The Return of the King

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The gates to the kingdom are about to reopen.

This Saturday, after five years of dormancy, Kentucky Kingdom will reopen with new attractions, revitalized looks and some familiar faces behind the resurgence.

After former operator Six Flags closed the park in 2009 and walked away from its lease in 2010, local businessman and former park operator Ed Hart took up the cause to reopen the amusement park – the same park he reopened and operated once before, from 1990 to 1997.

In many ways it is a homecoming of sorts for Hart, many of the people bringing the park back to life and the community at large, according to park spokesman John Mulcahy.

“It’s fun to hear, and I’d love to capture it as we get going again via social media, people telling us the stories about their fond memories,” Mulcahy said. “Three generations have enjoyed this park, and it has been sorely missed the last four or five years.”

Customers new and returning will find a new experience inside the gates. Some rides, such as Greased Lightning and Chang, were removed by the former owner. In their place are new attractions that are a mix of thrilling and family-friendly. New for 2014 is the Lightning Run, a 10-story steel roller coaster featuring a 100-foot 80-degree drop.

Two other brand-new coasters are planned to be introduced in 2015 and 2016. Among them, the T2 suspended looping coaster will be replaced by an upgraded, smoother coaster, most likely to be christened “T3.”

On the family-friendly side, the Hurricane Bay water park has received a massive expansion, introducing a 12,000-square foot wave lagoon and Buccaneer Beach, a 10,000 square-foot water play area for the younger set.

The expanded water park features new thrills as well: Adventure River, a new flowing stream that moves at six times the speed of the Lazy River attraction; the 52-foot-tall Plummet Summit family raft ride; and the Deep Water Dive, a 121-foot plunge slide with a 70-degree angle – almost straight down.

The exit of Six Flags took licensed characters such as Bugs Bunny and Batman with it. The return of the park to local hands will also herald the return of longtime mascot King Louie, who will be the face of the Kingdom.

The changes reflect both the evolution of customer expectations and how Hart and his ownership group have assessed the changing nature of the region’s amusement attractions market since the 1990s. Back then, the music-themed Opryland lay to the south in Nashville. Paramount Studios had recently acquired Cincinnati’s King’s Island, positioning it as a movie-themed destination. Santa Claus, Ind.’s Holiday World was just beginning to expand its family-oriented water attractions.

Hart and the previous owners carved a competitive niche by position Kentucky Kingdom as the region’s thrill park, bringing in exciting new rides at a time when other parks were at a buying stand-still. It worked: Kentucky Kingdom grew from 180,000 season ticket holders in its first year to 1.4 million by the time Premier Parks (which in turn bought the Six Flags corporation and rebranded Kentucky Kingdom under that umbrella) purchased the park in 1997.

“The Little Engine that could,” recalled Mulcahy, himself a veteran of Hart’s previous tenure.

Now, the market has changed. With three generations of patrons ready for Saturday to arrive (Mulchahy estimates advance season pass sales at 80,000), the park is evolving its approach, keeping the thrills plentiful while embracing the multigenerational appeal. Kentucky Kingdom’s new slogan sums up the approach succinctly: “Your Family’s New Place To Play.”

“A lot of what we’re doing is designed not necessarily to shed the ‘thrill park’ image – we still have thrilling rides – but, growing up with the audience that has grown up with us – they have children now. So we play a little bit different strategy, and that is we come of age with them, make sure everything that we’re doing in the park is focused on making mom happy. If we make mom happy, the rest of the experience should fall into place.”

One of the largest mom-centric attractions will be Louie’s Playland, an amusement area oriented toward smaller children, with the added appeal that parents can play, too.

“Most children’s areas in a park, you stand and wave while your children ride the rides,” Mulcahy said. “Now, when you take the time out of your busy schedule to go do something with your kids, you don’t want to stand. You want to engage with them. So being able to sit alongside of them in a race car or on the Hippity Hoppity Frogs, it’s part of the bonding experience that is family entertainment. To be able to offer 12 rides that are family-friendly, that a mom and a dad can ride with their kids, is great.”

The long-lasting appeal of the park has shown itself even before opening day. Many future patrons and even job fair attendees for the park’s many seasonal positions have shared stories of how Kentucky Kingdom was their first job. They look forward to bringing their children – and, in some cases, grandchildren – to a key fixture of their childhood.

Many new faces will find their first job at the revitalized park. Students from the Youth Performing Arts School will be hired as live entertainers, roaming throughout the park providing live circus-style amusements during the Summer season. Kentucky Kingdom’s inaugural season will run from May through September, with a longer operating calendar planned for the coming years.

Hart and his partners are putting substantial investment into the park to make it a premier experience. It will spend $43.5 million in capital and loans over the first three years and has already exceeded the minimum $36 million to be spent in year one.

Much had to be done to bring the park back to a workable state. Landscape overgrowth had to be cleared. Rides needed repair and refurbishment, and many of the 100 buildings on-site needed fresh paint and renovations.

“This was ‘Extreme Theme Park Makeover,” Mulcahy said. “You literally needed a machete to get into certain areas of the park. Before you could even get to talking about, designing and implementing the new vision, you had to get the park to some degree of ‘ground zero’ so you could build upon a solid foundation.”

With the foundation solid and new elements taking shape, Hart and the Kentucky Fair Board are looking to the future. The investment group has a 50-year lease with five five-year options to renew and plans to spend up to $2.5 million and no less than $1 million each year of the lease to add more rides and attractions.

The park held a ‘soft opening’ last Saturday for 20,000 employees of Amazon’s Jeffersonville and Shepherdsville fulfillment centers, as well as the American Coaster Enthusiast group. Mulcahy said the group was anxious to remove the “SBNO” (Standing But Not Operating) designation from rides such as Thunder Run.

“We’re excited to see what they’re going to say,” Mulcahy said. “You want to always set the bar and exceed. That’s the goal right now for Kentucky Kingdom: to bring back the fans. They have certain expectations, but I truly believe that they’re going to be very pleased with all the work that we’ve accomplished.”

The longest line on Saturday? For funnel cakes.

For more information on attractions, season passes, parking and more, go to www.kentuckykingdom.com.

Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS  | The Voice-Tribune

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