First, a shameful admission: In my adult life, my only theme park exposure has been in Southern California. (Walt Disney World once as a child doesn't count.) So I know Six Flags Magic Mountain. But Cedar Point in particular boasts a sterling reputation as the thrill park, the best of its kind worldwide. So with an open mind, and a preternaturally queasy stomach, I set out to experience a type of park well outside of my comfort zone.
We began with Kings Island, sort of a transition between SoCal's Wizarding Worlds and Ohio's Top Thrills. Kings Island has themes. Before its purchase by Cedar Fair, it was a Paramount Parks joint, with "movie-themed" bare-naked roller coasters. Kings Island offers place-making from the entry onward, done at a respectable regional level. International Street is flanked by semi-European storefronts, and dominated by a third-scale Eiffel Tower as the park's icon.
Moving through the park, there are coasters where you pretend to be in an alien UFO, in an undiscovered jungle, or on an LA freeway (made me homesick). Coaster queues offer decaying Irish tombstones and faux-vintage period architecture. But always the overriding sense is that these are roller coasters. Painted steel pylons loom hundreds of feet overhead, and there just isn't any point in immersion when you're hurtling straight down at 70 mph. So for all the scattered thematic décor here and there, it's really the coasters which make the largest impression. Rides such as Diamondback, Banshee, and the immortal Beast impress you with how enjoyable they are simply to ride — smooth movements, overwhelming physical sensations, and a lovely setting to top it all off.
But all this was but an appetizer for Cedar Point. Founded in 1492 as a relaxing getaway resort by early European explorers, Cedar Point is massive, it is vibrant, it is alive. (Okay, it was actually founded in 1870 as a bathing beach.) James was very careful when introducing me to his favorite childhood haunt. Driving from Sandusky out onto a causeway on Lake Erie, you are struck at once by a mile-long beachfront covered by more thrill rides than one can mortally comprehend. Even having conquered (most) of the "big boy rides" at Kings Island (sorry, Invertigo), Cedar Point is intimidating. And it should be. It has 71 rides, the most of any park worldwide, and its 17 roller coasters are second only to Magic Mountain. Oh, and it's over 365 acres large!
Cedar Point really grabs you upon entry. You walk directly under the Gatekeeper wing coaster. Before you is a bustling midway with coasters, spinners, flat rides, skyways, wheels and ravenous seagulls all at once. People talk about kinetics; now this is kinetics! And while my mention of a carnival midway has surely caused many a Disney and Universal fan to just now vomit involuntarily, there's a reason the midway remains to this day a fan favorite setting. It's fun! It's also undeniably not Disneyland, and must be judged by unique criteria. So some truths:
Cedar Point is an amusement park.
It is maybe the best darn amusement park in the world.
Cedar Point is gorgeous!
Yeah, it ain't "themed," per se. There are smatterings of theme: Frontier Town and Frontier Trail provide that Old West area legally mandated by Congress. Gatekeeper, Raptor and Valravn are all based on birds, perhaps those bloodthirsty seagulls which rule the midway with an iron talon. Millennium Force is themed to...the millennium? I saw a T-Rex while riding it (in Dinosaurs Alive), and yelled crazily mid-ride about the storyline, but James assures me I'm delusional.
So, okay, there's not much theme. But it's pretty! Simply being in Cedar Point is so pleasant already, you don't have to pretend you're in some distant, fantastical paradise. You're already in paradise, on Lake Erie! The best coasters are naturally beautiful like a perfectly-engineered suspension bridge. They are sculptures, works of art, sited carefully, colored brightly, and set in a lovely natural Ohio wilderness. Plus they're a true pleasure to ride. Once my trip was complete, I'd ridden something like 30 roller coasters, many of them multiple times.
I was truly impressed by much of the operations at Cedar Point and Kings Island. The ride operators at both parks are truly at the top of their game. They're professional, they load you properly and efficiently, but they're still engaging and playful. There's an inclusiveness to the "cast members" which one doesn't get with Disney's formality. Ride ops speak directly to guests as equals, and I loved it.
With our unique backstage Sunrise Thrills VIP Tour [James is posting an article about that tomorrow. UPDATE: Here it is], I got to see just how staggeringly complex these modern coasters truly are. It's one thing to ride a lift hill. It's another to see the series of interlocking failsafe systems connecting all aspects of a ride's operation. This complexity, especially on a modern marvel like Top Thrill Dragster, is hidden from guests (unlike a high-fallutin' new animatronic), but it's no less astounding. And to think of the winter maintenance needed to keep these rides safe, comfortable, and thrilling! Wow!
It isn't all great, sadly. Food options inside the parks rise to the level of acceptable, but only barely. (Food outside of the parks was consistently better, and often delicious.) Good to not lose one's foie gras on the gigacoaster, but something beyond fried fare fare would feel fair. And unlike the astounding ride ops, concession workers seemed confused by the very idea of food service. This is in stark contrast to Cedar Fair's Knott's, where food service is king, and the ride operators are the (comparative) slackers.
And while Cedar Point cannot be beat for thrills, it does lack ride variety. Oh, I enjoyed plenty of relaxing, non-thrill attractions. Cedar Downs is awesome. Cadillac Cars is better than Autopia. Bonesville and its incompetent skeletons are so close to my own dreams, it's scary. Camp Snoopy and Planet Snoopy are...also there. These are all good, but Ohio needs more things like them! They add variety, and they appeal to the non-thrill addicts.
Yeah, if you don't like coasters, Cedar Point and Kings Island would probably be decent. Okay one-time things. To a coaster nut, these places are Mecca. By Cedar Fair's self-selected criteria, Cedar Point is exceptional. Just as one doesn't ask an action movie for musical numbers, one would be a fool of the highest caliber to enter Cedar Point expecting Pirates of the Caribbean. (Likewise, Big Thunder sure is no Maverick.) If you're the type who's interested in being launched at 120 mph up 400 feet into the air, Cedar Point is the top thrill.
But I arrived at these parks a coaster amateur, a lover of theming, a wimp. How did I manage? Oh, I did fine! But I realize this is unique for every visitor. There were certain coasters I refused to do, and they aren't the ones you'd expect. Ridiculous terrifying heights barely faze me, but strange little spinning, reversing nightmares like Wicked Twister would absolutely make me lose my perch sandwich. (Knott's Montezuma's Revenge similarly gives my gut Montezuma's revenge.) My host refused to do Kings Island's Firehawk, a flying horror, because it causes him to black out and die. To me, it was the most relaxing coaster of the trip, and I fully expected a massage to follow. We all react differently to physical stimuli. Some addicts forever chase that G-force adrenaline rush. Others – like me, really – find Valravn a nice coaster to visit, but I wouldn't want to live on it.
About that new Valravn? It's good...no, it's great. One of the top five or so coasters of my trip, though I haven't considered them systematically. My absolute fave, hands down, would be Maverick – not the tallest, nor the fastest, nor the anything-elsest, but a wild and smooth and unpredictable burst of brilliance I cannot really explain. Second would be The Beast, Kings Island's mythic woodie. More than any other ride, this one really improves at night, plus you get a full meal of fireflies. Other standouts include Millennium Force, Top Thrill Dragster, and Banshee (> Raptor). A few rides, like Mean Streak, are grim torture devices, but they're the exception.
But the point is not to pre-judge a terrifying roller coaster! If you can handle Big Thunder at Disneyland, you can certainly handle the Cedar Point Mine Ride, and from there move up to Iron Dragon, then Gemini, and onwards as your body allows (with appropriate pauses in between), and soon you'll be so spoiled you'll never want to do the Knott's Berry Farm coasters again.
I've heard Cedar Point compared by others to Disneyland itself, and favorably. These two parks, they say, are the only real two-day parks in the United States. I'm ignorant still, but I'm inclined to believe this. Both are fun, beloved, historical, and jam-packed with exciting stuff. Beyond that, there's no comparison. The world of theme parks, or amusement parks, whatever, it is so much more varied than any single park type. Ludicrous coasters and immersive dark rides both serve their purpose, and the world is richer for them both. As park guests, we do ourselves a personal favor to experience as much of this variety as possible. Not only do you gain an appreciation for parks you otherwise wouldn't know, you'll also see your regional favorites with new eyes.
I am exceedingly grateful to my host James Koehl and his family for letting me into their home, for showing me around, for putting up with my pleading cries of "Save me, Walt!" on the coasters. Thanks also to James Rao and his family, who I didn't even get to mention, but they were there too, showing me up. I had an absolute blast, one I am eager to repeat.
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