Whether inside his office or anywhere across Family Kingdom Amusement Park in Myrtle Beach, the Swamp Fox Roller Coaster whirring by overhead remains sweet second nature to Donnie Sipes.
The park’s general manager since September 1993, Sipes said he has enjoyed seeing the site — acquired in the late 1980s by the Ammons family locally and revamped for three years after Hurricane Hugo made landfall in McClellanville in 1989 — grow to 38 rides this year from 16 at the start of his tenure.
Four rides were added in 2013, and two more — the Jump Around Dune Buggies and Magic Bikes — both from the former Hard Rock/Freestyle Amusement Park, gained a new home at Ocean Boulevard and Third Avenue South starting this year.
Nodding to the ocean, he said he remembers when only “one to two motels” operated on the beach in the park’s view.
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“As Myrtle Beach grew, we grew,” he said Monday afternoon during a tour around the 13-acre site, where the number of families milling about grows in waves nightly, from about 7:30-7:45 p.m., building to “peak time” of 9-9:30 p.m.
“It’s totally different from day to night,” Sipes said, “how the park transforms.”
The Swamp Fox coaster — reaching speeds into the low 40s in a figure-eight design, and named after Francis Marion, a S.C. general who helped win the Revolutionary War — as well as the 1-year-old Twist ’n Shout steel coaster, the Ferris Wheel and Log Flume water ride, make up some of Family Kingdom’s signature rides, Sipes said.
All four of those, along with the Slingshot Drop Zone, which plummets 110 feet in just seconds — and where Sipes said people gather daily on benches to watch it plunge to a soft landing — afford riders coastline views.
A family that plays together ...
Many of these rides let parents and children, who are subject to meeting height rules for safety, take in thrills and laughs together.
In the same concourse as the Slingshot, the Pistolero Round-up, an interactive dart ride on rails, a shooting gallery for which scores are tallied, made its international debut at Family Kingdom, Sipes said, deeming it “a good repeat ride” with customers eager to go in for additional rounds.
Anyone with the drive to cruise in antique cars has two tracks from which to choose: electric-powered vehicles underneath part of the Swamp Fox course and Kings Model T’s, fueled by gasoline, in the log flume area by Ocean Boulevard.
The Philadelphia Toboggan Co. built not only the Swamp Fox, but also the carousel, racing along South Kings Highway with 32 horses, in 1923, Sipes said. The “Kiddie Land” attractions number 17, so young children who want to do things on their own have their own realm for rides.
“This is why we have been here so long,” he said. “Myrtle Beach is all about families. That’s why it’s in our name.”
The park employs in peak season — summer — about 125 individuals, including many behind the scenes, such as ticket sales, food preparation, security, maintenance, video arcade staffing and in overnight property cleaning, while another 35 crew members man the sister Splashes Oceanfront Water Park across the street.
Through the years, with the park season running from about two weeks before Easter into weekends at the start of October, Sipes said the shoulder seasons before and after summer, stay steady periods for turnout, especially for local residents who might like lighter crowd volune. The bite of a new season hits in earnest for Sipes and colleagues about six to eight weeks before opening, he said, and Labor Day brings “the feel of fall,” with daytime lengths shortening.
“Every day is exciting to us, especially to me,” said Sipes, no matter what the day or time of year.
Even the music playing throughout the park — including Andy Gibb, Aerosmith, Sister Sledge and the Little River Band — and classic “American Top 40” countdown shows by the late Casey Kasem, salute the 1970s and ’80s, Sipes said, to trigger memories for the parents and grandparents sharing new moments to savor with their families.
Standing on a footbridge over Withers Swash, with its water depth shallow from the ocean’s low tide, Sipes said watching people, especially youngsters’ expressions, fill a portion of every workday.
Wildlife, celebrity perks
Other visitors on the property also catch Sipes’ eye, such as a great white egret that stepped softly Monday evening before spearing a fish that soon went down its hatch, whole and headfirst. Seeing a duck brood grow and fledge over the summer, great blue herons stop by to find their own meals, and the streams of silver minnows making their own ripples in the tidal channel, as Sipes pointed out Monday, add to his extra sightseeing.
Corralling memories with Kimber Goolsby, the park office manager, also in her 22nd season, Sipes reveled in recounting the various celebrities who have paid the park a visit, whether for pleasure or their own professional ventures.
A native of Rocky Mount, N.C., Sugar Ray Leonard, the 1976 Olympic light-welterweight champion and Boxing Hall of Fame member, was the first name Sipes cited, among the various professional athletes passing through.
Family Kingdom provided settings for parts of the movies “Chasers,” released in 1984; “Shag,” 1988; and a “Hallmark Hall of Fame” TV story that premiered in December on ABC, “Christmas in Conway.”
Goolsby called actor Andy Garcia, playing a husband trying to give his recuperating wife a Ferris wheel ride in their yard, “very nice” when on hand for that yuletide production work. Cameras for the former HBO adult series “Eastbound & Down” also have used the park, as did country superstar Kenny Chesney.
Sipes and Goolsby said Chesney spent “12 to 14 hours” in one session shooting takes for the music video to “Anything But Mine” — the midpoint of the 11 songs that make up his “When the Sun Goes Down” CD from 2004.
The park’s Hurricane ride takes center stage in multiple scenes, and although Goolsby guessed Chesney’s height at about 5 feet, 6 inches, the design of the videography, often looking slightly upward at him, made the singer look taller against the backdrop of his band and the clockwise rolling, illuminated ride in motion.
“I’m in the video,” Goolsby said. “If you slow it down, you can see me.”
Amusement prevails for her whenever coaster enthusiast groups visit Family Kingdom because she sees them eager to do every ride with rails they can, besides the Swamp Fox.
Goolsby, who said she appreciates seeing a nighttime reflection of the Ferris wheel in the swash, also summed up years of experience of what she has observed with families across the park: “If the kids are happy, the parents are happy.”