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Coaster of Many Colors: Specialty Service Group helped construct the longest roller coaster at Dollywood

By Marlena Chertock | Jul 14, 2023
Big Bear Mountain roller coaster. DOLLYWOOD PARKS AND RESORTS
Dollywood Parks and Resorts’ newest roller coaster, Big Bear Mountain, is the longest coaster at the park, coming in at three-quarters of a mile with 3,990 feet of track. The ride opened in mid-May 2023. 

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Dollywood Parks and Resorts’ newest roller coaster, Big Bear Mountain, is the longest coaster at the park, coming in at three-quarters of a mile with 3,990 feet of track. It only takes 1 minute and 40 seconds to complete the ride. Construction on the park expansion started in 2022, and the ride opened in mid-May 2023. The coaster, located in the Wildwood Grove section, cost $25 million.

Big Bear Mountain is the first ride at Dollywood with onboard audio. It takes a village to build such a ride. Joshua Buckert, the construction project manager at the Dollywood Company, Pigeon Forge, Tenn., estimates over 120 people from several different trades were involved. Vekoma Rides Manufacturing, based in the Netherlands, designed the ride and built the coaster pieces. Herschend Family Entertainment and Dollywood’s Creative Studio managed the effects and guest-facing theming. Buckert and his team handled ride construction and installation, painting, custom lighting and more.

It can be tricky navigating among various teams and trades. But “it worked out well,” he said. “We were able to keep progress going without causing conflict between trades. We coordinated who was going to be where and when.”

Specialty Service Group logo“It’s been a great team on this site,” agreed Randy Mays, co-owner of Specialty Service Group, Knoxville, Tenn., which is woman- and veteran-owned, and works on commercial, industrial and municipal electrical and telecommunication services across the Southeast. “In general construction work, you’re battling other crafts. But we don’t have any of that in this project; everybody has worked as a team.”

Jacks of all trades

Specialty Service Group managed the electrical contracting for the project. 

“It’s been an adventure for us,” Mays said. “This is the first coaster that we have ever done.”

Dollywood needed an electrical contractor with plenty of technical skill to pull off such a project. Mark Easterday was Specialty Service Group’s job superintendent, playing a crucial role on the project.

Mays and partner Robert Wolbach explained the role an electrical contractor plays in building an amusement park ride.  

“We’re the people running the wiring, and everything has [to have] power. We do all the main power (wiring) coming in, anything to do with power and lighting for the coaster,” he said.

At three-quarters of a mile long and with 3,990 feet of track, Big Bear Mountain is the longest roller coaster at Dollywood. Specialty Service Group installed all of the wiring and emergency lighting for the roller coaster.
Photos courtesy of Specialty Service Group.

Vekoma Rides Manufacturing managed the design and testing for the coaster, which is themed around the search for the “Big Bear” and includes an onboard audio component with music and announcements.

“The entire coaster is incredibly immersive,” said Jennifer Webb, publicist at The Dollywood Company. “You’ll hear wilderness adventurer Ned Oakley and you’re going to hear Big Bear. It’s important to us to allow families to do things together. It really is a multigenerational coaster. It’s a lot of fun for kids and teenagers, and grandma and grandpa can ride it too.”

“It gives children the opportunity to feel like they’re on a speed coaster, to experience that thrill at a young age,” Buckert said. “My youngest daughter is 4 years old and she was able to ride.”

A thrill ride

Big Bear Mountain is elaborate, weaving over six acres, through two tunnels and behind a manmade waterfall. Its triple launch system sends the coaster approximately 70 feet into the air.

“There was a massive amount of electrical involved in this project,” Buckert said. “It’s the only coaster we have in the park that has three launches.”

The closest structure a roller coaster can be compared to is a bridge, Mays said. “You start on two sides of a river and meet in the middle. It’s kind of the same thing as this coaster—you start out with some points in a dirt field, bring in rails and concrete pillars and match them up perfectly. It’s pretty intricate.”

An unconventional job site

Everything guest-facing, where riders go and what they see, has individual controls for dimming, nighttime effects and different colors, he explained. Bandit Lighting designed custom themed fixtures and wiring. Specialty Service Group managed intricate electrical contracting and installation, primary power for the coaster and emergency lighting.

There is also lighting required for standard housing facilities, the back-of-the-house break station, a maintenance building and a load station—a climatized room with a floating floor system that houses 27 electrical cabinets servicing the ride. The electricity from these cabinets powers the launch system, controls, monitoring system and safety requirements. The pump system for the waterfall is located on the opposite side of Wildwood Grove, adding complexity.

“There’s more electrical and control components involved in this ride, specifically,” Buckert said. “It runs through a mechanical room, through conduits that come out from the underground load station, through multiple facets of control boxes, there’s 120 sensors throughout, all which require electrical communication. This was some of the largest wire I’ve ever seen supplying power to the ride. You can’t pull that wire by hand.”

The team created a hydraulic pulley system and suspended it from the coaster tracks to bring the wire to the construction location and position it correctly. 

“It was a learning process,” Buckert said. “We broke some conduits in the process and had to replace them.”

Safety all the way

Specialty Service Group set the safety standard for the site, Mays said. The company employs a full-time safety coordinator to ensure adherence to safety protocols.

“We do a lot of work for the Tennessee Valley Authority and Army Corps of Engineers, so we’re used to safety,” he said. 

“We’re proud of [having] zero incidents for the entire project,” Mays said. “We want everybody to go home. We’re a smaller company, with 30–40 men [and] we know them all. It makes it a little bit more personal when you’re a small business.”

Mays said that Vekoma does more than 700 test runs before anyone gets on a ride.

“I went to Disneyland and got to see behind the scenes; there’s a lot of safety built into these [rides],” Mays said.

In the electrical contracting world, “if you’re injured, you can’t work,” he added, so “we spend a lot of money and time on safety, and we believe in it.”

Building a roller coaster comes with specific challenges, including working at remote sites without prefabricated buildings and being exposed to the elements. Specialty Service Group continued working unless there was a thunderstorm, Wolbach said. They even worked through rain to adhere to the strict deadline.

Dollywood has another project in the works: an interactive and digital museum experience that takes visitors through different stages of Dolly Parton’s life.

“I hope we can get that because it would be interesting to do,” Mays said. “Traditionally, we were a powerhouse industrial company, so this is new for us, and exciting.”

Header Image: Dollywood Parks and Resorts / Other photos courtesy of Specialty service group

About The Author

Chertock is a poet and renewable energy and science journalist in the Washington, D.C., area. Contact her at [email protected].

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