Inside the Demise of the Record-Breaking Roller Coaster that Went Too FarBy Brian Krosnick, Friday, March 4, 2016 05:24
Have you ever made a mistake? Have you ever gotten the feeling that what you were doing simply wasn't going to work out the way you hoped? Imagine it on a theme park operator's scale: How much time would you be willing to invest in a venture that seemed doomed? A year? Five? Ten? How much money? $20 million? $30 million? $40 million?
As part of our Lost Legends series, we've explored dozens of famous (and infamous) rides that are gone but never forgotten. We looked at the shocking story that led to one of the most painful, strange, short-lived roller coaters ever: the disastrous Drachen Fire at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. We also took a trip to Kings Island, a world-class park outside of Cincinnatti to explore Tomb Raider: The Ride, one of the most immersive, mysterious, and innovative thrill rides to ever exist, closed after barely a decade for very, very different reasons.
The lost tale of Tomb Raider: The Ride is haunting enough, but if you can believe it, today we're going to return to that same park to unravel the almost-unbelievable story of one of the most wild rides the world has ever seen: a cinematic sequel to a beloved roller coaster taken a step too far. Just two years before Tomb Raider, Paramount's Kings Island debuted SON OF BEAST, the tallest, fastest, and only looping wooden roller coaster on Earth. Imagine it: towering over the skyline, Son of Beast shattered records and nerves.
And like Tomb Raider, just a decade later the abandoned skeleton of Son of Beast stood 218 feet over one of the most visited theme parks in North America, destined to never operate again. What kind of bad luck saw two of the most impressive rides in the world last barely a decade? The story of Son of Beast is as wild and violent as the infamous coaster, and we want to make sure this most unusual of tales is preserved for future generations who simply won't believe how ahead of its time Kings Island was when it pulled out all the stops to shatter world records.
So, did the sequel stand up to the original? That depends who you ask...
Kings Island opened in 1972 as one of the first generation of true, purpose-built “theme” parks determined to borrow Disneyland’s formula for success: cinematic, themed lands radiating out from a central icon standing at the end of a lavish entry land, as seen in the opening year map. Replace Main Street with International Street, a towering castle with an even-taller Eiffel Tower, and Disney’s cast of cartoon stars with the animated cavalcade of Hanna-Barbera (The Flintstones, the Jetsons, Scooby-Doo, Yogi Bear, and The Smurfs to name a few) and you’ve got the gist of it.
Among its many opening day offerings, the highlight of Kings Island’s line-up was the Racer, a red-white-and-blue wooden coaster wonder. The classic ride is known the world over by thrill ride enthusiasts for its historic role in reigniting what’s often called the Second Golden Age of the Roller Coaster, ending a decades long slump in construction that had lasted since the Great Depression. (It may be just as well known for its starring role in a 1973 episode of The Brady Bunch entitled “Cincinnati Kids,” which was filmed on location at Kings Island and featured the family’s ride on The Racer as its most thrilling scene.)
Nearly 45 years later, The Racer is still around, thrilling guests. But it didn’t take long for the ride – once the tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world – to be dwarfed.
Kings Island was determined to stun the roller coaster world again, and just a few years later, they did.
The Beast looms
Kings Island was always intended to be a replacement for Coney Island, a midway-style park dating back to the 1880s located right on the Ohio River in Cincinnati. Like many riverside midway parks, Coney Island was no stranger to flooding. But one particularly devastating flood in 1964 covered the park in 14 feet of water, prompting discussions that would eventually lead to the opening of Kings Island, where Coney’s rides could be safely relocated.
Fittingly, Kings Island was due to become home to a replica of the Shooting Star roller coaster from Coney.
But when designers took a good hard look at the rolling, forested hills they’d acquired in Kings Island’s 1,600 acres, the concept of cloning the Shooting Star was shelved. With practically limitless land and gorgeous terrain, a new idea emerged: to internally design and build a roller coaster through the dense forests east of the park following the natural hills and valleys of the terrain. The result was more than anyone could’ve imagined.
On April 14, 1979, The Beast opened. It was, of course, the tallest, fastest, and longest roller coaster in the world, slaloming along the forest floor at 65 miles per hour, roaring through tunnels and darting along hillsides. Famously, the Beast is still isolated among 35 acres of forest, meaning that riders can’t see any of The Beast except the length of track they’re currently on. Fans rave about The Beast at night, when seemingly the only light for miles comes from the top of the ride’s lift hill above the trees. With a ride time of over four minutes, The Beast today is still the longest wooden roller coaster in the world, considered one of the best classic coasters on Earth.
What could tarnish the legacy of a world-renowned and famous roller coaster landmark? How about an offspring with a bad temper?
The Beast opened in 1979. Now, let’s flash almost two decades ahead and a state away. In 1997, a small family thrill park near Louisville, Kentucky went up for sale. The park – owned by a man named Ed Hart – was sold to a theme park operator called Premier Parks for $64 million. Premier Parks folded Kentucky Kingdom into its portfolio of parks that included Darien Lake in New York, Elitch Gardens in Colorado, and Ohio’s Geauga Lake.
But Premier Parks wanted to grow. In 1998, they purchased a down-on-its-luck Six Flags Theme Parks Inc. from Time Warner for $1.86 billion. With control of the Six Flags name, Premier renamed itself and its parks, and Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom was born. The new Six Flags was eager to expand its brand and build out its portfolio, and had particularly high hopes for the Kentucky park.
Allegedly, Six Flags was poised to supercharge Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom by aggressively expanding to build a Gotham City area, re-branding two of the park’s existing rides into the DC Super Hero brand, building a new river rapids ride, and installing two brand new headlining roller coasters: a B&M floorless coaster with a half-dozen inversions and an Intamin launched impulse coaster with spiraling towers.
In other words, Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom was going to be a contender.
A pre-emptive strike
Meanwhile, just a few hours north near Cincinnati, Kings Island had changed owners, too. As Six Flags moved toward ambitious plans for Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom, Paramount’s Kings Island allegedly caught wind. Now under the control of Viacom and backed by Paramount’s brands and identities, the park simply couldn’t allow a rival just a few hours away to grow into a threat.
In 1999, Paramount’s Kings Island launched a pre-emptive strike against the radical growth of Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom with an aggressive $40 million two-year expansion plan that would give the park an entirely new themed "land." Built around the existing Congo Falls and Top Gun: The Jet Coaster, this new area was meant to resemble a bright, kinetic, fast-paced studio backlot where an action film might be shot. It was called the Paramount Action Zone.
The new Paramount Action Zone was stocked with loud, brash, bright rides perfect for the looming 21st century. In time for the land’s 1999 opening, it had added Drop Zone: Stunt Tower (the tallest gyro drop in the world, 315 feet tall with a revolving disc of 40) and FACE/OFF (above, an inverted boomerang coaster with flipped seating requiring that riders look right into the eyes of their friends as they race through three inversions forward, then fall backward through them again), all centered around a studio-style water tower (hosting an action-packed "impromptu" secret agent show) and a restaurant called Stunt Crew Grill, offering food for the on-set "extras" (that's us).
But Drop Zone and FACE/OFF alone would not win Paramount’s Kings Island victory against Six Flags' own plans for the region. If Kings Island were put a stop to Kentucky Kingdom's growth even before it started, it needed to go big... Very big. Perhaps appropriate for Paramount’s movie studio styling, their plan was wildly cinematic: a sequel.