2021 Summer Guide: Explore Kings Island's Cincinnati Roots

The new book "Kings Island: A Ride Through Time" takes readers on a groovy journey from the 1970s to the present.

click to enlarge The Racer - PHOTO: KINGS ISLAND
Photo: Kings Island
The Racer

Evan Ponstingle might know more about Kings Island than anyone else on the planet right now.

What’s novel about that is he’s a teenager.

Ponstingle, 18, has worked at the Emporium gift shop at the popular amusement park for four summers now, and one of the questions customers ask him most often is if Kings Island sells books about the history of the park.

Until now, the answer had always been no. But this season, Ponstingle can give them a different reply, thanks to his own book.

When Ponstingle was just 15, he began writing the history of Kings Island, realizing there was a demand that no one else was meeting. This year, Rivershore Creative published Ponstingle’s Kings Island: A Ride Through Time, just ahead of the start of the season.


A NEW DISNEY COMPETITOR

Heavy on interviews with park employees past and present, the book reads a bit like an oral history of Kings Island, going all the way back to before the park’s 1972 founding — and long before Ponstingle was even born.

Gary Wachs had the idea for Kings Island during the flood season of 1964 while dealing with another Cincinnati property. At the time, Wachs was the general manager of Coney Island, the city’s century-old, family-run amusement park, and he wanted to relocate the park from its perch near the Ohio River to somewhere a little less prone to flooding. He also had plans to update Coney Island from a traditional amusement park into a newer, more grand theme park — the sort that Disneyland had popularized.

Coney Island leadership didn’t start fast-tracking Wachs’ ideas until actor Fess Parker, who had played Davy Crockett on television, announced plans to build Frontier Worlds, his own theme park in Boone County, Kentucky. To keep the market to themselves, Wachs and his family partnered with Taft Broadcasting Company, and Coney Island closed while employees moved its rides to a new plot of land northeast of Cincinnati in Mason.

Eventually, the new park became Kings Island, while Coney Island reopened in its original location a few years later.

The rest, as they say, is history. And Ponstingle’s book collects it all.


FUMBLES AND FIRSTS

Kings Island has seen a lot of crazy things over the years, and not every idea that park officials had worked, Ponstingle’s book shows.

In 1976, the park added 50 baboons to the two-year-old Lion Country Safari attraction — or at least it tried to. The park built an 8-foot fence around the baboon enclosure, with another 14-foot fence around that. The baboons didn’t want to stay, though. Upon being dropped inside, the first two baboons immediately scaled both fences and escaped. The park electrified the enclosure before adding the other 48 baboons — all of which followed the first two over the fences, completely undeterred.

At other times, the park hit upon a gem.

In 1982, Kings Island needed fresh ideas but had little money for a big new attraction. Walt Davis, then the director of park operations, told Ponstingle that during a brainstorming meeting, someone had suggested running a roller coaster backwards. With nothing to lose, employees reconfigured one set of tracks for the Racer to do just that, making it the world’s first backward-running rollercoaster. The change proved to be popular, giving the park a “new” attraction that ran backwards until 2008.

Kings Island: A Ride Through Time also includes the original design and layout of the park, which was largely inspired by Wachs’ travels to Europe (and the reason you’ll still find the iconic one-third-scale Eiffel Tower near the entrance). The book also notes the changes in park characters over the years, from Taft’s Hanna-Barbera lineup to Paramount Pictures’ movie characters to Nickelodeon’s cartoon stars to members of the Peanuts gang.


RIDES WORTH REMEMBERING

In Kings Island: A Ride Through Time, Ponstingle pays special attention to the roller coasters, which he says are “the heart of any amusement park.”

He lovingly details the creation, characteristics and occasional problems of 1972’s The Racer, widely credited with reigniting worldwide interest in roller coasters. Then there’s The Beast, the world’s tallest and fastest wooden roller coaster in 1979 and still the world’s longest. And who could forget 1981’s The Bat, the world’s first suspended roller coaster, and 1984’s King Cobra, the first original stand-up roller coaster?

Ponstingle also dives into Kings Island’s more experiential endeavors, like 2017’s Mystic Timbers and 2020’s $30-million giga coaster Orion. The park also had plenty of movie-themed rides after Paramount bought the property from Taft, bringing to life Tomb Raider and The Italian Job (which had to be re-themed and renamed when the park was later sold).

Of all Kings Island’s rides, though, Ponstingle most wishes he could have experienced the 1992-2002 Phantom Theater. During the indoor “dark ride,” visitors were seated in cars on a track that wound through an area made to look like a behind-the-scenes tour of a haunted theater, complete with creepy characters and old-school illusions.

“One of my favorite things ever is the Haunted Mansion at Disney, and I would have loved an elaborate and creative dark ride in the same vein in my backyard,” Ponstingle says. “Unfortunately, it closed a year before I was born.”

Phantom Theater has been remade and rebranded repeatedly over the years. Inspired by Disney’s ever-famous It’s A Small World ride, the attraction began life in 1972 as Enchanted Voyage, an indoor boat ride that featured Hanna-Barbera characters and an original theme song.

William Hanna himself worked on the song, Ponstingle says, hammering out the melody on an organ with Kings Island’s general manager Dennis Speigel as they hung out on Hanna’s yacht in California. The song mentioned Scooby-Doo, The Flintstones and Yogi Bear, Wacky Races and other Hanna-Barbera creations.

Enchanted Voyage was reskinned for The Smurfs in the 1980s, and, after its Phantom Theater phase, later rebranded as Scooby-Doo and the Haunted Castle. It’s currently known as Boo Blasters on Boo Hill and incorporates ghost-shooting animation.

As Kings Island approaches next summer’s 50th anniversary, Ponstingle thinks amusement parks will remain a unique and relevant entertainment option in the modern era.

“You can’t get the roller coaster experience anywhere else. There is nothing else in the world that even comes close to the feeling of Orion’s first drop,” Ponstingle says. “The uniqueness of the park itself is also something that Kings Island offers that you can’t get anywhere else. There’s not many other places in the world where you can grab a delicious bite to eat, see a fabulous live show and then go ride some of the world’s greatest roller coasters.”

Buy Kings Island: A Ride Through Time at rivershorecreative.com/kingsisland.


Still craving more? Read our full 2021 Summer Guide issue or check out these activities:

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