season!

Hi! I'm Jon (without the h). I have many interests, but chief among them is a love of roller coasters and theme parks. I love rides and parks that deliver cool, unique, and meaningful experiences. And getting to write about them is fun as well!

9 Comments

  1. Excellent review Jon! This sounds like a roller coaster that really checks a lot of boxes for me. I love El Toro and The Beast so I really appreciate that analogy. My goal in 2018 is to re-visit Dollywood and see if I can get some night rides on Lightning Rod. I’m sure that’d be amazing!

    Reply
    • Thanks Joel! Lightning Rod really is the coaster enthusiasts dream ride.. and at night it is absolutely incredible. I was left speechless multiple times on the brake run. Hope you get to ride it soon!

      Reply
  2. My own Lightning Rod story: I visited in June 2017, as the last part of a four-park driving vacation. I knew Lightning Rod had been inconsistently running, but it was mostly operational the week before I went. On the day of our visit, we got there at opening time…and Lightning Rod is closed. Disappointing, but we rode Wild Eagle and Firechaser Express, and then went back to Red’s Drive-In diner for lunch…and it’s still closed. We went and rode all the other coasters in the park, checking Dollywood app periodically, but it never opened. By mid-afternoon, my family was pretty tired (that’s early for coaster fans, but in fairness, they’re not huge fans, and it was our fourth park of the trip), so I declared a loss and we left. We stopped by Goats on the Roof, and a couple of other Pigeon Forge tourist spots, and prepared to leave town. I checked the Dollywood app one last time…and Lightning Rod was open! An hour wait, yes, but open.
    I honestly thought I’d left it too late. We’d gotten hand stamps on the way out, just in case, but I figured we’d have to pay to park again, and I’d mentally accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to get to ride it. But my wife said we should try (even though she didn’t want to ride it). She figured Dollywood is a pretty friendly place, so they’d probably let us back in if we showed our parking receipt. Which is exactly what happened (my wife has more faith in people than I do). So the rest of my family hung out in the gift shop for an hour while I rode Lightning Rod. It was, as expected, pretty awesome. I’m torn between it and El Toro for my favorite wooden. I wish I could’ve gotten multiple rides, but I didn’t want to push my luck. Maybe I’ll get back that way someday.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your story Brian!

      It seems with Lightning Rod, our journeys just towards getting a chance to ride the thing are as fascinating as the coaster itself. It’s so hard making the call of when to abandon hope, so it’s doubly awesome to see you got your chance at the end of the day when it seemed like it wasn’t coming.

      It’s very, very close between this and El Toro for my number one woodie. I think El Toro just barely edges out Lightning Rod… but not by much. Both are clear 10s!

      Reply
  3. Good review, Jon! In agreement about the ride and also about El Toro v. Lightning Rod. El Toro remains my #1. The one issue I had with Lightning Rod is that somewhere between the wave turn and quadruple down the riders are thrown rather forcefully to the left and when I rode I was still healing from a left-sided rib contusion sustained on a coaster in New England so that didn’t help. But it didn’t stop me from riding Lightning Rod half a dozen times.

    Reply
    • Thanks Bobbie!

      That is a wicked transition, for sure. Ironically, my dad had a similar rib injury — not on Lightning Rod, but on a New England coaster. Our first ride on Boulder Dash was at night, and when the ride goes into its first hill after the drop — where it kinda floats and then throws you to the side — my dad got caught off guard and ended up with a hefty clobbering. And just like you, that injury didn’t stop him from getting back on Boulder Dash again and again.

      Reply
  4. I guess I’m going to be in the minority here. I got on the ride thinking it was going to land easily in my top 10. While I enjoyed Lightning Rod, it didn’t deliver as much of a punch as I thought it would. I have it at #15 out of the 191 coasters I’ve ridden. When I finish riding a favorite coaster, my heart is pumping and I’m smiling from ear to ear. Lightning Rod didn’t quite do that for me. In fact, I felt a bit disappointed at the end. I wanted to get back on and ride again because I felt like I had missed something. My second ride left me feeling the same way – this is a really good coaster, but it just didn’t leave me with that special feeling I get from my top 10 coasters. The uphill launch is awesome. The first drop is really good but not great. Outlaw Run and Goliath have better first drops. The quad-down is the best part of the ride without a doubt. I found the middle section to be a nice ride through the countryside, but no element gave me a true “wow” moment. Oh well, to each his own, right? For my tastes, three other RMCs provide more consistent fun – Outlaw Run, Wicked Cyclone and Storm Chaser.
    Regarding operations, I was on the loading platform when the first train of the day broke down at the base of the launch hill. (The ride was already opening an hour late.) I hung around for another hour and was able to get on the first ride of the day shortly after noon. While the line was still relatively short, I got back on and rode again. After that, the waits were 75-90 minutes all day because they ran only one train.

    Reply
  5. Lighting Rod is by far the best roller coaster I’ve ever rode!!! The launch is so forceful and once you go over the crest the airtime on the predrop and first drop is absolutely amazing!!!!!!! My favorite part of the ride is the QUADRUPLE DOWN!!!!! The Airtime is absolutely amazing! To me it is better than Fury 325 @Carowinds RMC And Dollywood has definitely got them a very good roller coaster!!

    Reply

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