Ed Hart talks to reporters. Photos by Kevin Gibson

Ed Hart talks to reporters. Photos by Kevin Gibson

It had been so long since I’d walked into Kentucky Kingdom, I couldn’t really tell what was different. Well, until I started walking through the theme park, which has been reimagined and remodeled to the tune of $43.5 million, adding 20 new attractions in the process.

And while it does still have the same general feel, it quickly became clear this is not your father’s Kentucky Kingdom.

The beleaguered park has been shuttered for five years, but will reopen to the public on May 24 to a lot of buzz and interest, it appears. President and CEO Ed Hart said during a sunny media sneak-peek yesterday that the park is nearly halfway to its goal of selling 100,000 season passes, and that no one who comes to the park will be disappointed.

“We want to knock your socks off,” he said.

One new standout attraction is a roller coaster called Lightning Run, which takes the place of the old Greazed Lightning. While the coaster isn’t the longest in the world, it is streamlined with aerodynamically engineered cars – they look a bit like the Mach 5 from “Speed Racer,” according to John Mulcahy, director of marketing and communications for Kentucky Kingdom – and offers riders quite a thrill.

The American-built coaster is the first of its kind, Mulcahy said, and its “tight footprint” may make it look smaller than it actually rides. The fact that it begins with a 100-foot, 80-degree drop may be all you need to know, but the track is designed to keep riders twisting, turning and guessing.

In any case, it was the highlight of the day, as at 11:30 a.m construction crews completed the ride by adding the final piece of steel track to the top of the ride’s tallest hill.

0409141152aIt was an impressive sight to watch cranes lower the final piece of royal blue track into place, ever so slowly, as a pair of workers in a cherry picker stories above the park helped guide it and rivet it into place. In fact, it was just the sort of symbolic “final piece” for which the walk-through was designed. It’s been a tough ride for Louisville’s only modern theme park, and the ride is only beginning.

In 2015, a redeveloped T2 (one of the first suspended looping coasters in the world) will open, with a new and improved Twisted Sisters dueling coaster to follow in 2016. In fact, Mulcahy and Hart both said there will be new additions each year, with the thought that the park should grow slowly.

“This is a build-out,” Mulcahy said. “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

But for 2014, the additions are plentiful. Kentucky Kingdom’s wooden coaster, Thunder Run, has been re-tracked, and a new addition is Fearfall – a 13-story structure that drops riders in free-fall. The AQUA Theater will feature educational performances by rescued sea lions, while the Hurricane Bay Beach Club portion of the water park will feature the Adventure River (with a six-times faster current than the Lazy River) and the WikiWiki Wai three-slide complex.

kentuckykingdomThe biggest new addition to Hurricane Bay is the Kids Cove, with more than 10,000 square feet of interactive water-play activities. There are also four new kids’ rides in King Louie’s Playland, a 5-D Cinema “ride,” bumper cars and, more restaurants and food stands than you’ll ever need.

One key attraction that has been removed is the former Greezed Lightning, along with a few other smaller features and buildings.

Bill Hargrave is in charge of technical services operations for Kentucky Kingdom and oversaw the park’s rebuild. Asked if some of the removed features were “un-rehabable,” he replied, “I don’t think they were un-rehabable. We just didn’t want them.”

Hart, who was the original owner of Kentucky Kingdom before the park’s sale to Six Flags America, appeared energized about the transformation the park has made. And with most of the park complete – a bit more of the water park and landscaping are a few unfinished areas, along with minor construction and painting – he feels the park will be ready well ahead of the May 24 open date.

In fact, a May 17 “private picnic” with Amazon employees will be the unofficial opening.

“All the hard things are done,” Hart said. “We have a beautiful woman, and now we’re putting some makeup on.”

Through Sunday, season passes remain on sale for $59.99; beginning Monday, that price jumps to $99.99, so the timing of the walk-through was deft. Single-day tickets are $44.95 for adults, and $34.95 for children under 48 inches, seniors over 55 and military (with proper I.D.). Children 2 and under are admitted free.