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

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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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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