50 years later Kings Island still a giant attraction for region

Park celebrates 50th anniversary on Friday with event

Industry naysayers laughed when park officials estimated Kings Island would reach 2 million in attendance during its first season.

The Warren County amusement park in Mason reached 2,012,000 visitors that year and 50 years later it continues to be a huge draw for the region.

Kings Island’s past and present was celebrated on its 50 year birthday on Friday by reflecting on what it took to get it up and running and its long-lasting impact as a multigenerational memory maker.

Kings Island founder and first general manager Gary Wachs said his first duty was to get the park open because it only operated 146 days during its first season.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

“If the park wasn’t open, it cost $100,000 a day, at least, and I didn’t want to be the guy that was in that position,” he said. “I think our expression around here was ‘If we wait until we’re open, we’ll never open, so we picked the day and opened on that day.”

But the park’s inaugural season didn’t start off with a bang, Wachs said.

“We had unexpectedly low crowds in June, we had poor weather, we had rain,” said Wachs, adding that while admission to Coney Island was 50 cents, Kings Island was charging $6 a ticket during its inaugural season. In addition, “nobody knew what you got for six bucks.”

But word of mouth boosted attendance and helped Kings Island have the last laugh.

“On the Fourth of July, the spigot opened up and 35,000 came and from that day after we averaged 35,000 to 40,000 people a day,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services and Kings Island’s former assistant general manager.

“Only two other parks had done that,” Speigel said. “You might have heard of them: Disneyland and Disney World.”

The 1972 season attendance also made Kings Island the first theme park to draw more than 2 million people in its first year, Wachs said.

Now, Cedar Point and Kings Island have a whopping combined annual attendance of about 7.5 million people, Wachs said.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

As opposed to the 475 theme parks operating nationwide today, when Kings Island came on the scene, there was less than a handful, including three Six Flags parks that had opened in 1961, 1967 and 1971.

Members of the first family to enter Kings Island on April 29, 1972— sisters Taryn Harrison, Tamara Hitson and Heather Hitson — cut the ribbon to kick off the day’s festivities.

Harrison said walking through the gates on opening day that year was exciting because of the park’s enormous size and being interviewed by media about what each ride was like.

“It was magic beyond belief,” she said.

Being back at the park to celebrate the park’s 50th birthday was both exciting and surreal, Harrison said.

“I’m so happy that all of us are here today and that we can still celebrate and that we feel like an initial family. Well, we are. It has endured.”

Tamara Hitson said in some ways it is like the park has stood still.

“This international area is the same,” she said. “It always has these buildings, it always has the Eiffel Tower and it always is fun and it’s always magical.”

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Nickey McQuinn, 27, who worked at the park from 16 to 19 years old, said it was important for her to be at the park’s birthday celebration.

“It’s my favorite place in the world,” she said. “It’s a place we can escape and have fun. We come here and we don’t have to think about things outside of here.”

Victoria Ridge, who moved to Dayton five years ago, said she’s been visiting Kings Island each year on a season pass ever since.

“I love this park,” she said. “It’s my favorite place to come and hang out when I’m off of work.

“It always feels like you leave feeling a little happier than you did when you (arrived).”

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Surprise inductees into the Kings Island Hall of Fame during Friday’s birthday celebration were Alton Fitzgerald White, a former Kings Island performer and critically acclaimed actor best known for playing King Mufasa in Disney’s The Lion King on Broadway for more than 4,000 performances.

White, who sang the National Anthem at the start of Friday’s birthday celebration, burst out in tears upon hearing he was being inducted.

“I don’t really have the words to express how much this mean to me,” said White who credits his entire career to his exposure to Kings Island as a youth and the fun he had there as a performer. “Even just being asked to be here today is a tremendous honor.”

Also inducted into the park’s hall of fame was Don Miller, who started his career at Kings Island in 1972 a ride operator, was promoted to director of safety in 1988 and to vice president of park operations in 1993, a position he held until his retirement in 2006.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

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