Fun in the Making - The construction of Kings Island amusement park - Kings Island, Ohio.
By: Dennis Speigel, President/International Theme Park Services, Inc.
May 29, 2012
As Kings Island celebrates its 40th anniversary, it is interesting to think about its predecessor – Coney Island. Coney Island was a wonderful amusement park which was termed “America’s finest amusement park.” Few people remember that Coney Island in Cincinnati was a favorite park of Walt Disney’s. He visited the park many times during the planning of Disneyland in California. He became friends with Ed Schott, owner of Coney Island at that time. It was said that he offered Mr. Schott 30% of Disneyland for $5 million – a sum that, in 1953, Mr. Schott could not afford.
Walt Disney went to many parks in his exploration to build Disneyland. These included parks like Pontchartrain Beach (now defunct) in New Orleans, Riverview Park in Chicago, and Riverside Park in Agawam, Massachusetts – just to name a few. He watched, he learned, and he took notes on what and what not to do. He clearly had a vision for Disneyland.
Coney Island featured a beautiful mall planted with well-manicured Gingko trees. They were the hallmark of the mall - wonderfully shaped and beautifully cared for by the park’s landscaping department, under the direction of Henry Schwab and Roy Rector. The mall featured a midway-like feeling, and was aligned on each side by different types of flat rides. Overhead was a beautiful Von Roll Sky Ride, with cars that lit up at night creating a colorful nighttime operation.
Through the years, the rides on the Coney Island mall would change. On the east end of the mall, during the 1950s and 1960s, as well as part of the 1970s, sat two highly popular rides: the Lost River and the Wildcat Roller Coaster. When the Sky Ride was added in 1965, the Wildcat was torn down to create a station for the new ride. The Lost River endured until the close of Coney Island. It was really a “tunnel of love” with boats floating through a serpentine channel and through dark-lighted sets. No one ever paid much attention the sets – they were too busy smooching!
In the late 1950s, a new ride came on the amusement park scene – the Rotor. This was a giant barrel type ride that spun at enough RPMs to pin riders to the wall, at which point the floor dropped out from below and the riders were pinned to the wall until the ride slowed and the floor rose up to meet riders’ feet.
The south side of the Coney Island mall was anchored by the Shooting Star roller coaster, a dog-leg layout coaster with an incredible first dip of about 55 degrees, and a lot of whoop-te-doos until the finish when the train entered a dark tunnel before speeding in to the station. The Shooting Star by today’s standards for coasters would still be a great coaster. When we moved to Kings Island, because of liability issues, we tore it down. Too bad it could not have been moved at that time. It had charm and thrill.
The Coney Island mall had other entertaining features – a huge penny arcade, caramel corn stand, age and weight guessing game, a salt water taffy shop (candy made on premises), ice ball stands, Ferris wheel ride, Monster, Scrambler, a phenomenal Tumble Bug ride, Shooting Gallery (22 caliber bullets), and a dark ride which was Haunted House themed. In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the Haunted House was a walk-through mirror maze. It had many floors, confusing mirrored walkways, rotating barrels, and curtain areas. As women crossed out front on the upper observation platform, a hidden worker had a button he could push to blow up the big hoop skirts of that era. Everyone waited down below to watch the faces of the women who crossed over and got the air hose treatment. It was really fun.
During certain times of the year, the Coney mall hosted 4th of July fireworks celebrations – special acts that were brought in to ballyhoo attendance. These included trapeze acts, as well as “Suicide Simon” who would blow himself up every night with dynamite! The Coney Mall area could hold a lot of people, and elevated acts really worked well during that time. Many acts played the Coney Mall; it was the place to be in Cincinnati during that time.
During the 1970s, Gary S. Wachs, Vice President of Coney Island, anticipated the need to bring new forms of entertainment to the park and to the mall. He went to California and struck a relationship with television puppeteers, Sid and Marty Krofft. This relationship developed into a major theater being built at the east end of the mall. A huge dark light show, produced by the Kroffts, featuring gigantic, “bigger than life” puppets debuted in the theater. It was an immediate success and operated in the park until it closed in 1971.
The Coney mall was special. It was beautiful, and featured a small fountain which had a light show at night. People loved to stroll the mall hand in hand in the evening. It was indeed a romantic experience with all of the ambiance and features.
When we began planning Kings Island, the first area we defined as a themed area was the Coney Island area. To re-create the feel of the Coney mall, we kept the mall beds and we even figured out a way to transplant the incomparable Gingko trees. We aligned the mall with newer versions of the old Coney mall rides and attractions. We anchored the mall on the northeast side of the park with the Racer roller coaster.
The Racer was the first wooden roller coaster to be built in America since 1947. We brought John Allen from Philadelphia Toboggan in to work with Jim Figley, our head of construction. At that time, there were no computers on which to design a roller coaster; it was basically done on a slide rule! The Racer was incredible. Red trains and blue trains left the station together racing out and back. The weight of the trains determined the winners. It was amazing in 1972 to see how close they would finish. All the way, the red side and blue side screamed at each other to see who would win. This coaster launched the renaissance of the wooden roller coaster. At this point in time, there were three Six Flags parks, none of which had wooden roller coasters. Also, at that point in time, Disney did not have a wooden coaster so to speak (they had the Matterhorn), and the Six Flags management felt that wooden coasters were passé. However, after the enormous reception of the Racer, Six Flags came to visit us and we sent Jim Figley from our company to assist them in planning the Screaming Eagle (built at Six Flags over Georgia). It too was an immediate success, after which Six Flags built coasters in all of their parks.
Rides were not the only major feature on the new Coney mall at Kings Island. We replicated a huge games and arcade area. Again, neither Disney nor Six Flags had games until they came and saw our Kings Island operation. Games were our third largest revenue producer, with the highest profit margin. Soon afterwards, games sprung up at all of the other developing parks. And – they were real money makers.
Forty years later, the Coney Island mall at Kings Island still maintains a lot of the charm from the original Coney Island park. Oh, things have changed, of course. Games are not quite as popular as they originally were, and arcades have declined due in part to home computers, Wii, Xbox, and the internet. It is not as new as it once was, but the feeling is still there. It’s a little bit of carnival, a little festival, and a lot of nostalgia for those of us who remember old Coney Island and its fabulous mall.
Of course, I would be remiss not to mention other unique features about the great Kings Island, a park that had a lot of “firsts” in its distinctive history. Kings Island was the first theme park that was primarily designed “in-house.” Darrell “Dusty” Daniels was the architect of record, who was directed by the Coney Island management team on what to design. This process was under the direction of Gary S. Wachs, then head of the theme park group. In total, there were 16 Coney Island members who worked diligently on the design process. I had the good fortune to be a part of that team.
To begin the design, we knew we wanted to use the “hub and spoke” design. This promoted excellent guest flow around the park. There were no dead ends at Kings Island. People flowed seamlessly around the park.
The original themed areas consisted of International Street, Hanna Barbara Land, Rivertown, Oktoberfest, and Old Coney Island. Each themed area was germane to our company. The 331-foot Eiffel Tower observation attraction immediately became the park’s icon. It could be seen from miles away as one drove along Interstate 71.
A major milestone for Kings Island was the building of the Beast which opened in 1979 (now celebrating its 33rd anniversary). The Beast, upon introduction, became the most famous roller coaster in the world. It was designed “in house” under the direction of Charles Dinn, an employee of Kings Island at that time. It was the largest, tallest, and fastest roller coaster of its day. It cost $4 million to build back then, was 7,359 feet long (1.4 mile long) and 110 feet high, had a speed of 65 miles per hour, and was a four-minute ride! These statistics were unheard of by coaster standards of that era. Today, it is still listed among the world’s greatest coasters. It was built to the unique terrain of Kings Island in an area where nothing else could be built.
Of course, with every project comes a problem. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Kings Island purchased the first suspended coaster from Arrow Development of Ogden, Utah. It was anticipated to be a major addition to the park as the industry’s first suspended coaster. However, due to its prototypical nature, it experienced major design and structural issues. After several years of opening and closing, it was taken down. A deal was worked out with Arrow to build another steel coaster called the Vortex (which remains in operation today). If Kings Island had continued its lawsuit against Arrow Development, Arrow would have gone bankrupt. The agreement worked to everyone’s advantage.
After the success of Kings Island and its design, we set up Kings Entertainment Company, a totally in-house design team. Kings Dominion and Canada’s Wonderland were both designed by this team.
In 1981, Kings Island was sold as a leveraged buyout to a group of internal employees. Some of these had theme park backgrounds, while others had none. Timing was good for the LBO. Parks were hitting their stride. Many members of the original Coney Island team were terminated and a group under the direction of a newcomer to the theme park industry (Nelson Schwab) took over management. Right or wrong, it was a good time to be running a theme park. Even led by newcomers, the parks were performing and performing well. The 1980s represented the maturing of the industry, and it was difficult during those years to see downturn.
Since the development of Kings Island, there have been five owners. After the original Taft Broadcasting, these were Kings Entertainment Company, American Financial Corporation, Paramount Studios, and as of today, Cedar Fair Entertainment Company. Best said, Kings Island has always been, from its opening, a “grand money maker” for its owners. Drawing approximately three million people per season, Kings Island remains one of the top parks in the U.S.A., and I am proud to have been a part of its heritage.