Bleck & Bleck Architects digs into Kings Dominion’s new themed land, Jungle X-Pedition
by Martin Palicki
“The story included a crashed airplane, so we went out and found an old aircraft for sale in North Carolina,” explains Ken Parks, Corporate Director of Creative Development for Cedar Fair Entertainment. He then called Tony Ryland, Vice President of Construction & Maintenance for Kings Dominion (one of Cedar Fair’s properties), who in turn mobilized his team to prep for arrival of the plane. “The entire crew was in it from the start,” says Parks. “How often do you get to buy and move a whole airplane?”
Today, the Tin Goose Too is an elaborate prop and photo opportunity for guests visiting Jungle X-Pedition at Kings Dominion in Doswell, Virginia. The new themed land – based on a detailed story of mystery, exploration and magical temples – includes a new roller coaster, re-imagined restaurant and retail spaces, and re-themed attractions. In addition to in-house creative and construction teams from Cedar Fair and Kings Dominion, the park relied on architecture and engineering experts Bleck & Bleck Architects to help create the new land.
Starting with a coaster
The peculiarities of the pandemic caused Jungle X-Pedition to be developed in a somewhat unconventional manner. Cedar Fair purchased an S&S 4D Free Spin Coaster for the park in 2019, and the ride arrived on property by the fall of 2020. Because of COVID closures, the ride’s planned 2021 debut was pushed back a year. Architects and business partners Bob Bleck and Chuck Bleck were initially brought in to do engineering and architectural design work on the ride, a role that later expanded.
“The Bleck & Bleck team played a really important role as we started to look at incorporating this new ride in the park,” explains Ryland. The first big challenge was how to anchor the coaster. Tumbili, as it’s now known, is a narrow and tall coaster with a small footprint. In addition to the dynamic motion of the ride, wind loads are a major force to consider. Bleck & Bleck’s solution was to utilize a concrete mat raft foundation system – essentially a giant, concrete slab buried 5.5 feet underground. The foundation doesn’t require expensive deep pilings and uses the weight of the soil on top to act as ballast.
“This is an example of real value engineering,” says Bob Bleck. “Our job is to find a solution that is safe, reliable and provides the best value to the client.” In this case, it allowed Kings Dominion freedom to add more theming to the attraction. The motion of the ride’s cars is programmed to suggest monkeys jumping from tree to tree in the jungle, so the track was made green, supports were painted to look like bamboo, and cars were outfitted in shades of brown.
The ride itself was repositioned after a suggestion from Chuck Bleck. “We thought the ride should be rotated 180 degrees so the vertical lift hill hangs near the midway, allowing non-riding guests an opportunity to easily see their friends and family on the ride,” says Chuck Bleck. As an added bonus, this change moved the loose-article fall zone away from the midway, eliminating the need for protective coverings that would have masked close views of the ride from the guest midway and distract from theming. Bleck & Bleck was also able to mask tall, back-of-house buildings by using a steeply pitched wood truss roof. The guest-facing walls were clad with ruinous thematic overlays enhancing the temple ruin concept.
The ride’s queue also presented a challenge as the attraction is situated in a narrow footprint. “We didn’t want to extend the queue into the plaza area, so we created a maze of pathways that cross over and under each other beneath the ride,” says Chuck Bleck. “We treated it almost like a split-level home.” The station sits 10 feet above the ground, which provided elevation and space to work with beneath it. “The vertical nature of the ride makes it fun to look at, so with each turn of the winding queue you get a better vantage point of the ride,” says Bob Bleck. “It’s almost like looking up at a cliff.”
Developing the theme and the land
When it opened in 1975, Kings Dominion was loosely modeled on Kings Island near Cincinnati, Ohio, and featured several themed lands. The park was purchased by Paramount in the 1990s, and many of the attractions were themed to Paramount IP. When Cedar Fair bought Paramount’s parks (including Kings Dominion) in 2006, it began the process of removing the movie and TV brands from the park and its attractions.
In the summer of 2021, Ken Parks joined the Cedar Fair corporate team and almost immediately began looking at ways to incorporate story into park design. “As a company we had done a little bit of story-driven design for South Bay Shores at California’s Great America,” said Parks. “But this was really our first opportunity to test it out in a fully realized way.” He knew he wanted a backstory that guests could dive into if they wanted, but also a theme that extended to the present day. Parks decided to expand Bleck & Bleck’s role to include redeveloping the entire land surrounding the new ride and implementing the backstory. The resulting process sheds light on the role an architect can play on a creative team.
“One of the first things we addressed was line-of-sight issues,” says Chuck Bleck. “We cut back underbrush and pruned trees, allowing guests to better see the attractions.” Plazas were opened and access to retail and dining buildings was enhanced.
A photo of Tumbili at night (left), shows how the concept lighting sketch by Visual Terrain (right) was extremely accurate in its depiction of the lighting effects designed for the ride. Images by Bleck & Bleck Architects and Visual Terrain
Next, in partnership with Cedar Fair, they dug into the theme. The land was known as Safari Village, so many of the current rides had animal names. “Jungle X-Pedition allowed the existing animal attraction names to blend into the new land’s story and also set the stage for future expansion,” explains Chuck Bleck. With Parks and his team developing the detailed story for Jungle X-Pedition [see below], Bleck & Bleck began looking at ways to bring the theming into the land.
Since the land’s story is built around exploration, Bleck & Bleck wanted to bring in a base camp motif. Under the Tumbili coaster, tent canvas provides shade for the queue. At night, a custom lighting package designed by Visual Terrain simulates a campfire, with the flickering light reflecting up into the ride’s structure. “The effect is dramatic and eye-catching, but it also serves the story,” says Chuck Bleck. Strings of lights are strung between poles and softly fade in and out as though being powered by a cranky generator.
Rockwork in the Tumbili queue and elsewhere in the land reflects the mystic temple theme that supports the backstory. Props, ranging from explorer maps to the Tin Goose Too airplane, are scattered throughout Jungle X-Pedition, creating an inviting world that is fun to be in, but also opens the door to further exploration.
The existing Congo Thrills store was re-themed to Outfitters Shop. The building had an old moat surrounding it that had long ago been filled in with plants. It had the effect of isolating the store. “We removed all the planting up against the building, extending the plaza and allowing full circulation to the retail entrance,” explains Chuck Bleck. Despite the clearing it was important to retain a jungle feel and also keep the park’s great tree canopy intact. “We call it ‘controlled wild,’” continues Chuck Bleck. “It still is green and lush, but now you can see and access everything easily.”
Bleck & Bleck also worked on the shop’s interior. A new themed ceiling with high-performance retail LED lighting was installed along with new fixtures and kiosks. Much of the shop’s prior color scheme fit with the new theme, so only minimal changes were needed to refresh the space.
The restaurant, formally called Outer Hanks (and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. before that), received a complete overhaul. Old crating, raw wood and corrugated metal were removed and dining areas were improved with new windows on the south side of the building and a shaded veranda area in front. The restaurant also houses many clues and props that support the land’s backstory. Portraits highlighting many of Jungle X-Pedition’s infamous explorers are placed around the dining room.
Bringing it all together
Jungle X-Pedition opened in March 2021 and everyone from the guests to the development team is happy with the end result. Park visitors immediately took to the theming and the story behind it. “The guest reaction to the ride and area theming was overwhelmingly positive – more than we could have hoped for,” says Bridgette Bywater, Kings Dominion Vice President and General Manager. Fan sites have already popped up that help further the backstory and make it accessible to even more people.
“The whole project was amazing,” says Ryland. “We have nothing but praise for the team approach from our contractors and our Experience Design Studio team.” In addition to the team members mentioned, SkyHigh Coasters, LLC completed the ride erection work and Weber Group was responsible for overlay construction and detailed design work on the land’s rockwork and building façade improvements.
Jungle X-Pedition was designed with expansion in mind. A labyrinth sits in the center of the land with animal symbols representing the different temples (or attractions) in the land. “We may have put a few extra animals in there to represent our future plans,” teases Parks.
The queue entrance for Tumbili, themed as an archeological dig site, includes an ascent of 10 feet from queue entry to the ride station, allowing overlapping entry bridges and exit tunnels to traverse each other and adding to the excitement of exploration. Photos courtesy of Bleck & Bleck Architects
Along those lines, Cedar Fair’s commitment to enhancing park design through storytelling appears to be strong. Aeronautica Landing, celebrating the ingenuity of aviation past, present and future opens in 2022 at Carowinds, which straddles the state line between North Carolina and South Carolina. The Boardwalk at Cedar Point in Ohio also debuts next year, featuring a modern take on the Cedar Point of yesteryear. Fiesta Village at Knott’s Berry Farm in southern California also is receiving a theme update and makeover. “Guests will definitely be seeing more development of this kind in years to come,” says Parks. “And that is due in large part to our guests’ response to Jungle X-Pedition.”
Perhaps Bywater sums it up best: “We continue to receive positive feedback from our guests on how immersive the experience is throughout the Jungle X-pedition area, from the reinforced imagery within the grounds and buildings to the impressive execution of the theming components from ride to ride and across the land.” • • •
The Jungle X-Pedition Backstory
As the story goes, in the 1930s a group called the Manhattan Explorers Society heard about a mysterious location called Jungle X, where temples honoring various animals give the power of that animal to anyone who enters inside. Explorer Gerald Winston Whey, not known for his directional skills, ends up getting lost while in his plane the Tin Goose and stumbles upon the temples at Jungle X. The Manhattan Explorers Society sends out a group to try and find the site, but the search is unsuccessful.
Fast forward to today and Whey’s granddaughter forms the Whey Foundation to continue her family’s exploration streak and shed light on her grandfather’s research. Guests can engage in the story as much or as little as they like through the land’s various attractions, props, store and restaurant, as well as a show.