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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…

Image: coasterimage.com

Imagine what any movie studio executive would think after touring Disneyland or Universal Studios Florida. They would be absolutely speechless at the pleasant and smart blending of media; movies brought to life; gift shops packed with memorabilia; families building concrete connections to corporate brands!

And better yet, the “studio” style parks coming online during the 1980s and 1990s (Disney’s Hollywood Studios [1989], Universal Studios Florida [1990], Warner Bros. Movie World [1991], and MGM Grand Adventures [1993]) proved that such enterprises could also be cheap. Under the guise of visiting a “real” movie studio, big, boxy, tan showbuildings and façade-lined streets could populate these parks. Owning a theme park no longer required the detail and immersion of Magic Kingdom. Instead, anyone could place a movie’s name on pretty much anything.

In 1992, Paramount Communications Inc. set their sights on the theme park business. But rather than trying to rival Disney or Universal in scope, Paramount had other plans. Paramount wouldn't waste time and energy building their own parks from scratch in built-out destinations like California and Florida. Instead, they'd purchase already-successful regional parks and re-brand them. These Paramount Parks could add just a dash of movie magic to compete with other regional parks like Cedar Point and Six Flags. It was perfect. Now, Paramount just needed to find some parks for sale.

Luckily, the Kings Entertainment Company (internally bought and separated from Taft in 1984) was willing to part with theirs. Five of the parks owned by KECO were taken over and re-branded:

  • Paramount’s Kings Island (near Cincinnati, Ohio)
  • Paramount’s Kings Dominion (near Richmond, Virginia)
  • Paramount’s Carowinds (near Charlotte, North Carolina)
  • Paramount’s Great America (in Santa Clara, California)
  • Paramount Canada’s Wonderland (in Vaughan, Ontario)

Paramount’s cinematic branding kicked in from the start. In 1993, a suspended swinging coaster (in the same coaster family as another Lost Legend: Big Bad Wolf at Busch Gardens in Virginia) opened in the park’s forested hills. The attraction – allegedly originally intended to be named “Swoop” – instead opened with a steaming aircraft carrier station, "Danger Zone" soundtrack, and bright red stripes fitting the new, cinematic name: Top Gun: The Jet Coaster.

By 1999, the park redesigned one of its themed lands and the Paramount Action Zone was born (colored yellow in the map below). Apparently themed to a studio backlot where an action movie might be filmed, the land brought with it a few similarly cinematic additions: a face-to-face inverted boomerang coaster called FACE/OFF and the world’s tallest Intamin gyro-drop called Drop Zone: Stunt Tower. (Yes, both of those attractions are named after films, which many guests would’ve been unlikely to realize if it weren’t for the land’s central plaza with action-film posters circling a studio water tower).

Since 1979, the park’s shady, quiet Rivertown themed area (brown in the map above) has been home to The Beast, arguably one of the most famous wooden roller coasters of all time. At 7,359 feet and with a ride time well over 4 minutes, The Beast was (and is still today, thank you very much) the longest wooden roller coaster ever. Famous for the way it winds through Ohio’s forests, riders on the Beast can famously see only the stretch of track they’re on, with the rest of the ride concealed along 35 acres of forest, roaring along at ground level.

In true cinematic fashion, Paramount decided that what any classic, beloved, famous thing needs is a loud, brash, big-budget sequel. So in 2000, Paramount Action Zone got Son of Beast, the tallest, fastest, second-longest (leaving the record to its father) and only looping wooden roller coaster on Earth. Son of Beast was like many sequels: a critical and commercial flop. The astounding engineering marvel lasted less than a decade before closing for good, earning its own in-depth Lost Legends: Son of Beast feature here.

Son of Beast might not have made many fans, but Paramount’s cinematic style would come to a head in the park’s addition for 2002… Something mysterious. 

In the park’s forested Rivertown, near the quaint entrance to the legendary Beast, Paramount’s Kings Island would open a “totally immersive dark ride adventure” called TOMB RAIDER: The Ride.

But if you asked Kings Island guests, industry observers, or Kings Island message boards, you wouldn’t find anyone who knew exactly what TOMB RAIDER was or what it would do. Constructed in complete secrecy inside of a towering show building, imaginations ran rampant…

A few scattered pieces of concept art seemed like lofty goals for a simple, seasonal park in Ohio while simultaneously revealing nothing of the ride's nature. But if Paramount’s Kings Island were willing to invest $20 million – the price tag of a shiny, new 200-foot roller coaster – then they must be confident that TOMB RAIDER would wow audiences... And most importantly, that those audiences would get in line without knowing (or maybe, because they didn't know) what TOMB RAIDER even was. 

So what on Earth did visitors find when they stepped into the ancient stone cavern that had emerged in Rivertown in 2002? Read on as we step inside... 

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Comments

This was an excellent read. I went on this ride a few times when I was young back around 2004 and I was totally blown away by it. The way you describe the mystery about it is so on point, which was only exaggerated for me being so young. I had no idea about what happened to it and how it has been stripped of what made it so incredible. Without a doubt the most unique ride I've been on outside of Disney and Universal.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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