MAY 25, 2008

Text and images copyright Jay Ducharme 2008

The second park on our Coasterfest trip was Kennywood, the beautiful traditional park near Pittsburgh, PA. Karen and I made a trip there four years before. I'm glad we returned, because the park (and all its affiliated parks including nearby Idlewild and Lake Compounce) had just been purchased by Parques Reunidos of Madrid, Spain. Kennywood had been a family-owned and -operated park for over a century. The owners had a knack for being able to balance tradition and an appreciation of their heritage with an integration of new rides and technologies. I was worried about what the new owners might do to the parks in the long run. So this was a chance to see the "old" Kennywood one last time.

The temperature was only in the 30s, so we wore our sweatshirts. We stopped for breakfast at a McDonald's next to the park and then drove over to the parking lot entrance. We had been told to get there by 8:45 am, but no one was around. A maintenance working was picking up trash and we asked him where the gatekeeper was. He told us not to worry about it, so we drove in and parked next to the only other car in the lot, right at the entryway. A man stood next to the bright red vehicle. It was the inimitable Marty Moltz. We chatted for a while about cheese-on-a-stick, on which Marty is an unequivocal authority. He was disheartened by the shortage of that park delicacy. Fewer and fewer parks seemed to offer it. I told him about the predominantly southern chain Corn Dog 7, which always served cheese-on-a-stick. We chatted about Hawaii and other things while waiting for more people to arrive.

Eventually we walked down the stairs and over to the main entrance, which had been redesigned since our last visit. There was now a more formal egress area, and it was surrounded with stately brick walls. There was also a sign welcoming guests and reminding them of the park's National Historic Landmark status.

On our last visit, I had told Karen about all the flowers and landscaping the park had. She was a bit disillusioned to find that my statement seemed to be an exaggeration. But on this visit, as if to make up for the last time, the abundance of flowers was almost comical. We walked down the hill and through the entrance tunnel, emerging into the magical colorful world of Kennywood. We brought a change of shoes so we could go on the water rides without having soggy feet for the rest of the day. Our first stop was the locker pavilion, located next to the tunnel. To the right of the lockers was the Turnpike that had a gas station with a more palatable pricing structure than the big chains (fill 'er up for FUN). To the left was the large old windmill, quietly turning.

The whole park was quiet. There seemed to be a lot of trash scattered about the midway, and crews were hurridly picking it up. We had an "Exclusive Ride Time" session on the Jack Rabbit scheduled for 9:30, so that's where we headed. There were already a few other enthusiasts in line. We watched as the crew cycled a train and put a second one on the tracks. The trains, painted in very bright colors, were amazing to look at, with old Prior-and-Church-style flared backs and heavy padding. There were no traditional lap bars, just a stationary iron grab bar. Workers wiped down the train fronts and the seats. They cycled the trains through, and then the coaster opened for us. This venerable old John Miller ride was still a marvel. Karen and I took a seat in the middle of the comfy train. It rolled out of the station, circling to the left and then plunging down the ravine hidden behind the structure. We flew up into the dark tunnel, turned and then engaged the lift hill. The double-down off the lift flung us out of our seats. We bounced all the way back to the station. Even though the ride was really short, it was a lot of fun. And did I mention it was comfortable? We queued up for another ride and got the second seat. We had a much punchier ride, flying even harder out of our seats.

After that we wandered through the peaceful park, which was still closed to the general public. The game booths were all still shuttered but the doors were painted with various scenes to match nearby attractions, so that even a closed booth looked attractive. There didn't seem to be any area in the park that wasn't filled by something visually interesting. There was a large garden with a bronze statue of George Washington. Signs were placed around it with historical information about the park and the area. As we moved toward the center of the park, we passed a newer addition to the midway: a large Zamperla Disk'O ride named Cosmic Chaos. It was wonderfully themed to an alien invasion, with various extraterrestrial figures placed around the ride in humorous situations. One near the ride's entrance was holding a digital camera, presumably taking pictures of unsuspecting guests.

Beautiful landscaping abounded. The dancing waters were putting on a different display since the last time we were there. We decided to head toward the park's new dark ride. We were getting "First Ride of the Day" on it. Ghostwood Estates was taking the place of the old Gold Rusher mine-themed dark ride. Gold Rusher had a really peculiar station, requiring you to climb stairs to a long platform above and next to the stations for the Raging Rapids and the Thunderbolt coaster. The cars would travel along that platform before entering the actual ride area, which was located on the second story of a building that housed a stretch of game booths. I knew that the remodel had upset some members of the dark ride community. I also knew that Ghostwood Estates was a high-tech dark ride, with guns and targets like Lake Compounces' Ghost Hunt.

On the way there, we passed by the Asian-themed ice cream booth and the big bubble-like fountain with the flower clock behind it. We spotted the new entrance for Ghostwood Estates. It was really imposing, giving the appearance of a huge Victorian mansion. The detail in the building was impressive, from the old stone foundation to the cobwebs on the wrought-iron railings. A park supervisor was nearby and told me that the cobwebs were made with strands of hot glue (a painstaking process). The old overhang had been removed and the entire station was now on the second floor of the "mansion." The queue line snaked back and forth underneath the station. A stairway at the back led up and was accessed by a long corridor stretching back on the left. But I couldn't see how patrons got to the corridor in order to get up the stairs. Nothing else of the ride was visible. As was the case all over the park, a crew was busy cleaning up.

We relaxed in the shade. Gradually more people drifted over. About a half-hour later, we lined up in front of the queue. A spooky-but-not-scary soundtrack began playing on some unobtrusive high-quality speakers positioned around the building. A big-screen television at the back wall of the queue lit up and began showing videos and information about the park. After several more minutes, the queue line was opened. We were told to enter a door on the left, one that blended in so well with the surrounding wall that it was almost invisible. Fifty guests were brought into a small darkened area that looked like a living room. Spooky organ music was playing. A dim chandelier hung from the ceiling. There was a crackling (artificial) fireplace against one wall, and above it hung a sinister portrait (which was another big-screen TV hung sideways). The portrait was of our purported host. The room filled with people, the door closed and then the portrait came to life. A computer-generated version of our host told us how spirits had overrun his home. We had to help him get rid of them. He didn't look like the sort of chap I'd want to help, though. He explained that our four-seat vehicles were equipped with special guns. We had to aim at the flashing targets in the rooms. (That seemed like an odd instruction. Why not just shoot the spirits themselves?) He also warned us that at one point the ride would stop, and we were not to get our of our vehicles.

We were then ushered out a back door and through that long corridor. Karen and I ended up about three-quarters of the way back in the line. It took several more minutes to proceed up the stairs. A woman in front of us said she'd been on the ride already and loved it. I think she was a member of the Dark Ride and Fun House Enthusiasts. She also told us about the metal screening that was affixed to the stairway's handrails. The queue line was directly below the stairs, and she said she told the Kennywood management to block the view of the stairs or else kids would use their cell phones to take problematic images of the people above them on the stairs. And she said the group made suggestions to Kennywood about some stunts that were too close to riders and would get damaged.

When we finally arrived at the top of the stairs, I marvelled at the new trackless cars. There were faint outlines on the concrete surface corresponding to the marks left by the cars' tires. And there were intermittent sets of small metal plates. But outside of that, there was nothing to indicate that these cars would be following a pre-set path. I have no idea how they were powered. Karen and I got in the front of a car. The woman we were talking with got in the back seat, which was slightly higher. Our car mysteriously proceeded forward with a mind of its own. The door in front of us swung open and we were treated to a dazzling assortment of ghoulish scenes and dozens of animatronic figures. We were also overwhelmed with hundreds of flashing targets. Many didn't seem to correspond to anything. We certainly couldn't miss seeing them: the targets sported a red and white bullseye pattern and had flashing blue lights. I found them very distracting. Actually, the whole idea of shooting targets was distracting; I didn't have any time to take in the many elaborate stunts. The woman behind us at one point shouted, "Hit the birthday cake!" Karen did and a skeleton popped out of the top.

I saw another car pass by perpendicular to us, and that completely puzzled me. Cars normally don't cross paths in a dark ride. At the place where I saw the car pass, our car veered to the right and came to a dead end. The car stopped. There was an array of targets in front of us, so we kept shooting. Suddenly our car backed up and turned ninety degrees to the left, then continued down the path I saw the other car take. That amazed me. The ride was much longer than I expected. When we arrived back at the station, I hadn't scored that much and neither had Karen. I couldn't figure out how to aim the oddly-shaped "gun" (which looked more like a black pear on a fat stick). The woman behind us did quite well, though.

Overall, I think Kennywood did the right thing. The ride exterior was beautifully integrated with the surroundings. The area looked better than it had with the Gold Rusher. The ride itself was a technological tour-de-force. Time will tell how reliable those trackless cars will be. But it certainly was impressive. And the interior scenes (those I was able to spy when I wasn't frantically shooting) were extremely well-done. The only thing that bothered me were those ugly targets. I wish they had found a less obtrusive way to indicate shootable areas. Unlike Ghost Hunt, where the targets were usually integrated with the characters and scenery, the targets on Ghostwood Estates seemed almost like an afterthought. And they didn't seem to trigger very easily. I would have liked to have just ridden through and not shoot anything. But then, most of the stunts wouldn't have functioned (since direct hits triggered the actions).

We left Ghostwood Estates. The park had officially opened. Karen paused for a picture at the nearby Thunderbolt sign. The air had begun warming up, so we went back to our locker to stow our sweatshirts. On the way we passed by the old and rare Kangaroo ride, which sort of simulated driving off a cliff over and over again. A four-piece street band was performing in front of the locker building. Perhaps because the park's season had just begun, they seemed a bit hesitant and uncomfortable. We climbed the stairs and went to our locker. We were suprised to discover that once we opened the locker, that was then end of our dollar. Each time we took anything our or wanted to put something else in, it would cost another dollar. But we bit the bullet and paid.

It was almost noon and we were a bit hungry, so we headed to the Parkside Cafe. The menu there gave us vegetarians plenty of options. We both opted for the tuna sandwich. It was on a thick sort of panini bread. We sat out on the porch and ate. Unfortunately, the panini was quite dry. Otherwise it was okay. We could hear the happy sounds of the band organ from the nearby carousel. It contrasted with the grumpy cashier inside the cafe. We then walked back toward the park entrance. Garfield's Nightmare (formerly Kennywood's old mill ride) had a long line, so we passed on that and instead queued up for the Turnpike. I liked how the old jalopies made a clattering sound as they ran through their course. The cars required nothing from the riders; they were completely automatic -- no gas pedal and not much steering either. But the ride was peaceful, picturesque and long (over four minutes).

We headed for the Raging Rapids. Along the way were more nicely landscaped displays. We also passed by "The Lumberjack Show," a large area near the center of the park with bleachers and lots of wood. We never did see the show. I assume it was a woodcutting demonstration. The Rapids didn't have much of a line. The first time I rode it (back in 1991), the water was a distressingly dark green color and stunk. This year the water was crystal clear. There really wasn't much to the ride itself. The troughs were rather mild. But it did have a couple of drenching waterfalls. I've never been a fan of those type of rapids rides, where it's essentially a crap shoot as to who gets wet. On Thunder Rapids at Lake Compounce, everybody got wet because of the well-designed trough. Here it all depended on whether you were in just the right position going through the waterfall. We rode with four children. The ride was pleasant, like a fast flume. There were numerous lookout stations along the course. As luck would have it, the kids got drenched under the waterfall. Karen and I got mildly wet in comparison. That was fine with us.

To dry off, we stood in the sunny line for the Thunderbolt. In front of us was the towering second hill of the Phantom's Revenge. The loud clacking of that coaster's lift hill could be heard all around the park (as could the whooshing of air from the nearby Swingshot). The two coasters intertwined, traversing the same ravine. The Thunderbolt crew added another train while we waited, and that sped things up considerably. It was fun to watch the trains circle around us. And I was glad to see that Kennywood still had those wonderful National Amusement Device trains. Next door to the station, the classic Turtle ride (one of the few remaining) was in full swing. It wasn't as punchy as Whalom Park's used to be, but it was still fun. I wondered why companies haven't built new versions of them.

We finally boarded the front seat, and off we went down that first drop out of the station, across the ravine with a pop of airtime, around the corner and then up the lift. What followed next was what the Thunderbolt was all about: we flew through the double helix and were crushed over to the left side of the train. Those were some of the most intense lateral forces on any coaster. Then we hopped back down the ravine, turned and jumped back down and up the hill and hit the brakes. The Thunderbolt, like the Jack Rabbit, was another classic Kennywood ride that didn't thrill or terrify but instead brought a smile to my face, as it has every time I've ridden it. It was just plain fun.

We knew the source of the delightful smell coming from the building next to the Thunderbolt. Karen couldn't resist some of Kennywood's delicious Potato Patch french fries. While she waited for her treat, I walked to the opposite side of the midway for one of my all-time favorite walk-thru fun houses, Noah's Ark. This ride was another demonstration of Kennywood's commitment to their heritage. The fun house had been modified numerous times over the years, but the essense of it always remained. And the park recently spent an enormous amount of money overhauling it, to make sure it continued enthralling new generations of guests. As with Ghostwood Estates, groups of people were let in at once. There were lots of ingenious stunts, like the transparent floor looking down onto corpses below. But the hallmark of the ride was the gigantic rocking ark itself. It, combined with all sorts of tilted floors, created one of the most disorienting experiences I've ever encountered. That strange drunken sensation stayed with me for quite a while after I had left the ride.

I met back up with Karen, who was still in line for her fries. In fact, the Potato Patch had four long continuous lines all day. The park was rapidly filling up. Some areas were getting so congested that people were shoulder-to-shoulder. Next to the Potato Patch was the colorful corn dog stand, which looked like a giant birthday cake. (Alas, no cheese-on-a-stick!) It was then about 2:00, so we headed over to Pavilion 13 for our free all-you-can-eat buffet. Mary Lou Rosemeyer, Kennywood's media representative, was there. She talked about the park and handed out some door prizes by asking questions of the group. ("Who here has traveled the farthest?") The meal was quite good: cole slaw, rolls and some tasty pasta with marinara sauce.

The Log Jammer flume ride, with its unique bunny hop near the end of the ride, was next to us. Karen didn't feel like getting wet again, so we passed on that. We were going to take a spin on the paddle boats, but the pond was too crowded. So we walked toward the Lost Kennywood section of the park. We passed by the whimsically landscaped Pirate ride. I stopped at the Big Dipper ice cream stand and got some really tasty Blueberry Cheesecake ice cream. Then we entered the Lost Kennywood area, which was almost like a different park. The Pittsburg Plunge shoot-the-chutes ride was sending out a huge splash into its long pool. The sound of the many large fountains made it seem like we were standing at the edge of a dam. Phantom's Revenge was roaring by. Karen decided to pass on it, choosing to spend time relaxing by the water and visiting the gift shop. But I got in line and encountered the same coaster enthusiast I rode Ravine Flyer II with on the previous day. Phantom was running two trains, and the line moved fairly quickly. While waiting we were afforded some great views of the layout, including the huge sweeping turnaround, the curve around the Turtle and the hidden bunny hops back to the station. In a few minutes we were in the front seat and rolling up the noisy lift. We had a long look at the vast parking areas across the street. Then the track dipped and turned 180 degrees right and we were flying down. We zipped across the long flat run and zoomed up the second hill which curved slightly to the right. Then came the 230-foot plunge off the cliff and through the structure of the Thunderbolt. The ride was very smooth and extremely fast. We flew through the big arching turn, the short tunnel and then I braced myself for the high-speed bunny hops back to the station. It was like riding a bucking bronco, with severe jolts of airtime the whole way. Like all of Kennywood's coasters, it was short but sweet. There was a lot of action packed into a relatively small area.

I met up with Karen near the ride's exit. We headed over to the gift shop. On our previous visit, she had gotten a really nice straw hat there (which got ruined in a thunderstorm at Cedar Point). But unfortunately that style of hat was now nowhere to be found in the park. They did have a nice collection of art prints, though, plus the usual assortment of magnets and pins. We purchased a few items. I asked about a print of Noah's Ark. The attendant said they'd have to get one from the stock room. So we said we'd come back.

We were going to take another ride on Ghostwood Estates, but the queue line was completely filled. So instead we walked over to the Olde Kennywood Railroad, which sported a terrific art deco engine. The entrance was next to another historic display, the Laughing Sal figure which used to becon guests into one of Kennywood's many fun houses long ago. The railroad traveled along the edge of the park's cliffside. It normally featured narration, but this time the ride was taken in silence. It was peaceful and relaxing. As we passed by some of the statues of figures from Pittsburgh's past, I heard some riders wonder aloud who they were. Perhaps the park could add plaques beside the dioramas for the times when the sound isn't working.

We then lined up for the Traver-built Auto Race, the last ride of its kind in existence. I took the front seat and Karen took the back. I'm still amazed how fast the cars travel through the wooden trough. It's another one of those Kennywood rides that left us smiling.

We then strolled through the colorful Kiddieland, one of the largest areas just for kids that I've ever seen in a park. The drop tower there, Bounce Bounce, illustrated how Kennywood truly was a family park: there were not only kids but also a mother, father and a grandmother all on the ride together. I wistfully gazed at the kiddie coaster, Lil' Phantom, which was nearly identical to the old Schiff kiddie coaster I used to operate at Mountain Park.

We were running out of steam and had another early morning the next day. Karen really wanted to see the park's spectacular display of neon lighting. So as night gradually encroached, we walked back toward the Lost Kennywood section. On the way, we stopped to watch a juggler perform on a unicycle. He was sort of the Don Rickles of acrobats, throwing out sarcastic comments to the audience as he went through his routines. We walked into the Lost Kennywood gift shop. I picked up the print of Noah's Ark. We went back out onto the midway. The Pittsburg Plunge had been shut down. Even though darkness was falling, none of the lights were coming on. We stopped to ask a security guard about that. He seemed puzzled, saying that the lights should already have come on. We played a nearby water gun game, and I won a little stuffed penguin for Karen. Gradually, the lights popped on. We walked up onto the bridge overlooking the giant pool and stared out at the fountains. Normally at night, the fountains continually changed color. But it wasn't dark enough to notice at that point. As we left Lost Kennywood, Karen pointed out that the "Goodnight" heart was missing from the exit.

A few neon lights were shining. The Phantom's Revenge was silhouetted against the setting sun. The midway was finally coming to life. Cosmic Chaos was thrilling its riders. The Jack Rabbit was glowing with its neon stars. We finally were witnessing that art deco wonderland that we remembered and loved. We stopped at our locker to collect our stuff and then headed for the exit. And there, above the tunnel, hung the "Goodnight" heart that Karen had spoken of.

It was a testament to Kennywood that Karen and I really didn't do all that much during the day. We didn't go on very many rides. We didn't rush around to try to cover every area of the park. We didn't have to. We just relaxed and soaked up the ambiance of the park. And we once again had a good time. To me, this was the perfect kind of amusement park, one that let us forget the cares of the day and simply be delighted by the sights, sounds and smells around us. I hoped Parques Reunidos understood this, and would allow this beautiful place to continue to make wonderful memories for generations to come.

Return to Karen and Jay's Excursions