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Beastly memories

John Keeter

Kings Island Blog Contributor

This weekend, The Beast at Kings Island will conclude its 40th anniversary celebration. Throughout the 2019 season, the Kings Island blog has taken a look back at the most legendary wooden coaster of all time, from its inception until today. As The Beast prepares for its winter hibernation, I’d like to take a final look back at a unique role The Beast played in my life 20 years ago.

As a child, I became fascinated by roller coasters, thanks in large part to my seasonal visits to parks across the eastern United States. Kings Island was, without a doubt, my favorite park. The problem was, I didn’t live in Cincinnati, I actually lived in Virginia. Now mind you, I had plenty of other parks near my home, including Kings Island’s younger sibling Kings Dominion. However, Kings Island always held the top spot in my heart. I attribute that to one thing: The Beast.

When The Beast premiered, it was a HUGE deal and was one of the first times that a roller coaster gained notorious popularity through the media. It’s what made me first take note of coasters, and sparked my fascination. I distinctly recall the national news reports and special segments on shows featuring what was billed as the “biggest, baddest, fastest, longest wooden coaster on the planet.” Riding it was always the highlight of my trips to Kings Island.

I distinctly remember telling my Mom and Dad over and over that when I got old enough, I was going to run a roller coaster. But by the time my teenage years rolled around, life intervened and I didn’t get the opportunity to fulfill my goal.

Fast forward a decade.

By the end of the millennium, I was well into adulthood and held an established full-time job with a company that kept me busy Monday through Friday, but free on weekends. That job, ironically, had initially transplanted me in Cincinnati. My apartment was a mere 15 minutes from the park, and season after season, I held an annual pass to Kings Island. (Here’s a fun fact – I once outfitted my kitchen with appliances I won in Coney Mall! Yes, my first toaster, blender, coffee pot etc. were all won at the “Quarter Pitch” game!) 

It was during one of my Sunday morning visits to the park (my favorite time to be at KI) that it dawned on me… this could be my opportunity to fulfill the childhood dream. I took the chance, trotted over to HR, and filled out an application to work weekends at Kings Island. Within days, I was invited in for an interview. I am sure the interviewer thought I had lost my mind, especially since the other applicants were roughly 10 years younger than me. During the meeting, I was asked where I wanted to work. Of course I said, “I want to work in rides and I want to work on The Beast!” 

Mind you this was at the end of the 1998 season – August if I recall – so I was coming in as summer was winding down. Unfortunately, The Beast had a very full crew and it was a pretty exclusive group. I was hired on the spot, but instead was assigned a position in rides on Outer Limits: Flight of Fear.

I was already 27 years old by the time I took the job, so I knew I’d be the old guy on the crew. The first step in the process was to be fitted for the crew outfit. Remember when Flight of Fear crew members wore Department of Defense military uniforms? Well I was one of the “lucky” ones that wore that get up, complete with beret. (It was very, very itchy!) I felt ridiculous, but figured it was the price I’d have to pay.

For the next three months, I spent my Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays in “Hanger 18.” I managed to work up to “driving” trains from the unload side of the Flight of Fear station to load side, but never took the full reigns of the main drivers panel. It was simply too late in the season to train. I did, however, manage to spend my shift on the final weekend of operation launching a couple of trains thanks to the supervision of the Area Manager (thanks Josh!). I had a blast, literally, and I laughed every day I was there. (Here’s a fun fact, while working on the ride I learned the park was building Son of Beast a full year before it was announced – I had to keep the secret for months!)

After a long winter, I was pleased to find out I had been asked back for rehire weekend taking place in late winter 1999. This was when all previous associates are invited to a party, reviewed and assigned to their respective rides for the forthcoming season. When my interview time arrived, I was prepared to be assigned back on the Flight of Fear crew. However, as fate would have it, some of The Beast’s previous crew members shifted up in the ranks which left openings. In the course of that short interview, I was granted my weekend position on The Beast. 1999 was a landmark year for not only for me, but because the coaster celebrated its 20th anniversary. 

My first day as a member on The Beast 20th anniversary crew is etched in my mind like it was yesterday.  First of all, I was so excited I could hardly contain myself; second I was surprised how the crew consisted of a lot of people. When you work as a crew member on a ride such as The Beast you have to take tests in order to move up in abilities. I started at the bottom, literally measuring height and then line sorting. As shifts passed over those first few weeks, I then moved to checking lap bars. Eventually I moved up to load side and sending trains. But it was here that I plateaued. You see, since I worked weekends only it was hard for the crew leads to take the time to train me to drive the 7,359-foot long wooden roller coaster. The Beast was ALWAYS busy, there was no downtime especially on weekends. So that made it very difficult for the leads to factor in the time necessary to review, train and test me. Plus, because of the sizable crew where there were often several people already trained to drive. Every single shift I hounded the leads, while watching every single other crew member take their turn driving. It was a real exercise in patience, which I’m not necessarily good at.

Let me explain the task of driver. Literally, it’s the position in the enclosed booth at the front of the station. Whomever is driving monitors the ride via a control panel linked to sensors and infrared cameras throughout the track’s course. They drive trains in and out of the final brake run and into the station by hand, while monitoring guests and other crew members. The driver accounts for empty seats in the train, ensures timely load and dispatch intervals and is responsible for the locking and unlocking of gates and restraints. It may seem simple, but it’s a very important job, especially knowing the safety of thousands of people are in your hands. 

About mid-way through the season, there were some staffing changes that afforded our crew lead the ability to move into area supervision elsewhere in the park. Also, some crew members moved on to other opportunities, so that created an influx of crew replacements. It was during this time that I was asked to step up to drive The Beast. I was ecstatic. Over the course of two weekends, I was trained, tested and shadowed as I took the reigns. The day I finally drove on my own was a monumental one for me, as life came full circle.   

During those weekends, memorable moments ensued. For instance, I drove a few times while my family members rode. I even drove with celebrities on board. It may surprise you to know that famous guests aren’t a rare site a Kings Island. While working on The Beast a bevy of celebrities took a ride including The Backstreet Boys, Jimmy Buffet, Cincinnati Reds players, John Ritter, Montel Williams, 98 Degrees and even Britney Spears.

Let me now take the time to tell you that working on The Beast crew was the hardest physical labor I ever performed. By the end of the season I was in terrific shape, but those first few weekends were an exercise in sore muscles. The trains sit very low in the station – and being 6-foot-3 – checking lap bars required lots of bending and squatting. In addition, most guests never know that the crew was responsible for putting the trains on the track every morning, and taking them off every night. That meant that well before the park opened, the opening crew was there hours before guests literally pushing the trains out of the storage bay uphill onto the main track. Or, late at night after the last guests had ridden, the crew stayed until the wee hours of the morning cycling the trains off and catching them in the storage shed. It was like an all-day exhausting workout.

As I mentioned, The Beast was always busy. After trains were cycled and tested and all safety checks monitored (there’s a very complicated checking process for this) we immediately opened to early morning ride times. Back then, the park offered members of the American Coaster Enthusiasts the first rides. This was a tradition started by the parks former public relations manager, the great Ruth Voss. (The park discontinued this in 2009 due to early entry for passholders.)  So we began the day with a bang.  Because night rides on the coaster are legendary, the closing crew was required to stay until the line was run out. On a very busy night, with a late park closing time, this meant you were still running trains well past midnight after which you still had to put away trains and clean the station. There were times when we were not even walking out of Rivertown until after 1 a.m. and then had to be back at 8 a.m. for the next morning shift.

To top it off, that summer Cincinnati was a part of a heat wave that hit the Midwest and Southern portions of the United States. We averaged temperatures in the mid 90’s to over 100 degrees virtually every weekend from mid-to-late summer. It was grueling on those very hot days and we had to make sure that we and the guests all stayed hydrated. However, as hot as it was during the summer, it also got very cold in the fall. During the final weekend of the season we were actually running The Beast in falling snow and near freezing temperatures. This produced one of my most interesting moments. 

On that very cold day, I rotated into the driver’s position. As I brought a train into the station to unload/reload, the frigid temperatures caused the hydraulics to stick, and the train simply just kept going!  The brakes didn’t raise and the train just passed all the way through the station. Of course this caused the ride to shut down (the coaster’s sensors will shut the ride off if it detects trains are too close to each other) and the ride was down until maintenance could assess and re-set the entire system. I can still feel how red my face got that day when everyone – guests, riders and crew - stared at me in disbelief even though there was nothing I could do. The Wood Coaster Maintenance Crew members got a good laugh at my expense! (FYI – the original skid brakes on the ride have since been replaced removing this potential.)

I relished the times I got to spend talking with many of the Wooden Coaster Maintenance team members before, during and after my shifts. Several of them had begun work at Kings Island when The Beast was built and helped construct the ride. I even got to meet Jeff Gramke, one of the two men who designed and conceived The Beast. They told tales of the initial test runs of the coaster before it ever opened to the public, how it was built and revealed all the little tidbits I always wanted to know. I was in heaven hearing their stories. These guys are heroes in my book.

Another memory included coming on shift in early spring and being told to keep the secret that some props were being hidden in the woods beside the second lift. It turned out the park was preparing for the media announcement of Son of Beast that would soon take place. The props included the large crate the park eventually used at the main entrance of the infamous coaster when it premiered a year later. As a crew member, I was invited to attend the announcement of the ride on May 11, 1999 – what an event that was!

My tenure on The Beast crew lasted just one full season and my last time driving The Beast was on closing day October 31, 1999. The following summer, I relocated away from Cincinnati. However, in the short time I was a part of The Beast, I managed to rack up a huge amount of memories.

I am lucky because I still remain in touch with a few members of the 20th anniversary Beast crew.  They’ve become very successful people with beautiful families of which they should be very proud. I also met a bevy of people outside the crew who were involved at Kings Island in other capacities. These people became extremely good friends of mine and have moved into high profile jobs in the Theme Park Industry – Jeffrey Siebert, David Mandt, Jessica Naderman and the park’s current area manager of digital marketing, Don Helbig.

However, my greatest memories of those days working on The Beast involve the guests. I met people from every walk of life, and from every corner of the planet. I was able to witness people taking their first ride on The Beast and in several cases the first ride on ANY coaster. (Talk about starting big!)  The best memories involve seeing the kids that were so excited to ride. I loved talking with them before and after their rides. Who knows? It’s quite possible that one of those young fans I spoke with during my time on the crew grew up to later become a member of The Beast crew themselves. 

I’ve ridden The Beast countless times in the 20 years that have passed since I was on crew. My perspective of the coaster is far greater now than it was before I ever drove it.  It’s etched in my heart as a great life accomplishment. After all, as the saying goes, once The Beast has you in its grip, it doesn’t let go.

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John Keeter

Kings Island Blog Contributor

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