Archive for November, 2012
An American Original:
A Brief Thematic History of Kings Island and the Mythology of “The Beast”
“All good things which exist are the fruits of originality” – John Stuart Mill
Rarely a park is consistently defined by a single attraction. A more uncommon situation exists when an attraction is continuously rated at the top of its category. Comparable to other “titans of industry” like Seinfeld, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The New York Yankees, and Citizen Kane; The Beast holds a historical paramount in any discussion of wooden roller coasters. Visitors from near and far populate the Cincinnati area for a chance to ride what has been consistently billed as “The Greatest Wooden Roller Coaster on Earth.” The lure of The Beast is more than the ride experience, for over the years its legend has been crafted.
The last six years of the 1970’s saw the most dramatic increase in roller coasters since the boom of the 1920’s. Proliferation fueled progress. Intamin pioneered Magic Mountain’s looping Great American Revolution in 1976 while Arrow Dynamics installed several models of their Corkscrew model in parks around the country. Forerunners of the roller coaster genre such as Cedar Point’s Robert Munger realized the indelible draw that the attractions were providing, installing an Arrow Dynamics racing-model, the “Gemini” at the close of the decade.
Kings Island in Mason, Ohio was the successor to the nearby Coney Island Park, which had a reputation of being a charming small park. Coney Island’s proximity to the Ohio River had made it susceptible to flooding and its limited footprint stalled expansion. The design and development for Kings Island, a combination of potential names “Kings Mills” and “Coney Island” was to be modeled after a “four leaf clover” as explained by park developer Gary Wachs. A “Frontierland” was planned and coupled with a “Rivertown” to embrace local history. The park planners’ merger with the Taft Broadcasting Company tied the park to the Hanna-Barbera franchise, which rendered itself well to a themed land as well as promising promotional opportunity. For maybe the first time an amusement park was themed after the nostalgia of parks of old. The Coney Island section of the paid homage to the park’s former site in Cincinnati, as well as the classic amusement parks of the 1920’s, with Wachs wanting to make capital of a historical setting.
But the capstone of the park’s theming was its International Street hallmarked by the Intamin-built Eiffel Tower. Bruce Bushman, who had worked for WED Enterprises and was fundamental in designing the aesthetics and color palette for Disneyland’s Fantasyland was brought in to design the shops of European influence to grace the opening walkway. Large fountains inspired by the 1964 World’s Fair provided synced entertainment while the Bushman-designed International facades drew influence from the Midway Plaisance of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Wachs details the experience as “(a) soft international flavor as you walked in the park.”
By 1979, Kings Island had proved to be a commercial success. Gary Wachs was an early proponent of the single-ticket admission. Park guests responded well to the notion of paying one price to experience all the attractions a park could offer, which was reflected in the favorable early attendance figures. With popularity came the need for new attraction experiences. The opening day coaster the “Racer,” designed by John Allen of the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, had become a staple of the nascent park. Allen, who had helped engage the second golden age of roller coasters in the 1970’s, was brought in as a consultant on the “Beast” project. Confident in their ability to build coasters in-house, Kings Island took the unconventional approach and built The Beast from within.
While the legendary John Allen consulted on the project, the real architects behind the coaster were Charlie Dinn and Al Collins. Dinn, who oversaw the Kings Islands’ Engineering, Construction, and Maintenance departments at the time, later formed his own successful roller coaster construction company with Cedar Point’s Mean Streak and Six Flags Over Texas’ Texas Giant as its notable achievements. Built to best utilize the vast amount of land purchased by the Taft Broadcasting Company for development (a figure taken from Roy Disney’s advice to acquire five times the initial amount), The Beast was the first of its kind to utilize the terrain in its design and construction. This conformity to the terrain proved to be beneficial in the coaster’s construction. By keeping the structure physically close to the landscape, material costs were drastically minimized. This enabled Dinn and his team to execute the world’s tallest and fastest coaster without the fear of bankrupting the park, with each calculation done carefully by hand.
But why does The Beast hold significance in a study of Themed Entertainment? The answer, I believe, is what differentiates The Beast from the average wooden coaster: its value as an experience. The Beast excels in its ambiguity. Hidden in the backwoods of the southeast corner of the park (further hidden by the addition of Diamondback in 2009) there is an element of seclusion. There is no stated (or forced) backstory to the attraction, but an ambiance is set. The station, lightly themed to an old sawmill, now proudly displays the rustic touches that it once imitated, the aesthetic becoming more genuine with age.
As the park guest weaves through the switchbacks, hand painted signs “warn” about the upcoming experience. The queue is covered to further mask the coaster experience ahead, with only the ride’s straightaway ending and the commencement of the lift hill visible. The coaster rider immediately receives the impression that this coaster will be much different than the traditional “out and back.” After boarding the coaster train, the ride vehicle departs on a sudden “U turn” facing the lift hill. As the train climbs the slow chain lift, the woods unravel as the guest ascends. At the crest of the hill one last hand painted sign informs riders to keep seated, accompanied by the sound of growls from adjacent loudspeakers.
For a brief second at the summit of the hill, the great ambiguity of the Beast becomes void. The grand layout of the track is visible for the first time. The second lift hill to our left is geometrically balanced by the grand finale the helix to the right. What may only be a concise second or two feels like ten. The coaster train slowly clears the hill and drops into the first tunnel. In the darkness the ambiguity of the Beast returns.
To say the Beast is unconventional would be an understatement. Even from the relatively themed queue, the Beast is more about what is unseen than what is in plain sight. Veiled in the corner of the park, the first indicator of the coaster’s presence is the classic attraction sign featuring two giant orange claws reaching forward from a vanishing horizon of coaster track. The Beast is not a bear or a chimera or a lion, but an original entity. In a way that fits the coaster perfectly. In 1979 there was no benchmark for a coaster of this type and park management recognized this. What resulted was another movement in how park operations: the first marketing campaign for a roller coaster. This spot from 1979 is an interesting study.
The Maurice Sendak-inspired art direction of the spot echoes the attraction experience perfectly. The “Beast” acting as the coaster train demonstrates the sometimes-violent motions of the coaster. This advertisement embodies the still ongoing self-prescribed mentality of coasters: to be the “baddest” of them all. The Beast might lack the airtime, tight turns and significant g-forces of other top-ranked coasters, but I don’t feel like its prestige as a singular experience would exist without its idiosyncrasies. My favorite sections of the coaster are the long straightaways, boring by most coaster standards as “dead time,” but the coupling of the natural tunneling by the forest’s leaves and the steady increase in the speed of the coaster train delivers a unique experience.
The experience trumps the technical details of this or any coaster. Themed Entertainment in general, isn’t about coasters or shows alone. Tracks and auditoriums are only the medium to enhance a guest experience. Because The Beast exists as a remarkable and unrivaled ride experience, it transcends simply being a wooden coaster. For comparison, let’s look at another themed coaster built in the same year.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in Disneyland opened five months after The Beast began giving rides in Mason, Ohio. Imagineer Tony Baxter had drawn the idea from the legendary Marc Davis’ work on the never-built Western River Expedition. Big Thunder was one of Disney’s first forays into computer-aided design, largely differing from the tedious hand calculations of Charlie Dinn and Al Collins. The Arrow Dynamics built track winds through the fabricated town of Rainbow Ridge simulating a runaway mine train. Like most Disney-themed attractions, Baxter’s Big Thunder Mountain tells a story. Unknowingly built on Indian Burial Ground, Big Thunder Mountain at Disneyland finds natural retribution in the form of an earthquake.
Both attractions give the guest the experience of an out-of-control ride through the wilderness. Whether it is the faux rocks inspired by Bryce Canyon of Big Thunder or the natural woodlands of Cincinnati the ride experience is defined by the surroundings. Past the safety spiels while boarding the ride vehicles, there is no narration to perpetuate the experience in either attraction. Both attractions are unique and mold their identities from their surroundings, instead of through dialogue. While Big Thunder Mountain has been molded and franchised to the Magic Kingdom-style parks around the globe, The Beast retained its singular identity for several years before the severely troubled Son of Beast was constructed across the park under Paramount’s ownsership, continuing the legacy of record-breaking wooden coasters.
Today the Beast remains the draw and the luster from when it opened its gates over thirty years ago. Yet some debate remains over its place in the pantheon of current operating roller coasters with much discourse occurring over the placement of magnetic brakes in 2001. Even if the coaster has deteriorated over the years, its mythology supports its legendary status. In the classic Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, James Stewart’s character, United States Senator Ransom Stoddard, is attributed for killing the notorious outlaw Liberty Valance. When Stoddard returns to the Western town of Shinbone to attend the funeral of John Wayne’s character, Tom Doniphon, he reveals to a local newspaperman that it was Doniphon who killed the outlaw and that he had been living under a false claim. Upon learning the truth, the newspaperman throws out his notes and states one of the classic lines in the history of cinema: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
That’s where I believe The Beast is today: a legend in its own right, sustained by its lore. The added brakes may taper and tame the experience, but the coaster stands as a testament to the history of the park. Appropriately placed in “Rivertown,” the section dedicated to the history of Cincinnati and the citizens living along the Ohio River, “The Beast” has become a staple of its territory. This kind of sustainability is crucial for regional parks, attracting repeat visitors year after year. The success of The Beast is a tribute to the history of Cincinnati, for it was built through its topography and by its people.