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August 9, 2014

Playing Just To Play Near Cincinnati

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Written by: David Smallwood
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The planned family summer trip to a Southern destination had fallen through just two days before scheduled departure – due to a seeming lack of appreciation for our visit on the host city’s part – but vacation time had been taken and a rental van was waiting to be picked up, so our cavalcade of 16 was determined to go somewhere out of town, come hell or high water.

When someone mentioned a famous amusement park called Kings Island near Cincinnati, there was unanimous agreement among the group that that would be our Preferred Travel Destination and it seemed to promise a better time than the Dixieland stampede and salute we would have been participating in at our originally scheduled destination.

The main drawback was finding four hotel rooms to accommodate our entire group of eight adults and eight kids.  This happened two weekends ago when the Queen’s City, as Cincy is called, was hosting both the Macy’s Music Festival and the Urban League’s Annual National Conference in addition to the usual summer families visiting Kings Island, so group accommodations on that scale were almost impossible to find basically on 48 hours notice.

But then the Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau stepped in and did what CVBs are supposed to do – the impossible, on short notice.

So, many thanks to Debbie Pappadakes and the Cincy CVB staff (www.cincyusa.com) for scouring the entire area to find rooms for us, which they did almost at the last second, and a great place it was that they found – the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel Cincinnati-Blue Ash in Sharonville, Ohio, about 15 minutes from King’s Island. And when we pulled in late Thursday night after the five-hour drive from Chicago, the Doubletree (http://doubletree3.hilton.com) staff had warm cookies and milk waiting for the entire group.

The rest was gravy – just a long weekend of having fun in Warren County, known as “Ohio’s Largest Playground,” not only because it’s home to Kings Island, which itself is the largest amusement and waterpark in the Midwest, but also because in the county’s 30-mile radius, “there’s more to do funwise than anywhere else in Ohio,” according to Mary Fessler, Marketing Director for Warren County’s CVB, who became our go-to person while we were on the ground there.

There was so much fun to be had in Warren County that even though Debbie had suggested an itinerary for us that highlighted what seemed to be some spectacular locales in Cincinnati just 25 miles away, we never made it out of the suburbs and into the city – rain being a heavy, but not deciding, factor.  However, another trip is planned in the near future to experience the glories of Cincinnati itself and to bring that to N’DIGO’s readers.  But onto the fun!

Kings Island

Why go 300 miles away to a Cincy amusement park when we’ve got Six Flags Great America right here in our own backyard you ask?

Well, “new and/or different” is always desirable as any guy will tell you, though not specifically talking about theme parks.

But also, theme park connoisseurs give a decided edge to Kings Island over Six Flags. Voters on a website that compares amusement parks the world over (amusement-parks.findthebest.com/compare) preferred Kings over Six Flags 68 percent to 32 percent and gave Kings an average user rating of 4.3 to Six Flags’ 4.1.

The overall reason for favoring Kings, recited over and over on the site, was that “Six Flags is a wonderful park that is almost always too busy to enjoy properly.” Those of us who have visited our Great America more than once will certainly shout “amen” to that!

Kings Island is also larger than Six Flags, sitting on 364 acres, with more than 100 rides (15 rollercoasters), shows and attractions, including the 33-acre Soak City Waterpark, compared to Six Flags, which has 304 acres, 75 rides, 14 coasters and a 20-acre water park.

Soak City Waterpark has more than 50 activities, including 30 water slides, tropical lagoons, and a 650,000-gallon wave pool.  The lounging/sunning promenade takes up the equivalent of three football fields, and there are areas to play a good game of sand volleyball.  Kings Island also has Dinosaurs Alive! where 60 life-sized animatronic dinos roam seven acres, providing Jurassic Park thrills.

Kings Island (www.visitkingsisland.com) is a great combination of world-class thrills and family attractions.  Its calling card is its coasters, top-billed for 35 years by The Beast.

Sprawled across a densely wooded, 35-acre site, The Beast is the longest wooden roller coaster in the world at 7,400 feet (1-3/4 miles), travels at speeds up to 65 miles per hour, and has a ride length of more than four minutes. It features two vertical drops, three tunnels, plus a 540-degree helix turn at the end. It’s a grand ride, smooth and long, but not stomach-churning.

That would be the Banshee, Kings’ new record-breaking addition this year – the longest inverted roller coaster in the world – that sends riders screaming through 4,124 feet of track and seven mind-bending inversions at speeds up to 68 miles per hour.   Inverted means your car is going upside down and inside out.  It’s best to ride with eyes closed so you have no idea of what’s coming because all those inversions are not a pretty sight to see!

Pure speed junkies can get their fix on Diamondback, the tallest, fastest, meanest roller coaster at Kings Island.  It soars up to 5,282 feet (a mile high) and reaches 80 miles an hour.  This is truly for the adventurers and not the feint of heart.

But there’s also the Vortex, where you go through two vertical loops, one corkscrew, one boomerang turn and a 360-degree helix, and for milder souls the WindSeeker, which takes you 301 feet above the park for an unparalleled swing ride at 30 miles per hour.

Kings Island has a super-bad, yet completely common sense layout.  It starts after you enter the gates on International Street, with its myriad of lighted fountains and Eiffel Tower replica that gives a view of the whole park from its top.

The coasters ring the periphery of the park in a semi-circle, giving way to Rivertown/old days activities and a whitewater canyon, followed by a train track that takes you to Soak City.  The rest of the circle at the entrance is taken up by Planet Snoopy, which has been awarded the title of “Best Kids Area” at an amusement park in the world for the past 13 years from the Golden Ticket Awards organization. Planet Snoopy has rides and activities that will amuse the kids and bemuse the parents.

The interior stretches of Kings Island are ringed by a long midway full of arcade games (including the 3-point Shootout, based on the NBA All-Star weekend activity where you shoot balls from three different stations); a variety of smaller rides and attractions; a plethora of eating places, ranging from sit-down restaurants to chicken tenders, Panda Express, Chick-fil-A, turkey legs, and Kings Island’s signature eateries, LaRosa Pizza (which has a wonderfully sweet sauce) and Graeter’s Ice Cream (noted for its famous blue variety); and there are several stages and performance areas where all kinds of live shows take place, from music to magic to circuses.

Unfortunately, Kings Island’s season is ending.  It’s open daily through August 24, then on Labor Day weekend.  Until then, admission is only $34 if you buy your tickets online.

Then its open weekends only from September 19 through November 1 to throw its 8th Annual Halloween Haunt at you; it’s considered one of the scariest Halloween frights in the country. Kings Island spokesman Don Helbig says, “Halloween Haunt is a veritable playground of terror featuring more than 600 vile creatures lurking in the shadows, 15 highly-intense and spine-chilling haunted attractions, and popular thrill rides including the Banshee, Beast and Diamondback roller coasters.”

Last year’s Halloween Haunt featured 11 mazes: Board to Death, CarnEvil, Club Blood, CornStalkers, Delta Delta Die, Holiday Horror, Madame Fatale’s Cavern of Terror, Slaughter House, Tombstone Terror-Tory, Urgent Scare and Wolf Pack. There were also four scare zones and three live stage shows.

Kings Island is open from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. and if you go when it opens and stay until it closes, you can just about get it all in in a day.  Not as bad as Six Flags, but it gets a little crowded in the evening, so try to hit the more popular areas earlier when the place is not as packed.

Other Area Attractions

After our Thursday night drive and all-day Friday at Kings Island, we got mostly rained out Saturday and Sunday before coming back home.  Rain stopped a planned visit to the Cincinnati Zoo, the second oldest in the country; visits to several interesting neighborhoods in Cincinnati and Covington, Kentucky across the Ohio River; the Newport Aquarium, with its 800-pound alligator, 600-pound, 84-year-old tortoise and sharks you can pet; and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.  Ziplining 200 feet over the Little Miami River and two miles of wooded hillside also seemed like a nice adventure, but required advanced reservations that we didn’t have.

But we did hit two other delightful places:  Lazer Kraze (www.LazerKraze.com) and EnterTrainment Junction (www.entertrainmentjunction.com).  Located right near Kings Island, Lazer Kraze combines a laser tag system featuring cutting edge technology with multi-level arenas filled with haze and electronic wizardry for a truly different kind of hunting/battle experience.

And you can literally bounce off the walls at Lazer Kraze’s indoor trampoline park, where you can play air dodgeball, air basketball or just participate in open jumping.  The sessions are only for 30 minutes, which seems short initially, but after 10 minutes, you’re just about jumped out.  There’s also a huge arcade with a great mix of games for all ages.  We spent a pleasant half-day there; the other half the kids swam for hours in the DoubleTree Hotel’s pool, while the adults relaxed and did some local shopping.

EnterTrainment Junction (EJ) was Sunday’s stop after checkout and a hearty Waffle House breakfast (much tastier than IHOP’s in my opinion) before heading back to Chicago.  About 10 minutes west of Kings Island, in West Chester, Ohio, EJ features the world’s largest indoor model train display.

It covers half a football field – over 25,000 square feet – and has taken over 65,000-man hours to build, mostly from volunteers, who still work on it every weekend.

In this exhibit, 90 large-scale computerized locomotives featuring over 1,000 train cars travel through hundreds of tunnels, mountainsides, bridges, and trestles as they wind their way through amazingly detailed miniature cities, industrial areas, farmlands and coal mining towns.

The exhibit meanders through the history of American trains, from the days of steam engine railroads to today’s diesel locomotives, and features an upstairs view of the entire exhibit, including a working model of Coney Island Amusement Park and its various rides, which all work.

Most mind-boggling is the detail paid to the miniature buildings, people and the activities the people are engaged in in the windows of those buildings – showering, cooking, office work, etc.  The minutiae is so great that the exhibit offers a half-dozen scavenger hunt lists asking you to find popular and bizarre objects located within the trainland universe.  This is truly an homage to those who love model anythings and deserves to be viewed for its majesty alone without the scavenger hunt sidetrack.

But the best part of EnterTrainment Junction is the A-Maze-N Funhouse!, which is a collection of circus-themed mazes reminiscent of the popular midways of the past.  There’s:

• the region’s largest Mirror Maze, a disorienting land of illusion where you can see everything and still get nowhere as you get lost in the mirrors;

•the Crazy Caper Room, where booby-traps, alarms, and different challenges prevent you from finding a magic key;

•Curtain Chaos, where a series of long red and white curtains frustrate as you try to find your way out of the twisting, turning dead end-filled maze;

•the Outer Limits, a journey through a Black Hole in space, where travelers must vanquish dark vortexes, spinning tunnels, and finally an all-dark claustrophobia room you must squeeze through to escape from; and

• Clown College, the most confounding tent of all.  The structure is full of optical illusions and clown photos that react in surprising ways when you push buttons under them.  There’s a room where visitors appear to shrink or grow as they walk through, and a variety of mirrors that distort your appearance.  Finally, there’s a room tilted at a 25-degree steep angle that makes people look like they’re walking sideways as they attempt to defy gravity and stand up straight but are actually leaning at an angle.

This place was a blast and a fun way to end the quick, long weekend trip.  A summer family trip to Kings Island alone is a fantastic experience unto itself – nice park, superior activities, decent prices, and the four-plus-hour drive (you know you’re not going to be doing 60 all the way; Indiana’s speed limit, where you’ll be doing a heavy part of the driving, is 70 and their roads are great) – is liberating; you can lose yourself in the ride and forget about your Chicago worries.

And then you have all the other fun activities in Warren County and the whole city of Cincinnati itself to explore.  The DoubleTree where we stayed is a bit pricey – but nice, and we were lucky to book it on such short notice – but there are a variety of lodgings with far more family-friendly budgets, so check around.

A long weekend visit to the area, even a longer stay, is most definitely an affordable, enjoyable, worry-free vacation.  Make it a point to book one next summer.  My group certainly will. Again…and we can’t wait!



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David Smallwood





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