In a place better known for bourbon, baseball bats and thoroughbred racing, Louisville’s Kentucky Kingdom was once the state’s top tourist destination.
A decade later, the declining amusement park was shuttered and left for dead.
Now the same man who presided over Kentucky Kingdom’s 1990s glory days wants to give the park another shot at success.
“I’m not looking back,” said Ed Hart, the past and present operator of Kentucky Kingdom. “I’m looking forward.”
Hart ran Kentucky Kingdom from 1990 to 1997 before the park was sold to Premier Parks, which in turn bought Six Flags and converted the property into Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom.
The Six Flags era marked a steady deterioration of the park as annual attendance dropped from a high of nearly 1.4 million in 1998 to a low of fewer than 600,000 in 2009. During the downfall, Six Flags turned Kentucky Kingdom into a used ride lot, relocating attractions on a regular basis to other properties in the amusement park chain.
With fewer rides every season and little capital investment, the Six Flags-run park became an eyesore that sent visitors in search of the latest thrills at regional competitors like Indiana’s Holiday World and Ohio’s Kings Island.
A horrifying accident in 2007 added to Kentucky Kingdom’s woes: A 13-year-old girl’s feet were severed by a snapped cable on the Superman: Tower of Power drop tower. A state investigation blamed the accident on improper maintenance and operator error. The 177-foot-tall ride was dismantled a year later.
Amid a corporate bankruptcy in 2010, Six Flags announced the closure of the park after the Kentucky State Fair Board rejected an amended lease agreement. As a parting blow, Six Flags relocated the $12-million Chang stand-up coaster and the Road Runner Express wild mouse coaster to other parks in the chain.
Over the ensuing years, plans were formulated to reopen the park every summer, only to evaporate like the shrieks and screams of thrill seekers.
An ambitious plan by Hart to revive the 63-acre park in 2010 was dropped a year later when the fair board abruptly pulled the plug on the project. A 2012 proposal by Holiday World to rebrand the park as Bluegrass Boardwalk was withdrawn within months of the initial announcement. Undaunted, Hart soon returned with a throwback pitch that called for a restoration of the park to its 1990s heyday, when attendance outpaced the Kentucky Derby, the state’s perennial and preeminent tourist attraction.
Despite initial doubts, Kentucky Kingdom is scheduled to reopen May 24 with a lineup that includes many of the rides from the park’s early years, such as the Flying Dutchman flying wooden shoes, Mile High Falls shoot-the-chutes, Sun & Moon Ferris wheel, Zeppelin balloon ride and Tin Lizzies classic cars, along with a slate of classic carnival rides like the Himalaya, Enterprise, Breakdance and Bluebeard’s Bounty swinging pirate ship.
Among the 20 new attractions set for opening day: A 5-D movie, a sea lions aquatic show, a 13-story drop tower, a flying scooter ride and a first-of-its-kind $7-million roller coaster.
The new Lightning Run coaster pays homage to Greezed Lightnin’, the 1978 Schwarzkopf shuttle loop coaster it replaces, as well as Thunder Run, a 1990 Dinn Corp. wooden coaster getting a $1-million makeover in advance of opening day.
Lightning Run, the first GT-X hyper coaster from Kansas-based Chance Rides, will be Kentucky Kingdom’s first new steel coaster in 14 years. The 100-foot-tall ride features an 80-degree first drop and a top speed of 55 mph as it travels over a 2,500-foot-long course.
A $10.5-million expansion of the adjacent water park doubles the footprint, adds the tallest body slide in the U.S. and brings back the original Hurricane Bay name. The marquee attraction: the Deluge hydromagnetic water coaster, the last major addition of the Six Flags era.
Overall, Hart and his team will spend $43.5 million on the rehabilitation of the park with a commitment written into the 75-year lease to invest up to $2.5 million annually on attractions and improvements.
Coming attractions have already been sketched out for the next two seasons.
In 2015, Kentucky Kingdom will convert the standing-but-not-operating T2 inverted coaster into T3, or Terror to the Third Power. T2 was the first suspended looping coaster built in the United States by Vekoma Rides in 1995.
In 2016, the standing-but-not-operating Twisted Twins is budgeted to get a $10-million upgrade that has ride enthusiasts wondering what’s in store for the 1998 Custom Coasters International ride. The park is considering plans to transform the dual tracks of the dueling wooden coaster into a single marquee ride.