Kentucky Kingdom's comeback starts with grand reopening on Saturday

jmadden@herald-leader.comMay 22, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    Kentucky Kingdom and Hurricane Bay

    Address: 937 Phillips Ln., Louisville, on the grounds of the Kentucky Exposition Center

    When: Grand re-opening May 24. Park hours below.

    Tickets: $44.95 adults, $35.95 military, $34.95 seniors and children shorter than 4 feet tall (anyone 3 or older must have ticket); adult admission is $39.95 at Kentuckykingdom.com. Season passes are $99.95 online and $69.95 at Kroger stores in Louisville and Lexington areas.

    Learn more: (502) 813-8200, Kentuckykingdom.com

    PARK HOURS

    Kentucky Kingdom:

    ■ Through Aug. 13: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sun.-Thu.; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri., Sat. Park closed Aug. 10.

    ■ During Kentucky State Fair, Aug. 14-24: 5-9 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; noon-9 p.m. Sat., Sun.

    ■ Aug. 30-Sept. 28: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sat., Sun. and Labor Day, Sept. 1.

    Hurricane Bay:

    ■ Through Aug. 13: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun.-Thu.; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Fri., Sat. Park closed Aug. 10.

Last Saturday, I discovered a side of myself I never knew.

I was at a preview event for the renovated Kentucky Kingdom amusement park in Louisville. The park officially reopens Saturday, but this was an invitation-only day. I had been to the park a few weeks before during a media tour, but this was the first time I had been on one of the rides at the revamped park.

Before 1:16 p.m., I was daring, courageous, provocative and, if you were to ask my mother, barbaric at dinnertime.

But all of that changed as I hopped on something called Lightning Run, the new, premiere roller coaster at the park.

I got in a seat beside a jumpy woman who appeared to be more afraid than I was.

How wrong I was.

The cars left the platform.

My insides quickly turned to Jell-O. It was like the feeling you get in the pit of your belly when danger is near or you're about to have a duel with the fifth-grade bully over a carton of chocolate milk.

Here is when I knew that I wasn't ready.

Click. Click. Click.

The coaster car climbed the first hill.

Then that last click. Oh, that last click.

And a pause.

The car was released from the chain that tugged it up the hill.

A slight acceleration.

Then a plummet.

A 100-foot, 80-degree drop accompanied by the roar of screams and laughs — people were enjoying this?

For about two minutes, and after every drop, twist and turn, I hollered.

But I also clenched.

My hands were clenched to the safety bar. My teeth were clenched together.

The speed of the roller coaster made my eyes water. I opened them at times for a quick view of the other riders and a glance at the rest of the park.

Big mistake.

My immediate thought: "Never again."

Lightning Run, the big kahuna at Kentucky Kingdom, finally stopped.

But my eyes stayed closed until the harnesses were lifted.

The woman beside me was jumpy no more. Instead, she was in tears from laughing at my screams.

"You should have a career as a soprano," she said.

Her laugh got louder.

But beyond my screams and watery eyes, there was an amusement park in its renaissance filled with people who had a glow about them.

"It's good seeing the smiles again," said John Mulcahy, director of marketing and communication at Kentucky Kingdom.

Mulcahy and owner Ed Hart say the park is rebounding strongly after a number of black eyes.

Hart bought Kentucky Kingdom in 1988, a year after it opened — and closed in the middle of the bankruptcy of then-owner Leisure and Recreational Concepts of Dallas. Hart had the park until 1997, when he sold it for about $80 million to a company that was quickly acquired by the nationwide theme park company Six Flags. Ten years later, a 13-year-old girl's feet were severed in a freak accident involving a snapped cable on a tower ride that has since been demolished. In 2009, amid Six Flags' bankruptcy, Kentucky Kingdom closed.

"I have a lot of perseverance; my team has a lot of perseverance," said Hart, who, as a member of a partnership, regained ownership of Kentucky Kingdom and its water park, Hurricane Bay, in 2013 for $43.5 million. The group has a 75-year lease from the Kentucky State Fair Board; as part of the deal, the park must reinvest at least $1 million into attractions each year.

Already, owners have doubled the size of the water park and have added 20 attractions.

Last weekend, the park allowed more than 9,000 people to attend a sort of pre-grand opening before Saturday's official launch.

About 500 of those people were members of the American Coaster Enthusiasts group. Their "job" was to ride the roller coasters. From their responses, it's apparent that they loved Lightning Run and the park's wooden roller coaster, Thunder Run, which underwent a $1 million refurbishment.

Group member Melinda Gaspari of Pennsylvania keeps a precise count of how many roller coasters she has ridden: 457. She called Lightning Run "thrilling."

"It's a fun ride start to finish without being so over-the-top that your family can't ride it," she said.

Kentucky Kingdom is an oasis of family fun. It's accessible for people in wheelchairs and allows patrons to go in and out of the park if they get a stamp on the hand. There's a "5-D" movie ride, traditional carnival games like ring toss, and a wave pool at Hurricane Bay. There also are attractions designed for toddlers.

While people went on the rides Saturday, others hung around the food court, and some enjoyed the water park, even though the weather wasn't optimal.

At Hurricane Bay, I watched several kids slip down Deep Water Dive, a 12-story water slide on which riders reach a speed of 40 mph. Kentucky Kingdom says it's the tallest slide of its kind in the United States.

Did I mention food?

After all of that screaming, I was hungry. (Remember, my mom says I'm barbaric at dinnertime.) I picked up a funnel cake for about $8. There are cheaper options. Frozen lemonade, about $4, appeared to be a favorite Saturday. There's a tiki bar for those who are older than 21.

The grand reopening of the remade Kentucky Kingdom and Hurricane Bay is Saturday. The water park will be open daily through Aug. 13. The amusement park is open daily through Aug. 24 and weekends through Sept. 28.

Will I see you there? If so, be sure to grab one of those mega-size pizza slices. It looked tasty.

Justin Madden: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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