(as was the case with this TR and like a ton of others, a version with some pictures can be found at http://SportToday.org/;DR for most)
Driving into Pigeon Forge from the south or west, one may find themselves taking any number of routes in. We found ourselves taking TN Routes 321 and 73 on windy mountain roads through beautiful scenery before running headlong into 441, the main drag of the Smokies. The difference in a matter of just a matter of a few miles is jarring; mountains, trees, and nature is primarily what one admires, then it switches to garish displays of mini golf, wizardry, The Duke, and King Kong. As the drive to Gatlinburg continued, we traversed a brief respite of trees and water before arriving in an even more compact and equally chintzy region that was Gatlinburg proper. This was a world where proper pedestrian traffic matters simply weren't ever addressed, nor for that matter, taste in attractions.
I wasn't surprised by any of this, of course. Anyone who's done any research at all whatsoever on the area must know to some degree that the natural beauty of the Mountains requires some willingness to truly rough it and head into the woods on foot. While initially a primary draw, the attractions that have grown up in the shadow of the Smokies have become a sort of self sustaining mix of themed, unthemed, bizarre, and tourist trap-y attractions perhaps unequaled in the world, at least in volume of this magnitude. Those familiar with Orlando's I-Drive will feel at home here. In fact, they may even feel that they've struck gold, given how much more "alive" the area feels than Orlando.
Our hotel, the Park Vista by Doubletree, intends to be somewhat of an island in Gatlinburg, separated from the madness down the hill, but still close enough for those staying to feel as if they are part of the action. Architecturally, it is classic 1980s corporate business hotel. Concrete, rounded corners, large rooms, a giant atrium area with glass elevators. The hotel was converted to a Doubletree in the last couple of years, but it looks almost built to fufill the requirements of a Hilton or Hyatt brand hotel in most major cities. We were personally very e***d for the hotel because it offered large balconies. Unfortunately, we discovered that while the balconies were wide, they weren't particularly deep. Combined with air conditioning condensation creating pools on the balcony "floor" and a lack of any furniture compatible with use on the balcony, and we rarely ended up using it.
Check in was painless for the two of us, as we had selected a King Bed room. However, it wasn't unnoticed that for a large number of ACE members checking in who had selected a 2 Double Bed room, pickings were slim. Bags and people were strewn about the atrium, hoping for a room to be cleaned and be available to get moved into. Among those was our friend Chris Trotter, whom would effectively be our third man along for pretty much everything during the ACE event. We ended up letting him use our room to hold his bags early on in the afternoon while we checked in for the event.
ACE manages to get by every year on a large number of volunteers, and this year the volunteers were split across several tables providing. There was a check list, and one would go from table to table acquiring items for the Convention. Personally, I thought that was a little strange, but I suppose with the different bookings of people having season passes, not having season passes, not booking for the banquet, booking for the SFOG post-event, this was a necessary evil. Enormous bags were handed to us along with what must have been several different envelopes including a variety of wristbands, tickets, papers, election forms, and so on, the sum of which required a substantial amount of time in our room to digest.
Once Trotter got in his room and dropped off his bags, we reconvened with our various necessary flare and headed to Dollywood. Our plan was not to go crazy riding things. We had 4 days at the park scheduled with the convention, and practically every ride of relevance was included in the ERTs. Before even leaving the hotel, the clear buzz was that Dolly Parton herself was in town and would likely make an appearance at the Opening Ceremonies.
-DOLLYWOOD, DAY 1-
Until 1986's re-branding to Dollywood, the park now known as that had a number of different identities and owners. Since that re-branding and serious investment that took place starting in the late 1990s, Dollywood has become a major theme park and really a catalyst in the mass development that has taken place in the Sevierville/Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge area ever since. The heart of the park as frontier themed amu***t facility hasn't necessarily changed much since opening. But the sorts of rides that have been added has changed dramatically since the introduction of the Tennessee Tornado (and Silver Dollar City's Buzzsaw Falls) in 1999, and the focus of family themers with a emphasis on strong thrill attractions is very, very clear now. In spite of these rides having been constructed, again, that heart hasn't changed. In many ways, Dollywood is still a show park, and a big food park, and uses those two things to cater strongly to the aged and obese that often float through its gates and fill its expansive handicapped parking lot. Dollywood is perhaps so well loved because it is the effective model of what many envision the present day Model American Regional Themer to be: Tasty fat food served by the metric ton, great roller coasters, friendly people, a million air conditioned areas for shows, museums, and so on.
Dollywood clearly came to put on a show and convince us coaster enthusiasts this was the case. As part of our registration, we were handed season passes to Dollywood to use for our entry into the park. They had a rather efficient processing system in place that meant we waited no great period of time to get inside and easily enter from then on. As part of our bags of stuff, we were given Wild Eagle drawstring backpacks to carry ***in, particularly useful since we were also given large mugs we'd need to carry, as they could be used to drink free soda for the entirety of Con. We'd also need to wear a fluorescent green lanyard that featured zipper pockets and a blue/white tie-dye Wild Eagle VIP bracelet, neither of which could be worn fashionably with any seriousness by a rational human being. The lanyard proved itself to be exceedingly helpful as the days dragged on and I pretty much quit using my wallet by the start of Day 2, as it fulfilled every need I had.
Equally important was the clarity attained once we arrived at the train depot for our very special ride up the mountain. I hadn't done a full bore ACE "con" of some form or another in 11 years, and in the time since then, little had changed with the exception that the attendees had gotten older. The American Coaster Enthusiast members (and really, that of the entire hobby) often have a negative stereotype of being socially awkward, a bit bizarre, overweight, more likely to be LGBT than the general population to a highly disproportionate degree.
By the end of our week, we had created a slew of nicknames for the freaks and weirdos we knew, and some we didn't. Stories were told, and backgrounds reminisced on. The time away meant most people either didn't remember who I was, or didn't care, which left me and my shockingly clear memory of unnecessary and stupid details to enthrall my wife with stories of people who otherwise were up to this point essentially mythical figures. Trotter being with us only ensured that someone else could pick up the slack when I'd be quiet and give us even more stories, quotables, and one liners.
As the rush for the train began, it was clear that it would take two loads of people to bring everyone up to the location on the mountain. We ended up pushing our way through to find a clearing in Car #1 and boarding the very first train out. The Dollywood train, it should be noted, is massive. Bigger than any park train I sure as hell can recall, it looks, smells, drops soot on people, and feels like a real, full size locomotive. Trotter said that if you were into trains, you'd get a boner when you saw it. I can't say I'm a train goof, but I felt a twinge down below at the sheer temerity that some amu***t park would dare operate something that huge. As it rumbled up the mountains, we passed by a variety of sights like cabins and so forth constructed along the route that probably have a story attached to them that would require me to ride the train in average conditions to learn. We never ended up doing that.
Atop the mountain, we discovered a large clearing, and in that large clearing, a stage had been constructed along with a loading/offloading platform to allow ACE members to disembark. With the stage were an array of seating implements (chairs) and tables to eat on. And then, there was food. Tons of grills, smokers, and giant skillets were cooking food lorded over by a small army. The speakers erupted with instructions, telling us that the temporary platform could only let off two cars at a time, and we'd be in one of the first cars out. Sure enough, we hustled off the train and were beating the rush to food stations to stock up on our meal. There was sausage, ribs, potato salad, corn, salad, on and on it went. We took seats located at the end of a table and proceeded to look like terrible people to the rest of the attendees: no one chose to sit next to us and interrupt our peace.
Words were said by park management and ACE's President and Events Director, and on started Country Crossroads, a show that usually plays in the park for a private performance. There were a couple ways to view the reaction to and the reality of Country Crossroads. It is definitely an awesome thing that Dollywood basically gave us a private ...
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