Don Worthington

Carowinds’ upgrades focus on ‘business of making memories’

Mike Fehnel remembers the day like it was yesterday – even thought he was only 3 at the time.

It was a family outing to Hersheypark. Before boarding the Dry Gulch Railroad, a “marshal” gave Fehnel a bag of “gold,” telling him to protect it.

Fehnel remembers sitting on the gold as the train left the station with a long, piercing whistle and a whoosh of steam. It wasn’t too long before the train stopped and bandits went car to car, searching for the gold.

“I looked like Sylvester with Tweety bird in my mouth, but I kept the gold hidden,” Fehnel remembers. At the end of the ride, the “marshal” asked him if he had the gold. When Fehnel returned the bag, the “marshal” handed him an honorary badge.

At that moment – although he was too young to realize it – Fehnel found his lifelong passion. Operating a theme park is “the business of making memories, and it’s a very awesome responsibility,” he said.

In less than two months, Carowinds will open for the 2015 season with Fehnel in charge. He’s the new vice president and general manager, and his mission is to make memories.

But Carowinds, version 2015, is not your daddy’s or mommy’s Carowinds, much less your grandparents’ Carowinds. Even before the park closed its 2014 season with the annual Scarowinds spooktacular, changes were being made. Every part of the park – which opened March 31, 1973 – has been touched in dramatic ways.

Fury 325, which park officials say mimics the flight of a hornet, is getting the most publicity. Fury is the world’s tallest and fastest giga-coaster. It is the park’s 14th roller coaster. The Carolina Goldrusher wooden coaster was one of the park’s original rides. Each coaster that has followed has been bigger, faster and badder.

But Fury is one mad bug with a 63-second ascent to 325 feet, an 81-degree drop reaching speeds up to 95 miles per hour, and then a series of hills, curves and quick transitions. The second hill is 200-foot-tall – most theme parks don’t even have a coaster that tall. All told, Fury’s wrath is 3  1/2 minutes long.

“Fury is a repeatable ride, but it will take a lot out of you,” Fehnel said.

While Fehnel is a technology geek (he can tell you how much foot-pounds of force is needed to bolt the sections of Fury’s track together), he is decidedly old-school, too.

Fehnel grew up at one of America’s most iconic theme parks, Dorney Park near Allentown, Pa. He remembers going to the park and riding The Whip, one of the park’s first rides that was installed in 1920 and is still going strong today. He also liked the whale boats, paddle boats in the shape of a whale.

At 14, he started working at the park and, except for a few brief months when he thought he wanted to be a teacher, he worked his way up the Dorney ladder. He went from working in the games section to being general manager. “When I got to general manager, I thought I was at the finish line,” Fehnel said.

Then the call came from Carowinds and – knowing what was planned for the park – the Fehnels headed south.

It has been Fehnel’s job to oversee the transformation.

Gone is the Plantation House entrance, not an easy decision for park officials. But in its place is a new entrance without turnstiles but with the familiar line that marks the border between North and South Carolina. Fury crosses that line.

There’s a second new ride, the SlingShot – a pair of cables will catapult a two-person capsule nearly 300-feet into the air, nearly as high as the Statue of Liberty – at speeds up to 60 mph.

There’s going to lots of new food throughout the park, including Taste of the Carolinas on Saturdays and Sundays starting April 18 through May 17. New chef Kris Suita is making foods that celebrate all the Carolina regions, from the beaches to the mountains.

The park will be open more days, and there will also be more concerts and special events.

“I can’t remember any park making so many changes in such a short time,” Fehnel said. Owner Cedar Fair announced the improvements as part of a $50 million multiyear plan, but Fehnel admits they have spent almost that much this past year.

While the rides are dazzling and the events worth the wait, Fehnel knows that the people who work there bring Carowinds to life.

“We have to look back, stay true to our roots and celebrate Carolinas’ hospitality,” he said.

When it all comes together, Fehnel said the result is the nervous excitement you see on guest’s faces, “and that’s going to be exciting for us.” Success, he says comes “when you see pure innocence, pure joy, you know you have won the battle.”

Until the park opens, Fehnel will continue to remain the “coolest dad at day care” or the barber shop – everyone wants to ask him about the park.

And when Carowinds opens March 28, don’t be surprised if you find Fehnel and his 68-year-old mother, Nancy, in line to ride Fury 325. They would like to make it a three-generation trip, but son Carter might not be tall enough to meet the rides’ 54-inch height requirement, said Fehnel.

One suspects that mother, son and maybe even grandson would ride the Fury with the same anticipation that 3-year-old little Mikey had when he stepped on the Hersheypark ride. While there’s no place to hide a bag of gold on Fury, it will certainly be a golden moment of memories.