KINGS DOMINION REVIEW: It’s Kings Island, Except Not At All

I spent much of my childhood visiting Kings Island in Mason, Ohio with my family every summer despite living 4.5 hours away in Nashville. The park was just down the road from my grandparents’ house in Springboro, so it was an easy weekend trip for us. Kings Island is truly my second home. I love every inch of that park to death and make it a point to go multiple times a year. Doswell, Virginia’s Kings Dominion on the other hand is MUCH farther away from me. I first found out about it as a kid watching America’s Greatest Roller Coaster Thrills Vol. 2 on VHS, which featured their (Outer Limits) Flight of Fear and Grizzly roller coasters.

Ever since then I had always wondered how similar/different the park would be from its sister park in Ohio. I never really wanted to make the trek all the way out there until the park opened Intimidator 305, an Intamin giga coaster, in 2010. I was just finishing my senior year of high school, completely in love with ultra-intense roller coasters, and at the time it looked like the ultimate ride. Then with the opening of the RMC hybrid coaster, Twisted Timbers, I finally stopped procrastinating the trip and booked a hotel.

As the second amusement park built by Taft Broadcasting after Kings Island, Kings Dominion opened over two phases. Starting in 1974, the park opened their Lion Country Safari drive-through animal attraction as a preview for the general public while the rest of the park was still under construction. The whole park was completed and opened in May of 1975. Just like Kings Island and the other parks run by Taft, Kings Dominion was operated by Paramount from 1993 to 2006, during which the park’s name was Paramount’s Kings Dominion. Cedar Fair purchased the Paramount parks in 2006 and still operates them to this day.

Driving to the park, one thing that hit me right away was that the park is basically in the middle of a giant forest, the polar opposite of Kings Island, which is smack in the middle of a suburban town. When you stand at the top of the Eiffel Tower and look out, it’s just trees. Miles and miles of trees. There were also WAY more trees inside the park as well compared to Kings Island (especially now that Kings Island just chopped down all their trees on International Street…). The park as a whole is quite beautiful. Much of the architecture, signage, and rides looked very classy and in great shape. The Candy Apple Grove and Old Virginia areas were especially very pretty.

However, Kings Dominion has a very, very strange layout. Practically the entire park sits to the left of the Eiffel Tower, with only about five rides on the right side. As a frequent Kings Islander, this was really weird. Kings Dominion’s water park, Soak City, awkwardly sits in the middle of the park, with most of the park’s rides surrounding it on three sides. If you don’t go to the water park (which I didn’t), the park basically forms a giant U shape. It feels very lop-sided and unbalanced.

A friend of mine described this park as “Kings Island in the Twilight Zone.” After visiting the park I knew exactly what he meant. Both parks have an international street, a 1/3 scale Eiffel Tower, a racing 70s wooden coaster, a wooden coaster in the woods, a Windseeker swing ride, a Backlot Stunt Coaster, a Flight of Fear coaster, a former Action Theater now used as a haunt maze, a turn-of-the-century amusement park inspired midway, an Arrow looping coaster, a large drop tower, a water park with the same name, a rapids ride with the same name etc. BUT instead of all of those attractions feeling deliberately placed like at Kings Island, everything feels kinda plopped down at random.

That being said, Kings Dominion feels really nice and pleasant. There are so many great spots in the shade to just sit down and soak in the atmosphere. Not quite on the level of say, Knoebels, but still up there. My dad and I visited on a July weekday with fantastic weather, and we were both expecting it to feel a little hectic and crowded, but to our surprise, it wasn’t crowded at all, and despite the large amount of rides, the park had kind of a quiet aura. This was especially true at sunset with the sounds of bugs all around. It was just… nice.

The ride collection at Kings Dominion is overall pretty good. It features your typical set of thrill and family rides. Most of the park’s carnival-style spinning flat rides can be found in the classic-style midway, Candy Apple Grove, with a small ferris wheel sitting at the far end. The park, like many other Cedar Fair parks, has a Planet Snoopy section full of many different kids rides and attractions. You can also find an excellent log flume and river rapids ride here. In a time where water rides are becoming more and more endangered, this was really great to see.

Kings Dominion’s line-up of roller coasters feels a little above average, with a couple of obvious stand-outs, and the rest being a pretty good supporting cast. Let’s go down the line.

Photo from rcdb.com

GREAT PUMPKIN COASTER (No Rating)

This is a standard steel kids coaster by EF Miler Industries is found in the Planet Snoopy area, and features an 8 ft tall lift, and an oval layout with a couple of little hills. Given that I’m almost 28 years old and didn’t have a kid under 54 inches with me, I didn’t ride this one. I guess I should mention though that I rode a clone of this coaster at Kings Island many times as a kid and enjoyed it a lot back then, so this gets the job done.

Photo from rcdb.com

WOODSTOCK EXPRESS (5/10)

The other roller coaster found in Planet Snoopy is this junior wooden coaster designed for families to ride. This is a Philadelphia Toboggan Company coaster that actually opened a year before the full park in 1974 alongside the Lion Country Safari. I’ve gotta say, for being a family coaster, these junior wooden coasters are really fun (two others are found at Kings Island and Carowinds). They feature a small double out & back layout with a 35 ft lift hill and a top speed of 35 mph. If you sit in the back car, you get some not too shabby airtime on a couple of the drops. I wish more parks built these as they make great first roller coasters for little kids. My long legs struggle with those seats though.

 

APPLE ZAPPLE (5/10)

This is the park’s wild mouse coaster found at the end of Candy Apple Grove. It’s an expanded model by Mack Rides that features a 50 ft first drop and a slightly longer layout then a standard wild mouse model. Some wild mouse coasters I’ve ridden are incredibly uncomfortable, but this one was alright. the drop was pretty fun, and the flat turns felt a little smoother than I would’ve expected. Overall it was decently fun and whippy, and made for an alright family coaster.

Photo from rcdb.com

BACKLOT STUNT COASTER (6/10)

Ah yes, the quirky Premier Rides launched coaster that Paramount thought was a highly themed experience. Honestly the coaster itself is really fun albeit a little short. I mean where else can you launch at 40 mph directly into a spine-crushing triple helix?? These little coasters (others at Kings Island and Canada’s Wonderland) are surprisingly intense despite their size, and yet cruising past large shipping containers, some used cop cars, and a very convincing helicopter trying to kill you is so off-putting it’s comical. At least there’s a second launch into a pitch black underground sewer tunnel that’s pretty fun. I don’t know. I’ve always felt very blah about these rides, especially now. They’re obvious leftovers from the late Paramount era that really don’t belong in the parks anymore.

From inside Kings Island’s Flight of Fear. Kings Dominion’s is identical.

FLIGHT OF FEAR (7/10)

This Premier Rides coaster (and its clone at Kings Island) opened in 1996 as the world’s first pair of linear-induction-motor (LIM) magnetically launched roller coasters, featuring an acceleration out of the station from 0 to 54 mph in about four seconds, and a twisted mess of track inside a dark building that includes four inversions. These rides are really good for all of just being a roller coaster in a box. They are extremely intense and dizzying (and sometimes a little shaky). They may be overshadowed by many other newer rides, but they’re still really fun, can’t miss coasters.

I’ve always enjoyed Flight of Fear at Kings Island, and Kings Dominion’s was pretty much the same, except for the fact that this one had a gigantic section of its queue boxed off for a Haunt maze I think? It was really jarring to see. This ride also didn’t have the amazing pre-show video Kings Island’s still has, which made me sad as it’s hilarious. I got the feeling that this may be the “forgotten” of the two rides, despite being the first to open.

Photo from rcdb.com

AVALANCHE (7/10)

I’m a sucker for weird, unique rides, so I was really excited to try this one, being the only Mack Rides bobsled coaster in the whole country, and it was just as weird and quirky as I was hoping it would be. Most other bobsled coasters in the US are Intamin models which feature single cars that can sit somewhere between 6 and 10 people I think? I’ve ridden a couple of those (La Vibora at Six Flags Over Texas and the defunct Disaster Transport at Cedar Point). Both of which were okay if a little rattly. The Mack models are different in that they feature a long train of eight cars that can sit two in single file (a very intimate riding position might I add), so unlike the Intamin coasters that kinda fishtail through the trough, the snake-like trains of the Mack model speed through the trough at a more frantic pace. The speed of the ride honestly surprised me and kinda freaked me out a bit seeing the train bank so hard every time it hit a turn. It was quite fun. The only thing I didn’t like about the ride was that it had a pretty nasty vibration through a few parts, and whenever you approached a block brake, the guide rails that realign the train would knock it side to side a bit, leaving my butt a bit bruised, but overall, a very cool roller coaster that I hope Kings Dominion keeps as long as it can.

ANACONDA (4/10)

So, confession. I have a rather large love/hate relationship with Arrow coasters like this one. They all feel really primitive with their copy-paste approach to ride design (Fun Fact: all of their inversions are exactly the same size on all their looping coasters. They would just place them at a higher or lower elevation based on the ride’s speed). Obviously they didn’t have the ability to build their coasters in a computer and had to resort to hand-written calculations, so none of them are as smooth or deliberately paced as newer rides. By what seems like pure accident, some of their coasters turned out pretty freaking good, but a few of their coasters are so clunky and uncomfortable they’re almost hilarious.

The latter is the case with Anaconda, a 1991 looping coaster featuring a 144 ft curving first drop into an underwater tunnel, a top speed of 50 mph, and four inversions: a vertical loop, a sidewinder, and two corkscrews. The drop into the tunnel and the following two inversions are fun enough, but then the ride rises right into a midcourse brake run that brings the train practically to a dead stop. The rest of the coaster is laughably slow and awkward, especially the figure-8 inclined helices before the two hang time-filled corkscrews. Many of the transitions between elements were very sharp and left my neck a little banged up. The best thing this coaster has going for it is that it’s built over a large pond and looks VERY pretty, but the overall ride experience, quite frankly, kinda sucks…

Photo from rcdb.com

RACER 75 (7/10)

Formerly known as Rebel Yell (name was changed because PC America I’m guessing), this double-tracked racing out & back wooden coaster from PTC opened with the park in 1975, and features an 85 ft first hill and a top speed of 56 mph. It is a slightly evolved version of its older Ohio cousin, The Racer. Unlike that coaster, where the two tracks split roughly 2/3s of the way out, Racer 75’s two tracks stay together all the way until they turn around to head back home. This not only makes the ride footprint smaller, but also keeps the racing action going a little longer as well. Racer 75 has been receiving a good amount of track and structure work over the past few seasons, and it rode extremely well! Both tracks were quite smooth, speedy, and had some nice gentle floater airtime. I just wish that Kings Dominion would repaint the rebuilt sections, because boy does it look tacky to see an awkward combo of white and unpainted wood. Nonetheless, a very enjoyable racing woodie.

GRIZZLY (8/10)

Okay I REALLY enjoyed this one. I’m a huge fan of old wooden coasters that throw you around without really beating you up, and that’s pretty much exactly what Grizzly is. Opened in 1982, it’s a near clone of one of Coney Island’s original coasters in Cincinnati, Wildcat, except unlike that one, Grizzly is shrouded in trees, and this thing is awesome. It features a classic double out & back layout with hills that have some good old-school airtime, and turns that have some awesome laterals. This mother f’er was tossing me around in the seat every which way, and I loved every second. In the age of precisely-calculated coasters, the experience Grizzly offers is a great reminder of a bygone era where the forces of a ride were more unpredictable and truly surprising. I like to call it an “organic” experience. Highly recommend this one for wood coaster fans.

DOMINATOR (8/10)

Kings Dominion’s one and only B&M roller coaster opened in 2008 and came courtesy of the defunct Geauga Lake park in Aurora, Ohio (RIP) where it originally opened in 2000 as Batman: Knight Flight. It is currently the longest B&M floorless coaster in the world (floorless meaning your feet dangle several inches above the exposed track), features a gargantuan 135 ft tall vertical loop, a cobra roll, and interlocking corkscrews, and it’s insanely fun if you love flipping upside down. I love these older B&M loopers that are smooth but also snappy and fast-paced, and this one is no different. It’s probably my favorite floorless coaster at the moment as the overall experience feels really consistent and satisfying. Every element is taken with great speed, and I really appreciate how B&M didn’t just string a bunch of inversions one after the other. They included little sections like a quick high-speed curve right after the vertical loop, and a helix-esque turn before the final brakes. Things like that add variety and flavor to what would otherwise be a more stale experience. That being said, it’s so obvious this is a relocated coaster as it was literally plopped in a front portion of the parking lot, and you have to take an afterthought path straight off of International Street to get to it. At least the park was decent enough to put grass underneath the ride. I had a hard time walking away from this one every time I rode it, clocking somewhere around 8 rides on my visit. It’s one of the highlights of this park for sure.

INTIMIDATOR 305 (8/10)

This monster of a roller coaster opened in 2010 as only the third giga coaster (any coaster between 300 and 399 ft tall) in the world, as well as only the second to be built by Intamin. It features a fast 305 ft tall, cable-driven lift hill, a 300 ft, 85 degree first drop straight into a 270 degree turn, taken at a whopping 90 mph. This ride is ferocious, easily the most forceful and aggressive roller coaster I’ve ever come across. That opening turn after the first drop pulls close to 4 g’s for a solid few seconds, and it was impossible for me to avoid at least graying out a bit. The following turns and transitions feel like they want to rip you out of your seat and murder you they’re so fast. Intimidator 305 is for sure the king of sheer g-force, but here’s the thing. As intense as it is, I had trouble falling totally in love it like I’ve seen some other coaster enthusiasts do.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. I do really, REALLY like this coaster for its consistently crazy speed and whippy turns, but there are a couple of key things that keep me from giving this a 10. First, I’m not the biggest fan of long, sustained moments of positive g’s. I just find them uncomfortable after more than a few seconds. I especially don’t want to have to fight blacking out every time I drop down the first drop. It sort of turns the ride into a chore of making sure I don’t lose consciousness. Second of all, the layout of this coaster is terribly, terribly paced. It drops down a massive first drop, gaining all of this speed, then wastes it by staying low to the ground for way too long. The ride begins with the most intense element, then as the train loses speed, the elements gradually get less intense as they go, which to me goes against a good design philosophy. This is exacerbated by the trim brakes found on an airtime hill closer toward the end of the ride. Once you hit those brakes, the momentum for the rest of the ride just kinda dies, and it takes me out of the experience. The majority of the layout would’ve worked stunningly well as a finale to a longer coaster. If it had two or three extra large hills or turns right after the first drop that then connected to what’s there now, it would’ve been just about perfect, or at least made the ride not feel so one-dimensional.

I’m at the point though where I can just ignore the ride’s shortcomings and appreciate it for the straight speed demon that it is; truly a remarkable coaster that shouldn’t be missed. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.

TWISTED TIMBERS (9/10)

As I said before, this was the coaster that ultimately drove me to visit the park for the first time. In its original form, it was a 1995 wooden coaster known as The Hurler. I may not have gotten to ride it, but I have ridden its clone at Carowinds, and trust me when I say that it is probably the most mediocre wooden coaster I’ve ever done, with a really bizarre layout that some describe as looking like a paperclip from overhead, the funniest part being there are no left turns anywhere on the coaster. Kings Dominion’s version also was notoriously painful, and never ran once during the 2016 or 2017 seasons, of which during the latter the park announced its conversion by Rocky Mountain Construction to become the steel-tracked hybrid coaster, Twisted Timbers, for 2018, featuring a 111 ft tall lift hill, a top speed of 54 mph, 16 airtime moments, and 3 inversions, including a 109 ft tall barrel roll first drop.

I really wasn’t sure, even after seeing the renderings, if Twisted Timbers would feel fast and exciting since The Hurler never seemed to have any good speed, but thankfully, not only did Twisted Timbers feel fast, it totally surprised me with just how fun it was.

This coaster is a true airtime machine, perhaps more than all other RMC coasters. From the moment you drop off the barrel roll drop (itself a notable, visually spectacular element), you are just bombarded with hill after hill after hill, and the action never stops until the end. The highlight of the ride for me is the sequence of three large airtime hills shortly after the barrel roll drop and first overbanked turn. Each of these provide amazing sustained airtime. They just throw you out of your seat with such force it’s magnificent. From there the ride goes into full “bucking bronco” mode, where all the straight hills, banked hills, and turns are so tight and snappy; each element deliberately trying to dump you out of the train. On top of all that the ride is ridiculously smooth and so well-engineered you can’t help but marvel at just how far ride design and construction has come since the days preceding computer-aided calculation. By the time we hit the brakes on my first ride I couldn’t stop laughing for a couple of minutes.

Now personally, I think RMC’s designs lend themselves to naturally be better the bigger they are. There gets to be a point with these smaller coasters where the speed is so low, and the hills are so tight, that the ride can sometimes feel a little awkward and even uncomfortable with the design trying its damn hardest to squeeze in every bit of force it possibly can. Twisted Timbers definitely starts to lean this direction right near the end of the ride where the speed can’t be faster than 25-35 mph. You can see it clear as day from the queue that it’s not really going super fast by the end, and that just comes with the 111 ft height and 54 mph top speed. It’s an excellent ride, yes. Just not quite perfect, but that’s okay. It is as good and exciting as it possibly could’ve been, and that’s all that matters. By far Kings Dominion’s best roller coaster.

Quick aside regarding Volcano: The Blast Coaster before I wrap things up. Volcano was a coaster that I had wanted to ride for a long time. When it closed just a few weeks after opening for the 2018 season, I was thinking surely it would be open by the time I made my way up there in July, but sadly, that didn’t happen. It just sat dormant, with absolutely no activity of the sort happening around it when I was there. It looked so freaking cool with its big artificial mountain and inverted track shooting straight up through the top. This was arguably the star roller coaster at Kings Dominion for nearly 20 years. As the only continuous-circuit launched inverted coaster ever built, it was truly a stand-out attraction, accelerating from 0 to 70 mph in a few short seconds, and featured three heartline rolls suspended high in the air above the mountain. I wanted to ride it so, so bad. Tragically, it would never run again when Kings Dominion announced rather suddenly in February of this year that the coaster was broken beyond repair, and would be demolished.

It seems a little unfair that Volcano had to go out this way. While it was notoriously unreliable, it was always popular. Always drew lines. And I’m sure many wished they could’ve ridden it one last time, but now we can only hope that Kings Dominion will replace it with another unique, exciting attraction.

Kings Dominion is certainly not without its quirks, but it is a beautiful park with lots of fun attractions to check out and rides to ride. As far as regional parks are concerned, this park is fantastic for weekend getaways and day trips. If you’re coming from out of state, I HIGHLY recommend visiting Busch Gardens Williamsburg in the same trip, since the two parks are around an hour from each other, but even if you don’t, you’ll still have a blast visiting Kings Dominion.

OVERALL PARK RATING: 8 / 10 (Great!)

I’d love to hear your thoughts on Kings Dominion in the comments below! Until next time, I’ll catch you in the front seat!

-JC

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