Big Bear Mountain Aims to Bring Family-Friendly Coaster Thrills to DollywoodPhotos by Garrett Martin Travel Features Dollywood
Dollywood has long been a world-class roller coaster park and a travel destination for fans of Dolly Parton—who legitimately might be the most universally beloved person in the entire country today. Nestled 1000 feet up in the Great Smoky Mountains resort town of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, Dollywood is a gorgeous theme park known for its great food, great music, and great thrill rides, and it’s actively trying to expand its rep beyond the standard coaster war benchmarks of the tallest, fastest, and steepest. Take its next roller coaster: Big Bear Mountain, scheduled to open in Spring 2023, might be the longest coaster in the park once it opens, but it’ll still be one of the least extreme and most family-friendly coasters you’ll find there. That’s not surprising, given it’ll be found in the relatively new Wildwood Grove area—a 2019 expansion targeting kids and their families, and that already includes one fantastic coaster, Dragonflier. Big Bear Mountain will bring a second coaster to the locally-minded land, making it perhaps the busiest part of the whole park.
Dollywood and Big Bear Mountain’s manufacturer, Vekoma, unveiled the upcoming coaster’s ride vehicle at the IAPPA Expo in Orlando this week. It promises a tantalizing mix of major coaster thrills with family-friendly specs—as highlighted by its relatively low height requirement of 39 inches. Not all the little ones will be able to climb aboard the search for the legendary Big Bear, but a lot of them will.
“When we talk about wanting to be the number one family destination in the United States, a family-friendly ride with a multi-generational view is a perfect addition to our park,” Dollywood’s president Eugene Naughton tells Paste. “If you look at what’s most popular from an attractions perspective, it’s the family rides that drive the most ridership. So putting on Big Bear Mountain, where the average five-year-old can get on that, and oh, by the way, Grandma and Grandpa are gonna also be able to get on that because it’s comfortable, fun, and not too intense…”
Front left, in the white shirt: Dollywood President Eugene Naughton
Naughton trails off but nods to accentuate his point: Big Bear Mountain, with its length (almost 4000 feet), a top speed that almost hits 50 mph, and its storytelling perks like on-board audio (a Dollywood first), should be thrilling enough for the coaster diehards, while still welcoming younger guests just getting used to the idea of a roller coaster. It’s something Dollywood is uniquely suited to accomplish: pleasing the theme park regulars while still accommodating more inexperienced guests.
It’s part of what Naughton calls “an awesome one-two punch” in the “family domination” Dollywood is aiming for. In addition to Big Bear Mountain, the park will also be opening its second hotel next year, the HeartSong Lodge and Resort. Its original hotel, Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa, is a luxurious but affordable resort that ranks among the best values in theme park hotels; there’s no reason to think HeartSong won’t be just as impressive.
Despite the promise of HeartSong, Naughton is here at IAAPA to talk about one thing: Big Bear Mountain. With its artificially aged ride vehicle and on-board audio system, Big Bear will obviously be a somewhat story-driven experience. Naughton refuses to get into specifics—“You aren’t really going to make me give away all the secrets of our new ride, but I know there are a lot of fun features that will surprise guests,” he tells me—but he’s more than willing to talk about what kind of thrills it’ll offer, while still tying it back to the park’s beloved namesake.
“There are a lot of beautiful what Dolly Parton calls ‘butterfly moments,’” Naughton says. “Industry professionals call those airtime moments, and there’s over 20 of them designed into the attraction. So it’s going to be an experience like no other.” Airtime, if you’re unfamiliar, means those moments on a coaster when your body briefly leaves your seat—when you feel the sensation that literally is best described as time in the air. It’s something coaster fans hope to experience whenever they strap themselves in for a ride, and according to Naughton, Big Bear Mountain will have a lot of it.
Of course, the biggest question about Big Bear Mountain, a ride focused on a quest for a legendarily mountainous mountain-dweller known as Big Bear, is what shape the beast will take when guests inevitably catch up to him. Are we talking an animatronic like the Yeti from Disney’s Expedition Everest? Perhaps a combination of screens and animatronics, similar to Universal’s Kong: Skull Island? Or maybe a modern-day, high-tech projection of the mighty bear?
Naughton is beyond cagy when it comes to the ride’s namesake. When asked if guests will actually come face-to-face with Big Bear, all he’ll do is smile and say “Yeah, probably so,” with no hint at what form Big Bear might take. Dollywood could use some world-class animatronics, but even if Big Bear only shows up on a screen, Big Bear Mountain still seems like a very promising—and much needed—addition to an already excellent theme park.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.