Back in 2001 I had the opportunity to spend some of my summer staying with family friends in Ohio. At the time I was developing a nascent interest in theme parks and roller coasters, and though things weren’t even remotely serious at that point I nevertheless made arrangements to visit what were then the three main parks in the state: Paramount’s Kings Island, Cedar Point, and Six Flags Worlds of Adventure. Credits number six through thirty were claimed during that trip, with the blanks being filled in the following year as the counting bug took full hold.
I mention the above because my visit to Kings Island today marks the first time in my life that I can legitimately claim to have been visiting a park for two decades, and perhaps unsurprisingly it has changed enormously over the period. The single most dramatic/traumatic alteration (delete as per preference) was the removal of the world’s tallest wood coaster at the end of 2012 after several years of non-operation and a number of serious incidents. Son of Beast held height and speed records that may never be broken because they came at a cost: an exceptionally rough ride that suffered a number of serious incidents during its operational life. It’s telling that the five fastest wood coasters in service as of 2021 were built using specialised track fabrication techniques that had yet to be developed at the time SOB was built (and that is a thoroughly appropriate abbreviation).
More recently park management took the difficult decision to retire Vortex, a custom looping coaster from Arrow that premiered in 1987 as both the tallest in the world and the first to feature six inversions. Despite not being particularly comfortable (and being quickly superseded) it remained a signature attraction, bruising over 46 million riders during its thirty-three year run. Its construction proved the concept for a series of seven-inversion rides that opened in other American parks over the next three years: Shockwave (1988), Great American Scream Machine (1989), and Viper (1990) that collectively represent the pinnacle (and the last gasp) of coat hanger design.
Today the park is back to a roster of fourteen coasters, the same number that it had on my first visit twenty years ago, and with the possible exception of Firehawk (since retired) it’s fair to say that each replacement has represented a step forward in overall quality. The two most recent additions have come from Great Coasters International and B&M, and perhaps unsurprisingly it was these machines that were my main targets today.
About ten days before my trip my friend Kat made me aware of an enthusiast event scheduled at Kings Island that happened to coincide with my planned visit. In recent years I’ve made a point of looking for this sort of thing myself before I travel, but had missed this one because it was sponsored by the Great Ohio Coaster Club, an enthusiast group that has decided to block 95% of the world’s population from their website in order to protect against “hackers”. This is a bit unfortunate in today's world, and borderline ridiculous; it’s fair to say that even the most amateur script kiddie will have little difficulty getting through an IP restriction.
Though I wasn't set up to jump through the requisite hoops on my primary computer, I was able to use VPN software on my phone to determine that the proposed agenda was perfect for me: ERT on both coasters that I was interested in, complimentary VIP parking, and an organised lunch with a guest speaker provided by the park. After a bit of back and forth by email I decided to sign up, but sadly it wasn’t to be; shortly before the advertised deadline the club committee decided to cancel entirely due to insufficient numbers. One can only speculate as to whether more international visitors would have made the difference.
I thought about buying a Fast Lane wristband instead, but decided against it; with an entire day to play with and only two must-do attractions I figured that there was no need to spend the money, especially since my Cedar Fair Platinum Pass would give me 30 minutes of early ride time on Orion (#2906), the seventh coaster in the world to feature a three hundred foot drop. Heavy traffic in the vicinity of the park entrance wrote off the lion’s share of that window, though as things turned out it wouldn’t have mattered anyway; we arrived at our target to find an operator standing in front of the entrance and a queue of hopeful guests stretching some distance across the midway.
While we pondered our next move an empty test train began to climb the lift hill, which we took as our cue to wait with the multitudes. Sure enough, the ride opened around twenty minutes later to applause, cheering, and a moderately bad-tempered "about time" rendered in a deep south drawl. The line was far shorter than it had appeared at first glance, and almost before we knew it we’d been assigned to row three, where I claimed the outside seat on the left hand side. From that position my immediate reaction was that I'd just ridden a faster and marginally more forceful version of Apollo’s Chariot, Nitro, or Silver Star: a perfectly respectable attraction and solid crowd-pleaser, but not something likely to radically reshuffle top ten lists.
Having said that, a second lap in the front on the right hand side was a completely different and vastly superior experience. There was a great view of the park on the way up, topped only by the two seconds or so that I had to admire the track layout from the apex. Once at speed there was floating air over every hill and the wind-in-face feeling was top notch. A trim brake that I hadn't noticed on the first lap bled off a few miles per hour at one point, but not enough to impact the enjoyment level which remained at a solid ten out of ten.
The one negative with the ride is the fact that so much of its potential energy is wasted. As with Leviathan the brake run stands taller than many coasters, so much so that it needs a visibly angled descent to get back to the station level. It's a safe bet that the layout could have had at least another thousand feet of track without running out of momentum, and while this would have come at a cost I'd argue that it would be money well spent. Some readers may scoff at my observations here, but the fact is that Orion has more or less the same track length as Diamondback, yet it has around twenty seconds less momentum-driven coasting. An extension would have made all the difference (as indeed it did on Fury 325, which I’d argue to be one of the best things B&M has ever created).
Our next hit was the red side of the Racer. Both sides of the 49-year-old duelling coaster have received quite a bit of new track over over the last couple of seasons, and the work is ongoing; around five hundred feet was replaced ahead of the 2021 season. The changed sections are very obvious both to see and to ride; the difference between them and the portions yet to be worked on was night and day. I’m sort of assuming that the rest will be done for the 2022 season; if that happens the ride will be unmissable and a contender for one of the best coasters in the park.
That being said, I can't see much displacing Mystic Timbers (#2908) from that throne. Over the years GCI has built a lot of twisters that feel more or less the same, but this is the exception to the rule: a low-to-the-ground terrain-hugging design with relentless pacing. The layout culminates in a themed shed which is more than a little silly and a definite anticlimax given the elaborate marketing campaign that hyped it up a few years ago, but I will at least credit it with being out of the direct sunlight, which is no bad thing in the Ohio summer. The front seat had the edge over the back for me, though if you care about the shed (and you shouldn't) then the back may be a better choice.
The best and arguably only decent photos of Mystic Timbers are from the KI & Miami Valley Railroad, a propane-powered steam train modeled after The General, a nineteenth century locomotive made famous by the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862. The route has a great shot of the lift and curved initial drop, and if you time it right (we didn't) there's a potential close up of riders exiting a tunnel at the southernmost point of the layout. (The railroad offers a round-trip journey to the Soak City water park but there's no need to disembark there if you don't want to.)
The only real disappointment of the day was Beast, which was in a sorry state. Seven years ago I wrote that the once-mighty ride had been neutered by trim brakes rendering it impotent, but today I was very glad of their presence; the train was jackhammering on the straight sections even at its reduced speed, and I can only imagine how much things would have hurt if fully unleashed. The helix after the second lift wasn't awful, but it definitely wasn't good; one lap was ample, and in all honesty I can't see myself riding it again during future visits unless there's a comprehensive overhaul. (As an aside, it's interesting to compare a recent POV with one filmed in the distant past; the ride today takes twenty seconds longer to complete than it used to as a result of the additional brakes.)
We took a quick lap on Diamondback before heading to the Eiffel Tower, which today was being operated by an elderly gentleman with a name badge reading "Pops". My immediate thought was that this was a good-natured joke reflecting his obvious vintage, but I've since learned that it is an actual name, if a somewhat uncommon one. Five minutes at the top was enough to snap some new overview shots and marvel at just how different they look to those from a few years ago. I daresay the 2040 set will be different again; who knows what the future will bring?