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PTR: French Lick, IN and Dollywood


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I`ll start off this trip report by shedding some light on my thesis topic. During my final thesis presentation for Autumn quarter in early December, my second thesis chair gave me an assignment to complete over Christmas break. He told me that I need to go visit French Lick Resort and Casino and West Baden Springs in southeastern Indiana. He suggested I make a visit there to see how they treated the circulation between the hotel guest rooms, and the actual casino building, since this resort and my thesis project share similar uses. When I was giving my presentation, he kept picturing these resorts in his mind, and told me that my design would greatly benefit from first hand experience of these resorts (now I get to spend all winter quarter refining my design and including some of the design elements I learned from visiting French Lick.)

For those of you who are not aware, my thesis project is centered on entertainment architecture and an indoor water park resort on the current U.S. Playing Card site in Norwood, Ohio.

Before I was given this assignment, Cory Butcher had been asking me about making a trip down to Dollywood to experience Dollywood`s Smoky Mountain Christmas. Well, we decided to go ahead and do the trip, hitting French Lick first and then driving down to Pigeon Forge Tennessee and Dollywood. All below images were taken by me, unless noted as being taken by Cory.


We left Cincinnati at 5am on Sunday, December 28th for the three hour drive to French Lick, Indiana, which like Santa Claus,IN is pretty much in the middle of nowhere Indiana. Above is the original French Lick hotel building which was built in 1901.

After spending some time at French Lick, we hopped a mile down the road to West Baden Springs Hotel.


The sprawling grounds of this resort are immaculately maintained, and the hotel itself is a rather large building, given the size of the small town that it is located in.


On the interior of the hotel, which opened in September 1902 and was designed by Harrison Albright. The dome is 200 feet in diameter.


The building under went a $35 million renovation from 1996 through 2004 and reopened as a hotel in May of 2007, operating as a hotel for the first time since 1932. The building is listed as a National Historic Landmark.


After spending two hours in the towns of French Lick and West Baden, it was time to depart for Pigeon Forge which was about a six hour drive! After some lapses by "Sally" the GPS unit and sitting in a very backed up highway in Pigeon Forge, we arrived at our hotel around 4:45. After dumping our bags, it was time to depart for a night of fun at Dollywood. We opted to purchase season passes, since they were only $73, and we would be visiting on both Sunday and Monday.


The shear amount of Christmas lights that Dollywood puts up is amazing! I haven`t been to the Cincinnati Zoo`s festival of lights in several years, but the zoo would be hard pressed to surpass this display!


More lights. One of the challenges we faced is that I had never been to Dollywood and it had been a few years since Corey had been to Dollywood. It is a little difficult to navigate in a park that you are unfamiliar with for the first time, at night!


A large Christmas tree is decked out in lights.


There were several trees like this throughout the park. They were simply beautiful and contained thousands of lights.


Even the buildings contained thousands of lights!


Our first stop on Sunday evening was Blazing Fury. To our surprise, there was only a one train wait! This is one awesome little ride. The theming on this ride is typical of what you would expect on a dark ride at Disney World. And the ending will leave your appetite wet for more thrills.


After being warmed up on Blazing Fury, we headed next door to the Tennessee Tornado. The ride only was running one train, but the wait was only a couple of trains. It is an awesome ride, especially at night when there are no lights in that valley. The ride, just like Flight Deck is incredibly too short though.

After departing the Tornado, we made our way through Wilderness Pass and over to Timber Canyon.


Once there, we headed for Mystery Mine, which had about a fifteen minute wait.



The ride itself, like most of the other rides at Dollywood, has impeccable theming.


And like the other rides at Dollywood, it is literally built into the mountain side.


The ending to this ride was the best part of the ride, however, I was not impressed with the ride that much. It was unique, and had an excellent them. The ending was superb, but it felt like there weren`t enough elements strung together in a row between all the block brakes/trims. It felt like you would go through one element at a high rate of speed, only to come to a near complete stop in a set of brakes. All in all, that is a very minor liability of the ride.

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After riding Mystery Mine, we headed next down Timber Canyon to ride Thunderhead. We encountered a walk on line for this ride and rode in the back. This ride is non stop action from the moment the trains leave the lift hill until the moment they hit the brake run. The trains never seem to loose any speed until they hit the brakes at the end of the ride. This was my first GCI coaster I have ridden, and it was definitely an awesome experience! The millennium flyer trains are awesome.


After grabbing another ride on Thunderhead, this time a front seat ride, we headed off towards the Village section of the park. We quickly caught the 8pm departing Dollywood Express. This was a fun train ride, and it is amazing how steep some of the drop offs are immediately adjacent to the ride!

After the long twenty minute train ride, we rounded out the final minutes of the night with rides on the Sky Rider, Dizzy Disk and the Waltzing Swinger.

It was now 9pm and we left the park to grab some dinner. We settled on IHOP. When in there, we glanced at the jelly packages that were sitting on the table and were given a surprise!


Yep, the jelly packages were packaged under the label Knott`s Berry Farm!

On Monday, we wanted to hit up some of Dollywood`s live shows.



The first show for the day was Christmas in the Smokies. This forty five minute show was an excellent show, complete with a seven piece band performing the music! An excellent show.


The next show that we saw was Babe`s in Toyland. This hour long show featured a cast of 20! It had elaborate sets.



The finale to this show contained a "blimp" where the family journey`s out of toyland and back to their home town. This blimp flys on elaborate rigging out over the audience. A very cool special effect!


The final live show that we saw was `Twas the Night Before Christmas. This show featured an elaborate set and contained many classic Christmas carols. It also featured the big jolly St. Nick.

In all, the three live shows that we watched were all filled to capacity. And the three shows covered 2.5 hours of our visit to the park, which is very impressive. What was even more impressive was the amount of talent that was present in all of the shows.





When we were not enjoying the shows, we were enjoying more rides on the Tennessee Tornado.


We additionally grabbed several more rides on Thunderhead throughout the day.


The station has an awesome fly through in it, where the train roars through the station.



Thunderhead has become one of my favorite wooden coasters. I`m not sure if it has knocked The Beast from my number one spot just yet, but it is a very good ride that I want to ride some more, and one of my favorites!


Timber Tower is a HUSS ride, but we did not go on it because it did not look that thrilling.



Before we grabbed a final front seat night ride on Thunderhead, we went to the Country Fair section of the park. We went there to ride the Wonder Wheel. The Wonder Wheel is a sixteen seat Eli Bridge Ferris Wheel. The ride was built in 1993. Above is the name plate for the ride. All Eli Bridge rights have this located on them. The last two numbers in the serial number are the year of manufacture. In this case, the ride was built in 1993. The ride is tire driven, and not cable driven like the 12 seat model that I run at Coney. The cable driven wheels are no longer manufactured because they are harder to keep properly balanced.

All in all, we both had a wonderful time at Dollywood. Most of the ride operators were older, with lots of gray haired retired people. But all were very friendly and seemed to be enjoying their jobs.

I highly recommend that you make a visit to Dollywood. And I highly recommend the Smoky Mountain Christmas Festival. Their live shows are amazing, and both Thunderhead and Tennessee Tornado are awesome rides! Like I said above, Thunderhead is now one of my favorite wooden coasters. And, the best part is, since I have a season pass that is good through the end of 2009, I could go experience the Christmas festival next December as well. One thing to note, is that the regular Dollywood season pass does NOT include free parking. But parking was only $8, and they did have trams working

It was nice to be able to grab some roller coaster rides a couple of days before new year`s! And now I`ve ridden a total of 78 different roller coasters! I`m sure Cory will chime in with additional comments and insights from his point of view from our Dollywood trip

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It was a Jesuit Monastery from 1934 to 1966. It then operated as a private college until 1983. The property was then sold. It became a victim of the real estate company that bought it went bankrupt, and maintenance on the building was non-existant after 1985. The building was closed to the public in 1989 due to safety concerns. In January of 1991, a heavy snow caused a portion of the exterior masonry wall to collapse, although the structure of the dome was not damaged. Then in 1996 came the restoration efforts. Both French Lick Hotel and Casino and West Baden Springs Hotel are now owned by the same company.

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As Robbie said the shows at Dollywood were truly amazing! They had about 5 more offerings of Christmas shows, but we passed them up in favor of enjoying the atmosphere, riding some rides, and seeing the shows we were sure we would like. We passed up mainly the shows that were 20 minutes long, however If you like Gospel Christmas songs The Kingdom Heirs had a 45 minute show that looked packed as all of the rest! Every show had a packed house.

One of the coolest things about Dollywood is their coal steam train, which rumbles through the mountain pass above the Village at Dollywood. The train took a 5 mile journey through the hills above, and the forrest and cliffs were breathtaking even at night! I have always been a little fascinated with cars and Trains. Both engines that Dollywood uses are 2-8-2 Baldwin Steam Locamotives. The two engines at Dollywood are "Klondike Katie" number 192 (as seen above) and number 70 coined "Cinder-Ella". Both engines served in the US Army in Alaska and were used on the White Pass Railroad during WWII to haul troops and supplies. Every day it is estimated that they burn 5 tons of coal and use about 5000 gallons of water.

Dollywood provides a great look into the heart of Appalachia, the people, the craftsmanship and the humble nature of the older men and women who help run the show!

If you have not been to Dollywood be sure to try and get down there soon, if not for the rides, to experience this treasure of a park, you will not regret it, the coasters are right fine, the service is top notch and the hospitality is genuine!

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Great PTR, thanks for sharing and Im really glad that you went and experienced Dollywood for what it is and not just the credit. Dollywood has some of the best scenery, shows, employees, and rides in the industry and your PTR really showed that off.

Now since you have seasson passes you must go back next summer and ride the Smokey Mountain Slidewinder.

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Thanks for the great PTR! I didn't know that their coasters even had a remote chance of being open. This may help influence us to make it down next year around this time. We went years ago in the summer (before Thunderhead was there, but after Tennessee Tornado was added) and had a great time. Now with your TR and Beast1979's, it looks like a winter visit is in order.

The one thing that really impressed me was every time I pulled out my map, an associate would be there asking "Can I help y'all find something?" This didn't happen just once, but multiple times. And their shows are definitely top notch. My wife dragged me to see the one based on Dolly Parton's life story... but I ended up enjoying it!

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And it is worth noting that you can upgrade to a gold pass which DOES include parking and discounts on MOST park merchandise and food. The gold passholder does have to be in the vehicle to get the free parking. A gold pass will pay for the difference, typically, in less than two visits. Most families purchase only one gold pass, while everyone else gets a regular pass. The waterpark is not included in either a regular or gold pass, unless you pay extra to include it.

Finally, in years past, a Dollywood gold pass included FREE admission to other Herschend properties, like Silver Dollar City, and parking there as well. It no longer does, but only a discount on admission.

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Uh, no. Gold pass discounts are now limited to items costing less than a certain sum...and are only good on MOST merchandise, as I stated. I inquired about the discount on that carriage (on the right side of the path up to Blazing Fury). There is no gold pass discount on that item, the craftsman told me.

Actually, you are quite wrong...Most of the carriages there in that shop next to Blazing Fury are indeed on sale with the Gold Pass. And, there is more than one carriage in that building, about 7 for sale, including the carriages and some benches. Some items in there are not on sale, HOWEVER, many of them are on sale with the Gold Pass and they are on sale by nearly 2000 buckaroos with the Gold Pass.

Robbie can confirm that. He is the one that discovered it, I merely report.

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