News & Politics

"Kings Dominion Law" Still Reigns in Virginia

Kids in the District and Maryland go back to school this week, but Virginia's students get another week of vacation thanks to the theme-park industry.

The Intimidator 305 at Kings Dominion looks a lot more fun than homework. Photograph by Flickr user Edward Beavers.

Kids in DC and Maryland are trudging back to school today, but for their peers in Virginia, summer vacation is still going. The Commonwealth’s students don’t start class until next week, thanks to the state’s powerful amusement-park lobby.

Virginia prohibits city and county school districts from starting class before Labor Day, thanks to a 1986 law designed to give an extra week’s worth of busy crowds to the state’s tourism industry, especially theme parks like Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens. Despite many attempts by some legislators to allow local school systems to set their own calendars, the law survives, largely thanks to regular donations from amusement park operators, giving the statute its nickname of the “Kings Dominion Law.”

Between 2001 and 2013, Kings Dominion gave $226,544 to candidates and political action committees around the state, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. The park is equally generous with free admission. Over the same period, it gave at least 324 free tickets—current face value $54—to lawmakers. (The actual number is much higher, as several finance reports did not disclose how many free tickets the park gave.) The roller-coaster lobby was even more prolific before Anheuser-Busch sold Busch Gardens. Between 2001 and 2009, when it dumped the Williamsburg amusement park, the beer giant gave nearly $1 million to Virginia lawmakers, political parties, and campaign funds, along with its share of free tickets.

Aside from the occasional waiver—schools that miss an average of at least eight days a year can start before Labor Day—the “Kings Dominion Law” appears to be safe from any legislative attempts to allow districts to set their own calendars. (Update: Schools in Winchester city, and Frederick, Clarke, and Fauquier counties got waivers and started last week.) A bill that would have overturned the 1986 act died in the state Senate last year, while one in the House of Delegates has been stuck in committee since February. Even if the bill is recusitated when lawmakers reconvene, it’s unlikely to win the signature of Governor Terry McAuliffe, who sounds like a friend of Big Tilt-a-Whirl.

“As a general rule, I do not support going [to school] before Labor Day, but I clearly would be open to looking at specific circumstances,” McAuliffe told the Roanoke Times in January. “A lot of people have talked to me, a lot of folks who have made massive investments in our tourism business.”

Kings Dominion’s parent company, Ohio-based Cedar Fair, isn’t among McAuliffe’s donors, but he’s still got plenty of reason to be sympathetic to the park’s cause. His 2013 campaign took in about $134,000 from amusement parks, sports teams, and other recreational ventures, according to donor records.

Meanwhile, kids in Virginia can take it easy until September 2. There are plenty of ways to enjoy the waning days of summer vacation—doing something on the water, biking and hiking, catching up on old episodes of The Simpsons—though state law clearly prefers they spend it at the amusement park. At least the line for the Intimidator 305 should be pretty short this week.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.