Friday, May 1, 2009

The Joy of Amusement Parks

I have always been a sucker for theme parks: Silver Dollar City (now Dollywood), Ghost Town in the Sky, Kings Island, Opryland, and Beach Bend were just a few I visited as a child. But one of my favorite Kentucky attractions - Tombstone Junction – is no longer in operation.

Tombstone Junction was a Wild West themed park just outside of Corbin, Kentucky and it featured a real steam engine train and live “country” entertainment. Tombstone Junction had a railroad system of its own and was subjected to many “train robberies” over the years. These train robberies used to scare me as a child, but I always insisted on riding the train.

As a teenager, I was privileged to see Tanya Tucker and Glenn Campbell, Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings and a few others I’ve long since forgotten. Unfortunately, or fortunately as my hubby likes to say, I grew out of the country music phase, but as a young child, I loved listening to my parent’s music. I even had a real “Tombstone Junction” cowboy hat I used to wear to the park.

All that remains of Tombstone Junction today is an empty parking lot, one crumbling shack, and some decaying bits of what was once the billboard, along with the memories of those who say the park in its glory days.

Another western amusement park I enjoyed as a child was Silver Dollar City in Pigeon Forge. Renamed Dollywood in 1986 when Dolly Parton bought the park, the old Silver Dollar City was started in 1961 - one year before I was born. It began life as Rebel Railroad, and changed names again in 1966 when it became Goldrush Junction, before finally becoming Silver Dollar City in 1977, named after the original Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri.

Dollywood is organized into several different themed areas including the Show Street, Rivertown Junction, Craftsmen Valley, the Country Fair and Timber Canyon. These areas reflect the historical eras and culture of east Tennessee. When Dolly bought the park, the Dreamland Forest and Adventures in Imagination areas were added and these emphasize Parton's life and imagination. Many attractions at Dollywood preserve the history and culture of the Southern Appalachian region.

Show Street includes the Show Street Palace Theatre, were most of the musical shows are performed and The Southern Gospel Museum and Hall of Fame. Rivertown Junction includes the Tennessee Mountain Home, the Back Porch Theatre, and the Smoky Mountain River Rampage whitewater rafting ride.

Craftsmen's Valley is my personal favorite and I usually spend the majority of my time at Dollywood in this area. In addition to the Dollywood Grist Mill, this area includes the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, Wings of America Theatre, all the craft exhibits and Blazing Fury coaster. Blazing Fury is an enclosed steel roller coaster and was built in-house by Silver Dollar City Tennessee in 1978, prior to the park becoming Dollywood

Since my children are older, we rarely visit the Country Fair because this is the area with the children’s rides including the Dizzy Disk, the Amazing Flying Elephants, Dolly's Demolition Derby, the Scrambler, and the Wonder Wheel. We do visit the Village because this is where the train station is for the Dollywood Express steam engine – a “must ride” for every visit. When Christine was younger, the Dreamland Forest was her favorite area of the park, especially the Dreamland Forest interactive play area and the Mountain Slidewinder water-toboggan ride.

Kings Island is another family favorite amusement park, located just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. The park owns close to 775 acres of land, but only 364 acres are currently developed. Kings Island was opened in April 1972, just before my 10th birthday, and I visited the park for the first time when I was 12 years old. Kings Island gained nationwide attention when it was featured on a 1972 episode of The Partridge Family, and again in 1973 on an episode of The Brady Bunch.

The centerpiece of Kings Island is the Eiffel Tower, a one-third scale replica of the original Eiffel Tower. Elevators regularly take patrons up to the top of the tower, which offers a view of the entire park and, at park closing, offers the best view of the nightly fireworks display. Because of my extreme fear of heights, I have only been on top of the Eiffel Tower twice, once on my first trip to the park and once on the first date with my husband.

One of the first star attractions of the park was the twin roller coaster, the Racer. The Racer is a traditional wooden out-and-back coaster and is credited for reigniting the second golden age of the roller coaster. To honor the Racer’s staying power, the American Coaster Enthusiasts the Racer an “ACE Roller Coaster Landmark” during a ceremony at the park in 2008, making it one of only 14 coasters in the world with landmark status. Ten years after Kings Island opened, the right car of the Racer was turned backwards and remained on a backward course until last year. For the 2009, both Racers will be once again running in a forward motion.

My favorite roller coaster at Kings Island is the Beast. When the Beast was built in 1979, it was the tallest, longest, and fastest roller coaster in the world at the time. After nearly 30 years, it still holds the title of the world's longest wooden roller coaster at 7,419 feet (1 ¾ miles). The Beast tracks spread across a densely-wooded, 35 acre site and the rugged terrain adds to the excitement of the ride. Top speed of this coaster is 70 miles per hour and the ride lasts almost four minutes. In addition to two huge vertical drops, the cars go through three dark tunnels and makes a 540 degree helix turn near the end of the line. The Beast has been my favorite roller coaster for almost 30 years.

In addition to several more roller coasters – Vortex, King Cobra and Son of beast – Kings Island is home to several water rides and a huge water park featuring several slides, a wave pool, a lazy river and other attractions.

Of course, after spending all day enjoying the rides, great food and other entertainment, you must stay until closing time to see the spectacular fireworks display – it’s the perfect way to end a memorable day at the park.

I’m not sure I will ever outgrow my love of amusement parks. Not only are they fun places to spend time with your family, but they are great at making you feel like a kid again. It seems like the older I get, the more I enjoy a great roller coaster ride. Now I’m looking forward to spreading this joy to my future grandchildren.