Life’s a carnival for Vic Nolting. Literally.

On any day during any given Cincinnati summer, Nolting — the longtime president of Coney Island amusement park — finds himself surrounded by kiddie rides, whirling dervishes and splashing toddlers. Not to mention laughing kids on surging waterslides, love-struck teenagers on the Ferris wheel and carefree patrons peddling paddleboats on the park’s Lake Como.

This isn’t to say Nolting doesn’t work hard. Far be it from that. He oversees the complex inner workings of running a mid-sized theme park, event center and venue for such annual fests as Summerfair, the Cincinnati Flower Show and this month’s Paddlefest. On top of that, he manages 1,150 seasonal and 37 full-time employees — including the parking and concessions staff at adjoining Riverbend Music Center.

“It’s still exciting,” enthuses Nolting of his chosen career. “Every year still brings great challenges. I still eagerly anticipate the opening of every season.

“It’s just a really great park that has an unparalleled history.”

It’s a history that began back in the 1860s, when all that was here was an apple orchard and a farmer willing to rent out the land to families for summer picnics. The farmer, James Parker, soon realized he could make more money in the amusement business than in the apple business. He added a dancing hall, bowling alley, dining facilities, even a mule-powered merry-go-round.

The park survived the Great Depression, the Great Ohio River Flood, the Great World Wars — even as competitors such as Chester Park failed.

Still, Nolting points out, even the revered Coney couldn’t survive the opening of Kings Island. Coney’s amusement park closed in 1971, then miraculously revived itself in the late 1970s.

“I don’t know if there was
ever
a park that came back, once it closed,” Nolting observes. “(But) the city, the whole area, had a soft spot in its heart for Coney.”

Nolting, a theme-park industry veteran, has his own sweet memories of the place. As a kid, he took his first coaster ride ever on the “Shooting Star,” Coney’s wooden coaster that was built in 1937 and torn down in 1971.

Nolting’s favorite rides at Coney today? The Python steel coaster (“it certainly doesn’t have the zip the Beast does,” but that’s OK with him), bumper cars and the “wonderful, wonderful” Zoom Flume waterslide. “I used to like the Roundup, but age prevents it. My mind is willing. My body isn’t.”

THE PATH TO CONEY

How Vic Nolting came to run Coney Island is a fascinating tale of opportunities lost and opportunities found, a circuitous route that began on a sports field.

He played college football at Xavier University — following in the footsteps of his father, Ray, who played at UC and for the Chicago Bears before returning to UC as head football coach. After graduating in 1970 from Xavier with a degree in industrial relations, Vic was drafted by the New York Giants. A team physician, evaluating a recurring knee problem, immediately ruled out any future in the NFL. He lasted one day in the league.

Nolting then joined Xerox Corp. as a sales representative, but finally wound up as a regional manager in group sales at Kings Island. In 1979, he moved to a sister park, Kings Dominion in Virginia, as manager of planning and business analysis. He later took a position as vice president and general manager at Darien Lake Fun Country in New York.

It was 1983 when Nolting heard that Coney Island was looking for a chief executive. He jumped at the opportunity to return to his hometown.

The next year, Riverbend Music Center opened, thanks primarily to the 15 acres of land donated by Coney. The move proved to be brilliant: In exchange for the donation, Coney was named, in perpetuity, the provider of concessions and parking for the concert amphitheater. Nolting re-invested this new revenue into the park (renovating Moonlite Gardens ballroom, for instance). Even today, Nolting is constantly re-energizing the park, this year adding a Euro-Bungy (think four trampolines inside a geo dome), a Turtle Parade kiddie ride, and Raging River, a swinging pirate ship.

Nolting also expanded the park season into spring and fall by adding a number of annual events, including the Cincinnati Flower Show in April, the Appalachian Festival in May, Summerfair in June, Paddlefest in June, the July Fourth weekend Balloon Glow, and a Fall-O-Ween Fest in September. Over the years, he made Coney a family affair, as well. “My two kids, Ben and Laura, both of them worked here. Those are great memories.” Nolting’s daughter actually became a pool paramedic, leading to her current career as an emergency room doctor.

Nolting is highly regarded in a highly competitive business. “Vic Nolting is truly one of the good guys in the industry,” notes Bill Mefford, president of MPR Marketing and a former Kings Island executive who has known Nolting for a quarter-century. “He’s smart, experienced, entrepreneurial, guest-oriented, successful and, most of all,
fun
. He’s the total package.”

For his part, Nolting credits the supportive ownership at Coney. “Brenda Walker and the Walker family, who have owned it since 1991, have been willing to put millions in it,” he explains. (Brenda was married to the late Cincinnati business executive Ron Walker.) In addition, Nolting cites his “unbelievable employees” for the park’s continued success. Nolting also reflects on the original Coney managers and their foresight, building a brilliant blueprint for future success. Take the creation of Sunlite Pool, which boasts a very large shallow end. “Think about it. In 1925, the number of people who could actually swim was pretty small.” Smart thinking, indeed. Even today, the pool serves thousands of toddlers who haven’t learned to swim yet, a constantly renewing audience from generation to generation.

Nolting says he is particularly excited this season due to the opening of National City Pavilion, a 4,100-seat concert arena immediately next door. (The facility actually sits a few feet outside his office window.) Nolting is smart enough to know that more traffic to the entertainment strip of Riverbend/River Downs/Coney is more draw for him. And he’s optimistic that, when Coney patrons learn they’ll be treated to the free sounds of a Sheryl Crow or Steely Dan drifting across the park grounds, more patrons will choose to stroll down in the evenings.

“What I find that is really a lot of fun is that we’re successful in giving people a great time most of the time,” he concludes. “I think it’s simply being in the business of helping people create memories and have fun.”

Is a retirement on his radar screen? “There’s going to come a time,” Nolting concedes, “in five or six years. But, I still have a lot of work to do here.

THE NOLTING FILE

Born:
Nov. 13, 1947, in Cincinnati.

Family:
Wife Margie, daughter Laura (who served burgers at Coney company picnics before becoming pool paramedic) and son Ben (who worked in the games area and Coney warehouse).

Education:
Industrial relations degree, Xavier University.

Duration of NFL Career:
Eight hours.

Hobbies:
Golf, watching Bengals games.

Other Job:
Vice chair of Leisure Systems Inc., the franchisor of Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp & Resorts.

Board Member:
National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds and the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.

Favorite Amusement Parks (Besides Coney):
Kings Island, Cedar Point in Sandusky and Holiday World in Santa Claus, Ind.

TIMELINE

From 1867 to today, the park that keeps re-energizing

May 15, 1867
— James Parker purchases a 20-acre farm along the Ohio River with 400 apple orchard trees. Soon, he is allowing citizens to picnic at what will eventually be called Parker’s Grove.
March 18, 1886
— Parker sells out to the Ohio Grove Corp., a firm that owns the steamboats Guiding Star and Thomas Sherlock.
June 21, 1886
— Ohio Grove, billed as the Coney Island of the West, opens (this being a reference to New York City’s Coney Island). Steam ship service is offered from downtown to the grove (four round-trips daily, at a cost of 50 cents).
August 1, 1886
— Without public explanation, the name of the grove is changed to Coney Island. Period.
April 1, 1913
— A flood submerges Coney. The lumber that was going to be used for a roller coaster ride is swept down river.
May 25, 1925
— The Island Queen riverboat begins service from the foot of Vine Street to Coney. The massive steamer can deliver 4,000 passengers to Coney at a clip, and becomes the icon of the amusement park’s luxury era of the ‘20s and ‘30s.
January 26, 1937
— The Great Depression saves Coney. True story. When the Ohio River’s great flood buries the park under 28 feet of water, the board of directors meets three times to debate shuttering Coney for good. It’s only the plentiful availability of cheap labor to rebuild the park that makes the difference between staying open and oblivion.
May 22, 1937
— The opening season of the park sets a record, with 6,976 park-goers attending.

July 7, 1938
— Louie Armstrong’s orchestra helps launch the opening of Sunlite Pool at Moonlite Gardens.

Sept. 9, 1947
— The Island Queen burns. Coney Island debates rebuilding the ship, but at a cost of $4 million, management decides to emphasize a bus commuter program. A parking lot is also built, a wise investment considering the rise of the automobile after World War II.
June 7, 1953
— Some joker named Walt Disney visits Coney on a fact-finding mission, trying to determine if this theme park thing might actually play in California. The owners, the Wachs family, play generous host.

Sept. 7, 1958
— It’s the end of a great season, as the new $100,000 “Turnpike” ride — a 1,875-foot-long attraction which crosses Lake Como — outpaces the Shooting Star roller-coaster as Coney’s most popular ride.
The 1960s
— Owner Gary Wachs shows an uncanny ability for booking live performers. Wayne Newton, Tijuana Brass, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the Osmond Brothers and others play Coney’s Moonlite Gardens.

July 1, 1969
— Taft Broadcasting Co., a Cincinnati broadcast behemoth best known for its Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters, purchases Coney for $6.5 million. But by 1971, Taft execs realize the only true growth comes with expansion. Since Coney is landlocked, eyes turn to 1,600 acres of available farmland in Kings Mills. The thought of a Kings Island theme park first emerges, and finally, Coney’s rides are moved there.

Sept. 6, 1971
— Coney’s amusement park is closed “for good.” then reopens in 1978.
July 4, 1984
— Riverbend Music Center opens on Coney land donated by Coney’s owners, with Ella Fitzgerald performing. The deal is this: Coney operates Riverbend’s food concessions and parking for all time. Suddenly, Coney Island is a going concern again.
June 1, 2008
— Thanks to the 1984 deal, Coney employs 1,150 seasonal workers to work both the amusement park
and the concession and parking operation at Riverbend. (This is in addition to the 37 full-time front office employees.)
June, 2008
— Riverbend opens the National City Pavilion, an intimate 4,100-seat concert arena that immediately borders Coney’s eastern side. This means park-goers will be treated to the sounds of any performer booked at the Nat City stage. Vic Nolting does little to hide his glee. n

Coney Island Visitor Information
Coney Island offers a 50-foot freefall Scream Machine, a family steel roller coaster dubbed the Python, Dodgems, Grand Carousel, Scrambler, Tilt-a-Whirl, Frog Hopper and more. Pedal-boat trips and bumper boats on Lake Como are a popular attraction for teens. Other features: A miniature golf course, a Ferris wheel, and a large, well-equipped playground that includes a Kids Town with miniature shops and homes. Located at 6201 Kellogg Ave., Anderson Township. Coney Island rides are open Memorial Day through Labor Day from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. It’s $19.95 for a combo pass to both Sunlite Pool and all the mechanical rides, or $10.95 for just Sunlite Pool and $10.95 for a ride pass. A single season pass is $115, a family season pass is $395. Parking is $6. (513) 232–8230 or www. coneyislandpark.com