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Tomb Raider: Why One of the World's Best Theme Park Rides is Rotting in Plain Sight

Rocketing toward razor sharp icicles, hanging face-first over bubbling lava pits, dropping through fog from volcanic vents, escaping death at the hands of a menacing lost goddess… Sounds like the kind of production only Disney or Universal could manage, right? But this stunning attraction based on an internationally renowned franchise was located in a most unexpected place… The Midwest. And what's more, this one-of-a-kind attraction was so mysterious – its secrets so well-guarded – that guests didn't know what kind of ride it was, even once they were seated and strapped in. 

Today, we’re going to go behind-the-scenes of one of the most mysterious and unique rides to have ever existed at all, much less outside of Disney or Universal’s watch. In 2002, Paramount’s Kings Island near Cincinnati, Ohio became home to TOMB RAIDER: The Ride. At more than $20 million, this blockbuster attraction exceeded all expectations of what a seasonal theme park could produce. And barely a decade later, it was gone forever.

Recently, we’ve been on a mission to capture the in-depth stories behind forgotten experiences in our Lost Legends series, exploring The Peoplemover, Alien Encounter, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the original Disney’s California Adventure, and so many more, all in hopes of igniting lost memories and saving those stories for up-and-coming generations of park fans who simply never understood what the big deal was about Journey into Imagination, Big Bad WolfMaelstrom, the original Star Tours, or Horizons. Today, we’ll leave the mega-destination resorts behind and fly off to an attraction no less impressive than Disney’s best. Let’s explore the in-depth story behind TOMB RAIDER: The Ride, as this attraction deserves to be known and admired, its stories preserved in time.

The Beginning

As always, any fair look back begins far before an attraction ever debuts. In this case, Disneyland is a fitting place to start. After all, prior to the opening of Disneyland, amusement parks were very different places. Most in the United States had emerged in one of two ways.

Many began as seaside carnivals in the late 1800s, often lined by carnival barkers, competing vendors, and loud carnival rides. This type of amusement park is more difficult to spot every year, but examples still exist, such as Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York or the Santa Monica Pier in California.

The other style of amusement park typically started as trolley parks – recreation destinations in the 1800s where emerging railroad lines built fishing, swimming, and picnicking parks that eventually added a carousel, then a roller coaster, and on until long midways with scattered attractions developed. This style of amusement park evolved over decades and decades into parks like Cedar Point (above, in 1980), which even today betray their "midway" styles.

Whether they originated as boardwalks or trolley parks, those amusement parks had much in common – they often were open to any and all, with no single designated entrance. These parks were free to enter with guests opting to buy individual ride tickets… or not! Instead, they might choose simply to stroll through.

Of course, open gates, free admission, competing vendors, and loud rides had been precisely what Walt Disney had disliked about amusement parks. At his time, they were considered garish places – dirty midways lined with bright, loud signs and unsafe rides, attracting unsupervised youth; not the kind of business that a reputable businessman would care to become involved with.

In fact, when Walt told his wife Lillian he intended to open his own, she said, “Why would you want to involved with an amusement park? They’re so dirty, and not at all fun for grown-ups. Why would you want to get involved in a business like that?”

He replied: “That’s exactly my point. Mine isn’t going to be that way. Mine’s going to be a place that’s clean, where the whole family can do things together.”

Disneyland changed everything. First of all, it had a single entrance and exit blocked by ticket booths requiring payment for entry. Secondly, Disneyland was not assembled by vendors, but designed by filmmakers, made of enchanting themed lands. And unlike those parks that had developed over decades and decades, Disneyland had the benefit of master-planning, evident in its famed “hub-and-spokes” layout, pulsing all guests to the park’s center (and a towering park icon) from which themed lands radiate like spokes on a bicycle tire. The ingenious piece of urban planning created a comfortable layout with built-in navigation – something that parks like Cedar Point with its long, stretched midway infamously lack.

Lessons learned

Just as Disney Imagineers were hard at work developing their Walt Disney World, one of those midway-style parks in Ohio was languishing.

Cincinnati Ohio’s Coney Island (not to be confused with New York’s) traced its roots to 1886 – a very, very long time ago. But by the end of the 1960s, its future looked sunk. Literally. Located right on the Ohio River, the park was subject to occasional flooding, and in 1964 a particularly rough flood season covered the midway in 14 feet of water.

Management recognized that it was high time for Coney Island to relocate. In 1968, the park’s management got in contact with a company called Taft Broadcasting, who were eager to leverage their recent acquisition of Hanna-Barbera (the animation studio behind The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Scooby-Doo, The Smurfs, and more). Taft bought Coney Island outright and purchased a thousand acres of land northeast of Cincinnati in Kings Mills, Ohio.

This new Coney Island replacement would serve as a living example of Disney’s formula: a master-planned, modern park with Disney’s urban design principles put to work – themed lands radiating from a central icon, right in Ohio. The winning submission from a contest to name the new park combined Coney Island and Kings Mills into a catchy title, and Kings Island opened April 29, 1972.

Borrowing from Disneyland's innovation, guests entered the park via International Street, an elegant and larger-than-life block of (fittingly) international architecture concealing appropriately-themed restaurants, shops, craftsmen, and vendors with the dancing Royal Fountains down the street's center. At the end is the park's icon – a 1/3 scale replica of the Eiffel Tower standing over 300 feet tall (more than a hundred feet taller than Cinderella Castle).

From that central plaza, themed lands radiate away. There was Oktoberfest (a German land anchored by a beer garden and flat rides, and later by the Festhaus stage and restaurant), Coney Island (populated by all of the relocated rides from the old park, plus the Racer wooden coaster, credited with re-igniting the coaster boom post-WWII and kicking off the second Golden Age of the Roller Coaster), Rivertown (a forested Ohio settlement), and the Happy Land of Hanna-Barbera (a veritable Fantasyland of family fun).

Over its lifetime, Kings Island grew and added new themed lands, stellar dark rides, wild, well-themed family roller coasters, and more. 

But the park’s Disney-esque design principles were only the start, as a movie studio eager to own theme parks of their own came to call just a few decades later…

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There are 31 comments.

I rode Tomb Raider and I loved it! I wish either Disney or Universal would buy Kings Island and bring back Tomb Raider!

Great article! I loved this ride back in the day. It's nice to see it documented so well.

Wow. What an incredible article. It's interesting to see that Paramount Parks did such a great job with themeing, both at Kings Island and at Kings Dominion. I have no idea what the motive was, but removing all of the effects at Kings Island's TR and NONE of the effects at Kings Dominion's Tomb Raider makes zero sense to me.

I sure do hope Mr. Ouimet can breath life back into theming at Cedar Fair parks.

Although I never rode Tomb Raider, it sounds like a fine example of a successful dark ride. Cedar Fair parks are certainly lacking good dark rides, and in some cases, any dark rides at all. Time for them to get up to speed and build some. Cedar point has enough coasters, they really need a great dark ride to attract more paying customers. IMHO.

Huss' Land of the Giants rides generally all had mechanical issues. From what I understand, it was the ride tearing itself apart that had Kings Island's engineers remove a row from the attraction against the wishes of the manufacturer. This shift in quality accelerated for Huss following the decision to move fabrication primarily to the same Strakota facilities in Eastern Europe that produce Intamin's rides.

In any case, I liked Tomb Raider. Of the many really awful choices Paramount made in terms of ride purchases from the mid-90s on, it was unique and entertaining. Like you said - it shows that with some effort, any ride can be turned into a really unique experience, as no one really saw "Indoor Giant Top Spin" as having a ton of dark ride potential before. You've probably also seen the spiritual successor in Germany, Phantasialand's Talocan:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVf0MZO0Tds

(also there's some stuff that could be corrected about how it was that KECO got into the big theme park biz but that isn't totally relevant here)

Tomb Raider was so impressive. I was lucky enough to ride during its first two seasons, and while I partially missed the crazy thrill of a typical Top Spin, I was completely captivated by the ride's overall execution. It was like spin-and-puke crossed with Disney'sIndiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, and it truly turned out better than I could've imagined.

I am from Cincinnati and rode and very well remember Tomb Raider (and Son of Beast, with the loop). I loved this article, particularly the history of Kings Island (which I affectionately still call "PKI"). Tomb Raider was exciting and interesting when it first opened, as was Son of Beast. It's a shame that Kings Island is now known for having 2 of the biggest and most expensive ride failures of all time! It was obvious how Kings Island turned when Paramount was no longer attached to it. It has not been the same since, in my opinion, even with some of the newer and popular coasters like Banshee and Diamondback.

Every year we would go to Kings Island and stay the Yogi Bear Campground that used to be next to the park (used to go well with the Hannah Barbara land, but has since been replaced with a Great Wolf Lodge) the tomb raider ride was great in its original form. I remember going back that first year after paramount was out of the picture. It was amazing how the theming had such an effect on your enjoyment of the ride. Besides tomb raider, one of the worst was the Italian Job. They literally pealed the Mini Cooper logos off the train cars. It looked so cheap and run down. Some of the rides that were "unbranded" could still use some TLC today.

I've been a season pass holder (and seasonal employee) at Kings Island since the mid-90s and have seen all the changes over those years. Thanks for an excellent article! It explained a lot, especially those confusing years when the park was owned by Paramount. It was never clear what Paramount actually wanted to do, getting into the theme park business.

I rode Tomb Raider that first year and was truly amazed! A stint as a Disney co-op in '94 forever changed my expectations of theme parks and Paramount seemed to be stepping up to the plate with their theming of the TR exterior and queue line. It's sad that the sale to Cedar Fair changed all that. While I've lived in SW Ohio for almost 30 years, I've never been to Cedar Point, but after Cedar Fair purchased the Paramount Parks, it seems that all the attention and efforts of the company goes to Cedar Point and other "marquee" parks and we get the leftovers, so to speak. Paramount attempted some amazing things, even if they didn't turn out that great.

I rode Tomb Raider & was stuck upside down on it for about 15 min as the ride had broken down they got us upright again but took them anor hour & 45 min to get us off the ride by the time we got out the park was closed & we were escorted out of the park & all they did was say Sorry Folks we are now closed hope you come back & see us again , well needless to say I have never been back to Kings Island because I feel they could of at least refunded a portion of the money I spent on tickets to get in there which is quite expensive for a family of 5

I must be missing something because I thought this ride was absolutely awful. Ride it the year it opened. Waited about 3 hours in 90 degrees, got on, twirled around about 3 times while trying to hear a barely audible soundtrack. Total waste of time. The theming was great, this much is true but as far as the ride goes we thought it was terrible.

Thank you! I was beginning to think I was the only one that hated it...even in its original form.

Yes, I agree. I was also not impressed with the original Tomb Raider ride. I remember it being very short. I remember that especially because we waited 2 hours to "ride" it and by the time it finished, it hardly seemed worth it. Thank you for the article though! Very informative

So I’m not the only one. I thought the ride was terrible. I was greatly disappointed after waiting for hours, only to be spun around a couple of times to see fake icicles and fake lava.

Tomb Raider was gone before I was able to ride it. I was in middle school, and can clearly remember Kings Island being under Paramount, and still call it that. The first time I rode this ride was when I was a junior in high school and it was The Crypt in 2011. It was short and underwhelming and I remember thinking that it wasn't worth the wait. Seeing what I missed out on makes me feel cheated from what seemed to be a great ride experience!

I've lived in SW Ohio my entire life. Rode this the first year it was open, once, and never had any interest in riding again. Great theming, yes, but the ride itself was awful. Especially for men. This ride had a bad habit of smashing men's sensitive parts, no matter the precautions taken.

Great, informative article. I remember unsuspectly riding Toumb Raider after it opened. Even though I have been to many theme parks, I was tremendously impressed by this ride.
When we went back after a few years, it was then called The Crypt...and it sucked. I never knew why that ride changed or why the park declined all together in the years following the sale by Paramount. Now it makes more sense. It's such a shame though...that was an awesome, innovative, thrilling, expertly themed ride built up to the caliber of Universal.

The wonder and excitement of Tomb Raider is captured here, but it is as if the author never spoke with someone who experienced the ride. I was a teenager when this came out and I loved the ride. Unfortunately, because of the speed with which the flips are taken, this ride became affectionately known as "The Crotch Killer" by my male friends. Once the special effects were removed, there was no reason to ride this. Whereas Italian Job was renamed and still retained the few special effects it had (read:FIRE), the best part of Tomb Raider was gone. It was not worth it to pay for a locker to stow one's belongings for a ride experience that was much shorter and lacked all of the bells and whistles that once made it an extremely unique experience in the park.

Thank you for these informative stories about these rides. I grew up visiting Paramount's Kings Island between 1999-2010 or so when my family's work would have weekend picnic at the park so a friend and I got to ride literally every ride. Heck, I still remember us riding Son of Beast with the loop about 5 times or more in a row just because it was new and we had arrived when there was hardly a line. (I can barely do one now without needing to take a break, darn age.) I secretly miss when it was movie themed and I tried to visit after it was bought and was more sad and heartbroken than I was excited at how much it has changed. I remember being scared of going on Tomb Raider because I had no idea what was expected, but I'm glad I got to try it once before its demise. The movie elements really what helped it be what it was, and it was enthralling to be in the a "part of the movie".

Thank you again for these articles. It's a huge part of my childhood that you are hitting home right now.

I rode the tomb raider 2x when it was first released and once again about few years ago before they shut it down. Needless to say that when they reduced the seating and the ride duration I was one of the people that boo'd when it was over. I remember the lines being 2 hours long and it was amazing. Just like the "outerlimits" now its just the Flight of Fear" that 0-60mph in 4 second was/is amazing They both just became rides in the dark and that part of recapturing my childhood left me feeling a bit upset. Kings Island Wasn't and isn't quite the same after that Paramount showed us Ohioans a taste of the privileged life . However I wouldn't call it a failure unless success/failure is measured by longevity. I still by gold season passes, I also find it fun to tell my 11 year old son when we go about how cool the Tomb Raider was and the good old days of Paramount's KI and we ride still get to ride the "flight of fear" as well on our way to the Firehawk!

Great read. While TR was very unique-it was not universally embraced, esp. by long time fans of the park. The mention of big, generic 'studio' looking buildings/rides upon Paramount's takeover couldn't be more accurate-and it kinda sucked. The whole 'action lot' area is to this day incredibly boring. In the 70s and 80s, KI brimmed with atmosphere and theming. Every 'world' in the park had its own unique feel, sights, sounds, and smells. When paramount took over it was as if none of that mattered anymore. The omnipresent peddling of movies-along with annoying TVs in all the queue lines-made many of us feel that our favorite place had turned into one big commercial. A lot of the magic was gone.

TR was different and admittedly pretty cool. But at the same time it felt like a waste of resources on glitz over substance. After the mixed reception of SoB, what we really wanted was a modern, big, fast, sit-down steel coaster.

While the shoddy de-branding by CF was awkward at times, at least they got back to the business of installing serious coasters. IMHO getting Paramount out of there saved the park.

Once again, to see something clearly so amazing fail is very heartbreaking. i can tell it was a wonderful ride, and I would've loved it, but unfortunately, people don't think, and when they do, it's cheap, badly made knock-offs. I hope they bring it back too, because this ride has more of what I thought the Indianna Jones ride would in Disneyland. Needless to say, the wait, plus the mechanical issues, and the too fast pace made the ride much more unexciting and boring than described in an article I read before going to Disneyland about the ride.

Thank you for this explanation and for the one about the Son of Beast! I grew up in Indiana going to Kings Island every summer from 1978 - 1991. I remember my brothers freaking out over the Beast and how excited I was when I was finally old enough to ride it! I rode the Screaming Demon, the King Cobra, and the Bat. My last visit was in 1995. Then while I was off at college I just didn't go opting to visit other parks. Then a move to Tennessee put a stop to the desire to go back. I heard all about the Son of Beast, but never got to ride it. I didn't hear about Tomb Raider though. Last summer I took my kids to Kings Island so they could ride my all time favorite coaster - The Beast. While we were there, we passed the entrance to Tomb Raider and thought it was part of the Halloween show. I kept looking at it trying to figure out what it was. This was very informational in helping me solve a minor mystery. I did point out the Son of Beast tomb stone to the kids while we were at Banshee. And of course I had to fill them in on where the Bat, the Cobra, and the Demon used to be as well as my memories of the Vortex opening (because 6 inversions was unheard of at that time!) and Top Gun. I'd also like to point out that one of my issues with Paramount owning KI was the ridiculous people walking around trying to pass themselves off as Star Trek characters. I am a HUGE Star Trek fan, so I thought I would like this. Nope. It was like they stuck people in a costume, gave them a set script, and sent them out. No one was a specific character - like Spock. They were just random vulcans. I remember talking to one Vulcan who literally sounded like a robot. Unemotional doesn't mean robotic. The Klingons just kind of grunted and snarled at people. It was like there were trying way too hard to be Disney. And now that's I've visited the same areas without the movie marketing...the names of the rides are just stupid! Flight Deck??? Really? So really, thank you for this amazing history lesson!

Lived in the Greater Cincinnati area most of my life. My husband and I went to Kings Island numerous times and I loved the Racer. But after I got pregnant for the first time, I couldn't seem to bring myself to get back on roller coasters. My husband told me I would love the Bat because it was different and I passed out briefly twice and said never again. When Tomb Raider opened I thought I would try it and although a little rough, I loved it. The years passed and my kids graduated to the big coasters and I just sat and people watched. Then the changes started to mu beloved Tomb Raider. I would have booed the Crypt too if I ever got on it. My kids had warned me it wasn't worth riding anymore. Very sad. Now I have a Granddaughter to take to KI and buy blue ice cream for and make new memories. RIP Tomb Raider.

I rode Tomb Raider the year it opened And had no ide whatsoever what type of ride it was as they did a great job keeping it secret

Too bad as my stomach would have liked to know that it was the type of ride it was

While I didn't throw up on the ride, while
I was suspended over the fake fire and ice that was definitely not helping matters, in all rides I've ridden over the years, I couldn't wait to get off of it

The worst, I did throw up on one of the parks mildest rides which I rode next with my daughter - The Scooby Do sky Coaster

Not my best park experience

And that's why I will never ride a ride unless I know what it's about and what it does

There is still a very simple, very small yet nice outdoor version of a Tomb Raider top spin in Italy:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9He4ABUyCMk

So at least, the idea of having Tomb Raider combined with a Top spin lives on, somehow, somewhere. ;)

Sadly, I almost got to ride this ride but then I didn't. I went through the entire queue and got to the point where I was strapped into the chair, but I hadn't been feeling well and I was worried I was going to puke if I actually rode it. So I ended up having them take me off the ride. (There was a brief moment of panic, the attendant partially undid my restraints then walked off to do something else. I couldn't get out, but I wasn't fully restrained, so I was terrified the ride would start up and I would fall out somehow. Thankfully after calling for help another attendant came.)

I really wish I had rode it, but unfortunately now its too late.

Really excellent article about a ride that I have wanted to learn about for years. A real bonus to see a photo of a Giant Top Spin in the open air too, so thank you for that.

I have to wonder though, why the article seems to treat regional and/or seasonal parks with such derision. OK, Tomb Raider was a world class themed ride, but there are plenty of examples of seasonal parks building rides with world class theming.

I just wanted to comment on the origin of Coney Island, Disney, and KI.

“Many (theme parks) began as seaside carnivals in the late 1800s.The other style of amusement park typically started as trolley parks – recreation destinations in the 1800s where emerging railroad lines built fishing, swimming, and picnicking parks that eventually added a carousel, then a roller coaster, and on until long midways with scattered attractions developed.”

Coney Island started as an apple grove that the owner started to develop into a small resort. The resort did not have a large amount of traffic due to its location. What it did have nearby was the Ohio River. After the initial sale, the new owners started ferrying in visitors by steam boat. This is when the park started to gain momentum and become one of the pioneers of amusement parks in the USA. So this configuration is a combination of the two above-mentioned types of parks.

The other really interesting fact is concerning Walt Disney:

“In fact, when Walt told his wife Lillian he intended to open his own, she said, “Why would you want to be involved with an amusement park? They’re so dirty, and not at all fun for grown-ups. Why would you want to get involved in a business like that?” He replied: “That’s exactly my point. Mine isn’t going to be that way. Mine’s going to be a place that’s clean, where the whole family can do things together.”

On June 7, 1953 Walt Disney visited Coney Island on a fact-finding mission. He was impressed with the cleanliness and layout of the park, and with the manner in which the park conducted business. His first theme park, Disneyland, was modeled after Cincinnati’s gem, Coney Island. It’s only fitting then that:

“Borrowing from Disneyland's innovation, guests entered the park via International Street, an elegant and larger-than-life block of (fittingly) international architecture concealing appropriately-themed restaurants, shops, craftsmen, and vendors with the dancing Royal Fountains down the street's center. At the end is the park's icon – a 1/3 scale replica of the Eiffel Tower standing over 300 feet tall (more than a hundred feet taller than Cinderella Castle).”

So it comes full circle. Disneyland was inspired by Coney Island, then in turn, Coney Island’s new home, or replacement if you will, was inspired by Disneyland. So really it was a natural evolution starting with an apple grove and transitioning eventually to the wonderful world of Kings Island, with a little bit of Disney magic in-between.

Rode it 1 time, thought it was terrible, but not to say that someone else would like it. When Viacom did the split, CBS news was in charge, and wanted nothing to do with parks, things went downhill fast.

Thanks for this fantastic article. I’m a sucker for great themeing and this was one of the best — it reminded me a lot of the Mummy ride at Universal, another one of my favorites. I really appreciate how in-depth your articles are — keep up the great work.

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