KINGS DOMINION isn't all wet yet, but they're working on it. The park opened three new water rides this season and has jazzed up Whitewater Canyon so that you are guaranteed to get soaked. Than which nothing could be nicer on a typical Virginia summer afternoon.
Whitewater Canyon, the park's best-in-the-region river raft ride, now can be calibrated to suit the weather, so that on chilly days riders may come away only lightly sprayed. But as the temperature rises, so does the water speed, and there are a couple of fierce old boys back there in the control room -- I've seen 'em -- who get meaner and meaner as it gets hotter and hotter.
They go into a lather of switch-flipping and valve-turning, and soon Whitewater Canyon becomes such a merry hell of geysers, waves and waterfalls that you forget about getting wet and start worrying about drowning. Now and then a rider will escape drenching by the luck of the draw (and spin and bounce) and begin to gloat aloud as the raft eases up to the end ramp; the crowing turns to sputtering as the fierce old boys hereinabovementioned pull their last trick.
But actually, when it comes to getting wet at Kings Dominion, you don't have to sit there and take it any more. You can schlep on over to the new Racing Rivers section and do it to yourself.
The park has gone into waterslides in a big way. In ascending order of velocity and ferocity, they are:
Splashdown -- A long but straight double slide using two-person rafts, suitable for initiating the timid and for youngsters to take their parents on. It's okay.
Torpedo -- Also uses twofer rafts, but after only a few feet the ramp plunges into an enormous pipe that loops and twists like a boa contrictor with a bellyache. Highly coordinated teen-agers claim they can corkscrew a full 360
up-and-over rotation inside the pipe, and I believe it. A large part of the fun is listening to the screams and moans of the riders floating out of the pipe, like the laments of the damned rising from The Pit. It's mean.
Riptide -- You go it alone on Riptide, and you don't go genteel into this good fright. This is no-frills thrills, in which you cling to this teeny-weeny plastic sled and a sweet young lady, reaching out as though to clap your shoulder bonhomily, pushes you off a three-story precipice. The drop isn't quite vertical, although you'd never know it; the sled actually becomes airborne for an instant.
At the bottom, if all goes right, the sled skips 80 feet across the water and comes to rest high and dry on an Astroturf ramp. In the case of Your Correspondent, all went right, then slewed left, and finally came all topsy turvy as the bow of the sled dug in and I went ankles over appetite with a splash that half-emptied the pool. I went back and did it again and again, and yet again, with the same results in spite of intensive coaching by a pair of park publicists. It was wonderfully scary, exhilarating and painless, and who cares if onlookers started shouting, "Nine-point-five!" "Nine-point-seven!" "Ten-oh!"
Not only is the deceptively daunting double Riptide the best of the slides, it has the shortest lines (which grew shorter still, they tell me, each time I crashed). It's radical.
The enhancement of the water rides has washed away my last minor reservations about the place. In this region, if ya gotta go to a theme park (and if ya got kids, ya gotta), ya gotta go to Kings Dominion. Beside liquid refreshment it has:
The Grizzly, the best old-fashion wooden roller-coaster (not the hairiest old-fashion wooden roller-coaster, which distinction belongs to Wild World's Wild One). The Grizzly rattles, bangs and lurches through a grove of trees, zooming above and below the forest canopy with commendable clatter and commotion. So nicely does it fit into its setting that the covered platform where hundreds of patrons jostle and shout is also home to nesting swallows and flycatchers.
The Shockwave, the best new-fashion steel loop-the-loop roller-coaster. What makes it better than Busch Gardens' Loch Ness Monster is that you ride standing up, which emphasizes the G forces by concentrating them on your feet rather than spreading them out over your whatsit, and enhances the sensation of rotation by magnifying the moment of inertia, or something like that. What it does is whip your head and buckle your knees.
The Berserker, the best really sick-making ride around. It looks like one of those ho-hum rocking pirate boats, only this sucker keeps on going till it rocks around the clock. And not only do you get fully upside-down, it stops, and you hang there, for long, looong moments, while your hat and sunglasses and change and everything rain down on the crowd far, far below. It's not for everybody. It's not for anybody with a lick of sense, but it's great to watch, especially if you happen to have a pair of binoculars along.
Did I forget to tell you to bring your binoculars along? Bring your binoculars along. You can sit on a bench sipping soda while vicariously sharing the private angst and agonies of the people on the rides. Most especially, you can watch the Berserker bunch from a bench on the International Street shopping area, whilst munching your cookies instead of tossing them.
Kings Dominion remains as shady and attractive as ever, with plenty of pleasant places to linger while the kids run riot; only on the busiest days do you get a sense of crowd crush. The cheerful attitude of the staff is an indication of the hands-on style of a management whose senior executives may be seen stooping to pick up litter as they go about the park.
There are 42 rides, 10 of them for tots, and nine shows. "Fascinatin' Rhythm," the headliner production, has nice sets but clunky choreography, no theme and thin talent. The midway arcades still are mostly fun, but there's a lamentable trend toward games of chance rather than skill. Still, there are an awful lot of winners to be seen toting those humongous top-prize stuffed animals.
KING OF THE THEME PARKS
Kings Dominion is open daily through September 7, weekends through the balance of the month, and October 3, 4 & 10. Park opens at 9:30, rides open at 10:30. Closing time is 10 p.m. most nights. Admission of $15.95 covers all rides (under 2 free, over 55, $11.45). On I-95 75 miles south of Washington.