Friday, August 09, 2019

The Great Smoky Mountains Adventure Day 7 - Hello Dolly[wood]!

[Composed 7/15/2019]

We finished off the last full day of our Great Smoky Mountains Adventure at DollyWood, the area's much beloved theme park. We arrived before the park was scheduled to open, expecting to pool outside the gates as we did when visiting Disney or Universal. Only we found that the gates were open and we could stroll right in. Apparently not all the rides were running yet, but at least we could get in position within the park rather than waiting outside. What a nice way to start the day.

Shira and the kids got in line for the first big coaster they saw: Thunderhead. The plaque at the start of the ride promised speeds up to 55/mph and a 100 foot drop. I though surely this was the scariest coaster the kids would ride all day. The kids and Shira disappeared into the ride and I found a position where I could watch and try to snap some pics. Within 15 minutes I saw them whiz by. They stumbled out of the exit line all smiles - they kids gave it two thumbs up. Shira was far less impressed. She had just endured a wobbly wooden roller coaster, something she hardly relished.

Off we went in search of new coasters for the kids to ride. And so the scene repeated itself. I was way wrong about the Thunderhead being the scariest ride the kids would do. Shira and J rode the Mystery Mine which includes a hair-raising 95-degree, 85-foot vertical drop that plunges into darkness. And D rode the Lighting Rod, which has a 165-foot drop and propels guests along its 3,800-ft. track to a top speed of 73 mph, the fastest speed for a wooden coaster in the world. All credit to Shira, as she rode each of the coasters with the kids.

I expected DollyWood to be a significant park, but I never imagined it would have that many serious rollercoasters.

Theme parks are so not my thing, but I did enjoy the Wings of American Birds of Prey show, as well as spending time viewing the nearby Eagle Sanctuary. The sanctuary is the largest exhibit of non-releasable Bald Eagles in the United States, so that's something.

Being a fan of country music, I was hoping to get a country-music related experience in. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. Somewhere on the grounds is Dolly Parton's tour RV, but we never stumbled on it. Ultimately we spent too much time riding rides to catch any of the musical shows.

After a day of white-knuckle thrills, the kids and I were hoping to squeeze in one last adventure by riding the DollyWood Express, an authentic coal-fired steam engine. We arrived at the boarding area and found a rope blocking the way and a huge crowd on the other side of the rope. Oh well, we explained to the kids, we missed our chance to get on the train. We walked back to the head of the train to snap pics when we realized that they were boarding more people. We rushed back to the entry only to find the rope up again. We'd been too late a second time. D wasn't having it. He assured us they'd find room for us and wouldn't let us leave until the train left. And sure enough he was right, they ended up squeezing us on to the train. Good on D for not giving up!

The train ride was a nice way to finish off our day at the park. I for one was impressed that it was a real steam engine, burning real coal. One of the reasons I dislike theme parks is how (necessarily) fake they are. Behind that inviting veneer is a scripted and shallow world. But I'll give credit to DollyWood - the steam engine was in fact a steam engine. Of course, the mountain-man scenes you see while taking the train ride are all staged, but what can you do?

Overall, our experience at DollyWood was on par with any that we've had at Lego Land, Disney or Universal Studios. It didn't have the recognizable characters of a Universal or Disney, or the Lego theme from Lego land, but it does have an impressive array of rides and a number of experiences we haven't had elsewhere. If we had it to do again, we'd almost certainly purchase the fast passes for the kids and Shira, as this would have let us squeeze in a bit more action in a single day trip.

DollyWood clearly wasn't my highlight of our Smoky Mountains trip, but it's definitely up there for the kids.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

The Great Smoky Mountains Adventure Day 6 - Wheeeeeeeeeeeee!

[Composed 7/14/2019]

Today was supposed to be a hiking day, but given the nearly 12 miles of hiking the kids have logged, we thought we'd pick another main activity. Shira had just the activity in mind: zip-lining. We both knew the kids would love it, but would my fear of heights get the best of me?

This prompted us to search for a zip lining experience with an unusual criteria: we wanted it to be super tame. We thought we found a winner in Zip Gatlinburg. Talking to the clerk encouraged me more: while there are 9 zip lines, every other one lands you on the ground. If you need to bail out, you can do so at this point. However, in all the years he's worked in the store, he's only heard of one person not completing the course, and even then it was due to heat stroke, not fear. I was sold.

They loaded us in our harnesses, and took extra care with D's insulin pump. We then took a 10 minute bus ride around the corner from main-street Gatlinburg up the side of a hill. They took some group photos, and before we knew it, it was time to zip. The first zip line was a short, maybe 10 foot, affair. I've had some zip lining experience before, so I hoped that what I'd learned then would help. I shifted my weight to the harness and then pushed off into the abyss. In just a couple of seconds, I found myself at the next tree. I did it. We all did it. We were zip lining!

We had two guides taking our group of 10 folks or so on the course. They couldn't have been more relaxed and low key. I asked if I could pop-out my cell phone to grab some pics. Sure, one of the guides responded, knock yourself out. Just put it away when you're zipping.

With our first short zip line out of way, things got way more real. The kids and Shira tackled the long one without issue, and before I knew it, it was my turn. Again, I cautiously shifted my weight to the harness and then launched myself into the great unknown! Thanks to the secure hug of the harness, I was never overtaken by panic. I dare say, I even enjoyed myself! Once we were on third platform, the second guide needed to come over and join us. He leapt from the platform and spun around so as to zip upside down in a Spiderman hanging position. Whoa.

As we progressed through the zip lines the kids became more and more relaxed. And before I knew it, we'd done all 9 zip lines. By the end, both D and J were doing tricks as they zipped by, not a care in the world. As I looked back at what we completed, it all seemed so small.

As adventure experiences go, this could not have been more perfect. It challenged all of our comfort zones, and yet, we were able to all rise above and enjoy it. I'm sure if you're a seasoned zipper this course would seem like a joke. But for newbies like us, it was ideal.

Once on solid ground, we made our way back to the Great Smokey Mountains for another drive-through adventure. This time we toured the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This was a sort of Cades Cove lite. While we didn't see bears, we caught beautiful views, picture perfect streams and explored a number of historic buildings. It was also far less of a commitment in terms of driving, which I appreciated. Fortunately for all, the well known hike to a waterfall in the area was closed for maintenance.

By afternoon we were back at our Airbnb chilling out. Playing cards were busted out, and before she knew it, Shira was teaching D the finer points of Blackjack. We're talking the statistically optimal playing strategy and proper hand-gestures. She didn't cover card counting, I assume that's the next lesson. D was picking up the info as quickly as Shira was laying it down. Lord help us when he's old enough for Shira to take him to a casino.

Meanwhile, J and I were upstairs playing pool. The pool cues were too large for D and J, so we had dispensed with them and were hand rolling the balls. This prompted J to teach me a game he and his cousins had come up with: Spin. Here are the rules:

  • Spin is a game played by at least two players, though conceivably, you could have two teams.
  • Players stand at opposite ends of the table. The two corner pockets closest to the player are his to guard. Each player guards the corner pocket to his left.
  • The object of the game is roll balls into your opponent's pockets, which of course, your opponent is guarding.
  • The game is played asynchronously: all the balls are in play at the beginning, and each player is simultaneously defending his pockets and trying to score on his opponent.
  • The 8 ball must be sunk last. Sinking the 8 ball while other balls are in play causes an automatic loss.
  • Assuming the 8 ball was sunk last, the winner of the game is determined by points. Each ball a player sinks is worth 1 point. The 8 ball is worth 2 points.

The game is pure chaos, with balls flying in every direction at every moment. The adult in me was horrified by this: were we going to damage the pool balls or table?! The kid in me was elated. Given that pool balls are designed to strike each other and the table at high speeds, I figured our game was no different. I threw caution to the wind and savored the game play.

At some point Shira and D came up stairs. D quickly wanted in, and I had him join my team. Shira was mortified by what she saw: someone will get hurt! As I was telling her that she overreacting, D's finger got smashed between two balls. Ouch. He was fine, but Shira's point was made. We suspended our game of Spin. Man that was a fun time!

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