After a shaky year and a turbulent past, Kentucky Kingdom acquisition brings hope

In late February, Kentucky Kingdom announced that it sold a majority ownership of its theme park to Herschend Family Entertainment, the Georgia-based company that also owns and operates more than two dozen other parks and properties in the U.S., including Dollywood, Silver Dollar City and the Newport Aquarium. Ed Hart, who led the ownership group that bought Kentucky Kingdom in 1990, said at the Feb. 23 press conference — which included Gov. Andy Beshear — that he believes that Herschend will “improve and build on our legacy.”  

Still, most Louisvillians know that the park has had its share of complications. The park closed not long after its first full season in 1987, when its landscape looked very different — attractions included the “Pepsi Plantation Playhouse.” In 2007, when the park belonged to Six Flags, cables on the “Superman: Tower of Power” ride snapped and severed the feet of teenager Kaitlyn Lassiter. The park closed again in 2009, amidst Six Flags filling for bankruptcy and eventually reopened in 2014 under Hart’s guidance.  

Likewise, after a year that has been so fraught for so many major sectors of the economy — not least of which is the attractions industry, whose business model is usually dependent on large crowds — why would major investors want to acquire a large new property now?

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” said Craig Ross, the new general manager of Kentucky Kingdom. “Being sequestered at home and not able to get out and do, I think people are going to be very anxious to get out and do.” 

Ross recently left his position as the president of The Dollywood Co. to take over park operations in Louisville. He told LEO that he and his colleagues at Herschend are eager to develop and implement new programming and attractions — albeit in a way that accommodates visitors’ concerns.

“Moving forward, [the pandemic] does change things,” he said. “I think we’ll be even better at maintaining the safety and doing all the secure things that we need to do, and I think we’ll continue to be really remarkable at introducing new ideas and new concepts.” 

After months in which attractions across the country have been closed or have operated with limited capacity, Ross said his colleagues throughout the industry are eager to draw in new and returning park-goers. 

“I think there’ll be some fierce competition for who can get to the plate first with what’s going to be exciting and new,” he said. “But that’s the lifeblood of our business.”

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Details of the upcoming changes are not yet available to the public, and many changes won’t be put in place immediately when the park reopens on May 8. Ross told LEO that his Creative Studios team (Herschend’s analogue to Disney’s Imagineers) was already starting to work on projects for the park. He said he was excited that the programming and theming would move in favor of “telling heartfelt stories,” in part through live entertainment.

“The Commonwealth of Kentucky is full of stories and good music,” said Ross. He added, though, that he and his team will “do our homework” and get feedback from visitors before implementing new features that draw from the state’s culture and history: “It’s important that that not be forced— that it feels natural, it feels right.”

 Stacey Yates, vice president of marketing communications at Louisville Tourism, agrees that the sale is a sign of “very positive recovery and growth” for the local economy.

“Kentucky Kingdom is what we call a ‘driver’ of business,” said Yates. “They are the type of attraction that is so appealing to certain people, certain travelers, that they will book a stay in Louisville because of that attraction.” 

She explained that many out-of-town visitors to the park tend to stay for a weekend and visit other popular destinations — for instance, the Louisville Zoo, the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory or a bourbon distillery. 

Yates said that the sale will help the city start to bring back its 19 million annual pre-pandemic tourists, especially families, in large part because Kentucky Kingdom will offer events throughout the entire year, not just in the summer. 

Both Yates and Ross feel confident the theme park will bounce back. 

“This is a fantastic city and community, and it deserves all the very best that it can possibly have,” said Ross. “We can’t wait to get back to work at taking good care of our guests.”

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