PIGEON FORGE — Soon you will no longer have to cross the Atlantic to ride a wing roller coaster. Dollywood opens the fourth one in the world this spring.
When the Wild Eagle takes flight it will not only be a first for the United States, but at more than $20 million, it also marks the single largest ride investment in the theme park’s history.
“It is certainly going to be a unique and signature attraction for us,” said Pete Owens, Dollywood public relations manager, during a recent construction tour of the nearly completed steel goliath. “I think a lot people are, like me, anticipating the opportunity to ride it.”
How is a wing coaster different? It is one that not only suspends riders, but there will be nothing above or below them.
With a top speed of 61 mph, it will take 2 minutes, 22 seconds to zoom around the 3,127 feet of track. You’ll be turned upside down a total of four times while enjoying a giant loop, zero-G roll, an inclined Immelmann (enter a half loop and go through a half twist and curve out in the opposite direction from which you entered the loop), a giant flat spin, a camel back (kind of a bunny hop so that you’ll catch some negative G’s), a spiral and a figure-8 curve.
All those features come after the initial 135-foot drop.
The thrills will begin before leaving the station as you choose which eagle’s wings to climb aboard.
Each train carries 28 people, seven cars with four passengers each, two riders on each side. “They’re really wide and they’re really heavy,” said Owens of the trains. “There’s going to be a lot of inertia. The ride on the right side and left side is going to be different. It’s going to be fun to explore where your favorite place is to sit on the train to get a different experience.”
Owens said not only safety, but rider comfort figured in the seat design. In addition to the seat belt, you will be held in by “a kind of rubberized vest and then your ‘oh my gosh’ bars on the outside.”
The new ride is sure to be wildly popular. Owens said the manufacturer’s estimate for what the coaster can handle is just short of 1,000 riders per hour and the park is making plans to handle that capacity.
One of those must-riders is Matthew Lambert, assistant regional representative for the Southeast chapter of American Coaster Enthusiasts, who was on hand for the construction tour.
“I can’t wait,” said a giddy Lambert as he secured himself into a seat. It didn’t matter to him that the Eagle would have its wings clipped for two more months. “The trains are here and I get to sit in it. It’s real. I don’t want to get off. Send it!”
The Wild Eagle is Dollywood’s sixth roller coaster, and the first since Mystery Mine opened in 2007. Its name and design derive from the work that Dollywood does with eagles as part of its Eagle Mountain Sanctuary. The 30,000-square-foot aviary houses the nation’s largest presentation of non-releasable bald eagles, according to the park’s website.
“A lot of people know Dollywood because of the things we do with eagles,” Owens said. “Now you have an opportunity to fly on the wings of an eagle on the Wild Eagle coaster. It’s a great fit.”
Owens said when the park decided to build the ride, officials first pinpointed where in Dollywood to put it. They then bid out to about five different coaster manufacturers to design layouts.
“There were some really cool ideas but nothing as cool as having the first wing coaster made by B&M for the U.S. market,” he said. “We are looking for things that are special.”
B&M is Switzerland-based Bolliger & Mabillard, a company known for its thrillsters. The company has constructed 11 of the 20 highest-ranking steel coasters in the world, according to Amusement Today Magazine.
Construction of the mammoth project has gone smoothly, said Brian Dudash, Dollywood director of construction and development. He said one of the toughest parts was keeping the Eagle a secret. Work began in April with the park’s season in full swing, but the attraction wasn’t officially announced until Labor Day.
“People were asking us through the fence, ‘What are you doing? What are you building?’ The guys were like ‘We can’t say,’ ’’ Dudash said with a laugh.
He said it was exciting to have such a huge investment with which to work.
“It’s great to have $20 million to spend on a project,” the 23-year construction veteran said. “It’s equivalent to what we spent on Splash Country (Dollywood’s companion water attraction) for the total park.”
With the Eagle near completion, ride testing is scheduled to begin in early February with water dummies. Owens said they are basically big, plastic humans filled with water. He said testing is very technical now, whereas in the “old days” the water dummies would have been sandbags.
The Wild Eagle debuts March 24 when Dollywood opens for the season.
For more information, visit www.dollywood2012.com.