I wake up at 7:30 Friday morning. The alarm is complaining on the bedside table, and I’m in the mood to join it.
Then I remember. Today’s the day. I’m scheduled to be among the first riders on Dollywood’s new “Wild Eagle” roller coaster. When you love roller coasters like I do, that’s enough to change the side of the bed you’re getting up on.
I’m up, suddenly wide awake. A quick peek out the window – and I’m scowling as I pull the curtain back into place. It looks like rain, and a glance at the weather app on my phone confirms it: more than likely it’s going to storm.
It’s not the kind of start I’d hoped for today. But I’m hopeful the rain will hold off at least until about 10:30 – my ride is at 10:00 and the weather can do whatever it wants as soon as I’ve got my feet back on the platform.
As I get ready for the day, I can’t help thinking about what the ride will be like. I’ve purposely kept myself in the dark about the new coaster. I want to experience it without any preconceived notion of what to expect. All I know is this ride is one of the most highly anticipated attractions opening this season.
The drive to Dollywood is fairly easy. Traffic is light this time of day. I keep an eye on the sky; the darker clouds on the horizon don’t bode well.
Once I’m at the park and checked in, it’s a ten minute walk to the ride site. As I come closer to the ride’s entrance, I begin to see the looping track poking between tree limbs. Then the lift hill comes into view. The fact sheet will later tell me that this towering steel length of track rises more than 20 stories – 210 feet – with a drop that hurtles the cars to a top speed of 61 miles per hour.
At the pavilion there’s a stage for Dolly Parton’s presentation that will officially open the ride. Hundreds of media people and invited guests are already gathered. All I can think of is whether the rain will hold off long enough for me to have my ride.
“9 to 5” blares through the sound system and Dolly is on the stage. She greets the crowd and immediately gives voice to my concern. “Let’s just hope and pray the rain holds off for a few minutes anyway,” she says.
Dolly begins her presentation by getting everyone to practice their eagle shriek. Two girls from the Knoxville Children’s Choir show us all how it’s done.
I learn that even though I’ll be among the first to ride the “Wild Eagle,” I won’t be in the first couple of trains to take the plunge. Those inaugural trains will be reserved for the winners of a special auction Dolly and her team have sponsored on eBay.
They’ve raised more than $30,000 – auctioning around 60 seats. Dolly calls Al Cecere, the president of the American Eagle Foundation, to the stage and presents him with a check. An eagle named Mr. Lincoln accompanies Cecere to the stage. As his handler is accepting the donation, and telling the crowd a little bit about the the work his foundation does, Mr. Lincoln occasionally interjects with a shriek of is own.
I guess the girls’ earlier demonstration put him in a talkative mood.
The American Eagle Foundation has been partnered with Dollywood for 22 years. In that time, the group has put on something like 20,000 birds of prey shows. I make a mental note to stop by the aviary before I leave Dollywood today. Visiting the bald eagles has become a tradition of mine; I try to see them at least once a year.
The bird show has also become something I try to see each year. Getting a chance to see and learn about hawks, vultures, the bald eagle and other large birds is one of my favorite parts of any visit to Dollywood.
I’m not the only one who’s enjoyed these shows over the years. The American Eagle Foundation has put on 20,000 shows at Dollywood since starting the partnership in 1991. Millions of people have seen these birds strut their stuff; and, more importantly, they’re getting the message about wildlife conservation.
“You’ve brought the greatest audience to us that we could ever have,” Cecere tells Dolly.
The foundation does more than just raise awareness; the group has hatched several eagles and been able to release over 300 of these birds back into the wild over the years.
Now back to the business at hand: getting me on the roller coaster before the rain rolls in.
“This year – we always say it, every year, you know I do – this is the best thing we’ve ever done. Well the eagle ride is the best thing we’ve ever done here at Dollywood,” Dolly says. The roller coaster is the most anticipated ride in the country, she tells us.
In fact, the only person not anxiously awaiting the ride is Dolly herself. “I’m a wild chicken, not an eagle,” she says. “I don’t think I’m gonna get on that.”
More Wild Eagle for me, I can’t help but think.
“Every year we just try to what we think the families would most like to see, and enjoy …” Dolly is continuing her presentation, and I can feel the excitement building in the crowd around me.
The first trains are about to roll.
“… everybody loves roller coasters,” she says. “So we thought this would be a wonderful thing for us to do. I’m sure we’re gonna have all the young folks out there and some of us old ones too. You’re not gonna see me on it though. You don’t wanna see what a bald eagle really looks like.”
The crowd goes erupts into laughter. Dolly just shakes her head.
“I ain’t bald but I am scared,” she says.
It wouldn’t be a Dollywood event without some music, and Dolly has written a special song just for the occasion. Backed by the Knoxville Children’s Choir and the Dollywood singers, she launches into “Wild Eagle.”
“Fly eagle, fly eagle, wild eagle fly,” the chorus saunters and Dolly struts across the stage as she sings. Then, with a burst of confetti, fireworks flash and Challenger the eagle soars majestically overhead.
The auction winners have finished their rides during the extravaganza at the foot of the roller coaster, and now it’s time for us media types to queue up for our own turns.
Some of the staff have already donned rain coats. I glance at the sky. I thought I felt a sprinkle or two during the opening festivities but so far the rain is holding off. One of the media guides points me toward the entrance to the Wild Eagle’s platform facade.
Nothing spectacular here, I think. A couple flights of steps and the standard corrals for those waiting. Themed artwork dons the walls. All in all, it’s a pretty standard Dollywood ride setup. One thing I notice is there’s less theme material here than, say, the Mystery Mine ride. Even in this relatively confined waiting area, there’s a sense of space, openness.
The line is short – a perk of being one of the first riders – and it looks like I’ll be on the next train.
As the cars pull into the platform, I notice the design. I heard the description earlier today: “Soar on the wings of an eagle with nothing above or below you.”
Billing: Lived up to.
The cars are each designed to resemble a bald eagle. The bird’s head points forward, intent on the flight. His wings span the width of the train, poised mid-flap. This ride looks like it’s moving even when it’s sitting still.
The seats are positioned on the tip of each wing. Each chair is independent, with it’s own harness – the entire apparatus folds down over the rider and clicks into place. A safety belt latches the seat to the harness as a second layer of restraint. The seats are kind of like oversized bicycle seats. Riders’ legs dangle freely.
The gates open and it’s my turn. I scramble to my car and into the seat. It’s fairly comfortable, if a bit of a squeeze. I pull the harness over my head and …
This isn’t good.
The harness clicks, but the seat belt that holds the harness and seat together won’t reach. I wriggle around in my seat, make an attempt to suck in my gut and try to pull the harness tighter. The belt still won’t go.
As the attendant nears my car, I silently curse the 100 or so pounds I need to lose. It’s one thing to carry around an extra half-person’s worth of weight every day, but this is just ridiculous.
When the attendant sees my predicament, he frowns just a little. I can tell by the expression on his face that I’m not riding this roller coaster. But, as he pops the latch on my harness, he gives me a little hope. Motioning to the cars in the back of the train, he indicates I can try my luck back there. I don’t know for sure if the train has some seats that are designed to accommodate people of outsized girth, or if the attendant just wants to get me out his way. Either way, I go from consigning myself to missing out on the Wild Eagle to rejoicing that perhaps the engineers built this thing with me in mind. Even so, I promise myself not to let this joyous happenstance give me an excuse to have an extra dessert at lunch.
The seats in the back of the car are full for this round, so I maneuver myself back into line in a stall that will put me in the range of cars I hope to fit in.
A few minutes later I’m scrunching myself into the harness. It clicks once, but I waller around a bit and get a second click, just for good measure. The attendant comes around to help everyone buckle up. She grabs the safety belt and …
It won’t reach my harness. Less than an inch and it just won’t go. There’s no way I’m getting off this platform without getting a ride so I suck in my tummy give the harness one more tug and …
We’re in. I’ve made it. I’m locked and loaded and ready to fly the Wild Eagle.
What’s amazing is that despite the tugging and sucking in and general struggle with getting in my seat, now that I’m settled, it’s pretty comfortable. The chair makes a kind of bucket, like an old Camaro driver’s seat. The harness is snug and I feel safe, but it’s not too tight. There’s this strange feeling – it’s not weightlessness exactly, but I feel acutely aware of the fact that I’m suspended. Even though my car isn’t at the front of the train, I feel exposed and almost unaware of the apparatus surrounding me. Car, seat and harness all fade to the background. I feel free.
The call and response of safety checks between the attendants and the operator signals that we’re ready to roll. Like all roller coasters, the Wild Eagle gets off to an uneventful start. We glide gently around the first bend and approach the lift hill. And that’s when it hits me just how tall this thing is.
The glimpses I caught from the ground on the way in haven’t the least bit prepared me for the hill confronting me now. It’s not frightening; just, in the most literal sense, awesome.
The time it takes to climb a 210 foot lift hill isn’t a truly measurable value. Every rider experiences it differently.
There is a second at the apex, just before the car goes over the hill to plunge 135 feet into the first of four loop d’ loops (the industry folk call them ”inversions”), when, for me, time stands still. It’s a moment of pure anticipation. Then, in a heartbeat, it’s over and I’m hurtling downhill with nothing but the wind to slow me down.
The inversions happen fairly early in the ride and they’re perfectly spaced. I feel exhilarated, not dizzy. I lose all sense of my own weight and it truly feels like I’m flying. The back half of the ride accentuates that feeling of flight. Gentle swoops and cresting hills give the sensation of gliding, soaring on the back of a giant eagle.
The ride is so smooth it’s easy to forget I’m on a track. There’s no jerkiness in the curves and every element is gentle. The ride is, in some sense of the word, elegant, both in design and execution.
The track is built through a stand of trees, and it seems like the builders only cut down the ones absolutely necessary to erect the coaster. The remaining trees butt right up to the track. It seems as if I could grab a branch as I pass by.
In less than two and a half minutes we’re back to the station. Even though the train must stop abruptly to enter the station, it feels as if the car has glided to a stop. The sense of elegance and precision is featured in every second of the ride.
After a brief wait, we pull into the station and I’m back on the platform. A few deep breaths to lock this experience in my memory and I’m ready to go. As I exit the platform enclosure, the sky opens up. It’s a fairly gentle rain.
It feels pretty good.
A version of this essay originally appeared in The Daily Times Weekend.