Dollywood has opened its new $5.5 million addition, Barnstormer, in time for the start of the 2011 season. What can riders expect from the S&S Screamin’ Swing ride? Theme Park Tourist correspondent Steven A. Lowe headed to the park to find out.
Barnstormer was launched on March 25, 2011, with a brief but fun performance by Dolly Parton. The Dollywood PR Department was kind enough to invite me to this event, and they made sure everyone was well-fed and entertained.
Though the VIP treatment made my job much easier, it did not affect my review of the ride. I planned to return the following day with my family, but the weather was uncooperative. We were able to return a few days later, however. The weather was beautiful and the park was not crowded.
According to the pre-construction announcements, Dollywood built a “critter-themed barnyard” locale named Owens Farm to house the new Barnstormer attraction (Dolly’s mother was an Owens, and there were quite a few Owens and Partons at the launch event). I did not notice a strong “critter” theme, other than a couple of pig props in the “Pig Pen” water play area plus a caterpillar and a butterfly in the “Granny’s Garden” play area. However, the experience and surroundings were consistent and added to the ambiance of the attraction – that’s about as close to a “realistic” barnyard as most people would want to get.
The attention to detail is excellent. Everything looks authentic and even feels authentic. The airplane in front of the Barnstormer seems to have a real wood propeller, and there’s even dirt on the tires like it had just landed. The weather vane on top of the barn looks just right, as does the windmill next to the barn.
This is a water-play area for smaller children, with randomly-spouting water jets to surprise and amuse. A few children braved the less-than-balmy temperatures, including one who seemed happy just to lie on top of a jet and giggle when it spouted, and another who frantically ran from one jet to another trying to get wet. I personally did not participate in this particular attraction, but it did look like fun!
This is a dry play area for smaller children, rendered as a crashed airplane, with a springy ground cover. It was not open on the preview day, but it was open when we returned. I was too large to fit into the climbing areas, but judging from the giggling and running around that my son (age 3.5) did, I’d say it was an enjoyable experience.
Granny’s Garden play area
This is a pretend garden play area for smaller children, with a butterfly ramp, a caterpillar crawl-through barrel, and a treehouse slide. Again, I was too large to fit, but my son seemed to be having fun. There is plenty of seating for parents to rest while they watch.
Note that each play area has its own attendant to help keep things orderly and safe. They were without exception very pleasant and helpful, especially the gentlemen manning the Pig Pen station. He also knew exactly where to stand to keep from getting wet.
On to the main event!
Caveats and Confessions
I like pendulum rides. Pendulum rides are like giant swing sets, and make me feel like a little kid on the playground again. So I had high expectations for Barnstormer based on the pre-construction description, but once on-site I resolved to be thorough, inpartial, and ruthless.
Lines and Wait Time
When you enter the waiting area there is a large sign describing the ride and the rules, like all of the attractions at Dollywood. One says “High Thrill Ride” and warns that “The ride manufacturer prohibits persons with a fear of heights from riding the Barnstormer”. I laughed and went on in.
The interior resembles a barn somewhat, with amusing signs on the walls, but is a model of efficient queuing. Attendants alternate selecting people from different entrances and assign them to wait in color-coded stalls, to ensure the proper number of passengers on each "flight".
When it is your turn to ride, you simply follow the color-coded line on the floor that matches the color of your waiting area, sit down, and buckle in. There are bins at the sides to stow loose items while you ride.
The first time I rode, I was VIP’d in through the Q-Bot entrance and only had to wait about 5 minutes. I’d guess that the normal wait time was around 20 minutes, because the ride was not particularly crowded on that day – I don’t think many people knew that it would be open early. When I returned a few days later, in the morning only one pendulum was operational, but since the park was not crowded (Wednesdays and Thursdays are the least-crowded days to visit, by the way) the wait time was less than 10 minutes. Later in the day both pendulums were operational and the wait time was still far less than I expected for the newest ride in the park.
In common with other S&S Screamin’ Swing rides around the world, Barnstormer features two swinging pendulums which can hold sixteen riders each. The ride reaches a height of 81 feet, a maximum rotation of 230 degrees and a top speed of up to 45 miles per hour.
Each of the two pendulums has two rows of seats, back-to-back. This allows everyone a front-row seat, though the scenery will vary depending on which pendulum you ride and which way you are facing. I sat on the left pendulum facing the barn, but I don’t think the experience is significantly affected by where you sit.
I think of the ride as being about ten "swings", five forward and five backward. The first eight swings build to the climax and the last two decelerate and stop. To the best of my recollection, here is how it went:
My first steps were a bit wobbly, and it took a few minutes for the rush to fade. On the way out I looked at the sign again: “High Thrill Ride” – they are not kidding!
Dollywood’s extremely courteous and efficient PR Department graciously provided a short point-of-view video clip, since taking a camera on the ride would be dangerous – if you let it go, there’s no telling where it might land!
I’ve never been to Dollywood before, and had a great time. The PR event was fun, Dolly looks and sounds great, everyone treated us nicely, and the ride was fun. When I went back with my family a few days later, nothing changed: the park was clean and orderly without being cloying, everyone was friendly and helpful, and we had a great time.
The Barnstormer ride overall is outstanding. It looks great, and it sounds right. When watching the ride I couldn’t tell if the “whoosh” sound was natural or generated. When on the ride all I heard was wind-noise!
The surroundings are well-tailored and suitably themed. The passenger processing is courteous, efficient, and entertaining. The instructions and accommodations are clear. The seats are large and comfortable; the staff are well-trained and confident. I saw and heard nothing that detracted from the experience. We did have one glitch: a harness not locking down properly caused a minor delay in launching, but the staff detected and fixed the problem immediately, so this only added to the anticipation – and I did not see it happen again. The final touch is right before the ride starts; the seat-tending staff retreats behind a barrier and puts up a chain so they can’t accidentally leave while the ride is in operation – reinforcing the carefully crafted impression that the ride is dangerous. (Which it would be, if you stepped in front of it while it was moving!)
The ride delivers what it promises: a fast-moving, high-flying thrill ride with just the right balance of fun and terror. If you like pendulum rides, you will love this one!
While trying to go to sleep that night, when I closed my eyes I had momentary flashes of being at the top of swing #8, looking down and hanging motionless in the air. I don’t think I will forget that experience any time soon!
I cannot think of a single realistic* thing that could be improved or changed without altering the integrity of the experience, so I’m giving the Barnstormer at Dollywood 5 stars.
(* Sure, they could serve hot cinnamon rolls and coffee while you’re standing in line, and Dolly could personally sing Hello to everyone as they climb aboard the ride, but neither of these is practical.)
All images used in this article were taken by Steven A. Lowe.
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