By SILAS SLOAN and RYAN WILUSZ
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Dolly Parton donned her best sequined park ranger outfit Friday to unveil Big Bear Mountain, Dollywood’s newest and longest roller coaster opening in spring 2023.
The attraction, an expansion of Wildwood Grove, will bring thrills to this family-friendly area of the park. Big Bear Mountain is the largest single attraction investment in Dollywood history, with a cost of $25 million.
Dollywood revealed a virtual ride-along Friday that shows the roller coaster taking visitors through a cave and waterfalls. It’s the park’s first ride with on-board audio, including music and words from Ned Oakley, the fictional caretaker of Wildwood Grove mascot Benjamin Bear.
Dollywood president Eugene Naughton said this ride will help “extend our storytelling” in the park, and he is excited to see families hop aboard.
“If you’re going to be the No. 1 family attraction in the United States, your product needs to be family friendly,” he told Knox News. “So, within this ride called Big Bear Mountain, I like to call it comfortable fun.”
Orange track and SUV coaster cars set the scene for a journey with Oakley to find the elusive “Big Bear.” The ride will last nearly two minutes as it rides along the edges of Wildwood Grove on 3,990 feet of track, reaching speeds up to 48 mph and a maximum elevation of 66 feet.
The ride will include “three separate launches, multiple airtime hills, high-speed carousel turns, and tunnels, including a pass behind a waterfall,” a release said.
Dolly Parton and Dollywood officials have revealed plans for Big Bear Mountain, the park’s next roller coaster, scheduled to open in spring 2023. Located in Wildwood Grove, the ride marks the biggest single investment for an attraction in park history, with speeds up to 48 mph across nearly 4,000 feet of track.
“You know I’m not gonna get on that,” Dolly Parton said Friday during the Dollywood media event. “If I get on that thing you’ll find one of my wigs in the top of a tree or the top of Clingmans Dome or something. But it does look like fun.”
Wildwood Grove, a $37 million addition to the park, opened adjacent to the Timber Canyon area in May 2019. The addition increased the park size by 20% and includes the Hidden Hollow play area and the Dragonflier, a smooth roller coaster for families to enjoy .
Both the Dragonflier and Big Bear Mountain require guests to be 39 inches tall, but the latter roller coaster will up the thrills by roughly 8 mph.
“I would say arguably, and with all humility, I believe that attraction will be up for the best new attraction in 2023 and will be known as one of the best of its kind in the world,” Pete Owens, vice president of marketing and public relations, told the USA TODAY Network about the coaster in 2021.
Dolly Parton and Dollywood president Eugene Naughton reveal plans for Big Bear Mountain on Friday. The $25 million roller coaster will be built in the Wildwood Grove section of Dollywood, and a rendering is displayed behind them.
Big Bear Mountain was designed by Vekoma, which also designed the Dragonflier. The company has manufactured multiple rides for Disney parks, including Expedition Everest at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.
As Dollywood’s “dreamer in chief,” Parton wants employees to dream big as the park invests a half-billion dollars over the next 10 years in its quest to become a year-round, premier destination.
Naughton said the park has spent $130 million in the first year of the plan and referred to the 2023 opening of Big Bear Mountain and HeartSong Lodge and Resort as a “cool double dip” for added fun in one year.
The 302-room resort is inspired by Parton’s love for the Great Smoky Mountains and will feature a mercantile store, restaurant and a grab-and-go food spot. It also will include a music room, activities for kids and family gathering spots.
Dollywood expects to open another resort in 2027, but the plans don’t stop there. Naughton’s long-term vision for the park is to extend operating hours and eventually become a year-round park.
“The Smokies are all about adventure and going exploring,” Parton said in a news release. “I’m excited our guests will be able to head out on their own trip into the Smokies to see if they can find that Big Bear! Whether he’s out there or not, I’m sure they’ll find a lot of memories along the way that they’ll keep forever.”
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