Photography by Michael Wichita
Zipping around in bumper cars may be child’s play compared to today’s high-intensity roller coasters and gravitational thrill rides. But the Dodgem bumper cars at Paramount’s King’s Dominion remain a popular ride in the park — and it was the last to close this past Saturday, when several thousand people took part in the eighth annual gay outing, sponsored by and benefiting Brother Help Thyself (BHT). The ride’s motto for the evening may as well have been: If you like somebody, bump him good to let him know.
If bumper cars aren’t wild enough for you, though, maybe you’d be attracted to the park’s latest addition: the Drop Zone Stunt Tower. It didn’t seem that terrifying just watching it. The ride lasts only a minute-and-a-half, and more than half that time is its slow ascent up. The 272-foot, 72-mile-per-hour plummet, however, is another story altogether. “Oh my God,” was repeatedly heard before, during and after every up and down go-round.
The Drop Zone wasn’t the only thing new this year. Also new was the large American flag draped on the park’s Eiffel Tower replica, placed there lest you mistook the Dominion of Virginia for the Republic of France, or nearby Richmond for gay Paree. Or perhaps it was put in place lest you think the park’s parent entertainment conglomerate Viacom was led by unpatriotic cheese-eaters.
But the newest development of all was the timing of this year’s gay event: held in mid-September instead of mid-July, and as a private night event instead of as an all-day parade for gay visibility among the family-values set. According to Ed Kuhlmann, the park’s Vice President of Marketing, the change was planned after a survey of parkgoers last year. “We had been talking for years about what would meet the needs of Brother Help Thyself the best, and whether an exclusive nighttime event would work,” Kuhlmann said. It has been done for gay benefits at other Paramount Parks around the country, and the survey respondents were favorable to the idea, as was Brother Help Thyself’s board.
It was a little unsettling at first for some gay day veterans, unused to being in the park in the dark. Driving the noisy car-buggies around the track of the Blue Ridge Tollway in total darkness was a bit of a spooky sensation. But when asked, most people liked the change. “It was fabulous,” said Mark Garcia-Christie. “There are no lines so you can ride your favorite ride over and over.” Which people did at the Drop Zone, the park’s standard-bearer roller coaster Rebel Yell, and the Volcano Blast Coaster, where one enthusiast was overheard lisping in all seriousness, “It’s that sudden exhilaration that throws you back.”
The park could accommodate at least ten times the number of Brother Help Thyself patrons, leaving the odd sight of seeing some popular rides, including the two-year-old HyperSonic XLC, with most seats empty on each iteration. That gave riders the sense that the park was their own private playground for the night. “People are enjoying it more this year,” said BHT board member Bruce Forchheimer.
Kuhlmann wouldn’t reveal what percentage of each $25 reduced-price park ticket was designated for the organization, but the charitable purpose is enough of a reason to attend (the event is BHT’s largest annual fundraiser), contrasting with the nationally popular events at Walt Disney’s theme parks, where the company and its Gay Days corporate sponsors reap all the profits. BHT distributes more than 95 percent of every dollar it raises to Washington-area gay and lesbian organizations, as well as AIDS service providers, according to BHT materials.
The park didn’t actually close to the public until 8 p.m., an hour after the BHT benefit began, so there was still some degree of gay visibility, helped along by those traditionalists who stuck to wearing red T-shirts again this year. There were enough of them, and other obviously gay siblings in the night’s required hot-pink wristband (a “scarlet letter” one gay park-goer jokingly labeled it) to leave some straight folks visibly disturbed as they hurried to their cars. “Did we really park this far?” they could be overheard huffing in the parking lot that’s almost as big as the park. But there were no protestors.
“And the weather couldn’t have been better,” Forchheimer said. Though there was an on-again, off-again light drizzle during the evening, no umbrellas were needed. The temperature was warm enough that ice cream was a more popular indulgence than other staples. “Cotton candy,” a bored, teen-age employee almost begged of passersby. There were seemingly no takers.
The gingerbread-house architecture of the park’s entrance made you feel as if you were entering a fairy tale Saturday night in more ways than one. After all only once a year would you have the Different Drummers gay marching band boom-booming by you to the tune of Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.” Or various tres gay performers, including the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, at the Grande Bandstand next to the Eiffel Tower. The clearly amused crowd was a good mix of people of all races and genders, of the rough and the pretty, and the cute, the messy and the cute-messy.
Amusement parks are all about letting loose the kid in you, and stand as testament that some things in adult life still hold the same appeal that they did in childhood. Not the Kidzville or Nickelodeon Central sections of King’s Dominion, mind you. Those were closed Saturday night, since there were no real-time kids in the park. SpongeBob Squarepants isn’t ultimately enough of a draw for adult queer eyes.
Not when he had to compete with the indoor, in-the-dark Flight of Fear roller coaster, several levels more intense than Disney World’s Space Mountain. Or the Volcano roller coaster, where if you were lucky you could shoot out the top and twirl up, down and around the track at the same time as the volcano erupts in a ball of simulated fire that manages to heat the park as far away as one hundred feet. So, too, SpongeBob was no match for this year’s Drop Zone, named after a ten-year-old Paramount Pictures film (naturally) that simulates the sensation of skydiving and Hollywood action-picture stunts. The ride didn’t amuse everyone. Hank Salevsky was still regaining his composure and reeling from his decision to make the stunt in the first place. “The worst part is you’re so high up,” the obviously acrophobic Salevsky said.
Many thrillseekers could be seen hitting the nearby Wendy’s drive-thru on the way home — if they got there before it closed at 1 a.m., that is. There’s nothing like fat and a Frosty to relieve the stress of the park’s Level-Five “Extreme Thrill Rides.” (A category that somehow, inexplicably, does not include the Drop Zone, only designated a paltry Level-Four “High Thrill Ride.”) But if you happened instead to stumble across the road to the Subway/Dairy Queen gas station/convenience store, you could have refreshed yourself in the bathroom with a splash of the circa 1988 dispenser of “Our exquisite replica of Obsession.” Or Drakkar Noir, or Polo. It was an olfactory reminder that gay day comes to the region but once a year.