Eight days. 700 miles. Six friends. Four parks. Three states. Two cities. One dream.
Well, realistically, there were six friends plus one brother. And Carowinds covers an additional state. But this report won’t focus on logistics.
“We each look to connect with creative works in different ways,” Robert Niles recently wrote about the importance of operational excellence. I agree. In this report, I’m not interested in covering every logistical detail of every park (if you have questions about topics I don’t cover, let's discuss them in the comments section). Instead, I’m going to try to explain the trip from my perspective and from the perspective of my group.
So then, who's in our group?
We are seven 30-somethings including three couples from Eastern Canada. Three of us are engineering school buddies who own a brewery and bar. None of us are married, nor do we have dependents. One of us is gluten-sensitive. We love beer. We love thrills. Some of us love to eat. Most of us were born in rural areas. Most of us have visited world-class theme parks like those in Orlando, though few have experienced regional parks like those owned by Cedar Fair. And none of us, present company excluded, could be considered Theme Park Insiders.
Our mission with this trip was simple: to experience as many quality theme parks outside of international hubs (like Orlando) as we could in one week. We settled on four parks: Kings Dominion, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Carowinds and Dollywood. You can read more about the inspiration for this trip here.
First up on our list was Kings Dominion. Its proximity to both a major flight hub (D.C.) and another major park (Busch Gardens Williamsburg) made it an attractive starting point, though after experiencing the traffic slog on the I-95 south, I would have happily flown direct to Richmond for the extra cost. Driving over three hours through stop-go traffic after flying all morning dampened our spirits. A few porch beers and BBQ fixin’s later put us back on top.
I would have liked to spend more time in Richmond. It had a pulse. It was filled with interesting shops, restaurants, breweries and architecture. You could tell some really cool things were happening even if you weren’t in on them. Given that Kings Dominion was easy to complete in less than a day, and that it didn’t offer a wide variety of experiences beyond roller coasters, we were happy to be staying in nearby Richmond where our Airbnb was a quick and pretty walk from a variety of dining and drinking options. (Not that it mattered because we ended up ordering Dominos. Damn you, Dominos, and your extremely effective marketing team.)
But enough about my hipster leanings and Dominos infatuations. Let’s talk Kings Dominion.
After we entered the park, the KD app automatically sent me a push notification with directions to the park’s newest attraction, Twisted Timbers. Nice touch. Kings Dominion’s Sunday Park ‘n’ Play Deal was a steal at $35 USD (including parking). Twisted Timbers and Intimidator 305 alone made that price worthwhile. There’s nothing I can say about these rides that Russell Meyer didn’t already cover in better detail (here and here). I will confirm before you ask the inevitable: yes, we all greyed out on I305. In fact, I lost equilibrium for the better part of an hour. Did that add to the experience? Probably. I can’t remember.
The only problem with Intimidator 305 and Twisted Timbers was that they made many of the rest of the attractions in the park somewhat forgettable (unless that’s just memory loss from greying out). We had fun on Dominator, Grizzly and Avalanche, but after the superior speed, smoothness and surprises of the top two coasters, these coasters felt like diversions. When parks only invest heavily in roller coasters without landscaping or theming, the second- and third-tier coasters feel like forgettable versions of the first tier.
Flight of Fear’s indoor excursion was a welcome break (though with unwelcome brakes: the jarring brake section finale was painful). Since lines were null, we also squeezed in Anaconda and Apple Zapple, the fourth-tier coasters. Perhaps some guests feel that more coasters = more bang for their buck. With Anaconda, I felt I got more bang for my head. To rest our rattled brains, we tried some of the park’s other fare: Boo Blasters, Shenandoah Log Flume and some flat rides.
Were any of these finishing rides remarkable? Not really. But at $35 a ticket and with no crowds, none of them needed to be remarkable. These rides were all serviceable and some of them moreso. The only truly negative experience of the day was dining. When TPI lists Panda Express as a Top Quality Meal, your ovens need some lovin’. Screens throughout the park advertised Chef Tiffanie Facey’s approach to dining. That campaign led me to believe Kings Dominion had recently overhauled its food programming, but the reality suggested otherwise. Dry slices of pizza sat under a heat lamp at one establishment. Chicken tenders were tough and flavorless at another. Two members of our group vomited after lunch because the food made them feel nauseous. Price points were high. Food service was slow, uncommunicative, apathetic and uninformed - few employees knew where or what our gluten-sensitive friend could eat while three other employees couldn’t operate a draft beer system.
I do applaud Kings Dominion for opening The Parched Pig, a neat little taproom serving regional beer and wine nestled in the Old Virginia section of the park. In a park with few worthwhile family attractions, shows or themed areas, this counter service bar provided a much-needed respite from the sun, stimuli, steel and concrete. The view of nearby pedestrians spraying Shenandoah Lumber Company riders with water guns provided some laughs for the drinking crowd.
This was our group’s main gripe with steel-and-concrete parks like Kings Dominion and Carowinds. After so much heat and action, we wanted something to help us recuperate. For a $35 ticket, I didn’t expect any Broadway-calibre shows, train rides through the mountains, scenic walkways or virtual reality dark rides. When it comes to dining options, however, the capital costs and operating expenses of a restaurant get passed to the customer in the price of the food, so why not offer more venues like The Parched Pig? They need not be fancy: a cozy taproom with exposed wood furnishings, shade from the sun and a view of a flume ride drop sufficed just fine. We could have happily stayed in the park until closing time and spent more money on food and drinks had the options been there, but there are only so many cold, folded up pizza slices one can look at before you’re reminded of your last break-up.
Kings Dominion was a solid park. It didn’t offer the variety of attractions, beauty or dining experiences of nearby Busch Gardens Williamsburg, but it was also at a price point much more affordable for families. I forget that sometimes. I’m very privileged. Not everyone has the luxury of spending nearly $100 USD per person on a theme park ticket. In terms of ticket value, therefore, Kings Dominion was a slam dunk. Some great coasters, friendly employees and interesting enough surroundings made for a great first day. I’d be happy to call Kings Dominion my home park and visit every few years if I lived nearby… I would just make sure that I packed a lunch.Tweet