One of the more interesting side effects of a theme park having shifted between different owners over the years is the swath of odds ‘n’ ends left behind—the orphaned areas and attractions, conflicting design motifs, abandoned IPs, and renamed lands. And Kings Island certainly has its share.
The Ghosts of Oktober Past
Kings Island opened in 1972 with a Bavarian-themed land called Oktoberfest. Although it still exists today on park maps, you’d be hard pressed to identify it.
The theme seems appropriate given that this was once the site of the western station for the park’s Von Roll Sky Ride, which was called the Swiss Sky Ride when it first resided at Cincinnati’s Coney Island. Just like at Disneyland, the thematic logic was as follows: gondola / cable car = ski resort = Switzerland. And Bavaria is certainly close enough, geographically as well as aesthetically. Not to mention that Ohio, and nearby Cincinnati specifically, is home to a large Germanic population.
Here is the park’s “Der Alte Deutsche Bier Garten” at the heart of the Oktoberfest area, sometime after the Sky Ride was removed for the 1980 season; there is no sign of the support tower to the left as seen in the earlier photograph. For years this delightfully designed biergarten served up German gastronomic standards such as bratwurst and sauerkraut, traditional music performers in the requisite lederhosen, and, of course, plenty of beer.
Although by the mid-1980s the stand-up coaster King Cobra had been added to the area (the first of its kind in the world to be designed as such), Oktoberfest managed to maintain its original charm. But it wouldn’t last.
For the first season of the nineties, the Der Spinning Keggers ride was removed. From design through to the name, this Kings Island version of Disney’s Mad Tea Party (commonly just called “The Teacups”) was very Oktoberfest—guests spun about in massive beer kegs. This could be seen as the beginning of the end for the land’s overall theme, which continued to be chipped away at throughout the decade when Paramount owned the park.
Here is the biergarten as it looks today; a completely generic “country cottage” structure surrounded by picket fencing. During the Paramount years, this building was briefly a location in the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company themed restaurant chain. Currently, the closest to German it gets is the sponsor—Budweiser.
As seen from the park’s Eiffel Tower, this is the Festhaus building, which was added between Oktoberfest and International Street in 1982 for the parks’ inaugural “Winterfest” Christmas event as the largest indoor entertainment and dining venue at Kings Island. Offerings were strictly German for many years, but these days it’s all pizza, burgers, and similarly generic amusement park fare.
The Festhaus also used to have ornate decorations and signage, in addition to a working glockenspiel clock. Just like I saw in Frankenmuth, Michigan, this kind of clock has music bells and dancing figures that move around in a circular performance (“glockenspiel” literally translates into English as “bells play”). After years of disrepair, the Festhaus glockenspiel was removed for the 2014 season.
Around on the other side of the biergarten is a Mexican restaurant (this area also contains, inexplicably, a Panda Express Chinese fast food outlet; completely out of place, just like I saw in a Frontier setting at Cedar Point). The thematic design is pretty well executed, it just has no place in a supposedly “German” neighborhood.
Nice use of gooseneck-style barn lighting, corrugated metal roofing, and appropriate, vintage typography on the signage. There’s a decent pan-Latin American vibe here, very plantation house. But again, this land is still identified as Oktoberfest on park maps.
And why the Latin American motif? In 1991 an Aztec-adventure-themed Arrow mine train coaster called Adventure Express opened—yes, in the Oktoberfest area, adjacent to Coney Mall. The park’s own official history blog notes the audacious incongruity in all this, saying that the addition of Adventure Express “signaled the first time the park would install an alternatively-themed attraction to a previously established themed area.” My thinking is that the Mexican eatery next door was added to reinforce the ride’s theme, but to the detriment of the original Bavarian theme of Oktoberfest .
Getting in the Zone
During the nineties, the Paramount Action Zone was added right next door to Oktoberfest. This was a move Paramount pulled at all the parks it took ownership of during this period—adding fairly standard amusement park thrill rides under the banner of some of the studio’s action movies.
This included the aforementioned Arrow suspended roller coaster originally themed to Top Gun (1993 to 2007), then known as Flight Deck (2008 to 2013) after Cedar Fair acquired Paramount Parks, and finally rechristened The Bat in honor of the park’s original (failed) Arrow suspended prototype for the 2014 season.
The theming for Top Gun was originally quite considered. In the April, 1993 issue of Cincinnati Magazine, an article on Paramount’s purchase of Kings Island noted:
The addition of the new “Top Gun” roller coaster—an inverted version of traditional coasters, with the wheels and tracks above the seats, leaving nothing underneath riders except the treetops—was handled the same way. The physical structure—all 660 tons of it—was in the planning long before Paramount. Not so long in advance, though, that Paramount couldn’t jump in and inject its Hollywood twist, hiring John DeCuir Jr. to make the coaster’s boarding station resemble an aircraft carrier. DeCuir was in charge of the design for the original Top Gun movie…
This local television news broadcast from 1993 shows the original aircraft carrier theming of the queue area, along with music and steam effects.
That same Cincinnati Magazine article quoted a consultant involved in the Paramount acquisition: “You’re going to see a lot of movie theming going into existing rides, and new rides that are orientated and built around future or successful movies that Paramount has released.” And indeed, Paramount’s cinematic additions to Kings Island during the nineties also included a virtual reality ride themed to the (completely forgettable) 1990 Tom Cruise NASCAR vehicle Days of Thunder, in a venue called the Action Theater.
The most recent addition to the Action Zone area is Banshee. This Bolliger & Mabillard (B&M) triumph is the longest suspended roller coaster in the world, and it actually contains a fair amount of theming for a Cedar Fair park. A banshee is a female spirit in Irish mythology who apparently shows up wailing and shrieking whenever a family member dies. The press release at the time called Banshee “the first female-inspired thrill ride” at Kings Island, although I’m unsure what kind of honor that is.
True to theme, the queue area winds through a graveyard with various markers. One of these is an eternal flame in tribute to the prior coaster which occupied this park of the park—Son of Beast. No name, just the defunct ride’s mysterious logo and the date ranch of its operation. I thought this kind of obscure reference was a very nice touch for park history aficionados.
This first wooden hypercoaster—with a steel vertical loop—broke all kinds of records when it opened in 2000. But it was not to last. The ride was plagued with problems, and the loop in particular caused numerous issues; it was eventually removed for the 2007 season. Two years later the ride closed permanently, and the coaster was finally demolished in 2012.
I think the Action Zone needs to go away completely, replaced by some kind of cohesive theme that can include The Bat as well as Banshee (and maybe even the nearby Adventure Express). Perhaps something horror-related? And while they’re at it, the park could restore Oktoberfest to its German roots.
The Inner Limits
There is one last thematic remnant of the Paramount era which I’d like to mention. The Outer Limits: Flight of Fear opened in 1996 as one of two linear induction motor (LIM) launch coasters, the world’s first (the other opened at sister park Kings Dominion).
The ride’s original theme was tied to the classic 1960s science fiction show The Outer Limits, and features an alien spacecraft in an Area 51-like miliary warehouse setting. When Paramount’s licencing agreement expired, references to the show were removed and the ride became simply Flight of Fear beginning with the 2001 season. The UFO theme, however, has remained.
Flight of Fear is completely indoors, and a such serves as sort of the Kings Island equivalent of Disney’s Space Mountain. Unlike the detailed exterior design found at Disney parks, however, the building for the ride is relatively unadorned. The outside of the hangar housing the queue references a bit of UFO mythology—it’s marked with a large 18 (Hangar 18 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is supposedly where flying saucer remains and alien corpses were stored after the legendary Roswell crash).
Once through the queue of this Hangar 18, guests “board” the alien ship (a flying saucer design) by walking up a ramp into the interior. The ride loading area is designed to resemble some type of generic sci-fi alien environment.
There are even what appear to be cryogenically frozen alien bodies stored here. I would imagine during the Outer Limits era, there was a more explicit backstory throughout these spaces, possibly tying into a specific episode from the series (which certainly featured its share of creepy aliens). But now it’s just generic “weird.”
The linear induction launch was quite thrilling, and the coaster experience felt very much like Space Mountain. Kings Island has done a decent job of maintaining the alien theme despite losing the originating IP.
The thematic missteps at Kings Island are all due to turnover in owner and management. During the Taft years, there was at least sense of shared vision—something more immersive than the average amusement park, but less so than Disney. Sort of how Six Flags Over Texas began. When Paramount bought Kings Island, they (haphazardly) tried the Universal approach of injecting IP from their film library throughout, with mixed results. And then when Cedar Fair acquired the Paramount Parks in 2006, they brought with them a very uneven tradition of retheming and adding even more thrill rides.
The lesson is clear—for thematic design, consistency means constancy. Kings Island is a beautiful park with a rich history. I can only hope that, in the tradition of recent attractions like Banshee and Mystic Timbers, Cedar Fair remains committed to quality, thoughtful alterations.
Over at KI Central, a forums site that’s been around since 2003 and calls itself “a community that loves Kings Island” I saw a comment that seemed to me to be quite astute. In a thread about the degradation of thematic integrity, a user pointed out that “Cedar Fair doesn’t manage theme parks, they manage amusement parks.” Which is true, and I shouldn’t expect Disney-level design from them.
Yet the near future looks promising: International Street is being completely overhauled and resurfaced for the 2019 season, along with the opening of the new Kings Mills Antique Autos, comparable to the original Les Taxis antique car ride (1972–2004).
Keep it up, Kings Island!