The last time I was near Kentucky Kingdom in Louisville, it was 2010, and I was at a rabbit breed show at the adjacent expo center. The park had been closed and shuttered early that year, and between grooming Lionheads and Angoras (and not winning shit because we didn’t have a Florida White), I was forced to spend three days wistfully looking across the parking lot at coasters that I couldn’t ride. But not this time.
Like a true coaster dork, I was at the entrance to Kentucky Kingdom WAY early, like nearly 10:00 for an 11:00 opening. (So early, in fact, the parking gates were unmanned, allowing me to sail through nine bucks the richer.) The ride in from Chicago was pretty prickly, from having to listen to a teenaged couple screaming at each other at a gas station in Merrillville, to the spotty storms that speckled the windshield before turning into a full-blown rainstorm. That same rainstorm was now pelting Kentucky Kingdom on Opening Day, so I parked (second car in the lot), put on my wet weather gear and headed for the gates.
The ticket booths opened at about a quarter to eleven, along with a list of outdoor rides that weren’t going to be open as long as it was raining. The list was exhaustive, everything from the Huss Enterprise to the park’s brand new Rocky Mountain Construction coaster, Storm Chaser. These rides, the paper went on to claim, would open an hour after the rain had stopped. I checked the Weather Channel app. Nothing but a gigantic green glob. Fuck.
The gates opened, and the rain seemed to really be keeping people away. There couldn’t have been more than a hundred and fifty people in view from the front gate, and there was no manic rush to anyone’s favorite, just a slow and wet dissemination into the park. I was almost soaked to the bone already, and with no hurry to get to what would be a collection of closed rides, I decided to take my time and walk the park at a leisurely pace.
Kentucky Kingdom, to put it simply, looked great. The buildings were clean and vibrant, and existing landscaping was being added to, including a nice little feature where some newer plants had small signs with scannable smartphone codes to learn more about said vegetation. Several of these exhibits were right up against the edge of the concrete, making me wonder how well they’ll survive the trampling crowds of summer that are right around the corner.
I walked damn near every inch of that park for the next few hours, in a rain that ranged from a slow and steady patter to a grey sheeted deluge. True to their word, nothing outdoors was running, save for some sporadic cycles of Thunder Run, Kentucky Kingdom’s sole wooden coaster. I got in line, after all, it was running, and I’m a credit whore. My first ride on Thunder Run was akin to driving behind a poorly-maintained gravel truck, as the rain became stinging cold projectiles after the lift hill, making it damn near impossible to asses my surroundings. I can honestly say I had no fucking idea what was going on, and not in a “night ride on the Beast” kind of way. A second ride with sunglasses held tight to my face was more revealing; good speed, a slightly unconventional layout, and pretty comfortable trains. Also, it allowed me to scratch one more off the list for my “Dinn Challenge”, my personal quest to survive all the company’s operating wooden coasters, brought about in 2010 when Cedar Point’s Mean Streak basically gave me cancer.
I dried out inside with a passable pulled pork sandwich, got soaked again seconds after exiting the restaurant, and dried off again in the Angry Birds theater, which featured a pretty lively “5D” (ugh) movie with motion seats that looked like the recliners at a pedicure salon. Somewhere around two o’clock (and having seen just about every part of the park), I decided to just park my ass near the line for Storm Chaser, the park’s brand new Rocky Mountain Construction steel coaster, and the main reason I was soaked to the bone in Kentucky on a Saturday afternoon. The radar looked like it was close to clearing up, but at the rate it was moving, the rides might not open until closer to closing time, if at all. I had a contingency plan, as my out-of-state admission included the next day free. If all else failed, I could hit the remaining coasters tomorrow morning before the hour drive to Holiday World. I just really didn’t want to do that.
Luckily, the rain cleared soon after, and the queue for Storm Chaser opened to a raucous cheer from the crowd of about two hundred. I had made line friends with a few families of enthusiasts and a pair of ride ops from Kings Island, and none of us were ashamed at losing a little of our minds as the first empty train cycled through for testing. After about five cycles, the station opened. We were about to get our fix, a first public train ride on the world’s newest RMC.
Storm Chaser, in a word, is insane. Near the back of the train, the barrel roll dropdown was a forceful spin that almost seemed a bit alarming until it straightened out at ground level. The camelback hill that followed may be my favorite airtime ever, and there was air all over this thing…in the 140 degree stall, in the return run that went right over the entrance to the ride plaza…everywhere. After a helix and a weird bank, the train almost crawled into the brake run, and the whole train and station broke into applause. As we came into the station, we spotted Ed Hart, the park’s President and CEO, and the man basically responsible for returning Kentucky Kingdom from the dead two seasons ago. He seemed to look pretty happy, even when half the train began bowing to him in reverence as we rolled in. And I didn’t just participate, I kinda suggested it. Okay, I started it.
The waiting crowd had absorbed into the queue, and faced with a short line, I hopped in again. Every time I would ride, the line would get shorter, and eventually by the fifth ride, I was able to literally walk up to an empty gate. The fifth was my first at the front of the train, and the initial barrel roll dropdown taken at a slower speed takes your ass way out of that seat. The air that followed seemed almost as forceful as in the back of the train, the entire ride is intense no matter where you sit. It’s just an absolute blast throughout, and is now easily one of my top five steel coasters.
As much fun as walk-ons to a first day RMC was, there were still two other coasters in the park to ride, and lines were sure to be almost as non-existent. First up was Lightning Run, a Chance Hyper GT-X coaster that was the first big addition for the park’s 2014 reopening. Lightning Run doesn’t look terribly imposing; it’s only a hundred feet tall, and the bright blue track kinda reminded me of Arrow designs from the 70’s. This ain’t no Arrow though, it’s a sick little piece of work with a great first drop, plenty of air, and a ground-level slalom run that is as fun as anything I’ve ever experienced. This thing is an underrated gem, and I have no idea why more parks haven’t bought this model.
I justified the final coaster as having to ride a piece of history, as T3 was the first Vekoma SLC (Suspended Looping Coaster) in the United States. SLCs (or “Vekoma hang-and-bangs” as some refer to them) seem to be all over, but this would only be my second after Hangman at Opryland. T3 had always had a reputation of being one of the rougher SLC installations, and apparently Kentucky Kingdom listened, and refurbished the track and replaced the trains in 2015. I’m sad to report that it didn’t help too much. The new trains looked and felt great (with a lap restraint and straps in place of the coaster’s usual rock hard OTSRs), but the ride itself is as shuddery as hell, which is a shame, because the layout is actually pretty intense. The final middle finger from T3 came as the train pulled into the brake run, and I realized that the once comfortable lap restraint was now crushing my thighs and didn’t let up until well back in the station. Yeah, thanks for nothing, T3.
I hit Storm Chaser a few more times, and decided to call it a day, wanting to get an early start toward Holiday World tomorrow. The ride to my hotel was interesting, with a terrifying bridge over the Ohio River (my second of the day, two too many), and the sudden appearance of a junked-out Ford Probe that blew past me at at least 120 mph. If you ever wanted to know what happened to your old car, it had three more owners, and then ended up on a Kentucky freeway. I got settled in my room, grabbed a chicken sandwich from the McDonald’s next door, and was promptly asleep by 9pm. Solo road tripping…it’s a nonstop party.
The weather cooperated the next morning, blue skies and sun, and I was at the gates of Holiday World a little past 10am. Holiday World is known for having some of the friendliest employees in the amusement industry, and that was on full display that morning, as the park’s computer systems were having problems. It didn’t seem to be much of a problem for them, though, as gate attendants were swiftly recording ticket information by hand,keeping the lines moving quickly. The e-ticket on my phone gave the poor girl at the head of my line slight pause, but within 30 seconds, a manager was there, took a picture of my ticket with his phone, and wished me a happy day. At some parks, I’d be there till noon.
The good press on Holiday World is dead-on, this park was superb. Aside from the employees, operations at everything from the coasters to the food service was fast and efficient, and the park was clean…like, Disney-level clean. My first stop was The Raven, the park’s CCI wooden coaster and a perennial member of most enthusiast’s top 25 lists. The smallest of the park’s three wooden offerings, the Raven was by no means the weaker brother. A surprisingly steep drop and a turn into a hill led to a wickedly forceful curve at the edge of a lake that seemed to go on forever. The track then twisted into a heavily forested area with a few strong hills and turns low to the ground. I’m a sucker for a wood coaster in the woods (hence my love for the Beast despite those goddamned trims), and The Raven is a coaster that could only exist at Holiday World.
Despite the beautiful weather, the park wasn’t that crowded, but I still wanted to check off everything my list, and headed to the far back of the park to ride Thunderbird, the park’s 2015 B&M Wing Coaster. I was pretty familiar with this model of coaster having ridden two of the four in the United States (X-Flight at Six Flags Great America…yay, and Gatekeeper at Cedar Point…sorta yay), but Thunderbird featured a 62mph launch into an Immelmann loop instead of a lift hill. It’s a big difference. I hadn’t felt anything like the hang out of the loop on any of the others, and the dive that leads to the vertical loop is crazy fast and low to the ground. The rest of the ride consisted of two overbanked turns in opposite directions (allowing both sides of the train to have an above and below the track experience), a zero-g roll, a keyhole dive through a barn, and a slow inline twist into the brake run. I’ll need another ride on X-Flight before making up my mind (probably this week), but Thunderbird might be my favorite Wing Coaster. Gatekeeper still reminds me of that British au pair I went out with in the 90’s…nice to look at, but man, there’s just nothing there.
And now, The Voyage. Since my first night ride in 2008, The Beast at Kings Island has been my favorite wooden coaster (which should be evident, considering I’ve already mentioned it several times, and this is not a Kings Island trip report). The Beast wasn’t the fastest or most forceful wooden coaster I’d been on, but its incredible layout and length made it my favorite wooden coaster experience.
Sorry, The Beast.
The Voyage is the most intense wooden coaster I’ve ever experienced. The 154 foot first drop is an incredible float in the back of the train, and series of towering airtime hills led into the first of many tunnel drops, one so deep the air temperature noticeably dropped. The train is still blazing fast into the disorienting turnaround in the woods, complete with a wicked sharp 90 degree banked turn. Heading back, the train slowed (and sometimes stopped almost completely) on the brake run before diving into a tunnel for a triple down that got progressively darker. By the time the train burst back out into the light, you’re back at ground level, and that train was fucking flying over those hills. And it didn’t get any less crazy approaching the station, a dive into a fly-by of the lower queue felt as fast as anything in the first half of the ride. Make no mistake about it, this ride will beat you up if you’re not ready for it, but the way it maintained speed and force throughout the entire thing made it worth it. I was able to move seats several times due to any empty station, but even I needed a break after my fourth consecutive cycle.
I decided to cool off in Gobbler Getaway, a Sally interactive dark shooter ride themed to…Thanksgiving. Really? Huh…okay. The first indication that I was in for one fucked up experience came in the empty queue, which featured a pretty solid animatronic of an elderly woman who explained the ride’s story. Apparently, some negligent farmer had somehow let all of his turkeys escape just before Thanksgiving, and he needed our help to round them up. It was it this point that I noticed that the old woman was carelessly waving around what looked like a laser pistol. But not to worry, she explained that it was a “turkey caller”, the device we’d use to help this lazy breeder save his business, or holiday, or whatever. The ride vehicle featured two rows of two seats, each with its own tethered turkey caller, and a welcome sign that sported a few targets so you could see how accurate your aim was before the insanity started. (Each shot was accompanied by a gobbling sound that got a lot less cute the more you heard it.)
Visually, the ride was straight-up nuts, as one would expect in something that combined Thanksgiving with blacklight paint. As you hit targets (no indication of where your shot went, but the turkey guns were pretty accurate), the usual assortment of dark ride shooter stuff happened…clocks spun, things tumbled from precarious positions, and turkeys popped out from behind their hiding places (where they were hiding to avoid being slaughtered, mind you). The ride mindfucked you a bit at the end, in a scene where a Pilgrim family sat down to a holiday feast, and pulled the lid off a piping hot…pizza. “We just couldn’t do it!” said Papa Pilgrim. Slow clap…well played, Holiday World.
After a bacon cheeseburger at Goblin Burgers (no actual goblin involved, sad to say), I did a few rerides on Raven, Thunderbird, and Voyage, before deciding to cool off on Frightful Falls, the park’s log flume ride. After a long and dark tunnel to open the ride, the flume headed out into a nicely landscaped area on its way to the lift. As I sat back and enjoyed that smell that every water ride in the world seems to have, what seemed like every speaker in the whole park exploded in that horrid shriek siren that precedes a severe weather warning. Two more shrieks, then…silence. I looked up at the sky, it was still blue and sunny. Weird.
Things got a lot clearer as my log ascended the lift. Over the trees behind The Legend (which was still closed for retracking), the skies were a soupy black-grey, and did not look pleasant. After the drop and return to the station, the queue was completely empty, and the ride op informed me that everything outdoors had been shut down due to lightning in the area. The storm wasn’t quite here yet, but it wouldn’t be long. Going against the flow of guests leaving the park, I headed back toward Gobbler Getaway. If I was going to ride out another goddamned rainstorm, I’d rather do it in a whacked-out dark ride.
I wasn’t the only one with that idea, as the queue was about a quarter full. During the next fifteen minutes, I had to tell the hyperactive teenage boy in front of me to stop stepping on my toes no fewer than three times. As fate would have it, we were in the same car; he in the front row, me in the back. And simply because I’m an asshole, for the entirety of the ride, as he raised his gun to shoot a target, I dead-eyed it over his shoulder and nailed it before he could. Unaware that I was even in the same vehicle, after about thirty seconds, I had him sputtering and swearing to himself, and a minute in found him banging his “stupid fucking gun” on the edge of the vehicle. I’ll give him credit, though, he never quit trying, even after I racked up a score of 1600 at his expense (“Master Turkey Caller”), while he walked away with zero. Eat it, kid.