"Yes, it was really in the way."
Well, the 2005 roller coaster season is officially open for me now. It got off to a kind of an inauspicious start. See, last winter, a brutal series of freeze-thaw cycles turned the concrete steps leading into the back door of my house into a pile of rubble. I've decided to correct the problem by erecting a wooden porch on the back of the house. It requires concrete footers dug three and a half feet into the ground, and I started that process on Saturday by busting through an ancient concrete patio with a sledge hammer. That procedure involved significant strain on muscles I had long ago forgotten about, so when I woke up on Sunday morning I was a little bit sore.
But it looked to be a gorgeous day. Here in Columbus we were expecting a clear day with temperatures in the upper 70's. No way was I going to let a sore hand, arm, and back keep me out of an amusement park! I gingerly climbed into the car [Footnote 1] and drove to Cincinnati to collect Dave Bowers, then we proceeded to Kings Island. Once there, I switched to my in-park kit, passed through the me_al detectors at the park entrance, and entered the park.
International Street is not quite ready for prime-time. On the North side, half of the buildings stand empty because the new food service outlet isn't ready to go yet. On the South side, things are a little more complete. International Street is getting a huge re-shuffle this year. The former Sanrio store is now a Graeter's ice cream shop, and down the way is a shop that sells mini doughnuts and something like 40 different flavors of not-quite-frozen slush. At the far end, construction walls hide what is supposed to be a Starbuck's franchise. Anchoring the end of International Street, of course, is the Eiffel Tower, which is also not ready for prime time, though it is being primed for a much-needed fresh coat of paint. Hmmm.. I wonder if I need to worry about that. They repainted King Cobra, then promptly removed it from the park. The repainted the Flying Eagles, and promptly removed them from the park. They haven't removed Top Gun or Vortex yet, but it is probably only a matter of time (both have recently been painted)...
Our first ride of the day was a forward ride on the Racer. I noticed that the lap bars have new return springs, but it looks as though no cosmetic work has been done on the trains at all in the off-season. The lap bars are still covered with about ten years worth of gunk and grime, and more important, they are still missing their first two locking positions. To top it off, with the start of a new season the crew is very much by-the-book, demanding that "second" (read "fourth") notch out of the lap bar. The seat is too narrow, the divider is too high, the cushions are too hard, and as nearly as I can tell, the track on the outbound side of the forward Racer has not improved one bit. I couldn't tell about the backward side because after the lap bar did its usual gymnastics, I hurt too much to care, or to even notice the place where they took out the last drop. Why does the #1 seasonal park in the country have such rotten trains on its wood coasters? Can we please swap trains with the Mighty Canadian Minebuster, which has great trains but runs like crap? Racer is quickly earning a place on my "don't bother riding anymore" list, which is a real shame because it should be a great coaster.
On down Coney Mall we took a ride on the Monster, which was running great, and delivering the airtime that the Racer didn't. I noticed something odd; two little metal clamps have been added to the attendant grab handles on the front of the tub. I don't see what the purpose is, unless it is an attempt to make sure the attendant injures himself if he tries to manually spin the tub.
Across the midway, the Scrambler is running great as well. By running great, I mean it is running at the right speed, and it is running smooth. Lately many of the Scramblers I have ridden have this peculiar fore-aft bumping motion that I am told is related to worn out pins. This Scrambler has no such odd motion to it. It wasn't the best choice of rides for me with my sore right shoulder, but that's my problem, not the ride.
The line for Flight of Fear extended only into the saucer, so we spent the extra time to take a front-seat ride. I'd heard reports that it was launching faster. Well, I don't know about that; the thing I noticed mostly was that the launch was noisier than it has ever been before. There is still a lot to like about this ride, and I'm pleased to report that they have significantly reduced the braking on the mid-course block brake. It's still not brakeless as it was two years ago, but it isn't the Vortex-like near stop we were getting last year, either.
Down at the cross-road, Tucker's grab joint has been turned into the Happy Days grab joint. Out on the patio on the Coney Mall side is a DJ booth slightly larger than a phone booth. Inside is a rack of records and a turntable (though not a broadcast-style turntable) and a microphone. Under the desk is a CD player and a small mixer. Later in the day I noted that they used the booth for a live DJ who would play music from the CD player and ask trivia questions of people seated on the patio. His schtick needs some work, but it IS the first weekend of the season. Inside the building, the display cases where the automotive stuff used to be have been filled with Happy Days and Happy Days era memorabilia. A Rock-Ola juke box sits in the front corner. It plays CDs, but as Dave noticed, there are no album cards on the index. Not yet, anyway. Next to it is a Coke machine that takes quarters. Well, it says it takes quarters. I suspect that if I gave it a quarter, it would not give me a Coke. Speaking of which, Kings Island's vending price for 20-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola is now $3.00. Ouch!
On around the corner, "Shake, Rattle and Roll" was playing over the speakers on the Happy Days joint, and Dave noted the irony, given that the same name is given for the Troika directly across the midway. We didn't ride the Troika, but instead continued down the midway. There, we saw it.
The new Italian Job coaster is coming along nicely, but what got our attention is just to the right of the new coaster's queue. There is a large oval plot of ground where they might eventually manage to get grass to grow. The space is just big enough to accommodate a park-model Bish-Rocco Flying Scooter, with room behind and along the right-hand side for a queue. Instead, we get...mud. "We're making room for the new coaster," they said. In truth, the site of the old ride has not even been touched by the new coaster construction. Once again, one of the worst decisions in the history of Paramount Parks is exposed for what it is: the result of a bean counter in Charlotte micro-managing a park in Cincinnati, and completely forgetting about WHY that Cincinnati park is the #1 seasonal amusement park in the nation. It was an unbelievably bad move, and I fear that they are going to respond to it with an even worse move in another year or two. Stay tuned...
I heard a loud squeal overhead and I noticed that Vortex had gone down mechanical. I remember hearing that squeal before, but I can't quite place it...it sounds a little like the tub brakes on the Giant Top Spin In A Box (Tomb Raider: The Ride), except that it is coming from Vortex. I'll have to think about this one...
We rode The Beast, deliberately selecting the middle row of the last car. It should only have been a brief wait, but one of the three trains was malfunctioning, not allowing its lap bars to open, so there was a bit of a delay as they extricated riders from that train, then, strangely, reloaded the train with more riders and sent it around again. Two trains later, we got our ride, which was extended by a long wait on the safety brake as that malfunctioning train had to be manually unloaded again. Later in the day, they did finally remove that train from service. Personally, I think all three of The Beast's trains ought to be removed from service, along with all four from the Racer, and both trains from Son of Beast, and all nine trains replaced with something more functional and accommodating. Proper padding would go a long way on all three large wood coasters, and it would be a dramatic improvement if they would just put back the two missing notches on the lap bars. The net result is less an experience to be enjoyed than a challenge to be endured. Instead, the Cincinnati area is full of Kings Island fans who believe that good wood coasters are supposed to be brutally rough and incredibly uncomfortable. Hey, Kings Island is the #1 seasonal amusement park in the country, what possible incentive do they have to live up to their own reputation for taking good care of their wood coasters? The Beast, besides having a train that doesn't work right, felt like the park simply shut it down for the winter, and reopened it last week. I know they probably spent millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours working on it, but it feels just as awful as it did at the end of last season. I don't know what it needs, but this ride needs help.
Another new feature this season at Kings Island is a limited-smoke environment. There are now "designated smoking areas" scattered all over the park. I hope the tactic works for smokers and non-smokers alike, although I think "smoking patio" is a poor substitute for the kettle corn stand. If the kettle corn was at all successful last season, though, I am sure it will return...and honestly I don't think the Rivertown stand was the best place for it. It's a great product, and it fits in nicely with the "look and feel" of Rivertown, but the traffic pattern in the park isn't quite right there. Hmmm, I wonder where it would do well. Perhaps over in what remains of Oktoberfest...
Later in the day we returned to Rivertown to ride the train; not much new to report there.
With a large crowd in the station, we walked right past the Rugrats Runaway Reptar Roller Coaster, and into H-B. There, we walked past Scooby's Ghoster Coaster and advanced straight to the Beastie. Beastie got a new height requirement this year. I don't remember if it had a minimum accompanied height requirement before or not, but now all riders must be at least 40" tall to ride. Accordingly, a greeter was stationed, Cedar Point-style, at the queue entrance, with a height platform and a supply of wristbands. Dave noted that the new height requirement should make the line for the Beastie a little shorter. I thought about it a moment, then noted, "No, if anything, on average it should make the line for the Beastie a little taller!" On entering the train I noticed that the seat belts have been equipped with the same little bumper that seems to help with the sticking retractors on the junior coaster at Kings Dominion, but I also noticed that stuck belts was just as big of a problem as ever. The other thing I noticed, though, is that THE MID COURSE BRAKE WAS OFF! That's right: For the first time in many years, the Beastie was running more like the Sea Dragon! First of all it keeps larger riders from mashing their knees into the front of the train when it slams into the brake, and second, it makes for a significant improvement in the second half of the ride. This is the way this ride is supposed to run! Let's hope this change lasts the season! Once again the Beastie got the honor of being Kings Island's best-running wood coaster!
Next up on our trip was the Scooby Doo and the Haunted Mansion dark ride. I am still more than a little disappointed that they switched from the fully-animated, highly detailed, organ playing, extremely lifelike Maestro in the queue house to a couple of cardboard cut-outs that pop out with a "hissssssssCLUNK!" as they hit the limit stops so hard that the figure shakes and you can hear it over the theme sound. That said, the ride itself, while no Phantom Theater, is nicely done. Pity the guns seem to have escaped off-season rehab. In two rides, we sat in two cars in which one of three guns didn't work at all, and the other two barely worked.
When we re-emerged onto International Street, we popped into the Graeter's franchise. Graeters is a local ice cream maker which in recent years has expanded at least into the Columbus market. Their ice cream is made using some kind of a french pot process which eliminates most of the air from the ice cream, making it a much heavier, much creamier consistency than most churn processes. Graeters is particularly known for their chocolate-chip bearing flavors, which don't really contain chocolate chips; instead, melted chocolate is drizzled into the mix as it freezes, so you get these gigantic chunks of chocolate in your ice cream cone. Graeters has a location across the street from my workplace, so I'm somewhat familiar with the product. 8-) It's expensive, but then it is ALWAYS expensive; the outrageous price they charge in the park appears to be similar to the outrageous price they charge in their stores on the outside. At the moment, the flavor selection is kind of limited, but when Kings Island announced the shop they indicated that it would sell 20-some flavors, so I expect the lack of variety is related to the first day of operation and the two-day-per-week operating schedule.
Delirium remains one of the best, if not the best, new ride decisions Paramount has made in years. Perhaps not quite as good as the decision to redesign the seats on Flight of Fear, but certainly a good decision. Son of Beast was down for the day, and strangely enough there was no train in the station. I did see one on the storage track, but the other one was absent. Later I found it...it was parked halfway up the lift hill, where I didn't see it until I rode Top Gun.
Top Gun was a bit of a surprise only because it was only running one train, with the second train nowhere in sight. Yeah, it's the first weekend of the season, and Top Gun is particularly difficult to get trains onto and off of because of the height of the station. So it was an unusually long wait for this predictably good ride. The wheels look different this year; the tires are a translucent yellow compound rather than the usual opaque red, blue, white or grey. The ride still runs great.
Face/Off was being painted, but I think it was operating, though we never got back that way. And neither of us is well accommodated by Drop Zone so we skipped it this visit.
Adventure Express was closed when we walked past before, but this time it was open, so we took a ride. There were a number of surprises on it. For starters, it was running all three trains even though it is the first weekend of the season, the crowd didn't really demand three trains, and they were having a little trouble making the interval largely because of people walking up at the last second and jumping into the train. What made it even more surprising is that last season, Adventure Express ran two trains all season, with the third train never even making it as far as the ride's storage track. So Top Gun which always runs two trains was missing one, and Adventure Express which went down to two trains last season is now back up to three. The next surprise came on the second lift, when the maintenance door partway up the lift was actually closed, perhaps for the first time in half a dozen years. Next thing you know, they will be replacing all the burned out light bulbs and making the deity's threat understandable!
We went to go ride the antique cars and instead got to watch Italian Job: Stunt Track (hereafter simply "Italian Job") undergo empty-train tests. I had thought that the spiral at the beginning of the ride was going to be LIM-powered, kind of like a Jumbo Jet or a Speedracer. No, in fact the launch gets the train going fast enough to (barely!) clear the top of the spiral. That means it is necessarily a very short, very quick launch. We were able to watch the train roll through most of the course, apart from those parts that are in tunnels and buildings. They didn't have the helicopter going up and down, but the ride was running nicely. Strangely enough, I can hardly wait to ride this thing. It has the potential to be a surprisingly good ride, especially a couple of humps that haven't received a lot of attention.
We took a ride on Vortex, which may actually be running a little faster than usual out of the mid-course brakes. I figured out where I had heard that screeching noise before: it was CoasterMania '04. The blue train on Magnum had been doing it all day long. That night I overheard the maintenance guys who were examining the train on the safety brake, and they noted something about the wear on the brake fin. So I imagine Vortex's noise was similar and equally benign. It didn't seem to have an adverse affect on ride operations. I am a little mystified by the new sign in front of each seat on Vortex, the one that says, "Please remain seated. Keep hands, arms and feet inside AT ALL TIMES." Okay...this is a 1987-vintage Arrow Corkscrew, which means that with the shoulder bar down, it is pretty much impossible to stand up or to get your feet outside the full-shell enclosure. Furthermore, the enclosure of the seat is complete enough that it's darned near impossible to get your arms out in any direction other than straight forward. So what's with the new message, stenciled onto the back of each car? It is my imagination, or are parks starting to get out of control, falling all over themselves trying to think up new ways to make their rides "safer" even though they have long passed the point of rapidly diminishing returns? Hey, Kings Island, if you want to make Vortex safer (and give that new warning message some meaning), why not talk Arrow into building you a Powder Keg-style train, with the Screamin' Swing lap bars on it?
We couldn't finish the day without taking a ride on Rugrat's Runaway Reptar Roller Coaster. Something very strange happened. The park was scheduled to close at 8pm, but around 5pm, what had been a good size crowd simply evaporated. It was a gorgeous night, warm temperatures, beautiful weather...but everybody vanished. So by the time we got back over to Reptar there wasn't a wait for it. I do think it amazing how much this ride bangs around. There is no real obvious reason for it, but it makes an early-model SLC look like a smooth ride. Fortunately, the design of the seat and shoulder bar pretty much eliminates any headbanging as a result of the train bashing around, and it really is a kind of a neat little ride.
It was nearly closing time, and we had done everything we planned to do. So we took advantage of the early close and went over to Culver's in Mason for dinner. The place just opened this year, and unfortunately they close at 10:00pm. They're located directly beneath the WLW radio tower, West of the park on, I believe, Western Row Road. It's not grouped with the usual "places to eat after Kings Island" but it is no further away, and the food is good, as is the frozen custard. They had a packed house when we got there. Maybe that's where everybody went...!
Well, I'm looking forward to getting back to Kings Island in a couple of weeks. Next Sunday (4/18) there is a company picnic there that has bought enough tickets to fill the park to capacity, so I think I'll stay home and work on my house. Perhaps in two weeks...
--Dave Althoff, Jr.
Footnote 1: No need to overdo it. No 'jumping into the car' for a week or so, until this arm heals up, okay? [Return to text]
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