Thursday, September 7, 2017

Kentucky Kingdom: Six Years Later | Part 2

Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom had a reputation and eventually the gates closed, the carousel stopped playing music, and the roar of roller coasters were silenced. After having the opportunity to see it abandoned a few years ago, I decided to go back and compare after park underwent a highly acclaimed rebirth. After taking all of that in for Part 1 of this series, I decided to visit an amusement park as a guest. The first time I'd done so in nearly ten years.

- View from a Kentucky Kingdom midway.

When I was a kid, I was a big fan of amusement parks. My mom likes to tell the story about my reaction to my first visit to Kings Island. It was the summer of '96, and I was seven years old. After returning home, I demanded to know why she had never told me about the place. My siblings and I then grew up with KI season passes, and we always loved trips there with family and friends. Occasionally, we got to visit other parks. I loved them all, no matter the size of the rides. I begged for roller coaster publications from grade school book fairs, and I spent hours playing Roller Coaster Tycoon (to be fair, I still do that). Eventually, I got to an age where I could work at Kings Island. I loved all eight seasons of that job. I was incredibly sad to leave it behind when the time came. I made some of my closest and best friends while working there. In the early seasons of my career, my coworkers and I would often travel to other parks. Despite spending most of our days working in them, we still enjoyed visiting other parks whenever we could.

Then one day the allure of amusement parks ceased for me. I still really, really enjoyed working in one, managing ride operation areas in the summer and performing maintenance in the winter. I just got tired of visiting them. Maybe it was from getting older, maturing, or just evolving interests, but the idea of going to a park and killing a day there just completely lost its appeal. The last few years I worked at Kings Island, I still enjoyed following the industry, and I truly loved my job and its environment. It was just the type of environment I didn’t want to be in if I didn’t have to be. So I stopped going to parks. Outside of being in one for work, the last visit I ever made specifically to enjoy a park was probably 2008. After leaving Kings Island, I did some freelance work in the industry for a bit, but I still never found myself wanting to be a guest again.

- The Flying Dutchman at Kentucky Kingdom was actually relocated from Kings Island.

Throughout all of this, though, I was still actively exploring and documenting abandoned places for this website. One of those places was Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom, which closed after the 2009 season. Due to its poor reputation and lack of exciting attractions, my friends and I didn't visit SFKK while it was open. I did get to go there in 2011, walking the abandoned midways as battles brewed over the rights to redevelop and reopen the park. Several people I knew throughout the amusement industry speculated that Kentucky Kingdom would never again reopen despite the best efforts of multiple groups involved.

Then one day it did.

- Kentucky Kingdom as seen in its closed state, July 2011.

To date, it’s the only once-closed amusement park I’ve featured on QC/D that has come back to life. When I heard the news that it was reopening, I was once again interested in visiting a park as a guest. It took me a while to find the time, but back in May of 2017, I finally hit the road for Louisville to visit a reborn Kentucky Kingdom.

My desire to visit wasn’t at all based on a desire to ride rides, play games, or enjoy the park as a typical summer tourist. I mainly wanted to follow up to my 2012 article and see how the place had changed from when it was abandoned. However, I figured if I was going to make the drive and pay admission, maybe I should try just visiting again; may as well make a day of it. So I decided that after I got all the photographs I wanted, I’d go about my day as a normal guest.

Part 1 of this Kentucky Kingdom series focused on the “before/after” and a look at the park’s history. This second story serves as a review. Before QC/D ever launched, I cut my teeth at these types of articles by posting “photo trip reports” to Every time I’d visit a park or spend a day visiting (not working) at Kings Island, I’d snap photos and write a review of the day on that KI/Amusement Park fan website. Because I haven't visited a park (at least an active/open one) in nearly a decade, I haven't authored any work like that in awhile. So here we go, invoking my inner nerd ten years later: a photo trip report of Kentucky Kingdom.

Since reopening in 2014, Kentucky Kingdom has been aggressively marketing, even outside of Louisville. This summer in particular has seen their advertisements pop up on billboards all over Cincinnati. They even offer a special deal for out-of-state visitors. Regular admission for the day is $49.95 before tax, but if carrying proof that you hail from outside of the park’s designated “local” region, you can pay $25.95 for an admission that’s good for two days and unlimited free soft drinks. Even as someone who would only be there for one day, this was still one hell of a deal.

- Kentucky Kingdom advertisements as seen in Downtown Cincinnati, one of many in the Queen City region.

I exited the highway, pulled into the fairgrounds, paid $8 for parking, and then rolled down the access road which separates two halves of the park. This road can be traversed by guests via a bridge or by crossing the street. When guests need to cross, a team of park officers and security halt traffic in sync.

I found my way to the parking lot. The Sunday morning crowd was fairly light. A friendly bike-bound security guard implored me to remember where I parked. I walked to the admission booth to get my out-of-state deal; the employee in the booth was kind. She thanked me for visiting from Cincinnati. “You’d rather come here than Kings Island?” she asked. “Yes, actually,” I replied, declining to elaborate on a longer story for another day.

I had my ticket scanned, and I turned over my camera bag for a security inspection. A friendly employee explained to me what she had to do and asked for permission to open my bag. I was happy to oblige, noting the security presence that was behind her in the event I was not a patient guest, but rather one of the mouth-breathing, difficult park goers that I spent eight years dealing with.

Kentucky Kingdom used to have a reputation. Whether it was truly warranted or not, there were definitely prevailing stories about unruly or “rough” crowds. It’s clear that the park is now positioning itself to appear as safe and welcoming as possible. The security and police presence is visible, but the officers are friendly and regularly ask how your day is going or if they can help you find anything.

I spent the first part of my day snapping the photos and making notes for Part 1, and then I returned to the front of the park to purchase a locker. Both my proof of free drinks and locker purchase required wrist bands. Soon my arm was sporting several decorations. I locked up the camera, held on to my phone and notebook, and set out to enjoy a park as a guest for the first time in nearly a decade.

- Wristbands for lockers beats carrying around a key any day.

From every angle, the park is clean, and a regular army of employees patrols to pick up litter. While many of the midways are asphalt, the heat coming from them wasn’t bad on a spring day. There’s still a few remnants of the Six Flags era about—one building still sports Looney Tunes inspired decorations—but overall the park has received fresh paint and refurbished structures abound. Although there were no live shows in the nearby theatre, the park’s mascot, “King Louie,” was hugging children and throwing out high fives, an anthropomorphic revival from the days before the dark clouds of Six Flags ownership. Despite it being a Sunday afternoon on the weekend of the Kentucky Derby, crowds were pretty light. They were also fairly diverse. One head scarf adorned mom fed her kids organic snacks, while a nearby NASCAR shirt donning dad puffed a cigarette, telling his kids to be back in an hour and stay out of trouble.

Throughout the park, “Kentucky Kingdom Radio” plays on speakers overhead with a mix of modern pop songs, classic rock, advertisements, and reminders about park policy. The only time you don’t hear it is when the aircraft from nearby Louisville International Airport buzz overhead. Although not advertised as an attraction, Kentucky Kingdom provides a daily, free air show.

- Located near Lousiville's International Airport, aircraft flying over are a regular occurrence.

The park’s landscaping is really well done, featuring placards that give details about the fauna throughout. While gardening may not be anywhere near as exciting as roller coasters, the landscaping is important. It’s a nice detail and proof that the park cares about the small things.

I’ll be honest: I didn’t really have any desire to ride anything aside from the park’s main roller coasters. I spent the vast majority of my time just walking around and taking the park in. Whatever stigma this park held before under the Six Flags moniker has now been shed. It’s a nice place, with an environment and look that’s on par with the corporate seasonal parks like Kings Island and Cedar Point. Where Kentucky Kingdom shows its independent business model is with its more “marquee” attractions, many of which are similar to the rides you might find at rival parks, but are lower capacity, permanently installed models that you might find at a traveling fair. They make it work, though, providing thrills on a budget. An interesting example of this is the park's Fear Fall ride. It doesn't tower above the skyline like the 200 ft. or 300 ft. models at rival parks, nor does it seat many people. However, even at 129 ft. it gets the job done.

I was a little surprised to see this type of attraction installed. Now removed, the park's former Hellevator/Superman: Tower of Power drop ride was responsible for a 2007 incident that severely maimed a teenage girl as her feet were severed. The accident garnered international attention and further eroded Kentucky Kingdom's reputation in the final years under Six Flags. While the newer attraction is from a different manufacturer and not overseen by the same people who failed to maintain its predecessor, I was still found its inclusion in the park's lineup to be interesting.

The roller coasters are from more mainstream manufactures found in the industry. They’re not the tallest or fastest around, but the park’s lineup is unique. The first one I went to was one I had been anticipating since wandering the abandoned midways in 2011: Thunder Run.

The park’s signature wooden rollercoaster isn’t the most revered or talked about in the amusement park world, but it has an interesting history behind it. It was originally designed for the now defunct LeSourdsville Lake/Americana Amusement Park in Middletown, Ohio, the first abandoned amusement park I ever came across and the subject of the first story here on QC/D. I always thought it was ironic that this coaster had found its way to another park, avoiding abandonment in Middletown only to be abandoned in Louisville later on. Thankfully, like the rest of the park, it’s up and running again, a centerpiece since 1990.

Thunder Run also brings one of the few glaring issues I have with this park to the forefront: wait times. Despite a low crowd, the time spent in line for Thunder Run can be a bit ridiculous. There’s only a single train. While the ride has always operated with only one vehicle, several of the park’s other coasters have multiple trains, yet were only operating with one. I still can’t fathom why they do this. It’s not particularly unique to Kentucky Kingdom. If you have more vehicles and can increase the efficiency, capacity, and turnover of guests, why wouldn’t you do it? At the very least, these people can’t spend money if they’re stuck in your lines.

In Thunder Run’s line, I had a conversation with a fellow guest who identified himself as a member of the “American Coaster Enthusiasts.” I remembered these guys from when I used to work for a park. They’re usually friendly, but they always love to tell you about how they have the inside scoop on something. Although they never do, I enjoyed chatting with this guy. We boarded the front seat together as he recounted how happy he was to have Kentucky Kingdom back open.

The ride was fantastic, the perfect embodiment of the classic American amusement park ride. Wasn’t too rough but not too smooth, with an interesting circuit that reminds you of why wooden roller coasters are great. Despite one train operation and a ridiculous line, I waited and rode it a second time to try and picture what this ride would’ve been like at Americana.

I stopped to finally use my free drink wristband. Even though the employee couldn’t get it to scan, he handed me a cup, allowing me to choose between any number of Coca-Cola products. I thought about pairing the fountain lemonade with some lunch, but the park seemed to offer mostly standard fast food fare along with carnival staples such as funnel cakes and pretzels. One unique item, Loaded BBQ Pork Fries, sounded tempting, though.

The next ride I went looking for was Storm Chaser, a roller coaster installed atop the remains of a defunct one in 2016. What had once been the wood-tracked, steel-supported “Twisted Twins” coaster has now had part of its structure repurposed into this fully steel coaster. The ride features an incredibly unique element in that immediately after it ascends the lift hill, it performs a barrel roll while diving into the first drop.

Although it took a while to get through the line after the ride broke down once and because a second, unused train sat idle nearby, I found myself literally saying “wow” when this ride finally stopped. I couldn’t believe how good it was; it gave a feeling reminiscent of being eight years old and trying a new ride for the first time.

The next coaster was another one that harkened back to the park’s past. “T3: Terror to the Third Power” used to be known as “T2: Terror Squared.” Apparently, to reach the third level of power, all you have to do is get a fresh coat of paint. This ride has been at the park since 1995, and it almost became “Batman: The Ride” before Six Flags declined to give Kentucky Kingdom its usual DC Comic Book Superheroes themes. For some reason, the park settled on the T2 name. When the ride reopened in 2015, there apparently still weren’t any better names available. Even if you’ve never been to Louisville, there’s a good chance you’ve ridden this ride before. It’s a clone of a popular coaster designed by Dutch firm Vekoma.

Known infamously in the industry as “hang and bangs,” the 41 variants of this ride across the world have a reputation for giving you a headache as you navigate the course suspended below the track. T3 was actually the second one ever built and the first in the United States. Thankfully, it now bucks the “hang and bang” reputation, sporting new trains where the harnesses are configured to never touch your head.

On top of the trains being new, there are two of them and they both operate. The wait time is short and the newer restraints allow you to experience the intensity of the ride without the concussion. It packs a punch, never letting up until it hits the brakes.

There was one coaster left, one which opened to rave reviews with the park upon its rebirth in 2014. Lightning Run utilizes the station of the former Greezed Lightnin’ shuttle loop coaster which was still standing during my 2011 abandoned visit but has now met the scrap heap. Although capable of running two trains, one of the ride vehicles sat on a transfer track nearby.

Like every coaster before this one, though, any annoyance is quickly dissuaded after riding. Despite a relatively short height and what appears to be a short length, the ride rolls up and down intense hills and turns while providing great views of the park. It’s compact, intense, and hits your gut in just the right way.

There’s a reason why people clap when this ride hits the brake run.

When the ride was over, I watched an employee confront a group of kids who got caught trying to skip other patrons in line. The kids denied it, but a waiting security guard escorted them from the platform. It was honestly the first time that day I began reminiscing about my time working in an amusement park. I thought I’d be overwhelmed with nostalgic feelings all day, but until I saw the employees handling a situation, it surprisingly hadn’t hit me too hard. It can be difficult to describe because from the outside an amusement park job may seem like just a summer distraction for when you’re young. However, there’s something to be said about truly enjoying what you’re doing. When I worked at Kings Island, I woke up every morning looking forward to work, and I closed out each day believing I had made an impact. In some ways, I’ve never found the same satisfaction in other aspects of life. There are a few other people I know who can relate. None of us are pining for the days of low pay that didn’t increase with overtime hours. Rather, we miss doing a job we enjoyed in a place we enjoyed where we could make a difference no matter how menial. Whether I was managing an area of rides in the summer or replacing bearings on roller coaster wheels in the winter, I loved almost every moment of that job and place. The way that career ended for me and for others has never sat well with me. That’s a story for another day and other QC/D posts, though. The point is, I thought being at Kentucky Kingdom would make me long even harder for the things I miss and what they represent, but it never quite caught up to me until after that last coaster ride when I was ready to leave.

Overall, I enjoyed Kentucky Kingdom, and I didn’t leave feeling too down. I can’t say I still have any real desire to visit amusement parks, but I did enjoy the feelings of riding a roller coaster in the same ways I did as a kid and to see a once forgotten, cast-off place brought back to such a successful life. I left with an appreciation for the park and some thoughts on where to take this overall story next.

They tossed those kids out, by the way. Good on them.

To see how the park directly compares to its abandoned state, visit the before/after story in Part 1.

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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