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Lions and tigers and baboons! Oh My! 

John Keeter

John M. Keeter first attended Kings Island 35 years ago when “The Bat” was originally taking flight.  The awe of that first visit and later rides on “The Beast” (Still his favorite Kings Island attraction) triggered his enduring love of the park.  A picture of a flooded Cincinnati’s Coney Island found in a grade school library book triggered his quest to learn all he could of Kings Island’s beginning.   An avid roller coaster enthusiast, he’s ridden over 400 different coasters.  He resides in Louisville, KY and maintains “Sit on It”, a Facebook Page dedicated to remembering the Kings Island of our past, as well as looking forward to the Kings Island of our future.  It can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/SitonItKI/

Perhaps the most unique attraction at Kings Island was the Safari Monorail. Lasting 20 seasons, the park’s immensely popular attraction gave millions of guests the chance to see wild animals up close. However this attraction was no zoo – here the humans were the ones enclosed while the animals roamed around.

In 1967, Lion Country Safari Inc. introduced their first “drive-through” wild animal park in Palm Beach Florida (which still operates to this day). The success led them to open similar versions in Texas, California and Georgia. Around that same time, Taft Broadcasting was busy opening Kings Island and preparing to build KI’s sister park “Kings Dominion” in Virginia. Taft park executives recognized the potential the Lion Country Safari had as a headline attraction. So, in 1974 (the park’s third season of operation) Taft Parks partnered with “Lion Country Safari” to open a version to both locations (Kings Dominion’s safari would also open in 1974, a year prior to rest of the park).

Kings Parks needed the attraction to support large numbers of guests through the animal exhibits in a safe, organized and comfortable manner. They did not want to replicate the “drive through” aspect the other Lion Country Safari locations used. They also wanted to incorporate an educational and informational aspect to the safari. So for the Kings Parks versions, it was decided guests would be navigated through the preserve in monorails while listening to a live narration during the journey.

Over 100 acres of land on the north side of the park (the back side of the Racer) were cleared and prepped to create the preserve that would house the animals.  Two miles of track were strategically routed so most sections would travel at ground level, but portions would rise well above deepened terrain. Each area of the course was designed so that animals would be no more than 125 feet away from the monorail at any given time. 

The “monorail” was actually a series of seven electric trains provided by Universal Mobility in Utah. It was a “Type II Tourister” train which used controls and drive systems provided by VonRoll of Switzerland (VonRoll had previously built Coney Island’s/Kings Island’s skyride). The trains operated on rubber tires, and reached a maximum speed of 6.5 miles per hour. They were fueled by an electric charge line through a center rail along the track which served the dual purpose of keeping animals from crossing. Each train had eight 12-passenger cars outfitted with air conditioning for the summer, and heat for the winter. The windows were tinted to allow a non-sun obstructed view while two ride attendants – a driver and a narrator – navigated the vehicles. At any given time, over 650 guests could enjoy the attraction simultaneously and the attraction had a capacity of 22,000 guests per day.

The monorail’s station, originally called “Kenya Safari,” was built as the centerpiece of an all-new themed section located in the northwest area of the park. The area would include Kafe Kilimanjaro (restaurant), Congo Curio (gift shop), and Nairobi Nursery Hut. There was also a man-made lagoon shaped to vaguely resemble a lion cub’s head when viewed from the Eiffel Tower. The lagoon contained four small islands of exotic birds, reptiles and monkeys. The entire themed area including the monorail was originally called “Lion Country Safari.”

The wildlife area of the safari monorail was enclosed by two perimeter fences – a 12-foot outer and a six-foot inner – to prevent any animals from finding their way out.  The course was divided as to prevent opposing animals from attacking creatures of another sort, and various sections were also secured by additional and taller fencing. For the animal’s comfort, heat and humidity controlled barns were built to aid during cold winter months. For grazing, grounds were seeded with bluegrass, alfalfa and hay. A complete zoological staff hired and managed by Lion Country Safari Inc. was on hand, and the park built an on-site animal hospital and a nursery to house newborns. The animals were patrolled by a team of 14 on-site rangers who fed and monitored their health while tending to the preserve. They also assisted by keeping an eye on guests and routinely stepped in when a grazing animal decided to take a siesta on the monorail’s track – causing the monorail to stop during its 20-25 minute journey.

In spring of 1974, the inhabitants began to arrive. Travelers along the I-71 corridor were occasionally delighted to see trailers carrying elephants, zebra or giraffes to their new home at Kings Island. Most animals came as the young off-spring from other Lion Country Safari attractions located in North America. Over 250 animals became a part of the monorail attraction in its first season including: lions, elephants, zebra, antelope, giraffes, hippos, ostrich and buffalo. There were also 25 white rhino of which 22 were purchased in, and flown from South Africa. The herd, weighing a collective 35 tons, arrived at the Cincinnati airport in the wee morning hours of April 25th 1974. They were then secretly transported 30 miles up the interstate to their new home. Finally, there were an additional 100 tropical birds, reptiles and monkeys added to the lagoon area.

The entire attraction came with a hefty price tag. Why, just the herd of rhino’s cost $42,000. Overall, it cost $5.5 million to add the area to the park – that’s equivalent to nearly $32 million today! Initially, the attraction was free to paid guests; however, in later seasons the monorail attraction became the first in the park to require an additional fee. It opened to the public May 25, 1974 and guests were in awe. Never had people been able to come so close to so many creatures before. Kings Island’s general manger Edward J McHale explained to the press, “The secret to our safari adventure is that the guests are in the cages, while the animals roam free.”

The attraction was originally intended to operate year-round. However, as the first season wore on, it became apparent to the park and keepers that operating throughout the calendar year would not be prudent. The first year it operated on a restricted schedule during the fall, but closed during the winter. In later seasons it operated only with the park.

The attraction’s first bit of notoriety came very early in its first season when a 135-pound lioness escaped her barriers on June 25. While an electric current normally prevented the lions from accessing the track, a storm-related power outage allowed her to maneuver outside of her compound. Still secured by the outer perimeter fence, she was caught two days later and contained. Some of the animals that were first introduced to the safari were “troublemakers” who didn’t get along well with other inhabitants at their former homes. So they were transplanted to other Lion Country locations and behaviors were not always the best. Given that, and the fact that most animals arrived when they were very young, the park did not expect to see any offspring for quite some time. However, in the very first season, the inhabitants had become comfortable enough with their surroundings (and mates) that the zebra, antelope, sheep all reproduced - not to mention the lions which bore 24 cubs that first year!

In 1975, the park added a new amphitheater featuring an exotic bird show called “Fowl Play” where parrots and macaws performed their tricks for guests. As seasons progressed, routine births populated the safari attraction while new species were purchased and introduced. Lion cubs like “Schnoz” and tiger cubs like “Rosebud” (both born in 1976) delighted guests and became unofficial mascots for the park featuring in Kings Island ads and memorabilia. Bengal tigers, leopards, cheetahs, zebu, buck, nigali, pelicans, tortoise, geese, buzzards, all found a home at Kings Island in coming seasons.

In the spring of 1976, Kings Island acquired 50 baboons from the International Animal Exchange to be added as a part of the attraction. However on April 8, all 50 of the baboons escaped their designated enclosure. The escape became national news and it took 24 days to recover the baboons. The ordeal was frustrating and embarrassing the park. So upon capture, the baboons were promptly returned to the Animal Exchange. Only two remained at Kings Island that season in a highly secured cage with a sign declaring “These are two of the baboons that made monkeys out of us!” 

Also in July of that season, a horrible black cloud was cast over the park when ranger John McCann was mauled by a lion after leaving his jeep unarmed. A series of mistakes and safety missteps led to his death at the hands of the highly territorial animals. It was a devastating time for his family, the park and fellow rangers.  A lengthy and arduous state investigation and an onslaught of bad publicity shrouded the park for months. 

Due to the baboon escape and lion mauling, Kings Island promptly terminated the contract with Lion Country Safari Inc. in 1976. The park dropped the word “lion” from the attraction and themed area and re-branded it “Wild Animal Safari.” They also hired successful and experienced Zoologist Bob Reece as the new director.  He was in charge of the welfare of 450 animals of 75 different species at the park, a position he held for the next 15 years. 

Prompted by a need to add a thrill ride to the area, Wild Animal Safari became the home of the park’s very first “looping” coaster “The Screamin Demon” in 1977.  That very same spring, the park was delighted when six-year old “Jingles the Giraffe” gave birth to her first calf (just two years later she would birth her second). The 1978 season saw the addition of 17 blackfoot penguins to the exotic bird collection. However, two enterprising penguins were able to find escape and ended up nearly 10 miles away. In January of 1979, the park suffered the loss of five African antelope when an electrical fire burned an animal barn to the ground at a cost of over $65,000. Luckily, most of the animals that shared the enclosure were able to escape unharmed.

In 1981, under Bob Reece’s leadership, the Cincinnati Wildlife Research Federation was formed as a partnership between Kings Island, the Cincinnati Zoo and the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. The team first received national attention when they implanted a Bengal Tiger Embryo in a lioness. Unfortunately the test was not successful, but just a few years later in 1984, an antelope ultimately bore an eland from an implanted embryo. This signified a move to establish the safari as an animal refuge instead of just a zoological amusement attraction. The foundation continues to this day under the name CREW – Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife.

Unfortunately, in 1982 the park suffered yet another lion attack when a handler accidentally left a gate open while tending to a cage. The keeper was severely mauled, but escaped to the roof of the compound surviving. After this, it was required all handlers carry loaded guns on their person for protection. Fortunately no other life-threatening incidents occurred. That same season, the park built the 10,000 Timberwolf Amphitheater outdoor concert venue in a plot of land behind the Screamin Demon. The facility replaced their constricted “Stadium of the Stars” and would play host to major musical acts for years. With the addition of Timberwolf, the park sought to differentiate the monorail attraction from the themed section so they re-named it “Wild Animal Habitat.” The park also chose to re-brand the themed area “Adventure Village” in preparation for the addition of the second thrill ride to the area. “King Cobra,” a standup looping roller coaster opened in 1984 (it lasted through the 2001 season). The “Adventure Village” area would retain this name for 17 seasons until it was overhauled as “Action Zone” in 1998.

By the mid 1980’s, the aging “Screamin Demon” had become antiquated by modern coaster standards, so the park closed and replaced it with “Amazon Falls” in 1988. This was a spill-water shoot-the-chutes attraction that operates currently as “Congo Falls.” This change also prompted the removal of the monkey and bird islands that were housed beneath the “Screamin Demon.” As the 1990’s approached, interest in the monorail began to diminish while costs to maintain the animals escalated. By the late 1980’s the food bill for the animals alone was nearing $200,000 annually. To offset the cost, the park had to increase the additional ticket price for the monorail, thus deterring more guests. 

By 1989, Kings Island had partnered with eight other zoos including Cincinnati and Dayton to develop the “International Center for the Preservation of Wild Animals.” The facility, meant as a refuge and breeding ground for endangered African wild animals, was granted land near Zanesville Ohio in Muskingum County, Ohio. The facility, through grants, would eventually become a commercial enterprise offering animal excursions and safaris offsetting its research costs. Several animals from the Kings Island Habitat were donated to the facility. It eventually became known as “The Wilds” and in 1992, Bob Reece left his position as Kings Island’s director of Kings Island’s Wild Animal Habitat to serve as executive director. That very same year, the park came under heavy criticism for the sudden death of one of the elephants named “Mojo.” Animal rights activists charged the park with cruelty to the animals, which was ultimately deemed unfounded, but it cast yet another dark cloud over the Habitat.

Seeing the need for another thrill ride in the area, Kings Island (by now under the helm of Cincinnati businessman Carl Lindner) decided to install a new coaster for the 1993 season. They chose to add a suspended coaster to the farthest corner of the “Adventure Village” section behind the monorail station and adjacent to the safari. The ride was designed by Arrow Dynamics, who just 12 years earlier had built the original prototype (and failed) suspended coaster “The Bat” in Coney Mall.  But in August of 1992 Paramount Studios, who had held an interest in the park since its inception, purchased the controlling interest in the park with the intent to re-brand it to a movie-themed park. Already under contract with Arrow, “Paramount’s Kings Island” proceeded with the coaster, but quickly chose to call it “Top Gun” forsaking the previous animal theme suggestions.

By the time Paramount took the helm of Kings Island, the writing was on the wall for the Wild Animal Habitat and monorail. It operated under Paramount ownership for just one season, and on November 2, 1993, park officials announced the Wild Animal Habitat would be removed prior to the 1994 season. The park then began a two-year process of re-homing and donating the 300 animals that still resided at the park. Quietly, the animals were sent to zoos and handlers, while some others were donated to “The Wilds.”

Originally, Paramount considered re-branding the monorail excursion as a “back-lot movie experience” similar to those found at parks like Universal Studios. The proposed “Movie Rail!” would have taken guests along re-created sets and movie scenes from famous Paramount movies. However, the attraction never made it past the proposal stage. The monorail was removed and station demolished prior to the 1994 season. After the safari’s closure the monorail trains remained on property for four years until they were purchased by “Jungle Jim’s International Market” in Fairfield Ohio for $1. Those curious to see the old Kings Island Safari Monorail trains need only pay a visit to the store where they were installed (but do not operate).

The land left vacant from the removal of the monorail station became home to the “Xtreme Skyfler” attraction in 1995. The area operated as “Adventure Village” for five more years until the section was gutted and re-branded as “Action Zone.” For this overhaul in 1999, all traces of the former “jungle” theming were removed.  “Drop Tower” (originally called Drop Zone), “Invertigo” (originally called Face/Off), “Thunder Alley” (originally called XS Raceway) and eventually “Son of Beast” were added to the new themed area.  The large 100-acre plot of land on which the monorail’s preserve existed became the home to attractions such as “Flight of Fear”, “Firehawk”, “Son of Beast” and now “Banshee.”

The Kings Island Animal Safari had quite the career while at the park. In its life, it saw 15 million riders and introduced countless people to the wonders of exotic animals. It remains one of the most talked about, and fondly remembered of all attractions to ever grace Kings Island.

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John Keeter

John M. Keeter first attended Kings Island 35 years ago when “The Bat” was originally taking flight.  The awe of that first visit and later rides on “The Beast” (Still his favorite Kings Island attraction) triggered his enduring love of the park.  A picture of a flooded Cincinnati’s Coney Island found in a grade school library book triggered his quest to learn all he could of Kings Island’s beginning.   An avid roller coaster enthusiast, he’s ridden over 400 different coasters.  He resides in Louisville, KY and maintains “Sit on It”, a Facebook Page dedicated to remembering the Kings Island of our past, as well as looking forward to the Kings Island of our future.  It can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/SitonItKI/

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