Diner: Island Eating

An urban foodie traverses the culinary wilds of an American theme park

Jun 27, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Woodrow J. Hinton

By Lora Arduser

"Kings Island ... Kings Island," said I to myself. "I don't seem to remember hearing of it before. Name of the asylum, likely."

Unlike Twain's character, Hank Morgan, I had heard of this place — in fact, many childhood summer days were spent frolicking on the island. As a cranky grown-up behind a long line of SUVs entering the kingdom, however, I was inclined to agree with Hank. I mean, why exactly do we flock to a place to spin ourselves into nausea for two minutes after standing in line for an hour?

I'm not sure what theme parks say about our culture. Perhaps our lives have become too safe — we no longer have to fight to get our food or likely die at age 30 from exposure. Now we have to make up our thrills.

In this frame of mind, I entered the kingdom, a culinary sleuth on the prowl for something to thrill my palate — and stay down after a ride on the Vortex.

I began my adventure on the ironically named International Street, which included food choices from Graeter's, Skyline and LaRosa's. Well, there was always the German beer garden, I reassured myself, taking a left into the Oktoberfest area of the park.

As I walked past teen-aged caricaturists starting their first summer jobs, I happened across the Festhouse, a structure trumpeting Cincinnati's proud Germanic heritage. Ah, brats and kraut, I thought. But as I stepped over the threshold, on either end of the cavernous beer hall, complete with long tables designed to whack your beer mug on, were another LaRosa's outlet and Panda Express Gourmet Chinese Food, one of the park's newer culinary offerings.

I shrugged off my disappointment. I had work to do, so I boldly walked up to the Panda and asked for Chow Mein and Mixed Vegetables ($6.99). The chow mein noodles were bland and salty, but the heaping bowl of gingery, crisp steamed broccoli, carrots, celery, mushrooms and zucchini was more that I could have hoped for. The king seems to have grown up a bit from his cotton candy days of my youth.

Before wandering back out into the bright sunlight on my search for the old beer garden, I stopped to check my fortune: "Happiness begins with facing life with a smile and a wink." Hmm, a premonition?

Someone somewhere was certainly smirking when I finally came across the beer garden, which now housed the Bubba Gump Shrimp Shack. Checking out the menu, it dawned on me that the Island was a study in culinary contrasts. On the one hand, there are the mixed vegetables from Panda and Bubba's house salad ($5.39). On the other there's fried fish, fried chicken and French fries — no sign of the gator meat the wooden gator sign advertised. I tried a Shrimp Po' Boy sandwich ($7.99), which turned out to be a sorry replacement for my beloved brat and kraut.

Outside the shack, where my cousin once danced to Polka music in lederhosen, was Lt. Dan's Bar. I'm not sure who Lt. Dan was, but I like to think he was a pirate, maybe from the Viking Fury, one of the few rides I remember from my last, distant visit.

As I wandered the streets searching for other rides of my yesteryear (wasn't the Monster in Coney Mall, and where did those old cars go?) to a soundtrack of The Beatles and Todd Rundgren, I came across many foods from the past — funnel cakes, shaved ice and red-white-and-blue Popsicles — and eventually found myself in Rivertown, which looked exactly as I remembered it, right down to yet another LaRosa's outlet.

Wallowing in a foggy fit of nostalgia by now, I sought out the train to ride through the politically incorrect cowboy and Indian shootouts. There she was — the Kings Island and Miami Valley Railroad blowing her whistle as the teenager on the platform yelled, "All aboard!"

I slid in and waited for the conductor to start the pseudo history lesson, but the only "history" the disembodied, fuzzy voice offered was that some ride in the 1970s was featured on a Brady Bunch episode. History indeed! Where were my fake pioneers? My fake guns? Now just a ghost of its former self, the train is simply a shuttle between Rivertown and Boomerang Bay.

Blind with disappointment, I reeled off the train and found myself in front of the Outback Shack. What's this alongside the waffle fries and chicken tenders? Strawberries and cream ($2.99)? Bay Fruit Salad ($6.10)? Aussie Grilled Shrimp Kabobs ($8.49)? As I walked away from the window with a heaping bowl of fresh strawberries and Ready Whip, people began to point and stare.

"Oh, that looks good," they said, glumly casting their eyes down at the baskets of breaded tenders they held.

At the end of my day of time travel, I decided it was fitting to pay my respects to the old beer garden, so I sat at a table at Lt. Dan's with a Belgian-crafted Stella Artois and raised my plastic glass to the past. Prost! ©