FireChaser Express made its debut at Dollywood Friday. J.H. Osborne photo.
PIGEON FORGE — Dolly Parton does not ride roller coasters — but she sure knows how to open them. On a grand scale. And in grand, glitzy style.
The latest is FireChaser Express.
Parton — in a customized, bedazzled fire chief's uniform — opened the $16 million ride Friday, belting out "Great Balls of Fire" to a group of firefighters from departments across the state.
Billed as "the nation's first dual-launch family coaster," the 2-minute-19-second ride blasts riders forward — then backward — along a 2,427-foot track perched 12 stories above the Wilderness Pass area of the park.
Its initial launch out of "Fire Station #7" sends "volunteer recruits" from 0 to 16 mph in 1.1 seconds.
The "family-friendly" tag is, largely, due to its minimum height requirement of just 39 inches, which puts it in the realm of possibility for children as young as 4 years old.
"Whenever we build something, of course we try to create something unique to Dollywood," Parton said. "And this FireChaser Express certainly is unique ... what makes it special, is the 'fire company' — the kids and their parents — are launched forward ... and then about halfway through, they are launched backwards. That sounds scary to me! Then you 'save the day' and come back to the station in reverse. It's the first family coaster we've found that launches both forward and backward. So, it's an exciting ride for kids as well as their parents."
The ride also is special because its theme is designed to honor firefighters — every day, Parton said.
"I think that's a great idea," Parton said. "And we want the kids to know they can be heroes, too. If they just volunteer to help others."
The ride's storyline aims to "celebrate the volunteer-based fire departments of the 1940s which protected the neighboring Great Smoky Mountains National Park," according to Dollywood promotional literature. "During this time, firefighting trains were a common sight throughout the park. FireChaser Express' passenger trains are themed to celebrate all firefighters who bravely battle perilous blazes to ensure the safety of others."
Craig Ross, president of the Dollywood Co., predicted FireChaser Express will be named the best new family attraction in 2014.
Dollywood's 29th season officially begins today.
FireChaser Express is the first completed component in a $300 million expansion and improvement plan unveiled last year for Dollywood and Dollywood's Splash Country.
Ross said improvements, especially the opening of on-property resort lodging, will propel Dollywood from "a very popular regional theme park to a national destination."
"Families from across the country will come here to enjoy a family getaway," Ross said. "And at Dollywood, as you know, we encourage everyone to love every moment, as a family, whatever shape or size your family may be."
That expansion is scheduled to unfold over the next nine years.
Next up: the 300-room DreamMore Resort, now under construction and set to open in 2015 on a 100-acre plot just north of the water park.
FireChaser, Dollywood's DreamMore Resort, and all the other improvements will "make this area and Dollywood one of the biggest and most popular destinations in the whole country," Parton said last summer.
According to information released then, The Dollywood Co. commissioned an independent economic impact study which projects Dollywood and its hospitality investments will add $150 million annually to the local economy, more than $7 million in state and local taxes will be generated by the company's investments over the 10-year period — and approximately 2,500 jobs will be created, primarily in the hospitality and construction industries, due to the addition of the DreamMore Resort.
On Friday, Parton said she can't wait for the resort to open — and joked she had most of the $300 million "right here in my back pocket."
"That's what most people think," Parton said. "But, of course, I don't."