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Dollywood Operators Take Over Kentucky Kingdom

The Giant Wheel towers over the Lightning Run Roller Coaster at Kentucky Kingdom. The coaster was recently ridden by the American Coaster Enthusiasts and ranked in their
Alix Mattingly
The Giant Wheel towers over the Lightning Run Roller Coaster at Kentucky Kingdom. The coaster was recently ridden by the American Coaster Enthusiasts and ranked in their

Kentucky Kingdom and Hurricane Bay will have a new operator this season.

Herschend Family Entertainment is now a majority partner of the Louisville theme park. The Georgia-based company also operates 25 other parks across eight states, including Newport Aquarium and Dollywood.

Gov. Andy Beshear says he’s excited to see how the company expands Kentucky Kingdom.

“This is the partnership that takes a good foundation, a good attraction, and turns it into an international destination to bring people in to see the finest of Kentucky, and to spend their time both at the park and in our community,” Beshear said.

He said the state was eager to participate in negotiations with the company because of the potential local economic impact. As a whole, tourism brings in nearly $12 billion for Kentucky. It’s the third-largest sector in Louisville, with an economic impact of $3.5 billion.

Beshear said it’s important for Kentucky to continue to build on that in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve been careful and purposeful to never stop investing, to never stop looking toward the future,” he said. “Not only is there going to be a day beyond this pandemic, but the economy is going to be different, which means there is going to be more opportunity, more chances for Kentucky to excel, if we are willing to be bold, to grab on to those opportunities and to make partnerships moving forward.”

Herschend will work alongside Kentucky Kingdom, LLLP; the Kentucky State Fair Board; the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet; and the Finance and Administration Cabinet. Craig Ross is set to take over as general manager, after serving a decade in the same position at Dollywood.

Ross said designers have already been on the property to identify opportunities for growth at the 65-acre Kentucky Kingdom property. Herschend plans to bring new attractions to Kentucky Kingdom as part of a five-year plan. It will also consider extending the park’s season.

“We do open in 10 weeks, so we’ve got a lot of work to do just to get the park open, but we’re going to go to work immediately to determine where we want to go with making Kentucky Kingdom a bigger, and better and greater park,” he said.

Kentucky Kingdom founder and CEO Ed Hart first opened the park in 1987. After a shutdown, it reopened in 2014.

Hart said the park hasn’t reached its full potential yet, and he hopes Herschend can help make it a regional destination that attracts tourists from nearby cities like Nashville and Cincinnati.

“It falls on me to ensure that the park is turned over to an organization that can improve and build on our legacy,” Hart said. “That organization is Herschend Family Entertainment.”

Kentucky Kingdom and Hurricane Bay passes that have already been purchased will be honored. The park will open May 8.

John, News Editor for LPM, is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Email John at jboyle@lpm.org.