Coney Island was the amusement park in the Cincinnati area in the 1960s. It had the dubious slogan of being “America`s Finest Amusement Park.” But the seeds of change were in the wings.
The park had grown tremendously from the original 19.729 acres that James Parker had purchased for $2,500 in 1866, which he eventually turned into a picnic grove before selling the park to William F. McIntyre in 1886, who officially opened Coney Island on June 21st, 1886. By 1926, the amusement resort had grown to 139.22 acres. By the 1960s, it contained approximately 165 acres.
In 1924, Rud Hynicka and George F. Schott purchased the park. This began a forty five year family ownership of the park from John Winslow Hubbard. After Rud Hynicka died in 1927 of a heart attack, George F. Schott ran the park until his sudden death on July 25, 1935 when meeting with some business men in Moonlite Gardens after the park had closed for the night. Edward Schoot, George`s son, took over control of the park. Schott died in 1962, and had worked as president of Coney Island from 1935 until his death. Upon his death, Ralph Wachs, his son in law, took over the helm at Coney Island. Wachs had worked several years hand in hand with Edward Schott so that the transition to Wachs would proceed smoothly. Eventually, Ralph Wachs` son, Gary would begin working at the park, and assisting in running the park.
In the 1960s, the primary mode of transportation to the park was by car and busses. The long lineage of steam ships that had transported visitors from downtown Cincinnati was essentially discontinued after the Island Queen blew up in Pittsburgh in September of 1947. At one point in time, excursion boats such as the Island Queen brought as many as 1/3 of Coney`s customers to the park. Because of the increasing amount of visitors who visited Coney by car, more space was needed for parking lots. There was a lack of room to grow due to the Ohio River to the south, the Coney Island Race track (now Riverdowns) to the east, and the southern Ohio hills to the north.
Additionally, as the amusement rides became more complex, the constant spring flooding became more of a burden on the park. Both financially and in terms of the amount of time that was required to prepare the park for visitors in the spring after a flood. In 1964, Gary Wachs had estimated that it would cost $20 million to reproduce/relocated Coney Island. And Sunlite Pool would cost $2 million to relocate, when it was constructed in 1925, it had cost only $400,000. To drive home the trouble that the close proximity to the Ohio River caused, the Ohio flooded in 1964, and crested at 66’, fourteen feet above flood stage. The 1964 flood would end up costing Coney more than $150,000 in clean up and repair costs. Several years later, Gary Wachs would place a picture in his office of the park during the 1964 flood with the caption, “Kings Island was conceived here.”
In 1968, Disney actor Fess Parker, who played Davy Crockett, announced plans to build Frontier Worlds in Northern Kentucky. Frontier Worlds was to be a brand new theme park, located in Boone County, near where Interstate 71 and 75 split. The project was to cost more than $100 million and be financed by Parker and several other investors. The park was to occupy 180 acres, and 1,500 acres had been optioned. Ironically, Fess Parker had appeared at Coney Island as Davy Crockett on June 16th, 1955.
Suddenly, Coney faced the very real threat of major competition of a modern, brand new theme park, right in their backyard. Immediately after the Parker announcement, Gary Wachs began looking into moving Coney to a new location to compete. But Coney did not have the financial resources or investors to be able to build a new park to compete with Parker`s project. Gary mentioned to the Taft Broadcasting about teaming up with Coney to build a new theme park. Gary Wachs had established contacts with Taft Broadcasting while working on WKRC concerts at Coney.
Taft Broadcasting traces its roots back to April 25, 1840 when the first edition of Cincinnati`s first daily newspaper The Spirit of the Times was issued. This paper was the forerunner of Charles P Taft`s Cincinnait Times-Star whose twentieth century offspring, Radio Cincinnati, Inc, eventually grew into Taft Broadcasting.
Taft Broadcasting`s immediate birth was on August 17, 1939 when the Times Star headed by Hulbert Taft, Sr. (1877-1959) purchased CBS affiliated WKRC Radio with studios in the Alms Hotel on East Fifth street. After CBS changed its affiliation, WKRC struggled and the newspaper covered its losses. Ruth Lyons was program director before starting her own radio program. And Waite Hoyt announced Reds games. A separate company, Radio Cincinnati was formed in 1948 with Hulbert Taft, Jr. (1906-1967) the following year the company bought land in Mt. Auburn and built a television studio. On September 25, 1949, Cincinnati got its first live network telecast, a football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants. During the 1950`s Radio Cincinnati purchased other radio and television stations. In 1954, WKRC boosted its signal to 316,000 watts, the federal limit. WKRC was now underwriting the losses of the Times-Star. The newspaper was sold to the Cincinnati Post in 1959 and on July 2, the Taft Broadcasting Company was incorporated. In 1966, Taft acquired Hanna Barbera, the world`s largest animation studio creating television cartoons. Taft was interested in utilizing an amusement park to showcase their new library of Hanna Barbera cartoons in a similar manner to what Disney had done at his Disney Land park.
In March of 1969, it was announced that Taft Broadcasting had purchased Coney Island in exchange for 174,957 shares of Taft stock, which made the acquisition worth approximately $6.5 million. Both Ralph and Gary Wachs continued in their management positions at the park. In July of 1969, it was announced that Taft had secured 1,600 acres of land on either side of Interstate 71 in Warren County, just outside of Kings Mills, twenty miles north of Cincinnati. The land was purchased for $3.2 million, or approximately $2,000 per acre, from realtor George Henkle and individual farmers. Today, Kings Island and its parent company Cedar Fair owns 712 of those original acres, with the park currently sitting on about 365 of those acres. Many of the rides from Coney would end up being relocated to Kings Island, and a themed section of Kings Island would even be modeled after Coney`s mall. Unfortunately, none of the wooden coasters that were located at Sunlite Pool were moved to Kings Island, and Sunlite Pool was not recreated at Kings Island. However, Kings Island did include the Racer, a wooden coaster designed by John Allen and PTC, which made Kings Island among the first major new theme parks to include a wooden coaster in its ride lineup.
Ground was broken on June 15, 1970. In November of that same year, Kings Island was announced as the name of the new park. Management had held a contest to name the new park and thousands of Cincinnatians took part in the contest. Some other proposed names of the park were Twin Oaks, and Kings Mills Park. Kings Island was chosen because it related the name of the park to its new location in Kings Mills, and it also paid homage to Coney Island. In 1971, Parker abandoned his idea to build a park in Kentucky because of the developing Kings Island.
The final season for Coney was in 1971, and the park attracted a record 2.75-million visitors that season. Coney Island would close on Labor Day weekend of that year. The Delta Queen pulled away playing “Good Bye, My Coney Island Baby” on its calliope the final day the park was open on Labor Day, September 6th, 1971. During the winter of 1971-1972, many of Coney`s rides were moved to Kings Island, including: The Sky Ride, Tumblebug, Rotor, Scrambler, Monster, Eagles, the log flume and assorted children`s rides from the Land of Oz including the kiddy whip and helicopters ride.
On April 29, 1972, $29.5 million and 30 months after the initial planning began, Kings Island opened for a series of preview weekends on a rainy Saturday. The park officially opened on May 27, 1972, complete with balloons, parades and air force jets. Sixty full time staff members who had worked at Coney in 1971 were transferred to Kings Island to ensure its continued success. Kings Island became the first non-Disney park to attract more than 2 million visitors in its inaugural season.
While all the rides and attention were focused north of Coney in the 1972 season, Taft Broadcasting was unable to find any buyers willing to buy the Coney Island property for what they felt the property was worth. Taft decided to open Sunlite pool for the 1972 season, and it attracted a mere 100,000 visitors its first season. Admission was $1.75 and $1.50 for children.
In 1975, Charles Mechem Jr., the head of Taft Broadcasting, officially took the fore sale sign off of Coney. That year, 420,000 visitors went swimming at Sunlite Pool, and for the first time since 1971, Taft made money at Coney Island.
Taft Broadcasting would continue to own both Kings Island and Coney Island until 1984. That year, Taft sold its theme park division, excluding Coney, to a group of executives from its theme park division for $162.5 million. The executives formed a new company called Kings Entertainment Company. KECO was comprised of Kings Island, Kings Dominion, Carowinds, and had a management contract with Taft to operate Canada`s Wonderland. J.D.S.`s investment in Canada`s Wonderland is values at approximately $72 million. KECO maintained a ten year management contract for the park. Coney remained under the stewardship of Taft Broadcasting.
In 1987, Great American Financial Corporation purchased Taft Broadcasting, and along with it, Coney Island. Later that year, Carl Lindner (who also owned a controlling interest in Great American Financial) purchased Kings Island and Kings Entertainment Company. While Coney and Kings Island were once again owned by the same company, they continued to be managed separately.
Coney Island was sold to Ronald Walker, a long time associate and friend of Carl Linder, in 1991 for $3.8 million. That is the approximate price that Taft had hoped to secure back in 1972 for the property, although there was substantially less acreage in the 1991 sale (some of the land was donated to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to create Riverbend Music Center). Ralph Walker died suddenly in 1997. His wife Brenda continues to own Coney Island today. Vic Nolting has been the general manager of Coney Island since 1984.
While Coney is no longer the amusement park in the Cincinnati area, it has once again become a family friendly attraction. While Sunlite Pool and the picnic grove is still the back bone of the business, classic amusement park rides made their way back to the park in the 1990s and have continued to be added into the 21st century. A roller coaster was even introduced to the park in 1999, the first one to operate on the property since 1971.