In honor of the opening day of King’s Dominion’s 2022 season, let’s talk about one of their beloved, yet lacking, launch coaster, Flight of Fear! In 1996, a thrill ride named after the popular science-fiction anthology television show, “The Outer Limits,” opened in King’s Dominion, Virginia. This fully indoor roller coaster is best known for being one of the first linear induction motor LIM-launched coasters in the world. Guests love gliding through it’s four inversions and its ability to speed up from zero to fifty-four miles per hour in a number of seconds. In 2001, King’s Dominion lost its license with Paramount, and its name was changed to “Flight of Fear,” which is what it’s called today.
The Flight of Fear was a coaster I was unable to ride on my first trip to King’s Dominion in 2013. The ominous government building sitting in the distance intrigued me, and I was curious to know what was inside. Finally, when I returned in 2018, I rode Flight of Fear for the first time. Standing in the darkness while waiting to board, as well as the ominous dimly lit tunnel, was entertainingly threatening. However, the more I rode it, the more I realized something was lacking. This ride had many thematic elements clearly centering around Area 51 and UFOs. Because of that, thought I highly enjoyed the coaster itself, I found the theming a bit generic. I couldn’t put my finger on why, and pondered it for a couple years. Then, it hit me. The story is disconnected from the coaster itself.
To clearly express my point, I want to do a quick comparison between the story of Flight of Fear, and Verbolten from Busch Gardens, VA. The story of Verbolten is a bit vague, yet still intriguing. You arrive at Verbolten Tours, run by Gunter and Gurta, which is a self-tour rental car service. In the queue line, it starts off innocently enough. There are multiple display cases full of memorabilia from various trips around the world and around Germany. However, as you progress further, you begin to notice something off. Tree vines are beginning to encroach inside the building. You see surveillance cameras viewing live footage from a dark forest. Sometimes you see nothing but foliage blowing in the stormy wind. Other times, you see what looks to be stranded people crawling their way through the forest looking for a way out. You hear the answering machine of the phone go off. Sometimes it’s from the police station, inquiring about strange disappearances near the Black Forest. Sometimes it’s a customer whose car has broken down by the edge of the Black Forest. She inquires for help, however she is cut off as a violent storm brews. Suddenly you get an unsettling feeling. When you get to the loading dock, and settle in the seat ready to go, the woman on the speaker warns:
“Remember, don’t look back, as you brave the Black Forest.”
You calmly ride out of the loading dock and onto the track. It starts off calm, that is until you ride towards and ominously dark tunnel. Suddenly, the car kicks into gear. You’re flying into the blackness. Lights are flashing. You see the glow of thick oak trees as thunder roars overhead. When you get to the end, you are faced with one of three possible endings, all giving a sense of claustrophobia and fear as the supernatural closes in on you. Then, the car falls a few feet down and the light finally peeks through. You are back outside and fly towards a bridge. Trees continue to crackle as you soar down off the bridge and into a sharp curve. Finally, you’ve arrived back at the loading dock, safe and sound.
When you walk into the Flight of Fear queue line, darkness envelops you. As you progress, you see figures in heavy toxic chemical protection suits, surrounded by giant cargo boxes. As you stand in the blackness, you can hear an ear-piercing sound echo throughout the building. Finally, you come to a large flying saucer, which you step up into to reach the loading dock for the coaster. When you come to the loading dock, you can see multiple cylinder tanks with aliens inside. Whether they are in cryo-stasis, or deceased and preserved for experimentation, you don’t know. You climb into the car and get strapped in. If you sit in the front seat, you can see a long tunnel brightened by purple lights, with nothing but darkness awaiting you. When you least expect it, the operator presses the button, and you are sent straight through at top speed. From then on, it’s flying in the dark, through loopy-loops and steep hills as strobe lights flashed throughout. Then, you arrive at an alternative docking station, where you rise from the seats, and head toward the exit.
The Flight of Fear has unanswered questions that Verbolten does not while avoiding being too straightforward. It’s clear you are in an Area 51-like government facility with the flying saucer and aliens in glass tubes. But what does it have to do with the coaster itself? From a narrative standpoint, there’s not much to fear. Nothing seems to be going haywire. Nothing is trying to escape or attack you. You’re just simply walking in for your thrill ride and walking out. There’s not much point to the theming if it doesn’t enhance it. The theming of Verbolten builds perfect anticipation and fear for your ride. You’re going into a Black Forest where people have gone missing, as well as potentially haunted. The Flight of Fear feels like an over-hyped field trip where you’re rewarded with a roller coaster at the end.
Despite these setbacks, the story of Flight of Fear has a lot of potential to be an engaging story. It only needs a simple few adjustments. Here is my re-imagining of Flight of Fear: adding an antagonist, building suspense, and payoff.
The design of the aliens in the tubes, as well as the flying saucer, is pretty stale and generic. However, there is a solution to this: the Flight of Fear character from the “Battle for King’s Dominion” app game. She has an intriguing, unique, yet intimidating design. She will be the antagonist of the story.
The facility’s purpose is to examine and uncover the secrets of “Subject Azzura’s” ship (I gave the monster a name for simplicity’s sake), as well as perform experiments on her to see how she, and by extension the rest of her race, ticks. As you venture into the facility, there are surveillance cameras above you, displaying scientists with clipboards standing in a room where the chamber containing Azzura lies. As you progress down the line, you notice the scientists on the footage are growing nervous about something. one scientist makes a carefree gesture and inaudibly rebukes someone off-camera, while another scientist tightens with nervousness. Something is wrong.
The flying saucer that normally would lead to the loading dock is removed and relocated. Instead, a steel blast door stands open. On another screen, a message flashes:
“Alert! Alert! Containment for Subject Azzura has been breached. Begin evacuation procedure for all non-essential personnel.”
When you finally step into the loading dock, you see a chamber completely shattered, and smoke billowing from it. You hear a piercing ringing sound, then a detached feminine voice, vowing revenge against those who trapped her. There is now an urgent objective: escape the facility. After being loaded into the car, the ride operator presses the button, and the car takes off.
The ride flies blindly through the dark and strobe lights flash. There are projections or mannequins of Azzura chasing after you, creating a healthy dose of fear and tension as you desperately try to escape. At one point the coaster slows. It seems she is catching up with you and close to catching you as another piercing sound echoes around you. However, you continue gaining speed as you barely slip her grasp.
At last, you go through a dark tunnel, and you slow. You made it to the exit dock, and escaped the vengeful alien Azzura in one piece. A person speaking over the PA says:
“Attention non-essential personnel, please quickly but calmly proceed to the exit.”
You rise from your car and proceed outside.
This concept is not perfect, there are many elements of coaster building I am not knowledgeable of. It’s also possible that, because of the loss of the licensing rights to the Outer Limits (a popular science fiction anthology tv show) in 2001, the Flight of Fear lost its identity and by extension a creative theme and adequate tension. However, not all hope is lost. With the addition of these elements, I firmly believe the Flight of Fear can satisfy its guests with new excitement and vitality and leave them eager to ride again.
“Flight of Fear.” King’s Dominion. Cedar Fair Entertainment Company. https://www.kingsdominion.com/play/rides/flight-of-fear.