The 1970s were a boom time for theme park development. Everywhere, in every corner of the United States, everyone wanted their own Disneyland. Some parks, as I’ve noted with Cedar Point, would leverage their long history, pivot their marketing strategy, and retrofit Disney-esque elements to their offerings to become “The Disneyland of” whatever region they were in.
Still more parks were designed from scratch, and for some reason they came as siblings in pairs. There were two by the Marriott Corporation, both named Great America—one in Northern California and one between Chicago and Milwaukee. The California park is owned today by Cedar Fair and the Midwestern one has been owned by Six Flags since 1984.
The Anheuser-Busch Company had begun a rather humble effort during the early twentieth century to entertain patrons near their brewery sites with flora and fauna, the first of which was in Pasadena, California (1905–1937). A second followed in nearby Van Nuys after World War II (1964–1979 with a South Pacific theme) and then one in Texas (1971–1973 with an Asian theme). Only two remain today: sister parks in Tampa, Florida (opened in 1959 with an African theme) and Williamsburg, Virginia (opened in 1975 with a European theme). Both are now owned by SeaWorld.
We Two Kings
And then there are the “Two Kings” which were opened by the Cincinnati-based Taft Broadcasting Company (now defunct). In much the same way that Marriott’s Great America parks were conceived, Kings Island (Ohio) and Kings Dominion (Virginia) were designed as twin sisters with the same basic layout. Kings Island opened on April 29, 1972 and Kings Dominion followed three years later on May 3. Construction began on the second park barely after the first summer season at Kings Island had finished.
Just like the Great America parks, the Kings have evolved on their own independent paths since the 1970s, adding (and subtracting) their own unique themed lands and attractions. Today the only remaining similar characteristics appear to be in and around the central entry corridor called International Street.
How did these parks get their names? Kings Island is a combination of Kings Mill, the name of the region in Ohio where the park was built, and Cincinnati’s Coney Island (more on this later). This was the winning name in a public contest which received over 100,000 entries in 1970. As for its sister park, the Taft Company kept Kings (always hold onto a solid brand once it’s established) and combined it with the traditional nickname for its new home state of Virginia, "Old Dominion.”
A third park with many similar design elements, Canada’s Wonderland, was opened by Taft in 1981 just north of Toronto.
The opening season’s park map poster is quite artful by comparison, and was lovingly rendered in the sort of painterly, slightly cartoonish illustration style which was very popular for theme parks during this era. Unfortunately in these contemporary, corporate times, this kind of creative flourish is increasingly rare. Disney and Universal still manage it. But many theme parks now communicate like so many other large businesses; there is less fantasy, less magic.
And back in the early seventies—what magic! I particularly like the thick, medieval, blackletter typography of the park’s original logo, which is still trotted out from time to time on commemorative merchandise.
Although Kings Island would contain no fantasy elements, it’s quite obviously derivative of Disneyland’s wordmark, as well it should be.
It’s important to note that (unlike Cedar Point) Kings Island was designed and developed as a theme park from the very beginning. An article in the July 1972 issue of Cincinnati Magazine on King Island’s opening season quotes General Manager Gary Wachs: “We take elements of fantasy, excitement, warmth, nostalgia, and legend and put them all together.” Mr. Wachs might have also added “with Disney’s playbook” but he doesn’t have to.
Cincinnati architect Darrell W. Daniel was the park’s primary designer, along with Dick Harsley of Cincinnati’s Coney Island (again, more on this later). Former Disney artist Bruce Bushman (who had moved on to Hanna-Barbera) and Charles Thompson also worked on the park’s design (Thompson had worked on Six Flags Over Texas after leaving Disney) and sources at Kings Island also claim even Roy Disney lent some advice to the project’s managers on feasibility.
In the same article, Gary Wachs notes that they were very thorough. “We knew the elements we wanted to incorporate into the new park, but we went through 150 different concepts for the park’s physical layout before we found one we all agreed on.” And what they did agree on was something which felt a lot like Disneyland.
International (Europe) Street
Both Kings Island and Kings Dominion feature a central entry corridor called International Street, which is clearly a variation of Disney’s Main Street U.S.A. concept. This is no accident—the area’s primary designer was Bruce Bushman who had worked on Disneyland (particularly the Fantasyland dark rides). There’s a terrific nine-part documentary produced in 2009 by CET (Cincinnati's PBS station) called Riding History to the Limits which chronicles the design, development, construction, opening, and early years of Kings Island. I’ve gotten my information on Bushman’s role (along with many other smaller details) from those videos, and I highly recommend them if you’re interested in the history of Kings Island. Sadly Bushman passed away the February before Kings Island opened.
From this entry corridor, guests had a choice of four additional lands on opening day: Oktoberfest (Bavarian), Coney Island (wait for it…more on this later!), Rivertown (frontier backwoods) and lastly some exclusive IP with The Happy Land of Hanna-Barbera (the cartoons of… you guessed it).
Those four lands, plus International Street and the Eiffel Tower replica at the heart of it all, formed a kind of four-leaf clover in the original design. One could argue that this was an improvement on Disneyland’s hub-and-spoke model, in which each of the lands branching off from the central plaza lead to dead ends. In the park’s early years, you always had to return to the hub to choose a new land. At Kings Island, all the lands were interconnected from the start on opening day.
In essence, Kings Island had most of the ingredients of a Disney Magic Kingdom-style park: nostalgia (here channeled into both the “Old Country” European variety of International Street and amusement parks of days past in Coney Island), fantasy and animation (in the Oktoberfest and Hanna-Barbera areas), and the American frontier past of Rivertown. When the park partnered with Lion Country Safari in their third season, they gained a monorail (exciting technology of the future, like Tomorrowland) and wild animals in a jungle setting (just like Adventureland, but not animatronic). All the pieces.
International Street featured three dozen shops and eateries representing the European countries of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland on opening day.
This was, of course, a classic format borrowed from the World’s Fair model—packaged cultural tourism as consumption of food, beverages, and goods. Although called International, here we are only dealing with Europe, and a (quite friendly, quite white) Western Europe at that. This Eurocentric “villages” model would be repeated in the design of Busch Gardens “The Old Country” which would open only three years later in the woods of Virginia not far from Colonial Williamsburg.
The “permanent World’s Fair” approach to thematic design would reach an even fuller expression (adding all sorts of countries) at the World Showcase half of Disney’s EPCOT Center which would open in 1982 at Walt Disney World outside Orlando, Florida.
During the parks early years, Kings Island featured a Von Roll Sky Ride which can be seen in the above postcard, just like other such rides at Disneyland and Cedar Point. The gondola was originally built in 1965 for Cincinnati's Coney Island (yes… I will get to this) and was relocated to Kings Island for the park’s opening. The route spanned perpendicular across International Street and the width of the park, as opposed to at Coney Island, where the gondolas travelled the length of the midway. After a shutdown due to extreme winds on April 24, 1977 stranded some 45 park guests 96 feet in the air, as well as low ridership and increasingly rare spare parts, the Sky Ride was removed for the 1980 season.
Key to International Street’s Disneyesque appeal is its employment of the Weenie design concept. Using Disneyland as a reference, Kings Island’s entrance resembles Main Street U.S.A. in that the Royal Fountain with pedestrian walks on either side leads directly to a scale replica of the famed Eiffel Tower—in the same position as Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.
Walt Disney called these attractive visual magnets “weenies” in that they drew guests forward. As the story goes (and although many Disney sources over the years have recounted this origin tale, one does wonder if it’s simply apocryphal), Walt used to beckon the family dog with a small hot dog morsel, perhaps asking for a trick in exchange for a treat. In the same way, all throughout Disneyland’s design “weenies” were placed—the originals were (north, going forward) the castle at the end of Main Street, (west, to the left) the smokestacks of the Mark Twain Riverboat, and (east, to the right) the TWA Moonliner of the Rocket to the Moon attraction. Here the Eiffel Tower at Kings Island serves the same purpose.
In these postcards I’ve collected, you can really see the level of detail that went into the structures on International Street, especially the color schemes.
We can certainly tell that it’s the early seventies; lots of mustard yellows, oranges, drab olive greens, browns and tans. Also taking a cue from Disneyland, popcorn lights adorn the rooflines and provide for a delightful display at nighttime.
La (Faux) Tour Eiffel
The central icon—the castle, the “weenie”—of Kings Island (and later, Kings Dominion) is a one-third scale replica of the Eiffel Tower. The tower is 315 feet tall (some sources say 330 feet) with an observation deck at the top, some 264 feet up in the air. There is also a lower observation platform only 50 feet up for those who are weary of heights. Although the park describes the tower as an accurate replica, I’m not so sure.
Their tower appears squatter than the Paris original, and the observation deck definitely looks out of proportion; a great deal larger than it should be. At first I thought the designers (noted Swiss amusement manufacturers Intamin, who built the tower in Graz, Austria) used the reduced scale of one particular dimension to claim a “one-third” reduction overall. But then something occurred to me once I really got under the thing and looked up. The tower isn’t meant to be considered head-on from a distance. That’s why it looks wrong in a 1:1 comparison.
The designers at Intamin cleverly used another one of Disney’s classic techniques—forced perspective—to ensure that the tower looks taller than it actually is when you’re right below it. Just like Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, or the Matterhorn at Disneyland.
Just like at Cedar Point, I’m grateful to have had a high vantage from which to photograph various aspects of the park for study. For most parks, I' have to rely on satellite views to really take a close look at how the design of structures are connected and interrelated. But if there’s a tower or gondola ride—eureka!
The Royal Fountain’s relationship to the Eiffel Tower is quite considered. This pool—which recalls the grand tradition of European palaces and pleasure gardens—is 300 feet long, so it mirrors the height of the tower closely. In this way the visual magnet is a one-two punch; the Royal Fountain is a lateral “weenie” and the Eiffel Tower is a vertical one. The park’s designers clearly thought the pool was important, as installation cost half a million (1971!) dollars, double what the water feature was budgeted for. Yet this inclusion is rather precinct, as it predates the awesome draw of the magnificent fountains of Las Vegas Strip at The Mirage and Bellagio resorts over a decade later. Even the Paris resort with its own replica Eiffel Tower (which, to be fair, is far more accurate than the one at Kings Island).
As I was able to observe both on the ground and from up on high at the top of the Eiffel Tower replica, there was originally some care that went into the architectural design details of the various “nations.”
The connections to the Disney construction model are most evident from the air. Individual façades retain unique properties, personality and ‘voice’—especially with regards to the rooflines— but in fact each block is a single structure. This was one of the many innovations pioneered in the thematic design of Disneyland; although Main Street U.S.A. feels very much like a series of independent proprietorships, in actuality it’s simply a very cleverly disguised suburban mall.
Disney has done very well in keeping up the original design intentions at their theme parks, even through decades of remodelling, refurbishment, and repainting. However, Kings Island has not fared as well.
The best example of this erosion of design integrity is in how the buildings are presently painted. Compared to the vintage postcards above, does this look and feel like Spain? These green shades seem to come straight out of a late nineties Southern California gated community surrounding a golf course. Say what you want about the overwhelming Brown and Beige Seventies—there was at least a Mediterranean Old World authenticity to those dusty hues.
Take these bright baby blue trim lines and how they clash with the traditional Mission/ barrel tile roofs. Or the salmon and teal wall treatments. Everything feels almost like a child’s dollhouse.
“France” (Southwest Side)
The design intent is clearly Parisian here, but again, the paint schemes completely ruin the effect. This is an upscale retail district ‘bold and bright’ version of a French urbanscape. All charm is lost.
Again from the air, thematic design tricks are exposed. The upper floors and mansard roofs are false fronts.
One bit of attention to detail that Bushman and the other designers did carefully consider is that there are French-styled structures at both the east and west ‘endcaps’ of International Street so that the Eiffel Tower replica is appropriately flanked with regional relevance. It’s just a shame that these late nineties paint schemes make everything more ‘mall-ish.’
In my later research into Kings Island’s design history, I learned that this portion of International Street is supposed to be a Swiss chalet. But when I was visiting the park, I had assumed this was an English cottage. Perhaps the original paint scheme was stronger, but I think this misses the chalet mark.
Again, here is a good aerial view of how each block is a single building with multiple façades.
Ye Olde Starbucks is the most recent tenant in “Switzerland,” just like the company has hung a shingle at Disney parks worldwide as well as other Cedar Fair parks across the United States.
Ironically, in this instance dialing up the color identity would strengthen the motif to suggest more Swiss than English. In other areas on International Street, the schemes are too garish; here they are too mute.
German regional architecture is, I think, more difficult to telegraph to a broad American audience. Because of our inundation with the ‘Disney Version’ of classic European fairy tales throughout the twentieth century, these kinds of castle-like stones and related iconography translates as a sort of Pan-Euro village setting.
“Germany” and “France” (Southeast Side)
I really appreciated the level of variety in the individual façades on this block—different forms, heights, and color schemes. This was (to my eye) the most convincing and immersive thematic design on all of International Street.
From the air, of course, it’s just a disguised strip mall.
Despite renovations which have damaged the original design’s thematic integrity over the years—garish nineties color schemes, the national food and beverage chains, and heaps of generic merchandise being sold in shops which have lost all their unique cultural charm—I liked International Street. It’s certainly the most original thematic design remaining at Kings Island; an adaptation of Main Street U.S.A. whose art director worked on Disneyland himself.
Now it’s time to leave Europe and visit Coney Island…Ohio.