Tuesday, February 28, 2012

From the Ruins of the Kingdom, the Boardwalk Rises?



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Kentucky Kingdom, better known for the majority of its life as "Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom," hasn't had many guests since it closed its doors in the fall of 2009. Last summer though, I was one of the park's few visitors during its second season of non-operation. Accompanied by my guide Rose, a former park employee who was now working for the group aiming to reopen the park, I got to walk along the midways and tour the rides with the permission of the Kentucky Kingdom Redevelopment Company (KKRC).



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- Six flag poles with no flags stood at the entrance, a sign of the former owner's departure.
Kentucky Kingdom is in Louisville, nestled on land owned by the Kentucky State Fair Board. It originally opened in 1987. The park lasted one short season before out-of-state investors pulled the plug and filed bankruptcy. It sat quiet for two more summers, the only visitors were workers who came to remove rides that had been auctioned or sold off. In 1989, Louisville businessman Ed Hart entered the picture. Hart's team got the park re-opened, spruced up and added a slew of new rides and attractions. One of the marquee rides added in Hart's first season was a wooden coaster named "Thunder Run," ironically a ride originally intended for the also closed Americana/Lesourdsville Lake in Middletown, Ohio.

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- The Guest Services windows at Kentucky Kingdom.
As the years went by, Hart continued to grow the park. By 1997 the Kingdom was on the rise, steadily increasing its attendance and the amount of new thrills added to the park's ride lineup. The park had been so successful that it caught the eye of Premier Parks who offered Hart $81 Million for the keys to his kingdom. Hart accepted. By 1998, Premier had acquired the entire Six Flags chain of amusement parks for nearly $2 Billion and adopted the Six Flags name, slapping the moniker onto parks it already owned. In 1998, the kingdom officially became know as "Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom." Along with their purchase, Six Flags was required to invest at least $12 Million into the park over the next two years. Large attractions continued to be added, many of which were the first of their kind in the Six Flags chain or record breakers among amusement parks. The park reached 1 million visitors for the first time during that 1998 season.

The "new" Six Flags chain began aggressively expanding, both its portfolio and within its parks. New parks were acquired and large capital investments in thrill rides dotted the companies properties. By 2004 though, Six Flag's steam had run out and financial trouble caught up with the company. Investors demanded a management change and a power struggle ensued into 2005. That summer, Six Flags New Orleans became damaged by Hurricane Katrina and was shuttered permanently. In the fall, the company sold off its Astroworld property in Houston, Texas. By November, former ESPN executive Mark Shapiro emerged as the company's new CEO. Six Flags was still debt ridden, but things appeared to be looking up.

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- The Thunder Run rollercoaster opened under Ed Hart's first management team in 1990. It was originally designed and intended for Americana/Lesourdsville Lake, another abandoned park chronicled on Queen City Discovery.
A selling spree continued for the company. By the start of the 2007 season, eight Flag's properties had been sold off. Kentucky Kingdom had been spared for the time being and continued to operate. While things seemed to be going o.k. at Kentucky Kingdom, tragedy struck that summer.

In June, a 13 year old girl had both her feet severed when she became entangled in a cable on the "Superman: Tower of Power" drop ride. Doctors were later able to reattach her right foot. A lawsuit ensued and eventually the Kentucky Department of Agriculture determined that improper maintenance and poor operator training had lead to the accident being so severe. The incident was not only tragic, but was also a huge blow to the already declining reputation of Six Flags and Kentucky Kingdom, which hadn't seen a significant capital investment in some time. By 2008, the ride was removed and Six Flags closed a large portion of Kentucky Kingdom as a cost saving measure. Two roller coasters and a marquee water ride were shut off to the regular crowd by fences.

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- Overgrowth on the "Thunder Run" coaster which was part of the park's closed area in 2008.
2008 saw Kentucky Kingdom open with three of its star attractions standing, but not operating. Six Flags declared that despite Shapiro's efforts, bankruptcy might be inevitable, while the New York Stock Exchange threatened to de-list Six Flags stock. In 2009, the company filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection while Kentucky Kingdom continued to operate with a portion of the park closed.

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- The lift hill of "Thunder Run."

By this time, Kentucky Kingdom had gained a reputation for rough and rowdy crowds. The park's season pass and admission tickets were the cheapest in the chain. The accident in 2007 still lingered in the news despite the park adding some improvements to its water park. At the closure of the 2009 season, Six Flags began dismantling "Chang," the park's signature roller coaster that had been the largest of its kind when it opened in 1998. Six Flags announced that the space would be used for a massive expansion to the water park just as they began re-negotiating their lease with the Kentucky State Fair Board per the requirements of their bankruptcy filing.

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- "Mile High Falls was another ride that closed in 2008 when part of the park was shuttered as a cost saving measure. For comparison, here's how the ride looked in 2004:

Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom 2004
- Per Flickr user: Edward Beavers

Kentucky Kingdom's situation was unique. Whereas Six Flags owned most of its other properties outright, the Fair Board owned the land on which Kentucky Kingdom sat as well as many of the attractions. Parking revenue went directly to the Fair Board and Flags paid rent to use the land for their operation. During the state fair, the park was required to operate as an extension of the fair's attractions. When Flags tried to re-negotiate their lease in February of 2009, they offered profit sharing in exchange for no rent payments on the remaining nine years of their contract. The Fair Board rejected the offer and Flags promptly closed the park. No more mention was made of the water park expansion that had never really been described in detail. The rides that Six Flags owned (or at least the ones they wanted) were dismantled and sent to other Six Flags parks. With no operator for what remained of Kentucky Kingdom, the park sat closed for the 2010 and 2011 seasons.

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- The station for the Twisted Twins racing wooden roller coaster, the third ride of the park's area that was closed in 2008.

It's an incredibly hot day. Sweat is forming on my neck around the camera strap. Despite the heat, the weather is beautiful. It's sunny, the sky is blue and dotted with white, fluffy clouds. It's the perfect day to go to an amusement park. The only problem is, this one's closed.

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- Overgrowth on the "Twisted Twins" roller coaster. Originally dubbed the "Twisted Sisters," the park changed the ride's name after a member of the band "Twisted Sister" threatened a lawsuit.
I love amusement parks, they're a staple of American culture and I've been to all kinds. From the hometown Kings Island, to the colossal Cedar Point, to the intimate confines of Camden Park. Hell, I've even photographed my share of abandoned ones such as Surf Cincinnati, Fun Spot and the aforementioned Americana. There's something different about Kentucky Kingdom though. The park is in the heart of the city, shady trees line the midways and despite being closed, the landscaping is maintained near the entrance. This isn't one of the smaller "Mom and Pop" abandoned amusement parks I've photographed before. Just two years ago, this park was up and running as a unit in a corporate chain. Even in its closed state, it's beautiful.

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As we tour the park, Rose points out the rides and unique food stands. Although parts are overgrowing, evidence of the once beautiful landscaping is still apparent. She shares stories of coworkers and the kids who used to work at the park. You can tell she takes a great deal of pride in it and genuinely cares about seeing it reopen in the future.

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- Twisted Twins.
A casual glance from the outside and you'd think that the park is just merely closed for the day ("The moose out front should've told ya!"). The small staff still employed by KKRC do what they can, but this is the second season where the buildings have been closed and the rides haven't run. Standing water is accumulating in the wave pool, rust is forming on some rides and roller coaster trains sit in pieces in their stations.

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- Panoramic photograph of one of the park's live entertainment theatres.
Hearing Rose's stories of when the park was open and seeing it in person made me wish that I had visited when I had the chance. You could tell she cared deeply for the place, which is why she was working for a company that hoped to bring the park back to life. She was one of the people that helped make places like this special.

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- In the water park section of Kentucky Kingdom, the lazy river sits empty.

KKRC seemed to have a good revitalization plan in place. They had experience on their side. They were lead by Ed Hart, the previous owner who saved Kentucky Kingdom once before. As I toured the park, he planned to do it again.

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- The coaster known as "T2 (Terror Squared/Terror to the Second Power)."
When I entered the park, I had known only of its negative reputation. When I left, I walked out with a sense of the pride Rose had shared with me. I wished for her team to hopefully work out a new agreement with the Fair Board. A new agreement however, would be easier said than done.

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Hart's company had managed to leverage some financing, but disagreements were flaring up in the news about how much, if any, money should be contributed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky since the park does sit on state owned land and serves as an extension of the state fair. Ultimately, negotiations fell through. The state wasn't interested in helping to finance the park. Hart had requested a lease agreement where his company would pay to rent the park property and operate it, while the state footed the $50 Million bill for "necessary improvements." Later the $50 Million request in public financing was dropped to $20 Million. To no avail, KKRC effectively disbanded and left the negotiating table after issuing a press release on September 30, 2011. The future of the park was again left in doubt, Hart wouldn't get to save his kingdom this time.

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- A ride control panel.
The story of Kentucky Kingdom doesn't end here though, just its name. In January of 2012, a new management group emerged stating that they were interested in negotiating a lease with the Fair Board. The company was named "Bluegrass Boardwalk" and made up of members of the Koch family, who own and operate Holiday World just an hour and a half away in Santa Claus, Indiana. Ironically, Holiday World and Kentucky Kingdom had been viewed as competitors. Holiday World even advertised right outside of Kentucky Kingdom's gates.

- 2009 photo of Kentucky Kingdom on the right and a Holiday World advertisement on the billboard across the street. Photo contributed by Paul Bonifield.

The Koch's had gained a reputation in the industry over the past decade. They grew their park from a small family run operation to one with some of the highest rated rides in the industry. They became well known for offering their guests unlimited free soft drinks and have been ranked as one of the friendliest and cleanest parks consistently. As I read the articles and reaction comments on news sites and amusement park forums, both enthusiasts and locals seemed to excited about the announcement from the Koch family. Many though, myself included, remained cautiously optimistic. Some speculated that this would be an attempt to prevent a competitor coming into the market. Through social media updates, the Bluegrass Boardwalk folks dismissed that rumor. They also confirmed that they were interested in running both an amusement and water park. Still, one couldn't help but wonder why the family would operate another park so close to one they already own, let alone a park they used to compete with directly.


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- A closed eatery within the park.
On February 7th, Bluegrass Boardwalk officially announced that they were in negotiations to reopen and operate the park. By February 21st, word leaked to the Louisville Courier Journal that Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear (D) was seeking out oust the Fair Board's president, Harold Workman (who has served in the position since 1993), for unspecified reasons. On February 23rd, the Kentucky State Fair Board unanimously approved an agreement with Bluegrass Boardwalk Inc. to operate the park. As of this writing, nothing more has been said on the Workman situation.

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- This building once housed an indoor roller coaster and Looney Tunes themed gift shop. Here's how it appeared just four years earlier in 2007:

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- From Flickr User: E-Beemy.
Ed Hart's team worked for a year and a half only to have negotiations collapse. In two months, the Koch's managed to strike a deal. Immediately after signing the lease, Bluegrass Boardwalk revealed that the park would be adopting the boardwalk name and was planned to reopen by May, 2013. They planned to operate both the rides and waterpark and bring in their "free soda, sunscreen and inner-tubes" perk. The 50 years lease starts out with a rent of $400,000 and increases to $1 Million by 2016. Bluegrass Boardwalk also announced that they would seek out nearly $20 Million in private financing, while seeking no public funds.

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- Overgrowth coming through the tracks of the Greezed Lightnin rollercoaster.

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- Greezed Lightnin' track.

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- Greezed Lightnin' Station.

Even with the good news, the park's future isn't set in stone just yet. Many questions remain. What is their strategy? The family's other park is 1.5 hours away and currently advertises in the Louisville metro market. Will having the same perks allow for cost synergy or duplication of an existing product?

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Personally, I wonder if $20 Million in private financing is enough? Most of the parks infrastructure has been sitting idle for two years and a whole section of it longer than that. The cost to paint the attractions themselves can't be cheap.

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- The kingdom's "Flying Duthcman" ride was relocated from Kings Island near Cincinnati, Ohio.
Hart initially requested $50 Million for "necesarry improvements," but never said exactly what was considered "necesarry" and later reduced his estimate to $20 Million, the same number the Koch's are pursuing. On top of the financing they seek, do they plan to invest their own capital into funding the park? Can it be open in time for May 2013 and if so, how much of the park will be open initially?

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- One of the park's carousel horses adorned with the name of the artist who painted it.

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Don't get me wrong, I wish for the park to have a prosperous future. I've seen a lot of parks close and disappear, photographs of their open and abandoned states left behind as reminders of their presence. Kentucky Kingdom has a new shot at life as the Bluegrass Boardwalk. It's a beautiful park and I wish the Koch family the best. I'm sure many of the lingering questions will be answered soon enough, but you have to admit that the situation is peculiar. Then again, in the story of this park's history - what isn't?

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- Ferris Wheel Cars.

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- The drained trough of the "Penguin's Blizzard River."
The giant ferris wheel may soon light up, the guests return and the roller coasters run. Only time will tell if the Koch's gamble with the Bluegrass Boardwalk will pay off. To them, I dedicate this song and wish them the best of luck.

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In the park you hear
The happy sound of the carousel
You can almost taste the hot dogs
And French fries they sell

Under the boardwalk! down by the sea...

12 comments:

  1. I love that the Koch family is moving in on the property. Holiday World is the best-run park I've ever been to. As far as operating 2 parks this close to each other, I'd argue that Palace Entertainment is able to do it with its Kennywood and IdleWild Parks in Pittsburgh. They're only 40 miles apart but both operate to high level. Granted, IdleWild caters more toward small children exclusively, while Kennywood is more of a Holiday World style family park.

    It's possible that the Koch's just want to enter that metropolitan market of Louisville. Santa Clause, IN is kind of in the middle of nowhere.

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  2. ^I'm glad the Koch family is involved too. Personally, for me anymore these days, I don't have much desire to drive really far to check out amusement parks anymore. You can do all Holiday World has to offer in half a day, but I will say that they do a great job of running that park. I just hope the dual park set up works well for them.

    You do bring up a good point about IdleWild and Kennywood.

    It'll also be interesting to see how the Koch's handle the demographics of Louisville. Kentucky Kingdom had a much different clientele than Holiday World. Hell, they used to have nightly wrestling shows.

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  3. Nice use of the Drifters song lol
    Wishing the Koch folks the best, it would be nice to see this park run again.

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  4. I feel that Holiday World will stay family with a few rides for thrillseekers with Kentucky Kingdom becoming the Thrill Park with more Extreme attractions that wouldn't work at Holiday World.

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  5. Great Article. Thanks for posting!

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  6. I throughly enjoyed reading this. This was my hometown park and it is so sad to see it run down like it is now. I am very happy to know it will be in good hands with the Koch family. Holiday World is a gem of a park and if they can come anywhere close to what they have going there then this reopen will be a success.

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  7. Great job. Love your pictures. I grew up in Hamilton and observed the demise of LeSourdsville Lake and now live in Houston and joined in on the last weekend of Astro World. The acreage that held Astro World still stand empty. Houston lost a lot of jobs and a place for kids and families to spend time. Now there is nothing. I hope it is successful.

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  8. This whole post makes me extremely happy.

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  9. good luck with this disaster Hart, your going to need more than 20 million to get this dump up and running"

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  10. nice pictures and also nice information in this bloglink wheel services

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  11. Suposedly its going to reopen in May 2014, they're already selling season passes and making renovations. Check out this link http://www.courier-journal.com/article/20131118/NEWS01/311180040/Kentucky-Kingdom-undercuts-competitors-59-95-season-pass?nclick_check=1

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  12. I just went today, it is so amazing seeing how much this has changed. Glad it's open!

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