Kings Island turns 50 this year, which doesn’t seem possible. It’s the New amusement park, the thrilling cousin of old Coney Island. This is THE place to be every summer.
Time ticks by to ride the Beast over and over again, testing whether the front car or the rear car has the more thrilling ride. Be fully invested in which train is fastest on the Racer – go Red Racer! – or share a blue Smurf ice cream with that special someone. Each generation has its own memories of Kings Island.
The park was a game-changer for Cincinnati, attracting visitors from across the Midwest. Even the Brady Bunch came to town.
Kings Island will reopen for its 50th anniversary season on April 16, so people can revisit their favorites and make new memories. A day-long celebration is scheduled for April 29, the date the park opened in 1972. Kings Island’s “Golden Celebration” events will begin on May 28.
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What do you want to know about Kings Island? It is probably found in Evan Pontingle’s extensive history on the subject in “Kings Island: A Journey Through Time.” He interviewed just about every major figure in the creation and development of the park to find out more.
As Pontingle explains, the origin of Kings Island was the convergence of two ideas at the right time. In the late 1960s, Gary Wachs, son of Coney Island owner Ralph Wachs, was tired of cleaning up the park after frequent flooding. He dreamed up ways to move and expand old Coney to compete with Disneyland, and came up with a plan.
Charlie Mechem, then CEO of Cincinnati-based Taft Broadcasting, had his own idea. The company could promote its Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters at amusement parks, using Disney as a roadmap. He had lunch with Roy Disney, who told him, “You’ve got the prettiest little amusement park in America right in your backyard, Coney Island!” Go see about working with them, he suggested.
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So in 1969 Taft and Coney Island announced that they were building a new amusement park in Warren County. Taft also bought Coney for $6.5 million in stock. The old park was to close in 1971, with the new one to be ready the following year. Kings Island’s name was a tribute to both the location, Kings Mills, and the park’s predecessor, Coney Island.
Bad weather for the opening
As general manager of the new park, Gary Wachs was responsible for bringing his idea to fruition. He had adapted Disneyland’s star-shaped design into a cloverleaf, with four main “lands”: a children’s area, a historic area celebrating Cincinnati’s river heritage, a tribute to Coney Island, and a European boulevard. It was quite close to the finished park.
Kings Island opened on time, with a prize of $31 million (or $214 million adjusted for inflation in 2022 dollars). Critics wondered if anyone would pay six dollars to enter the park when Coney Island was free. To make matters worse, a preview on April 29, 1972 was held back by heavy rain.
“Almost everyone agreed that the park is big and beautiful, with lots of potential,” wrote Jim Knippenberg of The Enquirer. “And everyone agreed that the weather was bad. Certainly not a day to open a new amusement park.
The official inauguration on May 27 – with sunshine, parades and hot air balloons – was better received.
“I was blown away,” said Don Helbig, now regional digital marketing manager for Kings Island. “When I first walked in, the earliest memories, you saw the fountain and you saw the buildings going down Rue Internationale, the Eiffel Tower, you had the Sky Ride going past. … When you walked through the front door, because you couldn’t see it from the outside, it was like stepping into a whole new world.
Three Fs dominate the park map
The 314-foot-high one-third replica of the Eiffel Tower was the eye-catching centerpiece of International Street. The boulevard is inspired by Wachs’ trip to Europe and features what he calls the “three Fs”: flags, flowers and fountains.
Hanna-Barbera’s Happy Land was a place where kids could meet their favorite TV cartoon characters, Scooby-Doo, Yogi Bear and Fred Flintstone. Even better, they could step into the TV on the Enchanted Journey, a boat ride similar to It’s a Small World, where they travel through an animated world. The parents were just happy to have air-conditioned relief from the summer heat.
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Rivertown, Ohio’s tribute to history, featured the timeless Kings Island & Miami Valley Railroad and the Kings Mills Log Flume (which still exists as Race for your life, Charlie Brown).
The Oktoberfest area had its own teacup tower with a Germanic twist – Der Spinnen Keggers, aka the drunken barrels.
When Coney Island closed in 1971, most of the rides like the Grand Carousel, Cuddle Up and Tumble Bug were packed up and transported down the highway to the aptly named Old Coney section of Kings Island. The same was true for the mid-term matches. The famous Shooting Star wooden roller coaster was not. Wachs decided to build something new.
Kings Island set the trends
Wachs hired venerable roller coaster designer John C. Allen of the Philadelphia Toboggan Co. to build a side-by-side racing roller coaster they called the Racer. Red and blue trains raced on twin tracks, climbing and descending hills. “There was a lot of feeling in this race,” Allen told The Enquirer at the time. “We think it’s the finest coaster ever built, one of the biggest ever built and certainly the biggest we’ve ever built.”
The Racer was the first coaster built since 1947 and is credited with reigniting the roller coaster revival of the 1970s. It made history again in 1982 when one of the trains was reversed and is became the first coaster to roll back. (Both trains started moving again in 2008.)
Another feather in Kings Island’s hat: it was the first amusement park to sell pizza. Really. Gregg Pancero and his father, Jack, ran the pizza concessions at La Fiera Pizzeria on International Street, selling sauce, dough and toppings supplied by family friend Buddy LaRosa. The pie’s popularity created a new trend for amusement parks, and the shop became an official franchise of LaRosa.
But it wasn’t cheap. “A modest slice with pepperoni costs an outrageous 55 cents, and a whole cheese pizza costs $3.60,” complained the Dayton Daily News in 1973.
Partridge, Bradys and Evel Knievel
More than 2 million people visited Kings Island in its first season, double the attendance of Coney Island in its final year.
This helped Taft Broadcasting use its Hollywood connections to promote the park beyond Cincinnati. Most people remember when “The Brady Bunch” filmed an episode on location in 1973, with the Brady kids on the Racer and cutting the line (they weren’t extras on the show, just guests at Kings Island for the day). But “The Partridge Family” beat the Bradys. Teen idol David Cassidy and his castmates were filmed at Kings Island in August 1972.
Dennis Spiegel, the assistant general manager when Kings Island opened, told Pontingle he got a call from someone at WKRC-TV asking if his son could come watch the shoot. “This little guy was, I think, 10 at the time,” Spiegel said. “It was George Clooney! He ran everywhere, interfered in everything, had fun.
This death-defying daredevil, Evel Knievel, came to Kings Island to perform his most successful jump in 1975. He rode his motorcycle to a launch pad and climbed over 14 Greyhound buses, which got the highest marks on “ABC’s Wide World of Sports”.
Here comes the Beast
What really put Kings Island on the amusement park map was the arrival of the Beast, the “world’s biggest, baddest, longest and fastest roller coaster” in 1979 John Allen, the roller coaster’s designer, had retired by then, but he scribbled formulas on the back of a menu for Kings Island engineers Al Collins and Jeff Gramke to design themselves.
“It was very laborious,” Gramke said. “There were no scientific calculators, no computers. Everything had to be calculated by hand. It didn’t take long to see why John didn’t want to do it.
They designed the 7,359-foot-long wooden roller coaster track to interact with the wooded terrain. The tunnels were added because the track needed to go down a bit underground so the structure didn’t need to be built so high. The twin helices at the end were to use the energy accumulated by the two elevators.
The Beast is attracting the attention of roller coaster enthusiasts around the world. Even with the loops and thrills of newer rides, like giga coaster Orion, the Beast remains the standard. The track is being renovated to make the ride smoother in time for the park’s 50th anniversary celebration.
Fifty years isn’t what it used to be, a link to a bygone era. Things from 50 years ago don’t seem that old. But a golden anniversary is always a milestone for a park that has created so many memories for so many.
“I’ve always said we don’t make hubcaps or bottle caps,” Spiegel said of his years at Kings Island. “What do we do? We don’t pollute the skies, we don’t pollute the rivers. What do we do at the end of the day? We create smiles and memories, put smiles on faces people.
Additional sources: Enquirer archives, visitkingisland.com.