Thursday, September 7, 2017

Kentucky Kingdom: Six Years Later | Part 1

After photographing many abandoned amusement parks over the years, I've never seen one come back to life. Until now.

Over nearly ten years, some of the more prominent articles on QC/D have been about forgotten or abandoned places. Stories like the ones about “the ghost ship” and the Cincinnati Subway have been among the most popular. Some of my favorites have been about abandoned amusement parks and their environs. There are 14 stories concerning 10 different parks, an abandoned zoo, and amusement-related roadside attractions which evoke similar feelings of nostalgia. The first article ever produced here was about Americana/LeSourdsville Lake in Middletown, Ohio, and my obsession with exploring abandoned places started with Surf Cincinnati, a waterpark once in the city’s northern suburbs.

- The abandoned Fun Spot park in Angola, IN. 

These places resonate with me, but not simply because of how unique they are on the urban exploration landscape. Whenever I’m walking around some forgotten place, it’s interesting to think of the lives that passed through there. How did people utilize this place? What memories were created here? What kinds of moments took place? What kinds of relationships were forged? When walking around the forgotten parks, it was easy to imagine those things. I went from being a kid who enjoyed parks to an adult that loved working in one. I spent so many hours of my summers traversing asphalt midways and answering radio calls when rides broke down. On the rare off day I found myself in an abandoned park, I thought about not only the guests who once came—who they were, where they were from—but also about the workers. What had it been like to work here? Did it mean as much to them as it did to me? As my amusement career progressed, so did my frequency of photographing abandoned parks; they went hand in hand.

Some of the parks I featured, such as Chippewa Lake, don’t have a chance of returning to life. Some, such as Surf Cincinnati, are now completely demolished. Others, such as Americana/LeSourdsville Lake, always had a slim hope, but they eventually met their fate. Then there was Kentucky Kingdom, a park that was particularly peculiar because it had been a Six Flags park, a cog in the wheel of a large corporation. In its last years, SFKK wasn't some local mom-and-pop operation. It was a full-fledged, modern, corporate-backed theme park. Then it closed; its Ferris wheel- and roller coaster-lined skyline sat quietly in the heart of Louisville, Kentucky.

- Kentucky Kingdom as seen in 2011.

I had the opportunity to photograph the place back in 2011, with the permission of one of the groups who was competing for the chance to reopen the park. By the time I published the article in early 2012, another group had moved in and was working to bring the place back to life, but they failed. Eventually, the park reopened in 2014.

It’s a bit of a lengthy history lesson, but here’s the gist of it: Kentucky Kingdom opened in the spring of 1987; it was a venture from out-of-state investors. After one season, the group filed for bankruptcy. Local businessman Ed Hart stepped forward in 1989, purchasing the rights to operate the place. He reopened in 1990 and began expanding. A waterpark and several marquee attractions followed in the ensuing years. During the '90s, the park was a regional draw, often airing commercials in the Cincinnati market where Paramount’s Kings Island was already a well-established force in the industry. Hart sold the operational rights in 1997 to Premier Parks, which would go on to purchase the entire Six Flags chain. Premier quickly redeveloped all of its properties with the newly-acquired Six Flags branding. Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom was born.

Under Six Flags, the development of the park was a roller coaster ride in and of itself. Bold expansion plans were often toned down or never realized. As other parks in the chain received significant capital investments and record-breaking rides, Kentucky Kingdom found itself waiting for its turn at something truly special year after year, only occasionally seeing large investments. In 2007, the 1995 drop tower ride known as “Hellevator” was renamed, rethemed, and repainted as the “Superman: Tower of Power.” Although it was still the same ride, the park’s press event tried to play the reimagining off as some sort of brand new attraction. Unfortunately, that same year, the ride was the site of a grizzly accident when the feet of a young girl were severed as she rode. An investigation found that the park had not been using the manufacturer-recommended cables and was negligent. The incident marked a dark chapter in the park’s history and further piled on to an ever-worsening reputation.

In 2008, the infamous drop ride was removed, and a large portion of the park and its attractions were closed, moves that Six Flags cited as cost cutting measures. After the 2009 season, the company announced a massive water park addition in place of the park’s signature roller coaster. However, by February 2010, Six Flags had reversed course and announced the park would be closing entirely.

SFKK was unique in the fact that it didn’t actually own all of the land it sat on. The property was leased from the Kentucky State Fair Board, and at the park’s 2010 closure, Six Flags stated that they were walking away from the fair board’s rejection of an amended lease. Six Flags took the rides they owned outright and squabbled over the ownership of other rides in court. In a settlement, the fair board forgave debt that was owed in exchange for negotiated property left on site. The park mostly remained and Six Flags departed the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Just as he had in 1989, Ed Hart came back into the picture with a plan to reopen and revive the park. It was during this time that I had the opportunity to photograph the park in its closed state. In a season that would normally see the place filled with guests, the place sat empty in the sweltering summer heat. Negotiations with Hart’s group eventually fell through; lawsuits were threatened and another party entered.

Bluegrass Boardwalk was the subject of my 2012 article. Kentucky Kingdom operating under a new name was the brainchild of the Koch family, the same group who owned competitor Holiday World in nearby Santa Claus, Indiana. Industry enthusiasts and professionals alike were intrigued by the deal and speculated about it. Some were hopeful that the Koch family’s reputation would find its way to Louisville; others speculated that this was their attempt to delay a regional competitor from coming back to life. Nevertheless, the group had a lease agreement with the fair board in hand, and it was negotiating for economic incentives from the Commonwealth of Kentucky while touting a 2013 opening.

The Kochs and their Bluegrass Boardwalk group eventually walked away, citing frustration with government negotiations. Kentucky Kingdom was once again in limbo. Yet Ed Hart returned again. With his new Kentucky Kingdom Redevelopment Corporation formed, he sought out a fresh plan to bring the park back. He was able to negotiate not only a lease but also bureaucratic incentives from both the state and city. Armed with a team of investors, KKRC announced exciting expansion and redevelopment plans. Many remained skeptical, though. News broke that the cost of the project would end up being more than the KKRC originally anticipated. As someone still working in the industry at the time, I knew several people who watched with speculative optimism as to whether or not the plan was viable. Several people I spoke with believed that Hart might be looking to bring the park back and flip it to a buyer like he had done with Premier Parks in the late '90s. That was, if he could even get the place open again at all. In its last few years, even before the accident, the reputation of the park had greatly diminished and regional competition had increased.

Nevertheless, work on reopening the park took physical form in early 2013. A new roller coaster was constructed, and the park was turned from abandoned shell into a functioning tourist attraction. Unlike so many other abandoned parks I photographed, Kentucky Kingdom reopened in the spring of 2014. Reviews since the reopening have been positive, and in May 2017, three years into its rebirth, I decided to go visit the park for myself.

- Kentucky Kingdom reborn.

In Part 2, I get into a review of the park itself, but in the meantime, here’s a look at what changed since the park has sat idle. It’s incredibly impressive what it's come back from and how it looks today. Unlike Kings Island up the road, Kentucky Kingdom isn’t part of a chain. It has its own unique identity and operation, and it’s clearly evident that the park is trying to shed its past image. The investment has been significant, and overall my visit was positive. It was my first time being at an amusement park in years, which was odd enough by itself, but seeing a place once void of life now teeming with it was interesting. No matter how this chapter of Kingdom’s story plays out, it was great to see a place once left for dead now returned.

Use the sliders on the image to compare July 2011 with May 2017

Note: The images may take a few extra seconds to load. If viewing on mobile, there may be a gap between the below images.

The six flag poles once denoting Six Flags' ownership still stand, albeit with just American flags today:

The park's entrance sign after passing through the main gate:

Cotton Candy stand:

Food stand:

The dueling wooden roller coaster once known as Twisted Twins has been mostly removed, however some of its structure has been used in creating a new coaster, Storm Chaser:

An eatery known as Swampwater Jack's has remained mostly the same aside from a fresh coat of paint.

One remaining mark of the Six Flags era, this building was once themed to the "Looney Toons."

The antique car ride:

The loading station for the now removed Greezed Lightnin' roller coaster has been repurposed for a new coaster, Lighting Run.

The Carousel:

The Flying Dutchman ride was originally relocated from Kings Island. It still survives today.

At the time of my visit in May 2017, the water park had yet to open for the year, but preparations were underway.

The T2 roller coaster is now known as T3. It now has new trains, new paint, and a soundtrack.

The water park was slated to open for the year a few weeks after my visit, but still retains many of the attractions from the park's previous iteration. Several new ones have been added as well.

The Thunder Run wooden roller coaster featuring a refurbished train:

So how does the park itself shape up as a place to visit? Click through to Part 2 to find out.

Over the years, several of QC/D's urban exploration stories have focused on abandoned amusement parks: View all of the stories

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