Part 10: Kings Dominion’s Haunted River: stop having sex in your boat, please
As written in part 1 of this series, in 1978 Kings Dominion stuck its neck out on a major 4-ride attraction called “The Lost World” that was gigantic, sprawling and cost a bloody fortune. The novelty was the sheer scope of the estimated $25 million project, not necessarily the rides herein – which included the Land Of Dooz mine train ride, Mt. Kilimanjaro, The Time Shaft, and possibly the favorite of the four, the Voyage to Atlantis, a short time later to become the Haunted River.
(See location pic above, thanks to FlightofFearGuy.)
Built by Arrow Dynamics, Taft’s theming of the Voyage to Atlantis opened for the 1979 season as a weird hodge-podge hybrid of thrills and family adventure with a strong dose of what-the-hell-was-that. Although with the word “Atlantis” one may assume it was an underwater city theme, it came across instead as a lost scene from Godzilla Vs Megalon, with skeletons inside clear plastic bubbles and what appeared to be a shipwreck of some sort.
Luckily the following year Taft came to its senses and realized the theming was a dud, so they extensively re-manufactured the ride to what became famous as a boat ride through the “Haunted River,” opening in 1980.
Unlike its mentally-challenged upstairs neighbor, Smurf Mountain, the Haunted River was a fairly straightforward concept: Guests entered 6-person grey fiberglass boats in the station, then were carried by a series of horizontal conveyors into a gently-flowing concrete waterway about 50 inches wide flowing with about 16 inches of water. They entered the tunnel into pitch blackness, made a sharp right U-turn then unexpectedly dropped down a “mini-drop,” which carried them into the first of three major themed scenes.
Greeting travelers as they entered the first scene and again at the top of the chain lift at the end was a giant face, projected via an endless film loop onto a white plastic face-shape mold that gave it a pretty scary 3-D effect. Entering the “fish” scene the face mugged and said, “Welcome to the Haunted River …,” then something about keeping your arms and hands inside your boat at all times, because “…this is … the Piranha River! Ha ha ha!”
The “Piranha river” was a letdown – glow-in-the-dark fish dangled from wires, and a couple swam in circles on flat black armatures, suggesting a descent far underwater, where “unexpected terrors await, blah blah blah.” Nothing to see here, move along please.
Next up was the Egyptian scene, with moaning mummies and an almost-undead reclining Cleopatra being fanned by skeletons with palm fronds. Keep going, it gets better.
Leaving the Egyptian scene the guests drifted into what was considered by this writer as the most impressively constructed scene, the ghost pirate shipwreck scene. Taft spared no expense with theming in this scene – over a dozen skeletons animated by pneumatic servo motors and dressed in impressive pirate gear sang, hoisted mugs of grog and tortured other skeletons around a massive dinner table centerpiece. The huge chandelier hanging over the pirate’s table came from Richmond’s Hotel Jefferson.
The ship itself was gigantic, almost full size, wrecked into the concrete wall of the mountain and listing port. It was a Disney-quality scene, with booming sound and dramatic lighting, and left a great impression on the riders, especially when all the animation was working.
(Side note: A few of the skeletons from the pirate scene were recycled and can be seen at the exit of Volcano down in the pit prior to entering the gift shop.)
The animation in this watery black hole presented many challenges: Because of the wetness, the cylinders, electronic actuators and air lines rusted and often seized up. One Energy & Automation mechanic named Larry literally made a career inside the mountain constantly repairing the water-damaged animatronic devices and photo cells.
Water also frequently presented a problem inside the boats. A one-way rubber flipper valve in the bottom rear of the boats was supposed to let water out only, but if it stopped up (due to a variety of flotsam, including cups, napkins, discarded sanitary napkins, various articles of clothing up to and including women’s underwear) then the water had nowhere to go, and eventually would fill the boat and stop it in the ride, forcing a shut down and evacuation.
The clothing and sanitary napkin issue needs to be addressed at this point: it seemed that being inside a slow pitch-dark tunnel ride gave some guests the idea that it was okay to change clothes, perform female hygiene, pee off the side of the boat or even indulge in sexual activity, especially if only two lovebirds were in a single boat by themselves. What none of these people realized, however, that almost every foot of this ride was monitored by infrared cameras (mounted near the ceiling and indicated by a red light) that showed all the activity in crystal clear normal black and white contrast on a bank of monitors inside a little room in the mountain rear maintenance area called the “TV room.”
Inside the air-conditioned TV room a lone seasonal operator kicked back and watched the monitors for carnal activity, or people getting out of their boat and going back to another one, or clothes changing or any other prohibited activity. Bingo – oral sex in boat 24! The operator flipped the loudspeaker to that area and barked into the microphone such banal gems as “get back in your boat, please,” or “Sit up in your boat please.” It was hilarious to witness some rule-breaker jerked back into compliance by a booming voice out of nowhere, telling them – and them alone – to behave.
Guidelines prohibited the TV room operators from saying “stop peeing out of your boat” or “stop having sex in your boat please.”
Exiting the shipwreck scene the boat then drifted into the graveyard scene. Also a spooky and well-themed scene, riders rode past tombstones swaying back and forth, banging cemetery gates, an opening and closing coffin with glowing red eyes peering out, and a crazy cat lady rocking in a rocking chair on the left to strobes and thunder sound effects.
One of the best sets was an old cabin, set high up on the right among concrete trees dripping with authentic Spanish moss – it was a scene right out of a 1930s Universal horror film set in the Louisiana bayou. An old woman mannequin sat on the porch, but the spookiest was a man who seemed to be looking out the cabin window. With the excellent red and blue lighting and weird angle from the boat, it was a highly effective scene and one that stayed with the riders.
Once out of the graveyard scene the boat made one more turn and ran up on a conveyor called the “feeder belt” and stopped, right at the foot of a 43-ft chain lift. This was the last hurrah. Once the boat ahead cleared an electronic photo-eye at the top, the feeder belt activated and sent the next boat onto the clanking chain. If the flipper on the boat was working correctly, any water inside the boat would run out while going up the lift hill. If not, the guests had to sit with their feet up on the backrest in front of them – especially if the water got up to the seats.
At the top that spooky face appeared one last time, warning riders to stay seated and keep their arms and hands inside the boat because they were heading into certain death or something like that. Alert riders at this point as they started down the giant splash could see a rubber mat bolted to the tunnel exit, just to make sure no wiseacres got it in their heads to stand up at that point. A true horror on this ride would have been a boat arriving in the station and the next group seeing someone with the top of their head grinded away from standing while going down the hill.
“Please exit to your left and enjoy the rest of your day. Next group hop in quickly please.”
Morning inspection and maintenance on the Haunted River was not complicated, especially when compared to the maintenance time-sucker Smurf Mountain that awaited inspection next like a sleeping retarded giant in the top bunk. With the pumps turned off, mechanics walked the entire ride, checking the trough, nylon bolted to the floor (to protect the chain dogs under the boats in the event of a drop in water level due to a power failure) and the guide rails on both sides of the trough. In 1988 three emergency water release gates were installed to more quickly drain the ride in the event of an emergency. If an operator hit the “E-Stop” (emergency stop button) the pneumatic gates raised and dumped the water into an auxiliary reservoir, beside the main reservoir located under the chain lift basically underneath the mountain.
The tops of the boats were checked to make sure the little hand grips were tight and none were full of water. The feeder belt and lift chain was jogged and inspected for wear (and possibly tangled underwear) and the guide rails at the bottom of the splashdown were inspected.
Inside the station the drive units for the station conveyors were inside a cement pit under the loading platform. They ran via a standard air-operated clutch and brake assembly, with electronic photo-eyes automatically spacing stopping the boats to avoid collisions in the station.
Every winter all 36 boats were taken out and the bottoms, running wheels and guide wheels inspected and changed as necessary.
Today there can be seen archeological remnants of the old Haunted River. The last Q-house for Volcano was originally the upstairs Q-house for HR. The former splashdown and concrete runout guides can be seen just outside the Volcano loading area, running underneath the exit from the Volcano gift shop.
You can read about the Mountain construction and of the other rides inside in Part 1 and in Part 4.