The pandemic has triggered an enormous shortage of staff in the United States, with seasonal businesses such as theme parks feeling the brunt of the pain. The perceived root cause of the issue inevitably depends on one's political persuasion, but what can't be argued is that there has been a massive reduction in the number of non-immigrant visas issued to foreigners. Statistics published by the Department of State show a 72% fall in the figure for May 2021 when compared against the same period two years earlier.
For this reason I made a point of reconfirming opening hours each morning throughout my trip, both by looking at park websites and, where available, social media. The latter was how I discovered that my visit to Kentucky Kingdom overlapped with the NSRA Street Rod Nationals, a classic car show taking place on the grounds of the Kentucky Exposition Center. The event had taken over most of the usual parking spaces and the main entrance gate, but fortunately the park was still accessible via lots P and Q at the southern boundary of the complex. An unidentified Facebook user dropped an all-capital rant about this being a really long walk with bonus exclamation marks, but it honestly wasn't; a quick measurement on Google Earth placed it just over six hundred metres away at worst, a distance I covered in less than ten minutes at a casual pace with several pauses to ogle some of the more interesting gas guzzlers.
The newest coaster in the park is Kentucky Flyer (#2902), a family-sized wood coaster designed by the Gravity Group. This felt like the right place to start my morning, both because it was a new credit for me and also because it was a continuation of a theme: my last ride on a roller coaster 312 days 4 hours and 30 minutes in the past (not that I was counting or anything!) was the highly regarded flying coaster at Phantasialand. As its name suggests, the ride has a nod to aviation: three placards in the queue explaining turbulence, elevation, and velocity, and a miniature wing and propeller mounted to the front of each train. This is as far as the theming goes, but it's definitely better than nothing and perhaps it will be enhanced at some point in the future.
One curiosity of the installation is the fact that it has been made behind a large section of water park. The only other dry ride in the immediate vicinity is SkyCatcher, an A.R.M. Rides Vertigo that was added for the 2016 season; after that there is a walk of around 250 metres to the Giant Wheel, and roughly double that to any of the other worthwhile coasters (and yes, I am intentionally disregarding the prototype SLC; you should too). At first glance this positioning appears to make little sense, but I've since realised that the track and support structure serve a secondary purpose, which is to provide a visually appealing backdrop for the Adventure River. Photos from my 2016 visit show a large mound of earth where the coaster is now, and there's no doubt that this is an upgrade.
The distant location served me well this morning, in that a quick power-walk from the front of the park allowed me to get there well ahead of the multitudes. With an empty queue and empty station I chose a seat in an empty front row, and moments later the operators sent me on a solo journey up the short lift hill. The ride experience was perfectly respectable, being that of a not overly aggressive out-and-back punctuated by some gentle turns along the way to fit the available space. I did three further laps before anybody else arrived, two in the back and one in the front, and that was enough for me; the ride was pleasant but not the sort of thing I felt any need to marathon.
Readers inclined towards photography should note that some of the best shots of the Kentucky Flyer are from outside the park gate. Overheads are possible from nearby waterslide towers, but most were blocked off today along with the Giant Wheel which would have been the other obvious vantage point. Walking around the side of the Adventure River provided one moderately decent angle reproduced above, though the sun was in the wrong place and I didn't fancy waiting several hours for it to move. (It’s worth noting that a few other key attractions were out of service today, including Thunder Run and the alliterative Raging Rapids River Ride; while signage stated that both were under maintenance I suspect that the real reason for their closure was that there was nobody available to operate them.)
My next stop was at Storm Chaser, the park’s hybrid coaster. I decided to do a back seat for what I figured would be the first of a few laps as the queue was very short. However, it wasn’t to be. The first half of the layout was excellent, with a particular highlight being the wonderful floating inversion that makes up the initial drop. The second half however was a bit too aggressive for my taste, as my thighs repeatedly came into hard contact with the unforgiving restraints. I’m not sure whether the ride has gotten faster since its debut season, or whether my tolerance has waned a little as I’ve gotten older, but whatever the cause, one lap was enough for me.
I was much more comfortable in the back seat of Lightning Run, a coaster that for seven years has been the world’s only operational Chance Hyper GT-X. This is a travesty that really should have been corrected at this point; the layout is aggressive without being stupidly so, and the tracking is perfectly smooth. The airtime hills on the return to the station were right on the edge of my tolerance threshold, but I was sitting in the back so that wasn't unexpected. I’d have happily gone back for another lap, but the queue had built considerably while I was on board and I didn’t feel like waiting an hour or more in the baking heat.
In the end I decided to cut my stay an hour ahead of my programmed departure time. I'd done what I wanted to do from the available rides, and I was overheating; I figured that I’d be much happier in the comfort of an air-conditioned car.