Dolly Parton officially opens The Wild Eagle coaster at Dollywood / Image courtesy Jayne Clark, USA Today
She makes no exceptions. Not even for the newest ride, Wild Eagle, which recently made its debut at the entertainer's namesake Dollywood theme park. Not even if it cost a cool $20 million - the most ever spent on a single attraction in the park's history. And not even if it's the first so-called steel-wing coaster in the entire USA.
"I definitely ain't ridin' that," she says as the first carload of 28 riders begins the slow, steep, 21-story ascent and abruptly plummets out of sight. "You don't want to see what a real bald eagle looks like."
Tim Baldwin, 49, does do coasters - more than 900 of them, at last count. In fact, by Dollywood's opening day in late March, he has already taken the plunge on the Wild Eagle 25 times while doing live TV and radio interviews. The elementary school teacher from the Dallas area is also editor of RollerCoaster! magazine, published by American Coaster Enthusiasts.
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His next stop: Six Flags Great America in Chicago, where a similar wing coaster takes off in mid-May. Another variation opens at Hersheypark in Hershey, Pa., on May 26.
You have to be the sort of person who knows a zero-G roll from a giant flat spin to understand why these new coasters are such a big deal. But after a two-minute, 22-second spin on the Wild Eagle, even a hesitant rider begins to get it.
What makes it special
"What makes a satisfying coaster is its extremeness but also its grace. This one has elements of both," says David Lipnicky, 48, another coaster enthusiast in from the Dallas area for the opening. "Because there's no track above or below you, you get these panoramic views. I could have sworn I heard the angels singing."
The wing coasters are also buzzworthy among hard-core fans simply because they're the Next Big Thing.
"Enthusiasts like us have ridden everything," Baldwin says. "It's big to find anything different. And this isn't a copy of anything. My favorite parts were the second and fourth inversions that have you rotating around the track like a windmill. You see the whole world revolve around your point of view."
The first wing coaster rolled out last year in Italy. A second launched in March in England's Thorpe Park, where test-run photos showed mannequins returning to the station without their limbs. Retired fighter pilots were recruited to take their place.
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Upon hearing that news from a reporter, Parton gasps, exclaiming: "Oh, my! I've got kin on that ride!"
An assistant assures her the maimed dummies were merely part of a cheeky publicity stunt. (It isn't the first one. The same park hired an exorcist last year because of "paranormal activity" around one ride, generating a flurry of news media coverage.)
Take a $750 spin for charity
Dollywood took a more charitable approach in drumming up interest. The first 52 rides were auctioned online for about $750 a pop and sold out in less than 12 hours. The $37,000 in proceeds will benefit the American Eagle Foundation, which rehabilitates birds of prey and is headquartered at Dollywood.
Among the winning bidders was Jason Taylor, 35, of White Plains, N.Y., who happily forked over $750 - or about $5.28 a second - for a fleeting taste of Wild Eagle. The inaugural riders also were granted a meet-and-greet with Parton, which to some, like Taylor, made the event particularly worthwhile. "This ride is the first of its kind in America," he says. "Besides, this is Dolly and Dollywood."
As a regular season-pass holder, Karen Talley, who drove five hours from her home in Lebanon, Ohio, may have spent less money on the venture, but her time investment is considerable. The 65-year-old teacher's aide arrived at the park at 7:30 a.m., waited for the gates to open and inched her way along in line, finally climbing aboard the Wild Eagle more than four hours later.
Exiting the coaster after her second ride of the day, Talley is positively giddy.
"I'll be back in May," she declares.
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Jayne Clark, USA Today