My first visit to Kings Island was made during the summer of 2001, long before I'd developed much of an interest in theme parks. All I knew about the subject at the time came from watching America's Greatest Roller Coaster Thrills in 3D, a fairly mediocre documentary that I'd purchased on eBay for the princely sum of ten dollars. While I did write a diary for my visit, the original file was lost several years ago in a hard disk failure, so at this point I can only speculate now on how my day went.
The park has expanded significantly in the thirteen years since then, with the addition of several major new attractions. At the same time, demand has grown to the point that queue times in excess of an hour are the norm on all major rides during the peak summer months, even on weekdays. As this was Megan's first visit to the park we decided it would be best if we purchased some form of paid line jumping pass, as she didn't want to miss out on any of the credits.
There are three options available for guests on a limited schedule. Those with money to burn can pay for a VIP Tour, which includes park admission, preferred parking, front-of-line access to all rides, unlimited dining, a behind-the-scenes tour of Beast, and an individual tour guide for $249 per person. The less wealthy are catered for with two levels of Fast Lane wristband; a standard version with direct access to twenty different rides including eight of the thirteen coasters, and a plus version that adds the two newest coasters to the mix. We elected to go for the latter, handing over $70 apiece for the privilege.
Kings Island used to be home to Son of Beast, a twenty million dollar ride that opened at the turn of the century as the tallest wooden coaster in the world. Management invested heavily in new trains and track for the ride following a serious accident during its seventh season, but that wasn't enough; two years later it closed permanently. It stood idle for three further seasons, and was finally demolished at the end of 2012, making it a definite contender for one of the worst coaster fails in recent history.
The same plot of land has now become home to Banshee (#2096), an inverted coaster designed by the ever reliable Bolliger & Mabillard and built by local companies, notably Clermont Steel Fabricators, the Ohio company that has manufactured all B&M coasters built since 1989. The new ride has no storage in its station, which we had no difficulty with given that it operates an extremely tight dispatch interval. However, we were somewhat less forgiving when a staff member told us that our waist packs were not allowed on board, effectively forcing us to pay money for a locker. The ten minute queue for the rental machine added insult to injury.
The ride operates with three eight-car trains with a new style of restraint adapted from the rubber vests originally developed for flying coasters. I'd fully expected these to be a considerable improvement over the traditional solid overheads, and they were certainly more open, but they were marred by a definite tendency to get tighter as the ride progressed, often to the point of acute discomfort. After my first ride I experimented with placing my fingers in the shoulder area while pulling down on my harness, but this didn't help; the vest tightened up as soon as I moved my fingers out of the way.
The layout of the new ride is very good indeed, with several highlights including a twisting first drop and a slow inline twist about half way through the course. However, the whole experience was marred by a highly unpleasant rattling that was present on all four of our rides. It wasn't just a mild vibration, but rather something that shook us continuously from the top of the lift hill all the way to the final brake. I'd love to say that we caught the ride on a bad day, but I've since read other trip reports that say the same thing; though Banshee held a lot of promise, the implementation falls quite a long way short of the high standards one typically associates with B&M.
The ride once known as Top Gun (and later Flight Deck) was renamed this year to Bat in homage to the original suspended coaster that operated at the park from 1981-83. The pathway to the ride entrance passes through an enormous queuing area that surely hasn't been needed in the last fifteen years. We were able to walk directly into the back car of one of the two trains in use, and from there we enjoyed an involved but fun ride. As it turned out we'd timed things perfectly; a moderate queue had built by the time we disembarked.
Over the last few years I've become progressively more relaxed about parks offering paid line jumping privileges, not least because I've taken to using them myself on special occasions. However, I'm still of the view that the operators of these schemes need to use judgment to ensure at least a semblance of fairness, and this wasn't happening on Drop Tower today. There was a substantial wait in the main queuing area, but despite this we saw well over half the seats being filled from the Fast Lane queue. It was impossible not to feel a little guilty as the car began to work its way upwards, though this dissipated quickly as I began to admire a very different view to a few years ago.
We decided to go for a front seat on Invertigo, somehow forgetting that doing so would eliminate its best only good feature, namely the ability to watch other guests' facial expressions. The ride was once fairly smooth, but no longer; the forward journey today was punctuated by violent head-banging in both the boomerang element and the vertical loop, and the return journey was if anything worse. As we disembarked I noticed a small Vekoma imprint on the seat mouldings, reminding me of exactly who to blame for my impressive collection of new bruises.
Arrow Dynamics sold eleven different mine train coasters between 1966-74. There was a fourteen year gap until the next one, and a further three went by before Adventure Express was designed for Kings Island. One might have hoped that the design engineers would have improved their offering over a twenty-five year period, but as with the original the main part of this ride was memorable chiefly for its awkward transitions, allegedly designed using a coat hanger. It was only as the train engaged the second lift hill that the ride became moderately interesting, with frightening animatronics glaring at the train to the accompaniment of foreboding music. Unfortunately, this felt more than a little pointless when the train passed over the apex into a gentle curve and the final brake run.
On my first few trips to Kings Island it was my privilege to enjoy the Racer both forwards and backwards. Sadly this is no longer possible, as both sides were adjusted to face forward in 2008 after twenty-six years of safe operation. The reason given at the time was the desire to be consistent with other Cedar Fair parks, though I'm not impressed by this argument; one doubts that the average park guest would be concerned about consistency across an amusement park chain. It seems somewhat more likely that rising insurance costs made continued backwards operation uneconomical.
Whatever the case, the ride was being operated at maximum efficiency today, with two trains on each track and a minimum of stacking. There were definite signs of new wood in places, and as a result the ride quality was absolutely fine, if a bit dull; trim brakes on the turnarounds bled away quite a bit of speed, and in so doing eliminated even the remotest chance of airtime. The slow down on the red side felt a little stronger to me, which might explain why the blue train "won" every time.
It was hard to be overly enthusiastic about riding Vortex, the "classic" Arrow Death Machine that I'd not ridden in over a decade. Megan needed the credit, however, so I decided to join her against my better judgment. Today the ride felt like it was tearing itself to pieces; though the looping sections were okay, the corkscrews were not okay at all and the high speed turns could only be described using a row of characters typically found above the numbers on the top row of a keyboard. As of this writing four of the ten tallest Arrow loopers have been scrapped or heavily modified, including Drachen Fire, Great American Pain Machine, Shockwave, and Steel Phantom; surely this one cannot be far behind.
During our day we overheard a member of staff talking about a major electrical fault within the park at present that requires Drop Tower and the two launched coasters to be dispatched separately. The proper fix will apparently require a six figure investment and cannot be performed without taking all three rides down for a period of time, so for the moment management has issued a set of radios to the operators to ensure that only one crew presses their start button at any given time. I've no idea whether this story is true or not, but two small fires in recent months would tend to suggest that there is at least something behind the story.
We didn't notice any delay to our ride on Backlot Stunt Coaster, the ride formerly known as The Italian Job, but we did spot a few orange lap bars among the usual black, suggesting rather strongly that one of the trains on Flight of Fear may have been cannibalised for spare parts. The ride was running well today, with the forces in the climbing helix at the start being strong enough to cause blurred vision.
We decided it would be worth waiting for a front seat on Beast, mostly so that we could enjoy the iconic view from the top of the first lift hill that has been part of coaster enthusiast folklore for the last twenty-five years. Unfortunately, as I noted a few years ago the world's longest wooden coaster has been neutered by four magnetic trim brakes that really hurt the pacing of what would otherwise be a top ten coaster. The worst impact was on the first drop, with a pull that seemed to last about two seconds, shaving quite a bit off the overall top speed and rendering the whole experience somewhat impotent. The ride survived just fine for years without magnetic brakes, so why are they needed now?
Along similar lines, Diamondback has been retrofitted with seat belts this year despite its clamshell lap bar restraint having recorded almost twenty years of safe operation on a dozen different coasters around the world. There has been considerable speculation among the enthusiast community as to why this was done, and the general consensus seems to be that was a knee-jerk reaction to an accident where a seriously overweight passenger was ejected from New Texas Giant, a different style of ride from a different manufacturer with a different type of restraint in a different amusement park chain.
To start with the positive, the new belts do not hurt the overall experience of the ride, which today was delivering good floating airtime over each hill, marred only a little by some distinctive rattling in the outside seats. Unfortunately, they have a seriously detrimental effect on the loading speed, cutting the overall throughput by at least fifty percent. It was obvious that the operators were doing their best to keep things moving efficiently, assigning seats and helping to place loose items in storage bins, but despite their efforts there were two trains stacked on the final brake run after every ride.
Flying Ace Aerial Chase was the first family suspended coaster from Vekoma, and as such probably deserves at least a little latitude for its failings. Nevertheless, on our ride every track transition was causing the entire train to thump from side to side, and the heavy overhead shoulder harnesses ensured that this impact was transferred directly to our heads. The experience would have hurt less with more modern restraints, but even with them I'm not sure I'd have wanted to ride a second time.
In my time as an enthusiast I've gradually come to realise that the most violent and uncomfortable roller coasters tend to be those aimed at children. There's no question that slower rides can get away with more than faster ones, as a dodgy transition at high speed could cause serious injury, but even still it is hard to fathom why designers don't spend that little bit more on production in order to reduce their ongoing maintenance costs.
Our next stop was at Woodstock Express, a ride that has been through a bit of an identity crisis over the years. It began its career as Scooby Doo, then was rebranded for the 1980 season as Beastie. Twenty-five years later it was renamed to Fairly Odd Coaster, a name that it held until the park decided not to renew its Nickelodeon license at the end of 2009. The ride is arguably one of the best coasters in the park, delivering the classic wood coaster experience with passable airtime. The only catch was the size of the cars; though Megan and I managed to get into the same one it wasn't overly comfortable; adult enthusiasts should plan to ride separately.
On our way out of the children's area we noticed that there was no wait for Boo Blasters on Boo Hill, the target shooting omni-mover ride that originally opened as Scooby Doo and the Haunted Castle eleven years ago. Each car had three blasters in it, and I decided I'd take one in each hand. My aim, however, was lacking; Megan managed a higher score than my two combined.
We made a brief photo stop at the Eiffel Tower before heading over to the final two credits. Firehawk was the first coaster to be rescued from the now defunct Geauga Lake where it was known as X-Flight, but its original name has been thoroughly erased, even down to new manufacturer plates on each train. Today it was being run efficiently, with both sides of the loading station in use.
I've written before about how I feel that Vekoma build the best flying coasters, and I feel bound to step back onto that soapbox once again with the observation that the sensation of flight delivered by these rides is better than any other roller coaster on the market. I'm rather fond of the original prototype from B&M, but everything they've built since is marred by an intense pretzel loop that just doesn't feel like something a bird would do!
Flight of Fear is the only really major coaster in the park that doesn't have a Fast Lane queue, and as a result we ended up having to wait a little over an hour. The ride building was largely as I remembered it from years before, with the only noticeable difference being the lack of the pre-show video showing the escaping alien. In due course we made it to the station, and after a short discussion agreed to sit as far back as we could, which today was the fourth car, as the fifth was roped off.
My first experience of this ride many years ago was a positive one, but it has gotten extremely rough since then, to the point that I'm not entirely convinced that it is still safe to operate. The initial launch section was fine today, but the rest of the layout was punctuated by neck-snapping jolts of the sort that I'd typically associate with locally built coasters in China and India, rather than a multi million dollar attraction from Premier Rides.
As we disembarked it became apparent that we'd just missed a major rain storm; there were puddles of water everywhere, and just about everything was closed. We were somewhat surprised to discover that the list included Dinosaurs Alive, an outdoor walkthrough featuring sixty-five different animatronic dinosaurs. I'm not opposed to closing attractions for safety reasons when the weather demands it, but I'm at a loss to explain how it could possibly be unsafe to "operate" an attraction like this while the park midway remains open.
It quickly became apparent that the various rides would not be reopening imminently, so we decided it would be a good time to drive to a nearby restaurant for air conditioning and dinner. The sun had begun to set by the time we returned a few hours later, and while the park was still busy the queues had begun to thin out.
Megan had been particularly unimpressed by the rattle on Diamondback, but wanted to give it a second chance towards the front of the train in the hope that it would be smoother, which it definitely was. Her description of the ride was as concise as it was surprised; it doesn't suck. We went from there to Vortex, where we ended up in row five of the train. The middle of the train hurt slightly less than row three had done earlier in the day, though I'm still not entirely sure whether it was the right decision to ride again.
As we disembarked we noticed that the Windseeker ride was actually open. This was sufficiently surprising that we decided that we should ride, which we did to the soundtrack from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I'm given to understand that there are a total of eighteen choices in the playlist, the selection comprising several movie themes as well as the old reliable (if somewhat overused) Also Sprach Zarathustra.
We joined the queue for Beast as darkness began to set in, our target being a night ride in the front seat. While it wasn't pitch black as we boarded it was close, and we enjoyed a fairly good ride, albeit one which would have been better without the trim brakes and the enormously bright floodlights on each lift hill.
During the summer months the park presents a spectacular firework display that runs over a five minute period immediately prior to closing time. We decided that the best place to watch this would be from the Eiffel Tower, and we were just in time, arriving at the apex about ninety seconds before the show began.