WILDERNESS AT THE SMOKIES
HOTEL & WATERPARK RESORT
Sevierville, Tennessee (just outside Pigeon Forge, TN)
Review by: Lance Hart
August 4, 2014
If you have a family with kids, then you probably spend a portion of each summer at your local waterpark, or stopping by one while on your summer family vacation. Lets be honest, there are few kids who don’t love splashing around in the water, or shooting down cool waterslides in the hot summer sun. Adults too for that matter, because we’re all still kids at heart.
The biggest problem with traditional waterparks is that they are so connected to the summer season and the warm weather, and leave you high and dry for the rest of the year. This is where the creation of the “indoor waterpark resort” saves the day… offering wet fun all year long, even when it is snowing outside. While the idea of the indoor waterpark resort concept started in the cool northern climates, I’m happy to see that they have worked their way down to the hot and humid southern states as well in the past several years. They are the great vacation idea not just for the cool season, but really offer a rock solid value for your summer vacation dollar as well!
With that in mind I took my family to visit one of the south’s newest indoor waterpark resorts, Wilderness at the Smokies in Sevierville, Tennessee, just a couple of miles north of the year-round tourist sprawl of Pigeon Forge / Gatlinburg, home to the world famous Dollywood theme park. Wilderness at the Smokies is actually their second waterpark resort, following in the successful footsteps of the Wilderness Resort in Wisconsin Dells which first opened back in 1995. As the trend of successful waterpark resorts began to move in the southern direction, the company decided to build their second indoor waterpark resort in the heart of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains which opened in late 2008.
Much like a theme park, the resort has grown over the years, adding new attractions to the lineup almost on an annual basis. And unlike some other waterpark resorts, the waterslide attractions are not all kept inside one large building. Instead they have opted to spread things out, offering both indoor and outdoor attraction, as well as both wet and dry attractions as well.
Wilderness at the Smokies offers four major attraction areas: the Wild WaterDome indoor waterpark, the Lake Wilderness outdoor waterpark, Salamander Springs outdoor waterpark and the Adventure Forest indoor dry attraction area. While the Wilderness at the Smokies resort area is contained mostly in one large area (the River Lodge), they do also have a second resort building across the street (Stone Hill Lodge) which is connected to a convention center and is where the Salamander Springs outdoor waterpark is located. Transportation between the two resort areas is via shuttle bus, though Stone Hill Lodge does also feature their own arcade, retail shop, fitness center and the Hidden Trail Bar & Grill restaurant. My visit was in the main River Lodge building, so the rest of my review will be focused there.
No matter which building you stay in, Wilderness at the Smokies has a number of different size and style room options to fit your group and needs ranging from standard single and double bed rooms, rooms with hidden Murphy Beds, Fireplace Suites and even bunk beds for the kids. No matter your group size, Wilderness has something for you. You can leave the towels at home as well, as every guest is given a “Towel Card” that can be exchanged for a towel as you enter each of the waterparks. As you leave, just turn in your towel to get your card back again. Once you check in every member of your group will also be given a resort guest wristband. While they don’t actually do anything, they provide you with your unlimited and exclusive access to the resorts waterparks, which is the one thing I really love about waterpark resorts… the exclusive access. No one off the street can buy a ticket to come into the waterpark, as they are for resort guests only, which is a fantastic form of crowd control, ensuring that the lines for the slides will never be too long.
Pro Tip: This will be a very important tip for parents of children who are right at the borderline of being either 42 or 48 inches tall to qualify to ride the slides. I noticed on my visit there was a noticeable discrepancy between the height measurement signs at the bottom of the slide tower from the signs posted at the top of the slide down, as my daughter who I measured myself at the bottom as being just over 42” would be sent back down the tower by the slide attendants at the top for being under 42”. If your children are right on the borderline as well, go to the desk where you pick up your towels in the Wild WaterDome and ask for them to perform a height check. They will give your child a color coded armband that verifies their height once and for all which made our lives much easier from that moment on. Now on to the fun!
The indoor Wild WaterDome is the primary waterpark for the resort that contains the majority of the attractions. Inside here you will find: The Great Wave (wavepool), Washout Mountain (Splash Fortress w/ one slide), the Smokies Surf Rider (stationary surf wave), Magnolia Grove Hot Spa (huge indoor/outdoor hot tub!), a pair of indoor tube slides (single & double tubes), Runaway Canyon (family raft slide) and Storm Chaser (ProSlide Tornado) as well as an activity pool just outside.
While the regular tube slides are fun, it’s the two big boys that will require your attention for most of the day. I love enclosed family raft slides and Runaway Canyon is no exception. There is just something so fun about being able to ride with your family and friends all at once, facing each other, while hurtling down this giant green tube slide at great speed. Storm Chaser however is the biggest thrill here, a Tornado style slide that starts by twisting you around in darkness before you drop several stories down into the massive funnel shape where you ride up and down the interior like some giant half-pipe before it spits you back out again. Again, riding this with 2 or 3 family members or friends make this all the better as you try to figure out who is going to be the one to take the plunge backwards.
The slides aren’t the only place for big thrills however, because you won't want to take wavepool for granted. While The Great Wave may be small in stature to some other wave pools you may have tried, once it gets moving, the power of the churning waves it can generate are enough to knock a grown man off his feet. Literally! This wave pool packs quite a punch, especially if you can locate and navigate yourself to one of the two sweet spots powerful enough to body surf from. Speaking of surfing, I have to praise the Smokies Surf Rider staff. The gentlemen running this thing on my visit were excellent, especially with all the small children who may have been taking their first rides on this kind of attraction. Every other surf wave I’ve seen running at a park or resort, once you wipeout… your done and sent to the back of the line. Not here… they not only allowed those who didn’t have the best run to do it again, but helped teach them the best way to do it. Once they were stable in the wave, I watched as they would teach them how to do tricks, from popping off the back of the board for a hands-free moment before popping back on to 360º spins and even barrel roll flips! They would guide many children (and adults) in the finer techniques on how to perform these advanced maneuvers successfully and often, right on queue for a parent’s camera or cheering siblings. This is not only great guest service, but the one thing I really look for in my reviews. True memory making moments for families. These are the kinds of things that they will remember forever as part of their vacation highlights, and give them a reason to return again and again!
Stepping outside the centerpiece to the River Lodge area is the Lake Wilderness Outdoor Waterpark. It is here you will find Cabanas to rent next to the Washout Wilderness Rapids wave pool. The wave pool is actually connected to the Cataloochee Creek Adventure River (lazy river) that winds around the outside of the outwood waterpark area, and alongside an outdoor 18-hole mini-golf course. In the center is a large slide tower that offers the two newest exciting adventures at the resort: the 50-foot tall four-lane Cyclone Racers mat-racer slide (2013) and the insane creation known as Wild Vortex (2012).
Wild Vortex is a rare waterpark credit… known in the industry as an AquaLoop slide, this creation starts off by locking you standing-up inside a pod 66 feet in the air. You’ll hear a brief countdown: 3--2--1 and the trapdoor you were standing on will spring open and send you into a 39 foot freefall drop inside a blue tube at 40 mph down, around and then UP… yes...UP… at 2.5 Gs into a near-vertical loop style element before you curl and drop once again back towards the earth for your final splashdown finale. Seriously, you do not want to miss the opportunity to ride this unique creation. There is no other waterslide thrill like it.
When you are ready for some dry fun, you have to drop into the Adventure Forest. In addition to the typical arcade and redemption games you would expect to find there, they also offer a number of other attractions. Hovering over the entire arcade building is the three story Tree Top Towers ropes course. Around the edge of the arcade you’ll find the Cubs Climbing Den (a floor to ceiling playhouse), the Daredevils Drop ride (S&S Frog Hopper), Fury In The Forest (indoor two-level laser-tag arena), the Copperhead laser maze, Mount Wild climbing wall, Moonshine Run indoor 9-hole blacklight mini-golf, and the Howlin’ Hound Dog Alley (8-lane mini-bowling alley).
While the attractions in Adventure Forest come with an additional cost they do offer some great pass options here, the “All Day” and “All Stay” passes for a small additional cost. “All Day” is just for the one day obviously, but for one price you can get the “All Stay” pass instead which is a great savings if you stay at the resort for more than one night. Both passes include unlimited access to all of the attractions except for Laser Tag, Outdoor Mini-Golf and arcade games.
The next time you are planning a trip to the Pigeon Forge area, consider a stay at Wilderness at the Smokies and make some memories you won't forget. Just watch our own video below!