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Landscaping at Kings Island

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It's not easy being green

John Keeter

Kings Island Blog Contributor

When Kings Island opened in 1972, it was decided that landscaping would serve a large part in telling the park’s story. 

Dick Ammon (a renowned local landscaping expert responsible for works such as the Cincinnati Zoo, Coney Island, Indianapolis Museum of Art and Miami University) and Roy Rector (Kings Island’s first grounds superintendent) were responsible for leading a team that designed the landscape of Kings Island. The team chose to base their design on those of elaborate European Gardens. Over 300,000 plants, trees and shrubs would be needed to do so. Virtually every piece of foliage that could be transplanted from Cincinnati’s Coney Island was used (with the exception of 35 shrubs which were donated to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Research Foundation). This included the famed Gingko trees that lined the Coney midway. A year prior to being moved to KI, the trees had their roots bound so that immediately following the closure of Coney, they could quickly be transplanted to their new home.

As a matter of fact, following Coney Island’s closure on Labor Day 1971, a rush to transplant the landscaping to Kings Island began before winter could set in. The designers knew that if the many trees and shrubs were planted at Kings Island in the fall, they would have time to adjust to their new surroundings. This prevented the landscaping from wilting or drooping during Kings Island’s grand opening when they knew the park would be immortalized by countless photographs. 

When Kings Island premiered in April 1972, the visual artistry of the landscaping was stunning. Before guests even entered the main park, 1,500 Japanese Yew shrubs had been sculpted to spell out “Kings Island” and the gates were surrounded by 45-foot tall weeping Birch trees. 

Inside, the majestic Royal Fountains were adorned with a European “parterre” comprised of over 5,000 additional sculpted Japanese Yew growing among tons of white landscaping rock. There were over 7,300 pink petunias planted under the Eiffel Tower to the adorn holly and ash trees that surrounded it. In September, the flowers were replaced with 6,500 mums just to make the park feel more “fall.” The park was also filled with hundreds of Village Green trees, chosen over Elm to avoid the potential loss due to Dutch Elm Disease. These also complimented the existing tree landscape - of which as much as possible was saved.

One of the park’s original main attractions, the Kings Island and Miami Valley Railroad, was actually re-routed once the landscape designers noted the grand white and red Oak trees adorning that area of the park. Every tree was painstakingly reviewed and marked as either a “keeper” a “trimmer” or a “goner.” In the area that was to become Rivertown, there originally existed a wagon trail dating back to pioneer days. Designers chose to use the trail to form a stream that flowed through the area from each of the ponds down to a man-made “Swan Lake.” Over 100 tons of weathered boulders and moss were used to create the stream, as well as the elaborate landscape that filled the park’s original Antique Car ride attractions. 

Each themed section received its own unique landscape design to help differentiate one area of the park from another. For instance, in Oktoberfest, German and Australian pine trees were coupled with birch to help establish a Bavarian feel. The man-made pond adjacent to Oktoberfest Gardens was filled with hundreds of water lilies. The “Happy Land of Hanna-Barbera” was filled with as much color as designers could incorporate – so thousands of flowers such as begonias and petunias were planted. For the transition from the colors of Hanna-Barbera into the woodsy natural feel of Rivertown, an elaborate arbor was chosen. The arbor was built using aluminum pipe frame erected over a serpentine path and covered with sun-shrouding material. It was then adorned with London-plain trees that would grow to cover the entire path. Meanwhile, other areas of the park were fitted with palm trees, tropical plants and over 10,000 annuals. These required they be dug up and stored in greenhouses during the off season – a painstaking process that still occurs to this day.

There are over 100,000 blooming plants at Kings Island and originally many were used in the design of several of the park’s “unique” landscape features.  n early years, a floral thermometer existed on Coney Mall to help guests know the heat index of the day. It was 33 feet long, seven feet wide and covered with 3,000 Alternanthera plants.  Landscapers added and subtracted plants every two hours based on temperatures supplied to the park by the National Weather Service!  There were countless topiaries scattered throughout the park, and throughout the years beds have been arranged with foliage to resemble park mascots such as the Hanna-Barbera, Nickelodeon and Peanuts characters. 

In 1976, as a part of the Bi-centennial Celebration, the park was adorned with a bevy of red, white and blue flowers. A large hanging moss “Liberty Bell” was added near the Grand Carousel and flower beds were arranged to resemble the American Flag. As a matter of fact, each season, the park celebrates holidays through its landscaping – adding and subtracting seasonal foliage and props suitable to the time of the year. During Winterfest, the park was shrouded with Holly, mistletoe, Christmas trees and poinsettias.

In the 1970’s, a 14,000-pound hanging basket was added next to Swan Lake in Rivertown. At six-feet deep, 10-feet wide it was deemed the largest of its type in the world and was filled with geraniums, asparagus, ferns, vinca vines and 1,600 petunias. Since opening, the park has featured the living “calendar” located adjacent to the Eiffel Tower which is altered to reflect that day’s date. This fun picture taking spot allows guests to document the exact dates of their visit to Kings Island.

Perhaps the most well-remembered landscape feature is Kings Island’s floral clock. When it was built, it was the world’s largest and heaviest clock mechanism. At 23-feet in diameter, the mechanism was designed to rotate large steel clock arms while holding over 2,500 pounds of plants and sod. The clock resides at the park to this day, however not in its original location. When it opened, the floral clock resided where the “International Showplace” was later built. In 1977, when the Showplace opened, the clock was relocated to its current home behind the Eiffel Tower.

The beauty and majesty of Kings Island is owed in large part to a highly dedicated and multi-talented landscaping department who maintain the beauty. Most guests do not realize it, but the park houses four on-site, year-round greenhouses which (during the off season) house and grow the many plants and flowers that will adorn the park.

The current Kings Island greenhouse supervisor, Ivan Booth, first started at the park in 1973 as a part of the landscaping crew and began overseeing the greenhouses in 1977. This marks his 40th year of helping make Kings Island beautiful.

Maintaining the park’s landscaping is not an easy job. And often the landscaper’s hard work at Kings Island goes without guest recognition. Throughout the day, away from public eyes, the team is busy preparing to beautify the park during non-guest hours. Then, after guests exit, or before guests enter the park, they cut grass, they prune, trim and sculpt trees, and water…water…water! During fall months, they even hand pick dead leaves off of trees to minimize the amount falling onto midway paths.

When a new attraction is built, the team works hard to design a landscape to compliment and evoke a feel. They often are given mere days following completion of construction to install the landscaping, and manage to pull it off miraculously.

The next time you visit Kings Island, I encourage you to walk around and enjoy the story told by Mother Nature throughout the park. Take some time view the story the designers and maintainers tell using the Earth’s natural resources. Most importantly, take some time to appreciate the hard work it takes to keep Kings Island looking so incredibly beautiful. 

 

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John Keeter

Kings Island Blog Contributor

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