It's a familiar, childlike anticipation that hits me when I glimpse the Kings Dominion sign perched high above I-95, beckoning cars to exit the highway for small-town Doswell, 20 minutes north of Richmond.
I've been visiting this amusement park since I was a kid in the mid-'70s, back when it wasn't much more than the Lion Country Safari and a few other attractions. I still recall stumbling across the crooked floor of Yogi Bear's cave, my first ride on a serious roller coaster, hanging on for dear life as my skinny teenage frame nearly flew out of the wooden Grizzly. Or the time Huckleberry Hound almost mauled me.
That's right. I picked a fight with a cartoon character. It was the early '80s, and I'd gone to the park for another 9- or 10-year-old's birthday party. A few of us were goofing around by the exit of a ride when the big blue dog in the red bow tie ambled toward us from The Happy Land of Hanna-Barbera (now KidZone).
Instead of greeting him with high-fives, we swarmed around the bulky suit, poking and prodding the employee like obnoxious punks. Thinking his costume was padded, I tried to outdo my friends by throwing a hard uppercut to his cotton-candy blue underbelly. What happened next assured me there was no padding.
Before I knew it, Huckleberry Hound had jerked me completely off the ground, both blue paws at my neck, holding me over a white picket fence. While my friends stared, I was left face to face with a larger-than-life fuzzy cartoon sporting a frozen grin. Somewhere deep inside the character's dark mouth, I could make out the sweaty forehead and angry eyes of an adult man, quivering with rage behind a small, wire-mesh opening.
"If you ever touch one of the characters like that again," he spat, "you'll be banned from the park for the rest of your life, do you hear me?"
I can still remember the shame burning through my cheeks. As I hung there for what felt like forever, I looked down and saw a sun-bleached blond girl with freckles, about my age, staring at me with utter revulsion, like I'd just stoked a fire in a chimney Santa was busy climbing down.
Then just like that, Huck dropped me and walked off, somewhat gingerly.
I was stunned. For the rest of that summer, I could no longer watch Saturday morning cartoons because I privately knew that Hanna Barbera hated me. It would be another year or so before I got the courage to go back. But would I let a smack-down from a blue hound dissuade me from enjoying my hometown amusement park?
Heck no. As drummer Levon Helm says in "The Last Waltz" about his band's first time in New York: "The first time you go in and you get your ass kicked, then you take off. You let it heal up, then you come back and try it again. Eventually, you fall right in love with it."
That's just what happened. But I never punched a dog again.
I've been curious lately to see how things have changed at the Hanover County theme park. This summer, Kings Dominion announced the promotion of a longtime employee from Petersburg, Pat Jones, to be its new general manager. Last year, Ohio-based Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. purchased Kings Dominion and four other theme parks from Paramount Parks (CBS) for $1.24 billion.
But how had the park grown through all these years of competition with Virginia's other acclaimed theme park, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, which opened around the same time in the mid-'70s? What direction was the new ownership heading in? What challenges did they face? And on a more personal note, could I still enjoy myself there as a skeptical, some would say cynical, adult -- someone who at 35 is fairly wary of a lifetime of target marketing and corporate cross-promotion?
My first visit to the park is on a weekday in late June. The weather is perfect.
In front of the entrance, the road has been widened in preparation for increased traffic when the state fair sets up a half-mile away along Route 30, near the Kings Dominion campgrounds. There are also plans being reviewed for two new motels directly across the street from the park, says Marc Weiss, director of Hanover's Department of Economic Development. Weiss says KD, at around 1,000 employees, is the fourth largest employer in Hanover and characterizes them as "good corporate citizens."
After ponying up the $10 parking fee and driving into a half-full lot, I find my eyes are drawn to the treetops for glimpses of rides like the Berserker and the Volcano, slinging people across the horizon, eliciting delighted screams that rise and crash like distant ocean waves. Soon I will be smelling blacktop, Cinnabon and funnel cakes mixing with chlorine-scented winds from the fountains on International Street.
Although the park doesn't release attendance numbers anymore withholding such "proprietary information" is an industry-wide trend, I'm told somewhere more than 60 million people have crossed the gates since opening day in 1975, when roughly 20,000 people showed up to see Virginia's first theme park. It takes a little longer to get through the new gates today because of a row of metal detectors. These became necessary after a few episodes of guest violence in the last decade.
Are kids today really worse than we used to be? The last time I visited the park with any regularity was during high school in the mid- to late '80s, with a few day trips/night concert visits to see the likes of Bob Dylan, Little Feat, even Jimmy Buffett (if there's anything more ridiculous then festooned Parrotheads singing "Margaritaville," I haven't seen it).
Back then, we went to the park in packs similar to those I see roaming today, albeit with fewer electronic gadgets and virtually no gold jewelry. But we were still plenty annoying. I remember once renting a wheelchair from the park for a friend who faked an injury by wearing an old football leg brace, just so we could cut in line on every ride. That guy stayed in the chair all day as we took turns pushing him.
This led to more stupid pranks, such as entering the now-defunct karaoke recording studio (the same one a young Jada Pinkett used when she was a Baltimore high-school student) and recording a perfectly horrendous version of The Beach Boys' throwaway hit "Kokomo," complete with moans, drunken slurring and flatulation effects. Upon completing this trash-pop masterpiece, we left my friend with his wheelchair locked in place as our song played over loudspeakers to a growing crowd. I thought for sure he would ditch the chair and run. But he took it like a man.
I start the day with a few laps around the park, and it feels familiar in spots. I've always liked the way each section is nestled within lush-green forest groves, small man-made waterfalls, creek bridges and water-misted canopies adding a relaxed, natural feel to an otherwise imposing world of twisty steel structures and noise.
Walk around Kings Dominion today and it feels like the most racially diverse, desegregated area in Virginia and not just blacks and whites. Right away I can hear the heavy, Eastern European accents of foreign workers over loudspeakers in their game booths along the midway.
"Who vont to win a munkee? I need one winnuh. Come get ze pink munkee!"
I try to interview a female employee from Bulgaria who is manning some squirting game, but she gets nervous because her microphone has gone silent. Local employees, many of them area high-school students, are more likely to take a break and chat. They're mostly complimentary of their summer jobs, noting that employees are paid decently, able to arrange their own schedules, and treated to perks such as free admission, movie nights and discounted park food.
They seem more dependable than the classmates I knew who worked there.
"We used to call it the Geek Farm," says a Richmond investment banker who worked a summer along the midway in the late '80s. "There were games going on behind the games. We would deny prizes based on the 'leaning forfeit' [leaning too far over the counter for a toss], which made people furious. Sometimes, someone we knew would walk by, and we would announce over the speaker for them to report to the front desk due to a family emergency. Stuff like that."
Breaking for lunch, I order a slice of pizza that's so bland it would've been shot by any character from "The Sopranos" just on principle. The young woman who serves me is from Serbia. Her name back home is pronounced "Masha," but everyone here calls her Maria. She is a 22-year-old college student of chemistry who has been in America a grand total of 17 days.
"I like it here so far," she says in heavily accented but clear English. "It is very different from home. There are more rules and regulations, like 15-year-olds cannot put the pizza in the oven."
Other major differences she's noticed involve American food ("tasteless") and the unusually overweight guests ("Fat people like this do not exist in my country").
Along with the other roughly 300 foreign workers, Maria stays at Virginia Commonwealth University's Rhoads Hall and is driven to and from work by shuttle buses, usually returning home late at night. Her week at the pizza parlor typically involves eight- to 10-hour workdays, six days a week. After finishing her three-month seasonal commitment to the park, she plans to travel for a month.
"I like the city of Richmond, but it is like a ghost town," she says. "There are no people on the streets at night. I would very much like to see Miami, or California."
Maria's assistant manager is from Ukraine. This is her second summer working at Kings Dominion and she clearly loves it.
"I love traveling because I want my life to be bright," says 20-year-old Anna Kregel, who worked as a "promoter" back home, selling drinks. "In my country, I felt myself to be 30 or 40 years old because I did not have a lot of fun or meet new people. My life has changed totally in America. I feel like a young girl."
She's impressed by how proud Americans are of their country, which was not always the case back home.
"But I am proud of being a Ukranian," she quickly adds. "I speak four languages [German, Russian, Ukranian, English] and I am proud of my people. They are kind, hospitable, smart and hardworking especially the old people."
We talk a little longer then I head off to see more.
Kings Dominion has definitely rolled with the times. The place uses more sophisticated and focused marketing; everything seems to have a product tie-in, even if it's simply photos of guests taken during rides. Of course, the prices have gone up since my heyday: But more than ever, the park seems geared toward young families. "Hook 'em while they're young," as the old ad saying goes, and they come back forever just like I am doing. Who is Dora the Explorer, anyway? The Rugrats? I have no earthly clue. All the old characters from my youth have been retired, except for Scooby-Doo. Huckleberry Hound might as well be in an unmarked grave in a Mexico border town.
One thing that hasn't changed: teenage lovebirds. Several times I catch the metallic glint of braces from a young couple sucking face in line, or see shaky initials scrawled into walls, or on the wood railings along the White Water Canyon line (F.T. + B.B. = ♥). This unleashes vivid memories that resemble faded Kodak pictures from the '70s ("The laughter and the tears the shadows of misty yesteryears"), people with frizzy Afros, sideburns, short shorts, rampant acne and lots of polyester. It all seems so removed from today's youth, who seem to sport a more uniform appearance: short haircuts, tattoos and, of course, brand names on just about everything.
This whole thing is making me feel old.
I soon become acutely aware of the different theme music that follows me everywhere like some running gag. There are the melancholy notes of "Suicide Is Painless," the theme song from "M*A*S*H," while I admire the rare wooden carousel built in 1917. After I play a three-point basketball contest and leave humiliated, the goofy, synth-pop theme from "Ghostbusters" doesn't help. But the triumphant horns of the theme song from "Rocky" do provide a little boost when I'm leaving the men's room (these speakers are everywhere!). Still the weirdest soundtrack of the day occurs while I'm resting by the fountains next to a group of traditionally dressed Muslim women and speakers next to us blast the "Green Acres" theme ("Dah-ling I love you, but give me Park Avenue!").
The last thing I see that day is a middle-aged man, with a serious expression, carrying a huge stuffed banana longer than him.
I didn't know it that day, but hundreds of miles away at a Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom, a 16-year-old girl has had both her feet chopped off on a drop tower ride known as Superman Tower of Power. The ride is similar to the Drop Zone at Kings Dominion; both were designed by Swiss company Intamin AG, and both simulate free-fall from an extreme height. The horrific accident had other parks with similar rides scrambling in PR mode.
"There is no story there. We have nothing to do with that accident," Kings Dominion spokeswoman Susan Story tells me without hesitation. "We're a safe park."
It doesn't take long to figure out that I'm not going to get much more than a steady diet of positive sound bites from KD officials, answers that usually include the phrase "family fun." In response to the tragedy in Kentucky, KD shut down the Drop Zone as a precaution, contacting Hanover building officials to let them know they were bringing in a third party to inspect the ride's cables. The ride stayed closed for a day and a half, opening after an inspection.
"The Drop Zone is a newer ride [than the one at Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom] with larger cables and more cables enclosed," says Brian Gentilini, assistant chief building official in Hanover. Gentilini says KD always "goes above and beyond" the necessary safety measures. State regulations require each ride be checked twice a year, usually pre-season and midseason. There is also "nondestructive testing" of rides during the off-season, he explains, when a third party comes in and examines the rides for signs of wear and tear. [See sidebar on safety.]
Robert Niles, a longtime park enthusiast based in Los Angeles, is editor of an award-winning Web site, ThemeParkInsider.com, where people review and track theme parks around the world. With a background in computers and journalism (he's also editor of the Online Journalism Review), Niles became interested in parks while working at Disney World during college. When starting his site, he looked for a federal safety database to plug into but discovered there wasn't one, so he decided to turn to park-goers. The site gets safety reports nearly every week.
"Kings Dominion doesn't get the rave reviews Busch Gardens Europe does. But the park has its fans, and, in general, people are satisfied," Niles says. "Like most theme parks, it's considered very safe with some good value and entertaining rides."
Like many others I spoke with, Niles thinks it's fortunate that Cedar Fair is the new owner because, unlike Paramount, its main focus is theme parks.
"It really seemed like the people running CBS just didn't like parks, or didn't want them around," he says. "There was internal division; they ended up splitting off the TV side from the movie side. It just seemed like a big dysfunctional company where no one could get along."
In terms of safety, Niles adds that Cedar Fair maintains a good reputation, particularly with crowd control.
"A bigger issue at theme parks than mechanical malfunction which is pretty rare is visitor behavior, or visitors turning on each other," Niles says. "News of that stuff spreads so quickly on the Internet now, it can really kill a park's reputation."
KD knows all about that. Among the most serious problems it ever faced were five stabbings on Easter Sunday in 1995 and a pair of parking-lot shootings in 2003, with one victim dying, during the sixth annual Black Entertainment Television College Hip-Hop Fest, which had leased the park.
Many of the local businesses used to close down during these college events because of rowdy behavior, and since 2004 the park hasn't hosted the BET event. Nonetheless, the pall from these tragedies has never completely lifted, and heightened security reflects it. I experience this firsthand when I pull my car into an empty section of the parking lot to take notes. Within two minutes, the flashing lights of a patrol car are behind me and a security guard is tapping on my window. He politely explains that he is just checking and leaves.
I ask Niles to assess the overall health of theme parks, of which there are around 400 nationwide, although only two or three dozen are considered major parks like KD. A publicly traded partnership, Cedar Fair owns 12 amusement parks, five outdoor water parks and one indoor water park, plus six hotels. On June 1, it announced combined 2007 revenues through Memorial Day weekend of $147.2 million.
"The industry is very healthy. It's not growing in terms of building new parks, but it's really improving and expanding the existing parks," Niles says. "The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting out. But the parks that survive are turning into some really nice parks."
Even Cedar Fair may be considering other options. Just last week the New York Post reported that the company had hired Bear Stearns Cos. to explore any interest from firms that may want to buy them out.
Eager for some fun, I return to Kings Dominion on a weekend media day to celebrate the $11 million expansion to the WaterWorks park, which includes a new wave pool and several rides. Since my last visit, another tragic accident has occurred at Playland, an unrelated amusement park in Rye, N.Y. There, a park employee was thrown to her death from the Mind Scrambler, a spider-arm-style attraction.
A day earlier, I had taken another walk around the park with outgoing general manager Richard Zimmerman and his replacement, Pat Jones, while they swept the area with brooms and heaped praise on all things Kings Dominion.
Zimmerman has spent the last nine seasons as vice president/GM of the park and is moving up to a new corporate job as regional vice president, which will find him overseeing several more Cedar Fair parks. A Petersburg High graduate, Jones started in the KD gaming booths in the late '70s and worked her way up from the bottom, briefly working at Carowinds amusement park in Charlotte, N.C., during the mid-'90s. She can still remember big KD concert events like when Britney Spears played her third concert at the park, or when Luther Vandross clogged I-95 with smooth R&B fans.
"This is the people's park," she says. "I'm just excited to be a part of it."
Both managers agree that working for Cedar Fair is not that different from working with Paramount, which is still involved with licensing concerns.
Aubrey "Bucky" Stanley, the longest-serving member on the Hanover Board of Supervisors, has dealt with different park owners and management for more than 25 years.
"They've been a great asset as far as the tax base," he says. "And [owners] were always proactive with us. The Paramount people were a little more secretive, but this new group is pretty upfront. I think you'll see interesting additions in the years to come, perhaps some out-parceling [of the park's 400 acres] to other companies."
Concerning how the park decides on future attractions, Zimmerman says they're constantly conducting surveys and the park is reassessed each year. He says the biggest challenge is competing with the time constraints on today's guests
"Going forward, we want to put the park back in the park, make it a pleasant day on or off the rides," he says, staying on message better than the Terminator.
The weather on media day is muggy and overcast, good for staying wet. The park is crawling with people, dripping-wet kids and babies bawling from strollers. Many adults prop themselves in white beach chairs as their kids scamper away.
My friends and I get on a fun new ride, The Tornado, which drops a four-seat raft from 65 feet into a gigantic funnel of streaming water, the raft spinning up and around the sides before shooting out the stem. Like other great rides at the park The Rebel Yell, Grizzly, Hypersonic it's amazing for about 30 seconds, and then all over.
"Today the rides are shorter, but they're more intense," says Elizabeth Ringas, a Richmond homemaker and coaster enthusiast who visits the park about once every two weeks. Ringas is the regional rep for American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE), representing about 500 members from Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
That's why it's still best to go on weekdays if possible, when you don't have to invest as much time in long lines. We kill the time by people-watching, mostly, trying to decide if that sketchy guy, the one in black jeans and sunglasses by the pool, is just a voyeur waiting for bikini tops to drop when the water tunnels spit female riders into wading pools.
One of Ringas' favorites is the Volcano, whose tracks sit atop a jagged fake mountain. I liked it better when the place was called Lost World Mountain and featured a runaway mine train ride (Land of the Dooz) and one of my all-time favorites, Time Shaft, a rotor ride that pinned people to the walls as the floor dropped out and disco music blared overhead. For years, that was the easiest place in the park to spit on your friends. But now, with an intricate web of steel support draped around its sides, the sad, puke-brown mountain of my youth looks like it has been hospitalized after a wreck.
My favorites remain the old-school rides. Zimmerman tells me they decide which coasters to keep by allowing guests "to vote with their feet."
David Mandt, a spokesman for the Alexandria-based International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), says the biggest trend at theme parks is the addition of water parks, while the future might hold more surprises.
"There are ideas in the developmental phase about rides being more interactive," he says. "In the future, you may choose how your ride ends."
I hope that goes for elderly health care as well.
Something about theme parks seems quintessentially American. From their modern beginnings in the early '70s, they've never really waned in popularity, and there's a reason for it: People still need to experience fun in groups or as a family unit. So many leisure pursuits have become solitary in today's iPod culture. Theme parks provide big messy fun for everyone, regardless of background.
As a spokeswoman from the Virginia Tourism Corporation puts it: The history of theme parks presents a metaphor for the tourism industry as a whole. "People expect newness all the time," says Martha Steger, director of public relations. "Survival for the parks is dependent on adding or updating attractions for media-savvy generations used to competition for their dollar."
When talking to people on the street about Virginia's two theme parks, I often run across the opinion that Busch Gardens is more upscale, "cleaner" and offers better food. I won't argue about the food, but Kings Dominion is a clean park. Garbage bins are placed around the park almost every 10 feet.
"Kings Dominion is a quick thrill," says park visitor Kyra Shelton of Richmond, while taking a breather with her several children. "Busch Gardens is more cozy a good place to take your mom."
Wilson H. Flohr, who served as vice president/general manager at Kings Dominion for 15 seasons, seems to agree about the age differential. "Both parks appeal to families," he says. "But Kings Dominion tends to appeal to younger families, while Busch Gardens is older."
Still, I can't shake the feeling that other people are more worried about the visitors at each park than the parks themselves. Like comedian Chris Rock says, there's a mall in every town where the white people used to shop. Because of its proximity to Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Kings Dominion draws a diverse crowd of all different socioeconomic backgrounds and age groups. It's a place where the suburbs and small-town country meet inner-city hip-hop. Is there an ugly racial undercurrent to these "upscale" comments about Busch Gardens? Or is just another example of the lingering fallout when the words "hip-hop" and "shooting" plague a business?
When talking to the foreign employees, I expect them to find the park a surreal place to work, especially the ones who are new to America. But they seem to enjoy it.
"The movie of my life would definitely be a comedy," Anna Kregel tells me when I visit her again at the pizza shop. "But I cannot think of a better place to work and see America. Because here, everyone is smiling and feeling they are free."
Although this frightens me, I understand what she is saying. Clearly, I can still enjoy myself at this park as long as I'm riding attractions and not investigating safety issues or poking beneath the shiny, happy surface. For me, it requires a willing suspension of disbelief. I have to kick the cynicism to the curb.
Before leaving, I decide to ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower, to see if the familiar teal-colored paint from my youth has peeled. As the glass elevator glides upward hundreds of feet, I watch a chipmunk-cheeked boy clutch his mother's leg and emit a dazzlingly long and slow "Whooaaaaa..." It reminds me of something Zimmerman said earlier during our walk:
"Each day at Kings Dominion is always someone's first time."
If that sounds creepy, maybe you're a little cynical too. S