It came out of the blue.

Last August, Cedar Fair Entertainment Company—the owners of Kings Island—announced that WinterFest would return.

If you’re not a KI aficionado, that may not be a big deal. But to KI lovers, it’s huge.

“The No. 1 question I have always gotten from people is ‘When is WinterFest going to come back?’” says Don Helbig, Kings Island’s public relations area manager. “Now they’ve got their answer.”

First, a little background.

WinterFest was introduced in 1982. It was a time when there wasn’t really a lot of family-related holiday activities other than The Nutcracker and a few Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra holiday concerts.

The Cincinnati Zoo’s Festival of Lights—known then as the International Festival of Lights—wouldn’t begin until 1983. So WinterFest, which blanketed the park with lights and offered holiday-themed foods and live entertainment, proved wildly popular.

But as some companies have a way of doing, Paramount Parks, which owned KI back then, tried to milk more and more profits out of the event. Predictably, attendance fell and, after a decade, they discontinued it.

It came back for one year in 2005. By all reports, it was spectacular. But season pass holders, who had previously been admitted for free, no longer received that perk. Attendance was so-so and, when the park was sold to Cedar Fair the following year, it decided not to go forward with WinterFest.

Some of the problem, no doubt, was that Cedar Fair—a company that has a very ride-centric philosophy—was concerned about the relatively quick turnaround time between the end of WinterFest and the opening of the regular season. Remember, since Cedar Fair had just bought the park, it had not previously been in charge of the rides’ maintenance. It wanted its own staff to assure the safety of the rides. All it takes is one serious or fatal accident to cast a long-lasting blemish on a park’s reputation.

But those were behind-the-scenes considerations. For their part, patrons had never forgotten the fun of those first few years of WinterFest.

“I personally have never been to WinterFest,” says Brad Perdue, one of the four KI fans who run the KI Central website (kicentral.com), an online gathering spot for those who just can’t get enough of the park and its activities. He was in elementary school when the first iteration of WinterFest folded. And since he lives in Indianapolis, driving himself to the park wasn’t an option. Distance doesn’t stop him these days. He’s visited 26 times so far this year and expects to return three or four more times during WinterFest.

“WinterFest has been one of our most talked about threads,” says Perdue. “It’s drawn a lot of attention from the enthusiast community. From the information we’ve been getting it sounds like they are pulling out all the stops.”

Reading through the online comments, you see precisely what people are most excited about. Ice skating around the Royal Fountain. Riding the Mystic Timbers roller coaster at night. Collecting the commemorative hot chocolate mugs.

“I think it’ll be exciting to eat something different than the normal park food,” says Perdue. “I mean, you can’t spend all your time on the rides.”

The return of WinterFest wasn’t totally unpredictable. Another Cedar Fair property, California’s Great America, located in Santa Clara, Calif., hosted a WinterFest in 2016. It was a high-budget, heavily promoted event. It turned out to be hugely successful. Mind you, Santa Clara is in the Bay Area. So the climate there, while hardly idyllic, affords the park a relative certainty of fair weather compared to someplace like Kings Island.

But still, the enthusiasm—and, presumably, the profits—were definitely there. So this year, a 23-day WinterFest returns to Kings Island Nov. 24. Inspired by the response of audiences in California, Cedar Fair will also introduce WinterFests at Worlds of Fun (near Kansas City) and Carowinds (Charlotte, N.C.). And next year, it will become part of the offerings at Kings Dominion (north of Richmond, Va.).

In keeping with the Kings Island tradition, live shows will be a central focus of WinterFest. Some, like A Peanuts Guide to Christmas and Charlie Brown’s Christmas Spectacular are decidedly child-friendly.

Others, like Jingle Jazz and The Mistletones—a three-woman group singing songs of the 1950s—skew to a slightly older audience. It’s likely that the centerpiece will be Cool Yule Christmas, a large-cast show that occupies the vaunted International Street Stage, across from the Eiffel Tower.

Similarly, many of the rides are aimed at a younger crowd. The Peanuts 500, Charlie Brown’s Wind Up, the Character Carousel, Joe Cool’s Dodgem School and Linus’ Launcher are for the small set.

And food? As Perdue said, it’s not your run-of-the-mill summer fare. Lot of chocolates, roasted nuts, turkey legs, “seasonal churros” and the high-carb offerings at the Old St. Nick Potato Factory, featuring “fresh thick-cut French fries, poutine and pretzels with beer cheese.”

Yum.

Not only will Perdue be experiencing his first WinterFest, but he’ll be taking his three young children to their first, as well.

“I know they’ll like the food and all the things in Planet Snoopy,” he says. “But I think they’ll really love the lights. They’ll be able to see those before we even get there.”

Every evening at 5:30 p.m., there will be an Eiffel Tower Tree-Lighting Ceremony. The 315-foot replica of the Parisian landmark will be transformed into a towering, star-topped beacon, the centerpiece of a lighting display that will feature more than 5 million LED bulbs. (By comparison, the Cincinnati Zoo’s Festival of Lights touts just 3 million.)

“What excites me—and I think excites most people about this—is that we get to go to the park at a time when we never have before,” says Perdue. “We get to see it with snow falling and do different things than we ever have before. It sounds like they’re really doing things the right way.”


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