Although Kings Island today is made up of a variety of themed areas, the last core aspect of the park’s original design which I am going to examine is Rivertown. Sadly, this Wild West equivalent of Disney’s Frontierland (called Frontiertown and Frontier Land during the park’s design phase) has been degraded almost beyond recognition through the park’s multiple owners over the years.
Like International Street, garish paint schemes and contemporary retail tenants have ruined the charm, but at least that area of the park retains its structural (architectural) thematic integrity. With steel coasters towering overhead and Charlie Brown’s Peanuts gang encroaching, Rivertown doesn’t even have that.
As is frequently the case, placemaking in this kind of Old West setting is established through the use of fictional proprietorships (more of which I’ll point out below). Based on the photo research I’ve done, I cannot tell if this small rooftop water tower is part of the original 1972 structures in the area. But the typeface treatment—despite evoking a period-appropriate slab serif—feels quite recent in fact.
As recently as the late 1980s, Rivertown still retained most of its original Old West thematic charm. On this 1989 souvenir park map poster you can see the extent of the various buildings and winding streets. All the elements you’d expect are here, from the “Saloon” to the “Shooting Gallery.”
…lives in the mid-1800’s, when the steam locomotive was an important part of local life. At the center of the town are a general store and the frontier train station where the Tecumseh and the Simon Kenton, narrow-gauge steam locomotives arrive pulling coaches.
I’ll return to said railroad in a moment, but I want to first point out what the buildings in RIvertown used to look like, and how they appear now. As you can see in the 1970s postcard above, much of the wood is bare and treated to look aged. The trims of the Court of Games here—which are painted—are rendered in desaturated, dull, and subtle hues.
This is the same block of buildings in 2017. Any bare wood is gone (which, fairly, might have been a victim of weather) and all surfaces take on a more artificial, fiberglassy vibe. Kings Island is clearly trying to go for the kind of cute variety found on Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. but it’s just not working. As with at Cedar Point’s Frontier Town, there’s a Baudrillardian simulacra vibe going on here—a copy of a copy; an impression of a remembrance of what the Disney Version is like.
This kind of design treatment is so widespread in the United States that, again, it telegraphs “theme park” quite succinctly, or at least a theme park of the Cedar Fair / Six Flags variety.
I wish I could have experienced the original, bare, desaturated Rivertown from the 1970s, but this is what I found. Here at the games area at least, the structures themselves are intact.
Beverages and The Beast
However, the entrance to The Beast, which opened in 1979 as the tallest, fastest, and longest wooden roller coaster in the world (it still holds the title of longest after all these years) struck me as odd. It’s a vending machine area called “Beast Canyon Cold Drinks.” You sort of navigate around the candy and soda and the route evolves into a queue for the ride. The walkway abruptly ends, with everything to the right fenced off. And that “ENTRANCE” sign looks super tacked on. Something was amiss.
At first I thought this was likely a more recent development. But nope, looking closer at this 1989 park map poster, there’s the same building, nestled up against The Beast coaster station. Tooling around online I discovered that “Beast Canyon Cold Drinks” has always been there, and there’s even a video showing people waiting in front of the building during the ride’s opening season.
Originally there was an actual concession stand here (which also sold beer), not just vending machines, but the queue for the The Beast did not run through it. As shown above on the opening season’s park map poster, there used to be a path alongside to the right of “Beast Canyon Cold Drinks” and what appears to be a block of assorted mining town structures. That was the ride’s original entrance.
The logo for The Beast is wicked cool, and remains pretty much the way it looked when it was first unveiled back in 1979. It was designed by a Cincinatti ad firm, Lawler Ballard Little, and actually won an award from the New York Advertising Club. This sign is off to the left side of “Beast Canyon Cold Drinks” and functions as sort of a photo op.
But I also discovered that this is not the original sign—it’s a smaller and less detailed version of what used to be displayed more prominently out in front of the ride’s queue entrance. The original featured real chains and dimensional lettering that appeared to burst off the wood planking.
Another sign near the original queue entrance once carried a warning from the president of the “The Little Miami Amalgamated Mining & Minerals Co” providing some backstory for the ride, pictured on the above postcard from 1981. Here is this text:
PUBLIC NOTICE: Help is urgently solicited!
Due to the increasing occurrence of mysterious noises, inexplicable tremors, and vicious acts of vandalism within these premises, it has become necessary to suspend the normal operations of this company.
Although the cause of this evil phenomena defies identification, authorities agree it is surely the work of some demonic creature of prodigious size, which for now can only be designated as: THE BEAST
LET THE FOOLHARDY BEWARE! This so-named Beast appears to be very much alive and intent upon conquering all who would oppose him. Nothing of the imagination would be able to inflict such terror upon the human soul.
IT IS WITH UTMOST URGENCY that the Management entreats all civic-spirited persons to assist it's loyal employees in the ongoing effort to subdue this disruptive scourge and restore order to the community.
ALL VOLUNTEERS will kindly apply by entering through the employment office. (At times it may be necessary to await recruitment at the observation area to the left of the office building.) Thank you, and may the Lord have mercy!
CHARLES J. DINN President
The Little Miami Amalgamated Mining & Minerals Co.
So the coaster actually had a fairly cohesive theme when it opened—that of a haunted mine!
Playing on the Kings Mills region for which the park is partially named (although Kings Island is actually just to the south, near the town of Mason), the queue and station building for The Beast was designed as an ol’ timey mill, complete with an operating water wheel and all the appropriate accessories, “adjacent to a small lake.” There were also mining implements and a small mine entrance.
This still from a local news broadcast shot during the ride’s first summer shows that small lake which was originally part of the theme of the The Beast as a mill operation. The 1979 souvenir park map above also clearly shows this body of water, which was once host to Kenton’s Cove Canoes and Shawnee Landing. Later part of this land was used briefly by The Bat, and since 1987, Vortex.
Here is a good view of the original water elements which were a part of the ride station. Today this entire part of the queue is fenced off—there’s just a wall of wood planks along the left side of the line.
The sluice structure in particular reminds of the elements in the queue at Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a mining operation-themed roller coaster type ride which opened some six months after The Beast in September, 1979.
In this early photograph the mine entrance diorama is clearly visible, complete with a small track and ore car.
The lake was drained in 1987 as the pump and wheel elements in the station building picture above had not worked in years, leaving the body of water stagnate. This also facilitated the introduction of an accessibility ramp, which re-routed the exit.
Knott’s Berry Farm borrowed a number of these design elements for their own classic wooden roller coaster GhostRider which opened in 1998. The queue and station are themed to a mining operation, with the same sort of propping, mine diorama with ore car, etc. Everything is more elaborate than at Kings Island, but the basic idea is the same—if you’re going to have trains of small cars (a roller coaster) depart from a large industrial shed and travel on a wooden superstructure over hills and through tunnels in an Old West setting, what does that sound like? Some kind of mining operation. Or perhaps a lumber mill (more on this in a moment).
And as Kings Island and Disneyland had established some two decades before, the idea of a haunting—of a spirit causing the trains to run out of control—adds the appropriate amount of drama. Unfortunately, this original theme for The Beast has long since been patched over and forgotten.
You can see here while Diamondback was under construction that there used to be a sort of midway lined with trees leading up to the queue for the beast. That’s where the original logo sign was. From the accounts I’ve read online, fans are nostalgia for this original entrance, feeling that it added a forbidding vibe, and heightened anticipation for the coaster. None of the tracks and trains of The Beast could be seen from this wooded area. It must have looked even cooler in the dark of night.
Compare with this picture of nearly the same vantage which I took from the observation deck at the top of the park’s Eiffel Tower.
One of Diamondback’s helix elements cuts back into that part of Rivertown, so all the trees had to be torn out. Here are the stumps during the coaster’s construction.
The entrance to The Beast was rerouted through the somewhat incongruous “Beast Canyon Cold Drinks” building, and the original entrance was fenced off and became a backstage area.
I understand the addition of Diamondback, as Cedar Fair prides itself on the biggest and best coasters. The logo and signage are pretty typical for the Six Flags / Cedar Fair interpretation of “Old West Thrill Ride.” The steel track as a snake’s forked tongue is a nice touch, although the orange gradient lettering is very SNAP INTO A SLIM JIM. Yet, truth be told, the queue area and station have all the requisite trappings—corrugated metal roofing, barn lighting, signs on distressed wood planks, etc.
Where Diamondback throws a wrench in the thematic design of the Rivertown area is with both materials and scale. You can’t unsee those massive support beams sprouting up at every odd angle in and around the quaint country cottage shacks. As such, any attempt at immersion is shattered beyond repair.
This very same visual disruption can also be seen at another park in Cedar Fair’s portfolio—Knott’s Berry Farm. The first major thrill ride added after the company acquired the park, Silver Bullet opened in 2004 and has dominated the skyline of three themed areas—Ghost Town, Fiesta Village, and Indian Trails—ever since. The construction of this steel inverted coaster (like Diamondback, provided by Bolliger & Mabillard) required that many historic structures at Knott’s—including a church—be removed or relocated.
Wood coasters, by contrast, are made of the appropriate materials for the Old West setting, and don’t interfere with the overall scale. They also present well as mining, milling, or lumber (getting to it) operations.
So appropriately, the latest addition to Rivertown is another wooden coaster, Mystic Timbers, which opened for the 2017 season. What’s nice to see is—perhaps to make up for the losses over the years to The Beast—this attraction packs a ton of thematic design into its queue, station, and even on the ride itself.
Much like its older cousin, The Beast, Mystic Timbers makes wonderful use of the heavily wooded terrain around the park’s edges. One thing Kings Island did right was to purchase far more land than they actually developed for the 1972 opening. As such, over the years they’ve been able to subtly expand into the forest periphery. The coaster whips through the trees and changes elevation multiple times, crossing over train tracks as well as water features.
Once again, a fictional industrial concern (as I’ve seen at Cedar Point and elsewhere here at Kings Island) forms the backbone of the theme for Mystic Timbers. Since The Beast had already laid claim (pun intended) to a mining operation theme (even though today you wouldn’t know it), this time it’s a lumber company (I told you I’d get to this), or “Co.” in Old West Speak.
I was confused to see “Miami River” here in Ohio (as I think of Florida) but as it turns out the Great Miami River runs through southwestern Ohio and Indiana and is named for the Miami tribe who are one of the local Native American groups who speak Algonquian. I subsequently discovered that Miami, Florida is of no relation, and that state’s Miami River is named after the Mayaimi people.
See, roller coasters can be educational.
The layout of Mystic Timbers is terrific and makes great use of the terrain. What sets this coaster apart from others at Kings Island, however, is the finale. Although I was unable to photograph it on the ride, when the train completes its course and returns to the station, it stops first inside a warehouse space.
Don’t Go in the Shed
I can’t really describe what goes on, so here’s a video clip. There are audio-animatronics, digital projections, surround sound, and light and smoke effects. It’s pretty nifty, and takes the “haunting” aspect of the original theme for The Beast and brings it into the twenty-first century. However I don’t think they properly built suspense for it throughout the queue area or in the station loading, so coming as it does right at the end of a traditional wooden roller coaster experience, it does feel tacked on; an afterthought.
All Aboard the Kings Island & Miami Valley Railroad
As I’ve looked at elsewhere, if you were making additions to your park—or developing an entirely new project—in order to compete with Disneyland in the 1960s and 70s, one of the required attractions on your wishlist was a narrow-gauge railroad.
So naturally, Kings Island opened with one. Named after the aforementioned Great Miami River, the Kings Island & Miami Valley Railroad is a charming line which meanders through the backwoods at the southern edge of the park. There is a station stop at the adjacent Soak City waterpark, so there were plenty of folks with swimwear on looking to get wet for a bit and them come back to Kings Island’s coasters.
I want to point out the obnoxious Coca-Cola advertising on the Rivertown station, however. The entire interior has been stripped of whatever 19th century theming and props it was originally adorned with, and now it’s a red and white Coke retail space. At least they’re using the old-timey script logo, and not the modern one. Still, yuck.
The park’s railroad maintains two working locomotives. There is the #12 engine, nicknamed the "Kenny Van Meter" and the #19 engine, pictured here, which carries the nickname the "Lew Brown." Both are powered by propane and are 2/3 scale replicas of the Western & Atlantic Railroad #3 General, which apparently became quite famous during the Civil War.
Why is the Rivertown depot noting a township called “Losantiville?” That’s actually the original name of nearby Cincinnati, going back to 1788.
Most of the ride was charming (and unlike at Cedar Point, in the shade), but just like in Rivertown proper, the massive steel presence of Diamondback intrudes from time to time.
The forest made the difference—such a lovely, cool, relaxing trip. It’s no wonder the park’s railroad, per total rides, is the second most popular at Kings Island (over 50 million and counting).
Flumes from Island to Island
My last stop in Rivertown was the park’s Log Flume. Just like The Beast, I was excited to see it given its history. And just like The Beast, I was disappointed at what had become of its theming over the years (yet there is actually some redemption at the end of the tale).
Race for Your Life was one of the original attractions which made the move from Cincinnati’s Coney Island. They sort of had to move it, because this standard Arrow log flume model cost half a million dollars to install in 1968 (a fortune at the time).
To fit with Rivertown’s 19th century pioneer setting, the ride was christened the Kings Mills Log Flume. As you can see by comparing this vantage with the Coney Island photo above, the basic structures are different, but the features like the waterwheel and the flume’s route are retained. The western trappings also appeared dialed back in the new installation; the roof planks of the original are uneven, for example.
For the second season at Kings Island (1973), a second Arrow water ride—a variant called a hydroflume—opened in the back corner of Rivertown. Kenton's Cove Keelboat Canal lasted through the 2000 season. This photo shows the ride sometime in the 1970s, before The Beast had opened next door to the left.
For the 2001 season the following year, Rivertown took a sizeable thematic punch to the stomach. The Hanna-Barbera Land (which Kings Island opened with) was re-themed as Nickelodeon Central at the behest of the park’s Paramount owners. Parts of Rivertown were annexed, including the log flume, now called The Wild Thornberry’s River Adventure, based on a television series which ran on Nickelodeon for several years.
But the retheming didn’t end there. After Cedar Fair acquired the park, they slowly eased the Nickelodeon properties out and introduced Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang. The Peanuts?
In 1983 Camp Snoopy opened at Knott's Berry Farm, and upon buying that park in 1997, Cedar Fair found that the Peanuts license came with the deal. Cedar Fair eventually extended this arrangement and brought the popular Snoopy and Friends to its other parks across the country. So it was only a matter of time until they set up shop at Kings Island.
The once proud Kings Mill Log Flume became Race for Your Life Charlie Brown in 2010. The theming is now cheeky and cartoonish, but also colorful and fun. I’m just disappointed that, for one, the ride is no longer part of Rivertown, and second, that it’s not themed to an actual pioneer log flume anymore.
What’s wild about the name, though, is at first I assumed it was a tribute to the original Race for Your Life at Cincinnati’s Coney Island. But nope. There’s actually a 1977 feature-length animated film called Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown in which the gang goes to summer camp in the wilderness, and they run in a river-raft race. Which means what I thought was just an IP lazily slapped onto an aging log ride turned out to be spot-on. So although I’m personally disappointed, kudos to the designers at Kings Island for nailing this.
Rivertown at Kings Island is—from a thematic design perspective—a land of abandoned visions and contradictory elements. Some things to love, some to like, but mostly “meh.” I’ll conclude my disappointment with this House of Coca-Cola, which sort of sums things up.