For about a year now, plans have been in motion to do our first ever CoasterCon, ACE's premier annual event. We knew that Dollywood was going to be rolling the red carpet out *** given how long they wanted to do the event, and we had put off a Dollywood trip for 3 previous consecutive summers. Along with Carowinds, we had two large parks neither of us had ever seen before in an area we barely ever traveled in. With that perfect storm came us rejoining ACE and planning out a weeklong excursion to the Deep South. But before discussing Coastercon at length, there is the business of what preceded it.
Our big summer vacation started like so many trips before it - with a stay at the Detroit Airport Westin for a short period of sleep. Check in was a breeze and our flight left on time, getting us to Atlanta with minimal issue. Breezing through Hertz in the Gold Club line, we loaded up the Dodge Avenger we'd have for the week and got moving north. There wasn't a lot of traffic on the road and we arrived pretty much as anticipated into Rossville, GA and the traditional amu***t park there, Lake Winnepesaukah.
Lake Winnie, as it is more commonly referred to, is an old school park abutting a small lake that has been operating nearly 90 years. Home to a strange collection of rides and attractions, it is a rarity in a region largely served by either overgrown FECs or late 60s-early 70s suburban theme park boom-era facilities. There's been a number of adjustments over the years made to the park and its operations - a riot in 2003 led to the park not allowing anyone under 21 in without a guardian and ending the park's free admission strategy. An admission price is paid no matter what (somewhat like, say, Lakeside in Denver), but wristbands are available for all day riding at $26 should one anticipate needing more than a couple tickets for entertainment. Parking is free, which means the park is generally a pretty decent deal so far as families can afford and what not for a day of entertainment. Had flights worked a little diffferently, we may have signed up for ACE's add-on event this same day, but we weren't going to arrive in time for lunch or ERT, making it not worth our while.
Wild Lightnin' (M#301/A#611): This is actually Meredith's first time on a L&T Systems Mouse, and honestly, it might only be my second. It looks OK and the themeing is...something...but the ride itself is very jerky in terms of movement and actually a bit rough. There wasn't a lot of braking during the ride that I could tell, but if you aren't really enjoying yourself that much, what does it matter?
Cannon Ball (M#302/A#612): Now, here's something better. Wood coaster, buzz bars, airtime, manual brakes. Yeah, there's a seatbelt, but how much can you really complain about here? Cannon Ball is not a top 10-15-20 coaster by any means, but it has some definite strong point of negative g's throughout its layout, and even on a busy day at the park with one train running, rarely did the line exceed 4-5 trains of people/20 minutes. The ride is tremendously smooth and the white paint on it looks beautiful. Its just a pleasure to ride. But like I said earlier in this review; it isn't a top tier ride. If some of the hills were lowered a smidge, it might be, but it loses a lot of momentum going over the larger hills on the ride and at the turnaround.
There's also a Wacky Worm at this park, but we thought that embarrassing to ride and skipped it.
Boat Chute: The first ride at the park, hand built in house by the original owners, the Boat Chute is beyond classic. There's presently no scenes or anything visual to see on the long ride out in the boat to the lift. I suppose that makes it good for making out or something and cuts costs on maintenance. The drop itself isn't terribly wet and the hydroplaning of the boat on water isn't necessarily so unique that it along makes the ride great. there's just a combination of a great many elements at play that makes this such a not only bizarre, but frankly, wonderful ride. It feels like riding history because in truth, it is. Its also better than Shoot The Rapids at Cedar Point and probably has competitive capacity and less downtime too.
Wacky Factory: Once it was a Bill Tracey dark ride called "The Castle" filled with classic stunts and general weirdness. Now it is known as "Wacky Factory", and based on the POV I just watched online, most of the classic stunts are generally still in use. They just happen to be remodeled or redone a little to be in the format of an acid trip. Is it the greatest ride of all time? Nah, but it was fun enough for my wife and I to go on twice.
Alpine Way: Skyride that goes in a loop and crosses over the lake to provide some pretty nice views of the park. Is there a skyride/chairlift enthusiast group out there? I'd like some informational brochures. Just a nice, relaxing ride.
Fly-O-Plane: On the other side of the spectrum from Alpine Way is the last of the Eyerly Fly-O-Planes. Like a cross between the Loop-O-Plane and Flying Scooters, the Fly-O-Plane is supremely rare, with this being the lone remaining park model in existence (a second travelling one may be out there somewhere). The rides were actually built to help train pilots, believe it or not.
After being locked into the seat with a large nylon strap and the pin locked into place on the door, the ride starts up. Control of the wings on either side of the vehicle is controlled by wheels located on the "dashboard" of the ride and a skilled pilot can achieve even flight and roll. An unskilled newb pilot like me, on the other hand, tries to roll the thing, can't make it, and just ends up crushed against the door of the ride, furiously attempting to pull himself back towards the center in almost primal fear that something, anything will go horribly wrong. Eyerly built rides like tanks, but that doesn't mean it was any less terrifying for me. Meredith was similarly stuck in a crappy position, but seemed to just accept it and wondered what the hell I was so freaked out about.
Carousel: A carousel. Needs some new paint, but it is still operating at the age of 96. Faster than some of the big themer carousels we've been on of late (Great America, Kings Island).
There's a lot of other rides we skipped; wave ***, Conestoga Wagon (well themed Falling Star type ride), a drop tower un-ironically called the "Oh-Zone", a lengthy train, and so on. There were shows too, but like Coney Island Cincinnati's shows we saw practicing a couple weeks prior, they looked pretty low rent. That's not unexpected given the scale of the park, but simply "is". As the afternoon wore on, we also saw an increasing number of ACE members (likely leaving the group meal), many of whom I hadn't seen in a decade or more. I came to a realization some time ago that I simply wasn't that memorable a person and the fact that I didn't get any dap from anyone wasn't offensive. It just was a reality that, hey, I was indeed gone a long time.
Lake Winnie is a fine traditional amu***t park in a world in which traditional amu***t parks stateside are disappearing or morphing into other things. Its like Canobie Lake's southern twin. By the same token, the park may be charming, but isn't an all day park. Nor does it fire up the imagination in the same way that, say, Knoebels does for me. I guess that while it is a good park, it is not such a transcendent facility that I need to revisit regularly. I'm just happy to know it exists.
Our first park visit taken was care of and we were on our way to the hotel for a well deserved nap. The accomodations for the night were the Sheraton Read House in downtown Chattanooga, a splendid historic hotel. Our room wasn't that great; it was Riverfest, the hotel was booked, and we ended up on the 3rd floor looking at a wall. But the bed was so comfortable (seriously, it was great) we barely cared. Our interest in the crowds of people in downtown Chattanooga moved us to at least walk down the street, past the Tivoli Theater and a number of very lively businesses, into the Moon Pie General Store, and back down another street to our hotel. We just didn't have it in us to go down into a crowd of humanity and stay up several more hours to watch fireworks and country music. Back at the hotel, we enjoyed a delicious room service meal and went to sleep. I have to vouch for the delicious nature of the cupcakes sold there as well as the peppercorn steak sold by Porter's in the lobby. Oh so good.
The next morning we used our breakfast vouchers to get ourselves some fanciness (who doesn't like to wake up to Crab Cake Eggs Benedict?) before hustling out the door to meet ACE in Gatlinburg for Coaster Con registration. On our way out of town, we drove through a bit of the city, past the area where the Tennessee Aquarium is located, over bridges, and past the Chattanooga Choo Choo, the cadence of which when said by our GPS will never be forgotten. There's memorials, big fountains, pillars, attractive buildings, and more. Its a city about the size of Lansing, but appreciably, well, prettier. Maybe not having snow is the big secret.
Back on the freeways, we started to see billboards for various attractions like battlefields and caves. "The Lost Sea Adventure" looked most appealing to us due to the fact that there was a boat ride involved, and our last trip through a cave on a boat was some transcendent stuff. Feeling that a cave adventure was what the doctor ordered, we pulled off the freeway and made our way down the back roads to reach the facility.
(Brief wikipediaish background: The Lost Sea Adventure is the Craighead Caverns system and is a private show cave. The Lost Sea itself is 4.5 acres of water underground and reaches about 70 feet in depth at the farthest point. There's also a "shopping village" selling various ***that you can enter in for free, but the cave itself is something like $17 for a tour.)
As we walked in to buy tickets, we were informed we could join a tour about to leave and hustled down the long yellow tunnel to meet up with our guide. After a couple minutes and a photo op, we started our trek. Compared to the cave at Spring Mill State Park in Indiana, this completely different. For starters, it is a show cave, so the primary thing here is to show people around the cave, not necessarily protect it from environmental damage. This isn't to say that they aren't concerned about that sort of thing, just that it isn't of primary concern over giving tours. It isn't fair to necessarily ask them to spend time "restoring" the caverns either, as they've been utilized as a lounge/nightclub and for gunpowder manufacturing over the last 200 years. That said, while you do on occasion see some markings from vandals, those markings may be decades, and in one prominently mentioned case, over a century old.
The caverns themselves are enormous - there's nearly a mile of hiking involved with the trails. For the most part, there's nothing really severe in terms of inclines. No crazy grades or anything like that, and we saw one family push a stroller the entire distance. There's some marvelous stuff (lots of stuff ending in "-ite") in there, but with the amount of distance covered, I admit feeling a little rushed by the tour to see a lot of it. Meredith noted that they must be rushing us because whatever is at the end must be worth it. I nodded politely as to agree. She was right.
The Lost Sea itself is enormous, long, and in a natural opening that looks like a dome. The boats used to take people around in it are bigger than those we encountered Indiana, and are powered by electric motors, but by no means would be considered "giant" or anything like that. The cave's owners also have stocked the water with Rainbow Trout just because, hey, fish seemed like a good idea I suppose. They can't reproduce and apparently taste awful, but they're there and they go completely wild when you feed them.
Once the boat ride is completed, there's a hike back to the opening and you're off to look at cheesy souvenirs. Brushing all that aside, the cave itself is really something spectacular. I often say with carousels that I know a good one when I see it, even if I'm not a carousel fanatic, per se, and I will do the same about caves now. This is a good cave worth your time and money. We brushed off the "Crazy Hat Boutique" and headed down their nature trail, discovering very shortly therein an abandoned train similar in model/gauge to the one we rode at Eden Springs a week prior. There's a ton of track heading deep into the woods and god knows where. The internet is not helpful with more info on that. The hike got us some more exercise and some time spent with foilage before heading to the car and getting back on the road. From there on, it was smooth sailing to Gatlinburg.