Getting into the spirit of the season at Kings Island's Winterfest

December 22, 2018, 1:48 PM · I've visited Kings Island, just north of Cincinnati in Mason, Ohio, many times over the years and have had countless numbers of wonderful experiences. I've ridden their world-class roller coasters, watched Broadway-caliber shows in their state-of-the-art theaters, and enjoyed some of the best theme park food anywhere. I've spent hours exploring it's beautifully-landscaped grounds with dear friends who traveled from Los Angeles, California and Altringham, U.K. and all points in between to enjoy Kings Island with me.

But I don't think I ever had as much fun as I did on a cold, rainy, drizzly, misty evening a few days ago when I braved a three-hour-drive in a downpour to attend Kings Island Winterfest.

That's how good it is.

Granted, by the time it opened at 4pm the rain had lessened up, but it never really stopped all night. It was always drizzling, or at least misting, and several times the huge star at the top of the Eiffel Tower, now transformed into one of the tallest Christmas "Trees" in the world, was totally lost in the mist 300 feet above the millions of holiday lights that transformed one of the most beautiful parks in the country into a dazzling celebration of the holiday season. But it didn't matter... it was Winterfest, and it was spectacular.

Eiffel Tree

I admit that I'm a bit effusive in my enthusiasm for this event. Winterfest is not exclusive to Kings Island — many other Cedar Fair parks now extend their seasons into the New Year with their own version of Winterfest, as they should. I wish my home park, Cedar Point, could somehow join them, but its exposed location in Lake Erie makes this a meteorological impossibility. For Theme Park Insiders who live close enough to a Cedar Fair Winterfest, get there! If it's half as good as Kings Islands version, you'll have a wonderful time.

I won't go into everything because I didn't have time to see everything. At least half of the park is open, with several major rides and many smaller ones running, even in the rain. Mystic Timbers, the 2017 Golden Ticket winner for Best New Ride, was running, and I was finally able to ride it — front seat with only two other riders (who sat in the back). It's an incredible ride, fast, smooth, and it's nearly tied with Steel Vengeance on my list of best coasters. I suspect it was built with the intention of keeping it operating even in the cold of Winterfest, and I also suspect that whatever is "in the shed" didn't like my Cedar Point HalloWeekends knit cap — I swear I felt something stronger than the wind rip it off my head on my third ride of the night!

Mystic Timbers

Flight of Fear, a completely indoor LIM-launch coaster, also was running, and I don't know if this was special for Winterfest or not but the flying saucer at the entrance had all its running lights colored either red or green. This is just one of numerous high-quality theming touches I noticed. Nearly every building, shop, theater, and restaurant had been renamed and had new signs with seasonal titles such as "Blitzen's Hot Beverage Bar," "11 Pipers Piping Pizza," and "Mistletoe Munchies." The Racer Coaster was not running, but the entrance was closed off by two large Christmas trees, one red and one blue for the two colors and names of the trains.

The Kings Island and Miami Valley Railroad took riders through a musical light show portraying the Twelve Days of Christmas, and the Grand Carousel at the base of the Eiffel Tower/Christmas Tree has never looked better, glowing brilliant white in a sea of glittering lights. The International Fountain, running from the front gate to the Eiffel Tower, has been frozen over and now is called Snow Flake Lake, and hundreds of families were skating around and around (and occasionally down on their butts!) Horse-drawn carriages and motorized trolleys rolled down International Street, WinterFest Way, and Coney Elf Village, carrying guests throughout the park, and dozens of small, temporary booths were set-up surrounding the base of the Christmas Tree, where local artists and craftspeople were selling what seemed an endless assortment of gift items from baby bibs and finely crafted leather goods to hand-carved wooden boxes and personalized Christmas ornaments.

Christmas lights

There was no way to see all the live entertainment being offered — there just wasn't time. "Tinker's Toy Factory" was a family-oriented musical staged in the Festhaus with a wonderfully-talented cast, and we also caught in passing "Cool Yule Christmas," "Four Drummers Drumming," and several street performers portraying characters from "A Christmas Carol." I was privileged to watch the magnificent tree lighting ceremony with Ebenezer Scrooge on one side of me and the ghost of Jacob Marley on the other. Later, as we were leaving the park as it was closing, Mr. Scrooge obviously had found his Christmas spirit, for as often as he was grousing "Bah! Humbug!" at the beginning of the evening's events he was wishing "Merry Christmas" to everyone as they left the park, a huge smile on his face. To me, he wasn't an actor — he was Ebenezer Scrooge who had been visited by three Spirits and had discovered the true spirit of Christmas.

Scrooge and Marley

The food we enjoyed was top-rate in quality, the hot chocolate was freshly-prepared and just the right temperature, and the Cinnabon that I treated myself to was steaming in the cold air as I watch the skaters circling the frozen fountains on the rink.

One interesting thing I noticed — I saw several instances where special-needs adults were working throughout the park, passing out maps and show schedules, sweeping (and in one case taking pictures for guests as they stood by the Winterfest sign with the skating rink and Christmas tree behind them), and in every case they looked like they were having a better time than anyone else in the park. One charming young woman told me as much. She asked if I wanted a map, and after I took it and thanked her she broke into a huge grin and proudly told me, "I love my job! I'm having so much fun!" She wasn't alone — everyone, employees and guests alike — was smiling, laughing, and often chatting with total strangers.

In spite of the rain, or perhaps because of the rain, my evening at Kings Island Winterfest was an experience I will always treasure. We get so lost in the busy-ness of Christmas, in finding the perfect gift, the perfect wrapping paper, and the perfect Christmas tree that we forget to stop and enjoy the simple things that are what is truly important. There was much that I didn't have time to do at Winterfest — and I really don't care. What I was able to do was magical.

Merry Christmas!

Replies (5)

December 23, 2018 at 6:59 AM

Merry Christmas indeed! Sounds like a great adventure. We stopped by Winterfest at Worlds of Fun a few weeks back and I have to admit it was pretty nice. Granted the park was crowded and woefully understaffed so I left after about 90 minutes, but it was still pretty cool. The nicest thing was seeing the park packed with FAMILIES, not just teenagers. You gotta think that if they can pull these numbers for a Christmas event, that there is an untapped family market here in KC that could be pulled in the summer as well -- if they moved in a more family friendly direction by adding unique rides and other whole family experiences. Worlds of Fun used to be VERY popular back before Cedar Fair owned it and it did cater to the family crowd, so it CAN work. They just need to try.

Anyway, Jim, after reading your article I am further convinced you need to come visit Silver Dollar City. If you liked Winterfest, you'll LOVE SDC's An Old Time Christmas!

December 25, 2018 at 7:57 AM

Due to some well-timed travels this year I've been able to check out both KI and KD's Winterfest. Both were outstanding, and both were rather busy the nights I visited.

I'd guess that Cedar Point will be watching the fortunes of Canada's Wonderland next year to see how their event pans out... if it's as successful as the others... I can't imagine CP leaving that kind of money on the table. Frontier Trail was made for an event like this, and if KI can make it work with some warming stations and shows... I bet CP can, too. Biggest question for me would be what two or three coasters could they open when temps are 35-40 degrees? Blue Streak? Wicked Twister and Maverick might work. SV rode just fine in 40-degree temps this fall, so that could work as well...

December 26, 2018 at 9:15 AM

Great report !! I am glad to see KI do such a good job in spite of limitations imposed by the weather. The idea of ice skating in that fountain area is especially appealing. When SFOG (our home park) started Holiday in the Park about 4 years ago, I had my doubts about what it could offer in the cold weather. But Atlanta winters (45-55 degrees in December) have not stopped most of our coasters from running. But the other "seasonal" activities have been kind of limited. Glad to see a park like KI succeeding by offering more shows, impressive light displays and family friendly activities

December 26, 2018 at 10:51 AM

Kings Dominion hosted its first WinterFest this year, and for me there were some hits and misses.


1. The entertainment is almost on par with Busch Gardens. Kings Dominion doesn't necessarily have bad entertainment, but their normal shows are typically very cliched theme park shows with mediocre talent that is a couple of steps below Busch Gardens/Disney/Universal. Perhaps they felt the need to raise the bar to compete with Busch Gardens, who increases their entertainment quality even higher during Christmas Town, because the quality of just the few shows and walk around characters I saw was top notch, and far beyond what you would normally see at the park.

2. The light displays were really well done. From the mesmerizing lights on the Eiffel Tower to the picturesque displays along Candy Apple Grove synchronized to music, the overall quality was quite high. The park may have fallen short on props and general decorations, but they definitely went all out with the lights, particularly motion lights. Since the park doesn't usually open until 5, it makes sense that they put the most investment into lights.

3. Ice skating on the fountain. I could be a scrooge and complain that they charge extra to skate (and don't even offer a discount for season pass holders), but it was quite a unique experience to ice skate on top of an area that guest can never venture. There is that extra charge, but when you compare it to the cost to skate at a local rink, the price is about the same, yet the ice sheet here is gargantuan (over double the length of a standard rink), though the ice quality was not great even on a 40-degree night.


1. Park hours. This might not be a problem at other parks, but Kings Dominion is 20+ minutes from civilization. Even if you live in the Richmond or Fredericksburg areas, you're looking at a 20-30 minute drive to the park (those in DC area are probably driving 60-90 minutes and maybe more with traffic), so to only have the park open for 5 hours seems like a complete waste. I understand that they want to keep their labor costs in check, and that most guests will want to see the lights, but 5 hours doesn't even allow you enough time to stop for a bite to eat if you spend 90 minutes skating and make just one loop around the park. This was the first year of the event, so it's likely that they wanted to start small, and then allow for room to grow, but it's frustrating to spend half as much time in the car driving to and from the park than you can actually spend in the park.

2. Rides. Any winter event in the mid-Atlantic and northeast US is going to necessitate paring down the rides that can operate due to the colder temperatures. However, I think Kings Dominion pulled back too far. The only coasters running were Rebel Yell (I refuse to call it Racer 75) and Dominator. I understand that the layout of the park makes it hard for them to run other coasters without opening other areas of the park, but I was very underwhelmed with the ride options. At the very least, they could have had Twisted Timbers and Zapple Apple open, which were just beyond the petting zoo and live Nativity. Not even Drop Tower or WindSeeker were available, which could have both given great views of the light displays.

3. Upcharges - Kings Dominion has typically bucked the trend of trying to sell upcharges for everything, but WinterFest is full of them. I already mentioned the ice skating , but they also had $300 igloos (like cabanas), opportunities to participate in shows, the aforementioned petting zoo, cookie decorating, and other participation crafts that cost extra. I don't begrudge the park's ability to profit, but I felt that they really went all out, which is not how you build return business in future years. Upcharges should be something added as events become popular, not part of an inaugural year.

Overall, though, I was pretty impressed with WinterFest. It's still not quite up there with Christmas Town (in its 10th season), but you could tell that Cedar Fair really put a sizable investment into the event that should continue to grow and gain in popularity in years to come.

December 26, 2018 at 2:02 PM

I did Winterfest at California's Great America last year, and despite low expectations it was a pretty impressive event. As usual, the Six Flags events tend to be better for rides, but Cedar Fair's excels in every other way, including decorations, food, and live entertainment. Living in So Cal I'm a bit spoiled when it comes to theme park operating seasons, but I love seeing parks around the country putting on holiday events to extend the season for those living in the area.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Park tickets

Weekly newsletter

New attraction reviews

News archive