The Island in Pigeon Forge: Gateway to the Smokies–and America
Disney-esque SkyFly sends passengers soarin’ across the country
SkyFly: Soar America – 4 (out of 5)
It’s kind of hard to miss The Island’s 200-foot-tall Great Smoky Mountain Wheel spinning high above Pigeon Forge’s attraction-packed Parkway. Tucked inside a building at the East Tennessee entertainment, dining, and shopping complex is the less conspicuous, but even more transportive SkyFly: Soar America. It brings E-Ticket-level fun to the Smokies.
Opened in 2021, the flying theater attraction sends audiences on a simulated, scenic journey across the country. Over the course of the hang gliding-like experience, riders soar above iconic spots such as Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and Florida’s Everglades.
Incorporating a steampunk aesthetic, SkyFly weaves a whimsical backstory about a Victorian Age explorer, Peter Wilder, who has invented a magical airship that can send guests across space and time. In the initial pre-show, visitors meet Wilder and his daughter, Hannah, in their workshop as they introduce the adventure about to unfold. Making their way into a second pre-show area, guests find themselves in a virtual tram station and are whisked (via projected media accompanied by vibrating floors) to the airship’s hangar.
Moving into the main theater, guests sit in ride vehicles that swoop them up and gently move them in sync with scenes cast on a 50-foot-tall, enveloping dome screen. The presentation begins inside the ornate airship. But after the eccentric Wilder bids his passengers farewell and builds anticipation à la Peter Pan with a cheery “Here we go!” the characters and fanciful story abruptly end. Following the lead of nearly all other flying theaters, the content shifts into travelogue mode with stunning aerial footage of fjords in Alaska, the jagged coast of Maui, and other captivating locales.
Not to get too persnickety, but it doesn’t make much sense that the airship’s exterior suddenly disappears, and its unencumbered passengers, with their legs dangling, are able to have unobstructed views of the sights below. Then again, I suppose it doesn’t really make any sense that a Victorian-era inventor would set up a tour business with his flying machine in modern-day Tennessee. Call it theme park logic.
The flying theater dates back to 2001 when the original Soarin’ Over California debuted as an opening day attraction at Disney California Adventure. Imagineer Marc Sumner famously fashioned a rudimentary model of the attraction using Erector Set pieces. It has since evolved into Soarin’ Around the World and is featured at a number of Disney Parks. There are also flying theater attractions at other parks as well as at standalone locations.
While the Imagineers envisioned the flying theater concept, Disney brought in Dynamic Attractions to help develop Soarin’ and build the ride system. SkyFly features the company’s Dynamic Flying Theater, and the Tennessee attraction is a co-venture between its Dynamic Entertainment division and The Island in Pigeon Forge.
Uncharacteristically for Disney, Soarin’ doesn’t offer much in the way of a story. SkyFly, on the other hand, overlays its steampunk inventor onto the experience, albeit only briefly.
“We didn’t want the characters to get in the way of the flying theater experience itself,” explains Clay McManus, director of SkyFly. “The ride is the star of the show, and we want our guests to see the country in a beautiful and memorable way.”
As with many flying theaters, the beautiful vistas of national parks figure prominently into SkyFly. Since folks travel from near and far to visit the Great Smoky Mountains, the country’s most popular park, the attraction’s location in the foothills of the Smokies seems particularly apropos. As you might expect, the Great Smoky Mountains, in all their glory, are featured in SkyFly.
Per the flying theater template established by Disney with Soarin’, SkyFly ends with fireworks lighting up the night sky. In this case, the setting is (of course) The Island.
The experience compares quite favorably with Soarin’, one of Disney’s most enduring and popular attractions. With a minimum height restriction of 40 inches, young children are able to board SkyFly. Should they? It depends on the child of course, but although the topmost row of the theater’s seats ascends some 40 feet into the air, the ride itself is quite mild and should be tolerated by nearly everybody. The action revs up a bit during a scene at the Bristol Motor Speedway, but the experience remains relatively benign.
Because SkyFly is media-based, it is possible to change the content, according to McManus. He says that some scenes have already been swapped out in the short time the attraction has been open.
“We also have the hardware to one day alternate between films,” McManus notes, adding that The Island has many repeat guests, and SkyFly wants to encourage them to continue buying tickets by keeping the experience fresh. “In a few years, we will do a second film. It might be seasonal, or it might be something different altogether.”
SkyFly might not be the only E-Ticket ride either. “People are looking for higher-level experiences, and we think there is a strong demand in the market,” says McManus. “We’re looking for other attractions to potentially bring to the Island.”
Among other highlights at The Island is its centerpiece synchronized fountain and light show, spinning rides, and the all-you-can-eat Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen, which features scrumptious Southern fare. (Warning: Don’t even think about sticking to a diet there.) The Margaritaville Island Hotel encircles The Island. Not unlike Disney’s BoardWalk Inn at Walt Disney World, its hotel rooms overlook the hubbub below.
In the spirit of the season, consider giving yourself (or somebody else on your list) a gift of a paid subscription to “About Theme Parks,” my ad-free, reader-supported publication. For a limited time only, I’m offering 25% off an annual subscription. In addition to my public posts, you’ll get subscriber-only “Rode It! Loved It!” ride reviews, “ART Talks” audio versions of posts, and access to “What’s the Attraction” discussion threads. And you would be giving me a gift by supporting my work. Paid subscriptions are my only source of revenue for “About Theme Parks.” I’d be most grateful for your consideration. Take advantage of this special offer for the holidays now!
Have you experienced SkyFly at The Island in Pigeon Forge? How do you think it compares to Soarin’? What do you think about the proliferation of flying theater attractions?