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20 years in the Amusement industry

Part 28: A Volcano brings down a grand old lady

Kings Dominion’s iconic Mountain has been taken down by a merciless volcano.

She was a 40-year-old innocent but doddering victim of a brash upstart half her age. It’s a shame, but age, financial circumstances and public opinion are harsh bedfellows. It wasn’t her fault, it’s just the way things go.

As reported in various other entries in this blog, in 1978 Kings Dominion plunked down an estimated $25 million on a sprawling 4-ride attraction called “The Lost World.” The novelty was the enormous scope of the project, not necessarily the rides herein – which included the Land Of Dooz mine train ride (later becoming Smurf Mountain), 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.

Many, including this writer, felt those rides in any other setting, were actually duds. Elsewhere in the park they would have endured years of cheery PR but low ridership before a wrecking ball would clear them out and everyone would pretend they were never there. But inside that Mountain they became unique, and somehow more fun and memorable because they were part of something much larger.

And that was the Mountain.

The Mountain was the star. She would have been the huge, overweight aunt that everyone loved. Guests sometimes pointed and asked if she was real. And she wasn’t real; she was a proud, 165-ft tall groaning grey behemoth built not of earth and stone but of rebar, I-beams, wire mesh and sprayed-on concrete. She was a prop, a Hollywood backlot.

The original rides were entered and exited by some of the longest and most perilous entries in theme park history. They guided clueless guests endlessly through dimly-lit non-ADA compliant corridors (how many scraped faces and bleeding heads were treated at first aid those first years?), through bubble gum-festooned passageways, around bony stalactites, across a rope bridge (but only for a summer – after some of the ropes dry-rotted and broke no one was willing to venture out and fix them), through mammoth, winding Q-lines, where fights sometimes broke out after some guy would not take any more of some jerk calling him asshole after five or six passes.

Before Volcano construction, the Mountain held many secrets, seen only by a handful of adventurous (and rule-breaking) ride operators and maintenance men who dared venture through her dark, dirty cement bowels. It was like exploring Carlsbad Caverns, full of pitch-black passages, unexpected rooms, sudden staircases and one tunnel that could only be traversed on hands and knees. Experienced employees found where they could step through a low doorway into a certain scene in either the Haunted River or Smurf Mountain, startle a few guests, then step out through another door into yet another scene.

A flashlight was a necessity; many caverns were totally devoid of any light, 24 hours per day, and besides, you would oftentimes scare up a possum, raccoon or snake.

In the dead center of the Mountain was the crown jewel; the holy grail, accessed only by darting and ducking through numerous flat-black painted doors and secret pathways by dancing flashlight beams. It was a steel ladder that stretched straight up 165-feet to the very top of the Mountain. It was a daunting and very illegal climb in the dark, broken halfway up by dramatic, noirish light breaks in the concrete skin. Every 50 feet there was a much-needed rest platform, intended not just for resting the legs of the rule-breaking climber, but to give his hands a break, as the ladder rungs were coated with a granular, skin-sanding coating of sprayed-on concrete left from construction days.

After a final rest on the third platform, called “base camp Charlie” and almost 150 feet up from a dirt ground you could not even see in the black morass underneath you, you finally reached the very top, where you could have planted a flag, but more realistically sat triumphant and exhausted among six of the biggest exhaust turbines ever seen in central Virginia.

But I never saw them working – it’s a good thing, they would have sucked any ladder climber right off the platform. And it was a long, long way down.

In addition, the casual spelunker (or randy ride operators on lunch break looking for a secret tryst away from the prying infrared eyes that dotted the interior and saw all) would find the inside of the Mountain to be a time capsule from the construction days of the late 1970s. In 1985 one ride operations manager found a 1977 Penthouse magazine outside the Land of Dooz train maintenance room, its cover coated with sprayed-on concrete. Beer can finds were legendary, including Billy Beer, PBR, Weidemann’s and other cheap 1970-era staples that may explain why so many of the construction guys were fired early on. The entire structure, in fact, rested on a bed of cigarette butts.

By the late 1980s the Mountain was showing her age, and began wheezing and leaking fluids. Excessive Time Shaft vomit washed away with a firehose eventually rotted the steel structural legs underneath, necessitating a huge repair. The Haunted River reservoir, located underneath the chain lift toward the end of the ride, began leaking and a second overflow reservoir had to be built. The water was impossible to keep clean, and it was common to remove from the trash filters underwear, torn articles of clothing, condoms, pint liquor bottles and many, many female sanitary items. Emergency exit procedures became problematic, as a power failure stranded rider in 100% blackness, causing panic attacks.

The animation in the Haunted River and Smurf Mountain became impossible to keep working because of the excessive moisture. Air lines rotted and broke, valves and filters clogged, photo sensors and armatures rusted. Mold was everywhere. Technicians – especially one named Jerry – practically lived inside that “pneumonia hole” as it was called but still could not keep up.

Despite years of patching, the call was finally made to rip out the old and bring in the new. With the construction of Volcano, the concrete structure stopped playing a personally integral role in the enjoyment of a ride and became only decorative window dressing. Sure, some of the old Q-lines were utilized, and the station was adapted from the old Haunted River station, but the essential human interaction with the concrete and steel skeleton was now gone. No more would people scrape their faces in a low, poorly-lit tunnel or deposit their gum on a wall before entering the Time Shaft and suddenly deciding “no way am I riding that goddamn thing.” And for those who did reluctantly decide to ride, no more would their half-digested Victoria Pizza corn dog add to the thousands of others that were washed out of sight, out of mind through a slot in the floor just to eventually contribute to a startling repair bill.

No more would a ride (Haunted River) provide a much-needed opportunity for patrons to relax, try to pee, perform some personal hygiene or attempt oral sex in a watery, dark environment, despite the scary warnings delivered by a sometimes-malfunctioning filmed face and the secret cameras, watched by an operator in a tiny, smelly TV room. No more would a Mine Train avoid a derailment due to poor engineering, then exit the Mountain and re-enter the station, with no one laughing or smiling but staring straight ahead, wondering what the hell that was supposed to be about.

With Volcano, the personal interaction with that grand old cement lady was gone, and she was relegated to a sad and lonely nursing home status, to be visited and looked at, but not hugged or embraced. But she stood there, proud and nostalgic, recalling her glory days, until 2019, when she knocked back a Billy, smoked one more Winston, and closed her eyes one final time as the guys with sledge hammers and wrecking bars surrounded her.

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