Check out the latest youth travel industry updates.


Dollywood announces new roller coaster

PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — Dolly Parton recently announced the newest addition to Dollywood Parks & Resorts. The $25 million Big Bear Mountain, a nearly 4,000-foot-long roller coaster that allows guests to embark on an unforgettable expedition through the Smokies in search of the elusive “Big Bear,” is scheduled to open in the spring of 2023. Big Bear Mountain, which at 3,990 feet becomes the longest roller coaster at the park, marks the expansion of Dollywood’s newest area, Wildwood Grove.

Rendering, Dollywood’s Big Bear Mountain
Credit: Dollywood

Big Bear Mountain’s massive structure hugs 6 acres of undulating topography, which runs along the border of Wildwood Grove. Riders race through the wilderness before soaring high above the forest on the search for the legendary bear. Featuring a top speed of 48 mph, Big Bear Mountain takes guests through three separate launches, multiple airtime hills, high-speed carousel turns, and tunnels, including a pass behind a waterfall.

In addition to becoming the longest roller coaster at Dollywood, Big Bear Mountain—built by ride manufacturer Vekoma—also marks the first attraction at the park to feature on-board audio. The sound system provides auditory thrills to match the ride’s dynamic movements as guests come daringly close to Big Bear.


SYTA announces conference dates

ARLINGTON, Va. — The Student & Youth Travel Association (SYTA) has announced dates and locations for upcoming annual conferences. Upcoming conferences are scheduled for Aug.18-22, 2023, in ​Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and for Aug. 9-13, 2024, in New York City.

SYTA says its annual conference is the only showcase in North America where anyone who is passionate about promoting, selling, and providing travel experiences for students will find dedicated, insightful, and actionable collaboration that will advance their student and youth travel business.


Natural history museum awaits new center

NEW YORK — The American Museum of Natural History in New York City has announced the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation will open in winter 2022-23. The 230,000-square-foot Gilder Center project connects many of the museum’s buildings, creating a continuous campus across four city blocks as envisioned more than 150 years ago.

Serving as the gateway into the Gilder Center will be the Kenneth C. Griffin Exploration Atrium, a four-story high civic space. Other elements include the Gottesman Research Library and Learning Center, the Susan and Peter J. Solomon Family Insectarium, the new year-round David Family Butterfly Vivarium, and the 360-degree Invisible Worlds Theater.


Shedd Aquarium plans enhancements

Rendering, Shedd Aquarium
Credit: Shedd Aquarium in collaboration with Valerio Dewalt Train and Visualized Concepts

CHICAGO — In early 2022, Shedd Aquarium announced proposed exterior improvements within its planned four-year, on-site transformation and restoration project. The aquarium’s exterior adjustments set the stage for nature play, greater physical accessibility, and the much-needed restoration of Shedd’s historic terraces. Plans call for new entry and ticketing pavilions at the Accessible Entrance. Participatory programs, animal encounters, and facilitated experiences will punctuate the newly activated entry and will be available to everyone, even if they do not plan to visit Shedd that day.

The aquarium’s multiyear, four-phase construction project will begin in early 2023 and is expected to conclude in 2026 with new galleries, programs, and experiences opening on a rolling basis.


Ripken Baseball expands

PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — Ripken Baseball is gaining access to four additional fields in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Ripken Experience Pigeon Forge will be able to host teams on 10 fields, including access to newly renovated fields at Pigeon Forge’s Wear Farm City Park. The park’s four fields will be upgraded and reimagined before the start of the 2023 season. Like the original six fields at Ripken Experience Pigeon Forge, each field at Wear Farm City Park will become a youth replica of famous Major League Baseball parks of the past and present. The Ripken Experience Pigeon Forge, which opened in 2016, hosts more than 1,000 teams annually from over 30 states, traveling from as far away as California and Alaska. The city of Pigeon Forge built the complex and contracted with Ripken Baseball to operate it.


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Courtney Birchmeier oversees the editorial department at Group Tour Media. With half a decade under her belt in the group travel industry, she's eager to connect tour operators and group leaders with new destinations. It's a great day at the office if her dog, a chow/lab mix named "Kiwi," is in tow. In her free time, she enjoys reading (for fun, with no red pen in hand), sampling craft beer (New Holland Brewing's "Dragon's Milk," anyone?) and adding new destinations to her travel bucket list (like Salzburg, Austria).