Shooting for the Stars
Mike Koontz remembers when he first saw what looked like a UFO.
On a bright Sunday afternoon in spring 2020, the vice president and general manager of Kings Island in Mason, Ohio, was out for a drive when he spotted the dish.
“I saw one of our trucks with this awful-looking, just rusty, beat-up satellite dish, and it hit me: ‘That’s ours,’” Koontz recalls thinking.
Moments prior, the thoughts swirling in Koontz’s mind focused on how Kings Island should be open. Shuttered due to the coronavirus, the 364-acre theme park sat still from April through June last year. That included Kings Island’s new star attraction, “Orion,” a shiny giga coaster (standing 300 feet tall) from Bolliger & Mabillard … and the rusty satellite dish—that after some sanding, painting, and refining—became a beacon of sorts when positioned over the entrance, welcoming guests to “Orion” in a season unlike any other.
Koontz shares with Funworld his reflections of operating a theme park in the middle of a global pandemic and the challenges and successes found at Kings Island.
In a traditional year, Kings Island, which is owned and operated by Cedar Fair Entertainment Company, will open for the season on Easter weekend. In 2020, the park opened in early July.
“The best laid plans changed course a lot over those four months,” Koontz says of the delay. “One talent is being adaptable and flexible.”
That meant revising operating schedules, incorporating health and safety provisions, and connecting with seasonal employees as their start dates kept changing.
“We were in that limbo period. That was tough,” he recalls. “The pandemic created a lot of challenges last year that we navigated, not only to get open, but stay open.”
When Kings Island did open, temperature checks, social distancing markers, and 600 hand sanitizing stations met returning guests, along with the requirement to wear a face covering.
“Cedar Fair and Kings Island want to make sure our associates (Cedar Fair’s name for its seasonal employees) and our guests are safe,” Koontz says of the provisions in place in 2020. That meant being transparent with guests before and during their visit. Kings Island produced a prearrival video that shared the new safety mandates.
“For some people, it’s not their thing. And we understand that,” Koontz says. “But for those of us who want to be here and want to have a good time—and still be safe—the policy allowed us to do that.”
Kings Island’s popular “Halloween Haunt” event and “WinterFest” Christmas celebration got scrubbed in the fourth quarter of 2020 while Koontz’s team navigated changing COVID-19 restrictions for the 2021 season. The lessons learned during the pandemic made the team at Kings Island stronger.
“Ultimately, we learned how to pivot, how to change our approach to operating the park, but continue to deliver the experience our loyal guests deserve,” Koontz says. Strategies formed around a conference room table often transcended outside, with Koontz occasionally bending over to pick weeds. “We shut down for three months; nature kind of does its thing, while the weeds did not shut down,” he says about rolling up his sleeves.
As opening day in May 2021 approached, a new threat emerged: proper staffing. “Help Wanted” signs appeared across several industries in North America, with the attractions industry feeling the pinch.
“Every year has its challenges,” Koontz says about the labor shortage in 2021. In 2020, he estimates “well over half” of the seasonal workforce at Kings Island were previous associates returning from 2019.
To attract the needed 4,000 associates in 2021, Kings Island participated in an online hiring event in March, where interested candidates could interview virtually, using their computer or smartphone.
By April, the park increased its hourly wage to $11-$14 per hour to attract additional labor.
Following opening day in May, 900 positions were still available, and wages increased again to $18 per hour for food and beverage (F&B) associates, lifeguards, and security positions. Additionally, associates were eligible to earn up to a $3,000 bonus.
Koontz enjoys walking the park before opening, where he can interact with the seasonal team, many of whom are teenagers or college students working during summer school breaks.
“The Kings Island culture is special,” Koontz tells Funworld. “It’s my [job] and my leadership team’s responsibility to protect that culture and ensure that it continues for generations to come.”
Empowering the “One Team” Approach
Koontz is the type of leader, who like a coach, suggests a solution and then allows his team to produce results as he watches from the sidelines.
“We call it the ‘One Team’ approach,” Koontz says. He encourages his full-time staff to take ownership of a project and run with it.
Just prior to opening day in 2020, Koontz asked a pair of carpenters to create additional health and safety signage for several pathways.
“The next morning, one sends me a picture, and he asks, ‘Will this work?’ and I said, ‘Oh my gosh!’”
Instead of producing a flip sign or easel, the pair drafted, sawed, and assembled a unit that not only shared the safety information, but tapped into the talents of Kings Island’s landscapers by adding flower boxes to each sign.
“My inspiration comes from our associates,” Koontz says.
The One Team approach applied when a dated diner at the park needed a refresh. Koontz gathered his team inside the restaurant and stood back as a new concept took shape. Executive Chef James Major piped up with the suggestion of a craft beer concept, complete with a specialty burger, chicken wings, and a signature warm pretzel appetizer. The design team and sign shop quickly added their ideas.
“They came up with all these different concepts in about an hour,” he says.
During the park’s “Grand Carnivale” cultural event, Major received permission to serve his grandmother’s Italian meatball and marinara recipe.
“To be able to pay homage to the woman who raised me,” Major says, pausing for a moment to collect his emotions, before continuing with, “she’s shining down from heaven. That is the best thing to share my grandma’s recipe with 30,000 people a day.”
The One Team approach also empowers Major to serve a “chef’s plate” at the park’s F&B locations. The special dish could be bacon-wrapped chicken smothered in barbecue sauce or sliced beef tomahawk served on garlic and herb crostini bread and accompanied by Colorado marble potatoes and grilled root vegetables.
“I describe it as the meat and potatoes of how you operate the park, but we like the dessert portion as well,” Koontz says. “This is dessert—the fun things that our maintenance guys, marketing, and food team throw out there and ask, ‘What do you think about this?’ And they’re great at it.”
Out of this World Creativity
As “Orion” came together, Koontz granted permission to get extra creative. Cedar Fair’s planning and design department worked with Daniels Wood Land to create theming elements for the park’s new Area 72 (a play on the infamous Area 51, a classified United States Air Force facility in the Nevada desert) section, home to “Orion.” Enter the old satellite dish found on Facebook Marketplace for $65. As field art director for the project, Paul Bonifield of Cedar Fair felt empowered to work with Koontz’s entertainment team to add additional decor and props to “take this project to another level.”
“My very first job was as a ride operator on ‘The Beast.’ Doing any type of project on your home turf is even more rewarding,” Bonifield says. “My supervisor, the late Brian Kniceley, advocated that I be given the keys to this project and see it through. This was my first real opportunity to make an impact with a new attraction.”
Opportunities like these are important to Koontz, a Charleston, West Virginia, native, who first visited Kings Island at age 16.
“We came to Kings Island for a day, and I was blown away,” he recalls. “Over the years, when my wife and I were dating, we came to the park.” Now, Koontz says his grandchildren think he’s “pretty cool” for working at a theme park.
As the park’s golden anniversary in 2022 approaches, Koontz has already directed his team to create a big celebration.
“We are excited to deliver an experience that exceeds our guests’ expectations,” he says. “These are the things that we take a lot of pride in.”