Dollywood's newest roller coaster, FireChaser, reaches speeds of 34 mph. (Nathan Baker/Johnson City Press)
PIGEON FORGE — The newest firefighter-themed thrill ride at Dollywood isn’t your parents’ Blazing Fury.
On the park’s opening day Friday, Dolly herself and a slew of firefighters from nearby departments put on a sizeable production — including a sequined-firesuit-wearing Parton singing “Great Balls of Fire” — to officially debut the FireChaser Express.
Billed as the nation’s first dual-launch family coaster, the FireChaser’s selling point is the slingshot acceleration of the cars moving forward (0 to 16 mph in 1.1 seconds) and backward (0 to 20 mph in 2 seconds).
Although it doesn’t sound like much, that quick start was enough to sufficiently flatten me into the back of my seat at the front-facing onset, then stretch me back out again when the train took off in reverse about three-quarters of the way through the 2-minute, 19-second ride.
With two corkscrews, a handful of plunges and a side-to-side jerk, roller coaster fans will have a hard time not cracking a smile during the 34-mph ride, but it’s clearly designed for families with younger children.
At 39 inches, the FireChaser has the shortest minimum height requirement of all the park’s full-size coasters, even smaller than the decades-old Blazing Fury, from which the new ride is inheriting its motif and its family friendly nature.
Sure, it doesn’t have the three-loops-and-a-grab of the 70-mph Tennessee Tornado, Dollywood’s fastest ride, or the eye-watering swoops and dives of the Wild Eagle, which dangles you 21 stories above the ground, but it’s not supposed to.
Those and the other “high-thrill attractions” at the park are for the big kids, seasoned riders used to having their brains crushed against the backs of their skulls or whose internal gyroscopic stability is so out-of-kilter they can only feel at peace when upside down.
Smaller children aren’t ready for that kind of intensity, but the FireChaser is the set of training wheels to get them there.
As a wee lad living near enough to the park to visit it at least once a year, I remember my first brushes with coasters, on both the Blazing Fury, which I happily found is still burning away with cheesy animatronics and all, and the Flooded Mine, which was filled in years ago to make way for Daredevil Falls.
Each visit, I’d fidget in the darkened corrals, about waist-height to most of the others waiting in line, and then jockey for the always-coveted seats at the front of the train when the gates opened.
The point is, when Dolly brought in the modern rides, I was ready for those, because I’d gotten my start on the tamer attractions.
Unlike the higher-speed Mystery Mine, the apparent replacement for its flooded predecessor, FireChaser retains Blazing Fury’s gateway coaster appeal.
Because it’s the first real coaster today’s children will ride, it’s the one they’ll tell their own kids about 20 years from now on the drive to Pigeon Forge.
For nostalgia’s sake, I sauntered over to Blazing Fury after the media event at the FireChaser Express for a darkened trip into the past.
The ride is surely showing its age, and if I’m being honest with myself, it doesn’t really match the image my younger self had built up in my head.
But it triggered things in me that the smell of grandma’s cookies trigger in others, summed up best by the mother and her young daughter who climbed out of the car in front of me after the ride.
“Mommy used to ride this one when she was your age,” the 30-ish woman said.
Parents, invest in your kids’ roller-coaster-riding futures: give the FireChaser Express a go. You’ll be glad you did.