Dr. Mike Robinson, UofL Communication Studies Professor~
Steeped in nostalgic memories and Halloween imagery on my most recent visit to King’s Dominion, I found myself thinking about one of the park’s more unusual rides. A strange mix of log flume and haunted house, the Haunted River was, to my knowledge, the only water ride explicitly dedicated to frightening guests. In retrospect, I admire the ambition of the project. After all, it’s one thing to attempt to scare people in the waning days of autumn but quite another to try to shock people in the height of the summer.
The ride itself was a bit more the result of creative desperation than aspiration when it opened in 1979.Just one year before, the park launched Fantasy Mountain. This giant fake peak became a symbol for the park, but its true novelty was that it contained rides.
Unfortunately, the rides were fairly lame. The Time Shaft was what amusement park aficionados apparently call a “gravitron ride.” It was one of those circular rooms that spun around really fast, sticking its riders to the walls through the wonders of centripetal force.
The loud music and bright lights in the tiny interior cave room seemed designed largely to increase the chances of being sick. Although not physically grueling, fellow ride The Land of Doos also induced nausea through its slow train journey into a saccharine sweet environment designed to impress the littlest of kids.
The real bust in 1978 was Voyage to Atlantis. This flume promised a journey to that lost land. But the initial mystery became a slow drift through some scenes of ruin in a floating car to a relatively high drop at the end. People were not impressed.
In a surprise move, King’s Dominion re-tooled the ride into the scarier Haunted River the next year. Even though it followed the same old track through the mountain, the Haunted River was a much darker affair. Guided by a sinister face projected on the walls, riders were taken through several fearful scenarios: an ancient Egyptian tomb, a crashed pirate ship crewed by singing skeletons, and a creepy bayou perfect for zombies. And then, at the very end as the car rode up the tracks for the big fall, the face warned us in a booming voice that we would fall “down, down, down to our watery grave!”
As I got older, the ride wasn’t quite as scary as it once had been. But then nothing is when one is trying to be grown up and tough. Sadly, the ride also suffered from a kind of general maintenance apathy. Year by year, for example, the rubber cobras that surprisingly burst from urns in the Egyptian room to spray water on riders slowly disintegrated and eventually the pots did not open at all. Sometimes there were new thrills though. One year they put live actors in costumes at various places in the ride to jump out and scare passengers. That certainly shook my out of my adolescent confidence.
Evidently the Haunted River was replaced by the Volcano coaster. The flume and its waterfall pool are gone. Still it was fun to look over at the area and think of the ride’s best trick. Once every now and then, they’d send a car through with skeletons in it. It looked like the ride really had sent someone to their aquatic demise.