King's Dominion
May 25, 2013

copyright Jay Ducharme 2013

This was the first Coasterfest™ that Karen and I were able to attend in many years.  Sponsored by the Western New York Coaster Club, Coasterfest™ has been a traditional kick-off to the amusement park season.  Unfortunately, it almost always coincided with graduation ceremonies at Holyoke Community College, where I read graduates' names.  But this year the schedules worked out.  The first park on the schedule for this year was the beautiful King's Dominion in Doswell, Virginia, which we had visited over a decade ago when it was owned by Paramount.  Now it was part of the Cedar Fair family (owners of Cedar Point, among others) and we were eager to see the changes since we were last there.

Karen wanted to drive virtually the entire way down there.  What was supposed to have been an 8 hour journey ran into one traffic snag after another.  It took nearly three hours just to drive through New Jersey and Maryland, with sections of I-95 at a standstill.  I kept marveling at the insanity of life in this country, with so many vehicles on the road and drivers desperate to cut you off just to gain a single vehicle lead.  When we finally crossed the border into Virginia, there was a big accident that once again brought traffic to a standstill.  That added another hour to our trip.  But we finally arrived at the Best Western King's Quarters at 10:30.  We had stayed there on our last visit, and it was an ideal location.  All we had to do was walk across the parking lot to the park entrance.

After a good night's sleep, we got up at 8:00 and had breakfast at Denny's.  The sky was bright and nearly cloudless.  The air was a bit cool, at 48 degrees, but was supposed to warm up into the 70s making for perfect park weather.  As we were about to walk over to the park, I got a call from Yvonne Wheeler (the WNYCC Membership Director) wondering where we were.  She said the group was at the new Planet Snoopy area and was heading over for ERT.  We were late.  So Karen and I hurried over, picked up our packets at the entrance and headed for Planet Snoopy.  We passed by the beautiful pool and fountains at the entrance, stretched out in front of the Eiffel Tower replica.  The park was empty at that point except for employees walking about and sweeping up.  We found Planet Snoopy, but no one was there.  So we hailed an employee and asked if he knew where the coaster club went.  He said they were down at I 305.  I found it strange that they would have headed for an interstate.  I figured it was some sort of turnpike ride in Planet Snoopy.  I asked him where I 305 was and he pointed us in that direction.  It suddenly dawned on me that he was talking about Intimidator 305, the park's 305-foot-tall rollercoaster built in 2010 by renowned Swiss firm Intamin.  Like Cedar Point's groundbreaking Millennium Force built a decade before, Intimidator was a "giga-coaster," with a lift hill over 300 feet high.  Ironically, although these giant rides could theoretically have lots of huge hills with sustained airtime, they were often built mostly low to the ground to emphasize speed.  This one not only was built that way but also had lots of rapid direction changes.  I was concerned that, with my recent back issues, the G forces might be a bit too much.  And seeing as how this would be our first ride of the day, I was worried that the first ride would be my last.  But Karen and I took a deep breath and walked toward the nearly deserted entrance.

The ride was themed around racing, specifically Dale Earnhardt.  The first thing we noticed about the ride was how alarmingly steep the lift hill was.  And that hill was clearly by far the tallest part of the ride; no other hill was even half as tall.  I figured with some fear that this was going to be an intense positive G fest.  We walked through the long queue area.  If it had been a full queue on a sunny summer Virginia day, we probably wouldn't have waited for it, since the queue was uncovered on pavement.  Guests would probably cook themselves waiting for a ride.  But we were able to walk right up into the big station, where an empty train was waiting.  We naturally headed for the front seat, which was molded comfortably like Intamin's other trains.  The restraints were a bit different though.  Instead of a T-bar coming up from the floor, there was a heavy curving C-shaped bar coming off the headrest.  Attached to it were padded straps, similar to what would be on a backpack, that wrapped over our shoulders.  I was thankful they weren't steel bars, but I worried about how violent the ride would be.  The attendants made sure we were secure and then sent us off by ourselves.

The lift was directly in front of us and seemed to be nearly vertical.  A cable attached under the train and rapidly pulled us upward.  We barely had time to think about what was happening.  Within twenty seconds we crested the top of the hill.  The track disappeared from under us and it felt like we were going to tip upside-down.  The train blasted down that hill.  Tears streamed from our eyes as the chilly air from the 90 mph winds battered our faces.  At the bottom of the lift we flew into a ground-hugging steeply-banked 240-degree turn that sent us back under the lift hill and into the only other big hill on the ride.  We flew out of our seats and floated over the crest.  Then we barreled into an incomprehensible knot of track that sent us rapidly flipping from one side to another, hopping over small hills with powerful airtime.  We sped into the long slanted brake run with plenty of speed left over and then slowly turned back for the station.

Wow!  What a way to wake up. Throughout the entire ride I was bracing for excessive G forces, but there weren't any.  The ride was smooth and the changes of direction were thrilling but comfortable.  I hadn't experienced that much exhilaration on a coaster since my first ride on Six Flags New England's Superman: Ride of Steel.  However, the intensity for me made it unrideable twice in a row.  I really need to be younger; there was no one in line and we could have stayed in the front seat and gone around again if we wanted to.  But instead we headed for the exit and the gift shop.  There was a fun photo of us on the ride, and we had a coupon for one free e-mailed picture.  I had never seen that option at an amusement park before and thought it was a great idea instead of having to carry around a 5x7 photo all day.

The Coasterfest™ group gathered together at the ride entrance and were met by the park's Communications Manager Gene Petriello.  He was very enthusiastic and welcomed our group to the park.  Petriello had been the point person for the big Planet Snoopy expansion and had run a clever campaign featuring a locally chosen boy giving construction updates via the park website.  Petriello repeatedly emphasized how Planet Snoopy was an area meant for families, not just kids.  So rides and activities were chosen in which parents and children were able to participate together.  That has been one of my long-time complaints about parks like Six Flags that have focused on teens at the expense of families.  As we've gotten older, Karen and I still love parks but aren't interested in thrill rides as much as parks with a wider variety of activities and attractive landscaping.  So it was heartening to hear Petriello focus on that.

As the park opened to the general public, he then took us on a tour of the brightly colored Planet Snoopy area.  It was a lushly landscaped Peanuts-themed park-within-a-park.  There were the usual rides (in this case, almost all made by Zamperla) that one would expect in a kiddie-themed area, such as a kiddie coaster and wave swinger.  Some of them were re-themed rides that were already in the park.  But many of them, like Snoopy's Rocket Express and the Linus Launcher, were new.  There were fun topiary of the various Peanuts characters, as well as a small Snoopy-themed dancing water fountain.  The former Rugrat's Toonpike had been transformed into Snoopy's Junction.  The area that Petriello seemed to be most proud of was the Family Care Center, a sort of daycare/nursery area where parents could bring their little ones for something as simple as a rest stop or for diaper changing or even breast feeding.  There was a small kitchen with bottle warmers and a play area with a television (of course playing Peanuts cartoons).  It was a unique place for an amusement park and was thoughtfully designed.  Nearby was a frozen yogurt stand, Sweet Frog, run by a small company from Richmond.  Petriello took pride in having a local business in the park.

After the tour, we had about an hour before the next scheduled event, a performance of "Charlie Brown's All-Stars" at the Peanuts Playhouse.  So Karen and I headed over to Snoopy's Rocket Express.  It seemed to be a really popular ride and had a long line.  It also seemed to break down a lot.  So instead we queued up for the nearby Woodstock Express, formerly Scooby's Ghoster Coaster, a junior PTC wood coaster.  I was pleasantly surprised that they were running two trains.  There were lots of parents riding with their children, a sign that Petriello's approach was working.  As we lined up for the front seat, the ride attendants sent a train out empty and then stopped running the ride.  No explanation was given.  We stood around for about ten minutes and I finally asked the ride operator if the ride was down.  She replied cryptically, "Just a few minutes."  So Karen and I (and lots of other guests) stood there waiting.  I noticed the whole park was eerily quite.  None of the rides were running.  Then over the loudspeakers came the sound of Whitney Houston singing the National Anthem.  It was noon, and I guess that officially opened the park.  After the song was done, the  station gates opened and the attendants resumed normal operation.

We were finally seated in the front.  It was a tight fit, but we made it and were soon gliding up the bright blue lift hill.  The layout was similar to Waldameer's Comet, with a series of small dips and turns with gentle airtime.  It was a perfect first "big" coaster for children.

Then it was time for the show.  We walked over to the playhouse for our "exclusive front seats."  In reality, it was an amphitheater with simple steps to sit on.  So there weren't any "seats" per se.  Karen and I found it easier to sit on the stone wall on the side of the seating area.  I was expecting the show to be a re-telling of the Charlie Brown's All-Stars TV special that I remembered fondly from my youth.  But instead it was a collection of pre-recorded songs, many which seemed forced on the characters.  (I mean, "We Will Rock You?"  Really?)  There was one actor along with three costumed characters (Charlie Brown, Linus and Lucy).   The voices of the characters sounded remarkably close to the original TV actors.  They went through a loose collections of familiar skits based around Charlie Brown's perennially losing team, peppered with modern pop songs that seemed out of place.  I grew up with Peanuts and memorized all the comic strips.  So I cringed when the canon that was so dear to me was twisted beyond recognition for the sake of entertainment.  But the families in the audience (and Karen) certainly seemed to enjoy it.  After the show, everyone was invited to get their pictures taken with the characters, so I had Karen take one of me standing next to my childhood idol.

We had a little time before "Picnic in the Park" (the buffet that was being provided for us) so we wandered past the Eiffel Tower (which unfortunately wasn't functioning) and happened upon an Army band that was performing a Jimi Hendrix tune -- and doing a great job with it -- on the big stage in front of the main fountain on International Street.  This was Memorial Day weekend, so the park was having various events to honor the military.  We wandered through the Old Virginia section of the park.  We spotted the Wayside Grill there, which advertised veggie burgers.  We made a mental note of that for later.  There were nice landscaping touches everywhere, from a shady waterfall to a recreation of the Liberty Bell.  There were also plenty of animatronic dinosaurs scattered about advertising the park's Dinosaurs Alive upcharge exhibit.  One of my favorite memories from our previous visit to the park was the tunnel of thick vines, a welcome cooling feature that we once again enjoyed walking through.  We also passed by Shockwave, one of the last remaining TOGO stand-up coasters.  Its sister at King's Island, King Cobra, was a great ride (and unfortunately was torn down).  Shockwave though was a real head-banger.  We could see the riders shaking uncontrollably as the train rumbled through its course.

We then made our way back to the front of the park.  Snoopy's Rocket Express was down again, so we followed the path toward the pavilions for our buffet.  We had been told to go to the Oak Pavilion (all of them were named after trees) and when we got there we were told that there was some sort of a mix-up; another group was in that pavilion.  Ironically, a small marquee there welcomed our group.  In a short time the confusion was straightened out and the group was dining.  Of course, since Karen and I were vegetarians, there wasn't much for us to eat.  But we were used to that, especially with the "Picnic in the Park" moniker (which to me usually indicated hot dogs and hamburgs).  So we had some baked beans and rolls.  Karen had some egg salad.  Gene Petriello met up with us there and, in what's become common at enthusiast events everywhere, he emceed a quiz session.  Whoever got the right answer got a prize.  The questions were mostly things that enthusiasts would know (the number of coasters in the park, etc...) and the prizes were items from the gift shop, such as an Intimidator 305 mousepad.

After the "picnic," Petriello took us on a walk-back of I-305.  We were escorted through a wooden gate in a fenced-off area to the right of the coaster's queue line.  There was an access road there leading to the bottom of the first drop of I-305.  To the right was Anaconda, the old Arrow multilooper, and the turnaround of the classic John Allen designed Rebel Yell wooden racing coaster.  The group stood around watching the rides go through their paces.  They were also fascinated by the giant pulley system that whisked the train to the top of the lift.  I mentioned to Petriello how surprised I was at the smoothness and the lack of severe positive G forces on I-350.  He said that when the ride was built, the turn at the bottom of the lift hill was much tighter and guests were greying out from the extreme forces.  So for the next year, the turn was widened.  We all gathered in front of Intimidator and had a group photo taken, and then we were escorted back onto the midway.

That ended the formal part of Coasterfest™.   We thanked Petriello and the staff for their wonderful hospitality, and then we were free to do whatever we wanted for the rest of the day.  The sun had warmed things up into the 70s, but sadly we were beginning to feel exhaustion set in and a persistent wind was drying out our skin.  I heard similar comments from the other enthusiasts.  Thirty years ago I would have been running from one ride to another until the park closed.  Now I doubted we'd be able to hold out until the fireworks and light show later on that night.  But I hated to waste such a beautiful day.  I was going to show Karen the queue line for Flight of Fear, one of my favorite rides in the park, but the line was so long it was spilling out onto the midway.  We passed up another of my favorite coasters, Volcano: the Blast, since I was still concerned about my back.  We wandered peacefully along the shady paths and found the Wayside Grill.  Since we didn't have much of a lunch, we ordered the veggie burger baskets.  It seemed like it took a long time to get them.  We sat at a cafe table to eat.  The burger was good, loaded up with lettuce, tomatoes and pickles.  And the french fries were fresh and tasty.

We continued walking around the park.  We came across another coaster that was new since our last visit: the Backlot Stunt Coaster, a strange little ride that seemed out-of-place in such a beautiful park.  It looked more like an industrial Six Flags ride, with corrugated metal buildings set atop gravel.  The train consisted of three little cars that looked like bumper cars.  The layout seemed like a high-speed wild mouse with a fake splash-down ending.  We passed on it.  Nearby was Boo Blasters, a dark ride similar to Ghost Hunt at Lake Compounce.  We had thought of giving that a try, but kept on walking, curving around the impressively-themed Congo section.  When Paramount had owned the park, we had eaten at a restaurant there named Bubba Gump's, named after a character in the movie Forrest Gump.  Cedar Fair had wryly changed the name of the restaurant to Outer Hanks.

There were other attractive details throughout the park, such as a ladder climbing game that had a colorful amusement park backdrop.  The nicely-landscaped Shenandoah Lumber Company flume ride would have been refreshing if there hadn't been that persistent wind.  There were still coasters I normally would have wanted to ride:  Grizzly, Rebel Yell, another go on I-350.  Our spirit was willing but our flesh was weak.  We wandered over toward the International Street and checked out some of the gift shops.  I bought a few souvenirs and then we headed back for our hotel room.

Cedar Fair is doing a great job with King's Dominion.  It was maintaining the park's personality but also making intelligent improvements.  For us, this would have been a perfect multi-day park.  It was so vast that there was no way we could properly experience it in one day.  In fact, we couldn't even last one day.  I was glad to see that the park was focusing on family-friendly attractions; not just rides for kids or rides for teens, but attractions the whole family could experience together.  Intimidator was a good example of that: it started off as an extreme coaster that some guests were having a problem riding, so the park modified it to make it just as thrilling but not punishing.  Happiness was a day at King's Dominion and we wished it could have lasted longer.  But we had to rest up for then next leg of our Coasterfest™ trip.

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