May 28, 2016

copyright Jay Ducharme 2016

Another day in Pennsylvania meant another Bob Evans breakfast.  So much for my diet.  Then it was a fifteen minute drive to the first park on tap for the Western New York Coaster Club's 35th annual Coasterfestâ„¢:  Kennywood, just outside of Pittsburgh.  The entire park was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987 and retained its frozen-in-time feeling while also adding new attractions and continuing to evolve.  It was a tricky balancing act that the park has succeeded at managing.  For about a century, it was family owned and operated.  But in 2007, the park (and its other holdings, including nearby Idlewild Park) were sold to Spain's Parques Reunidos.  Kennywood was long known for its yellow arrows placed along streets in neighboring communities to help people navigate the convoluted route to the park.  In this era of widespread GPS, the arrows had become more nostalgic than practical.

Our check-in time at the park was scheduled for 9:45.  We arrived about a half-hour early and bided our time exploring a nearby strip mall on a hill that offered panoramic views of the park.  Kennywood was built on a cliffside overlooking the Monogahela River and the old steel mills of Pittsburgh.  That topography afforded the park some interesting opportunities when building their coasters, which all utilize the steep drops.

The day was sunny but extremely hot, even in the morning.  We paid $7 for "preferred parking" next to the entrance gate.  Kennywood's parking lot was so vast that they built a sky ride to shuttle guests to the far end.  The lot was also across the street from the park, as were the ticket booths.  Karen and I entered the plaza beyond the decorative iron archway and stood near the carousel fountain as the club members began arriving.  Karen and I chatted with members both familiar and new to us.  Scottie talked to me at length about the challenges of running a vape store as the government was moving to shut them all down.  Geff and Noreen talked about their wedding on the Ravine Flyer II at Waldameer Park.

Shane, one of Kennywood's managers, arrived, gave us our wristbands and walked us down through the tunnel under the highway and into the park for our Exclusive Ride Time on the park's well-regarded 1920 John Miller wood coaster, Jack Rabbit.  It was still running its classic 1947 trains with rare stationary lap bars.  The park was running both of its trains and allowed members to stay on if they wanted to.  Karen and I went for a ride in the second seat, and then took another in the front seat.  It was a really enjoyable ride, mild enough yet thrilling.  I always wondered what first time riders thought of the famous and surprising first drop.  After a half hour, the club members gathered together for a group photo and then we were free to go our separate ways until the buffet at 4:00.

Since the day was going to be another hot one, I decided to film my obligatory park walk-thru early in the day.  Kennywood's midway wasn't very straightforward; there were lots of intertwining paths, which made filming the walk-thru a challenge.  But after forty minutes or so, I met up with Karen at the park's art deco Johnny Rockets diner.  She was having cheese fries and I got a vanilla milkshake.  The diner was peppered with nostalgic signs from Kennywood's past

We left the diner and passed by the Kangaroo, one of the few left of those classic rides.  I used to love it when I was younger; my back wouldn't survive it now.  The ride basically simulated a roller coaster drop, over and over and over again.  Or maybe it was more like an ejector seat.  But you could see people fly up into the air as it sped over the ski-jump-like track.

In front of the nearby arcade was a sign advertising free charging stations for mobile devices.  It was bascially a corner of the room with park benches and power strips.  But I thought that was a thoughtful convenience for guests.  Next to the arcade was Garfield's Nightmare, a.k.a. the Old Mill.  It was a dark ride with boats, and was one of the oldest rides still standing in the park.  It had been re-themed numerous times.  In 2004, the park inked a deal with Jim Davis, the creator of the comic strip Garfield, and had a lot of themed tie-ins across all their parks.  This was the last remaining tie-in.  I wondered how many kids now knew who Garfield was, or cared.  The queue line was nicely designed.  The ride operator gave us our special glasses as we boarded the old wooden boat.  The glasses weren't the typical polarized 3D glasses you'd get in a movie theater; they were odd prismatic ones.  It caused everything to break up into colorful star-like patterns.  I found that the ride looked a lot better without them.  Many of the stunts inside the ride were no longer functioning, but they were amazingly colorful.  Garfield's narration for each scene was on a loop, and since the boats moved so slowly the loop would usually restart before we passed by the scene.  Other than that, it was an amusing and relaxing trip.  I had a feeling that this incarnation of the ride wouldn't be around for much longer, though.

Next to the Garfield, abutting the tunnel entrance, was one of the newer rides, Sky Rocket, an intense launched steel coaster that took the place of the old turnpike ride.  I overheard a father entering the park with his little son.  He wasn't showing him Sky Rocket, but instead telling him, "This is where the Turnpike used to be."  It's interesting how powerful nostalgia is.

We walked to the opposite end of the park's south side, to Log Jammer, the park's unique flume.  It's the only flume I know of that has a roller-coaster-like dip in the middle of it.  The builder, Arrow Development, somehow got the water to run uphill at that point.  It was a pretty impressive piece of engineering.  The ride itself was a lot of fun, getting us just wet enough to feel refreshed.  It also gave us some impressive views of the huge Racer roller coaster next door.

We followed the midway north to the Auto Race, but it was closed for repairs.  So instead we went next door to the Olde Kennywood Railroad.  The park had placed a new animated sign there.  It was pretty clever, with the engine coming out of the sign, rocking back and forth, and the tracks underneath it seeming to roll by.  A small boy must have assumed I worked at the park, because he walked up to me an began asking all sort of questions.  "What's that track for?"  "What's that other train for?"  "Where is the train now?"  "How does that sign work?"  I answered as many of his questions as I could before his mother dragged him away.  Soon the beautiful Art Deco engine rolled into the station and we boarded for a pleasant ride alongside the cliff overlooking the Monogahela River.  Speakers on the train played a narration of the park's history.  At the ride's turnaround, there used to be an homage to Pittsburgh's steel workers.  That was replaced with billboards depicting various highlights of Kennywood's history.

The Auto Race was running again, so we queued up for that.  That was the story at Kennywood: if a ride went down, the crew had it back up and running quickly.  Auto Race was the last existing auto ride designed by the legendary Harry Traver.  The park kept it in great shape.  Like most car rides, it took a while for the queue line to move.  But eventually we climbed into the narrow seats and we were on our way.  The wood track course was extremely compact, occupying relatively little space.  But the design was such that the course kept doubling back on itself, making for a surprisingly long ride.  It was really enjoyable.

From there we walked over to Ghostwood Estates, the park's hi-tech dark ride.  It occupied two levels.  Guests boarded at the lower level and in groups were escorted into a room for a pre-show.  An animated picture told us that we needed to eradicate ghosts from the mansion.  The concept and story were similar to Lake Compounce's Ghost Hunt.  We had ghost blasters in our car to shoot targets.  The cars eerily followed an invisible path without a track.  Unlike Ghost Hunt, though, the stunts inside this ride were elaborate animatronics.  We had to shoot the targets to make the stunts do something, but I would have much rather sat back and enjoyed the show.  There was an awful lot to look at.  I could have easily ridden the ride repeatedly and have seen new things each time.

Across from Ghostwood Estates was the great Thunderbolt roller coaster.  I would have liked to have ridden it, but the line was really long and we were starting to wither in the heat.  Instead I stopped at the nearby fresh lemonade stand while Karen went to the corn dog stand and got a Diet Pepsi, but which turned out to be a regular Pepsi.  The line at the lemonade stand was slow-moving, and the clerk there repeatedly apologized for the fact, tossing the blame onto her co-worker who was actually making the drinks.  After about 10 minutes, I had my cup.  The lemonade was good, if small.

Since it was right next door, I had to experience one of my favorite rides in the park: Noah's Ark.  These walk-through fun houses once were a staple of many parks all over the world.  But now only two remained, and Kennywood had one of them.  This season the ride was given another makeover, restoring the giant whale out front.  You entered through its mouth over a squishy tongue.  It was a classic fun house, with pitch-black hallways and tilted corridors.  The entire giant ark itself with twisting hallways inside would rock back and forth and was completely disorienting.  There were lots of amusing and colorful stunts.  The ending of the ride was absolutely dizzying, with a long walkway through a rotating barrel.  It was the best use of that effect I've ever experienced and I emerged into daylight feeling a bit wobbly.

After that we strolled through Lost Kennywood, a sort of mini-park to the north.  Phantom's Revenge, the giant steel coaster, was stuck on the lift hill.  But in a few minutes, the ride was cycling again.  We watched the Black Widow, a giant Frisbee ride, go through its motions.  It was absolutely huge and perfectly positioned on the edge of the cliff.  It also had a terrific entrance ensnared by a huge menacing spider.  We sat in the shade of some trees and watched the ride swing back and forth as Phantom's Revenge continued to cycle.

We were both starting to overheat a bit.  We left Lost Kennywood.  Karen got some water and I got an Icee.  We sat inside the air-conditioned Parkside Cafe to cool off a bit.  By then it was after 3:00 and almost time for our buffet meal.  So we headed for our picnic pavilion.  Along the way we passed by the park's big 1927 Dentzel carousel.  Earlier in the day, the band organ was working.  But maybe it also had heat exhaustion because a recording was playing instead.

Our pavilion was at the south end of the park.  I hadn't realized that there were so many pavilions at Kennywood!  The location offered some great views of the Jack Rabbit and Racer.  The park staff brought the food over and gradually the club members arrived.  There weren't many vegetarian options for me or Karen, but we had enough with some penne pasta, a makeshift sandwich of cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and onions, and some Cole slaw.  For the meat eaters, there were plenty of options including the usual hamburgers.  But the club was also the testing ground for a new lamb gyro Kennywood was introducing as an option.  We relaxed for a while, chatting, thankful for the shade of the pavilion.  I walked over to look at the back end of Sky Rocket and noticed that all the bolts on the structure's footers seemed to be coming out.  At first it looked alarming, but there was another set of bolts holding down each structural post as well.   I was sure Kennywood wouldn't have allowed something so egregious to slip by.  But it looked odd.
Afterwards, we headed over to the park's 4D theater to watch an Ice Age cartoon in the comfort of air conditioning.  In fact, that's how the park advertised the show -- come in out of the heat for 12 minutes.  The movie was cute, with the usual 4D gimmicks of bubbles, wind and seat vibrations.  The character of Scrat, the saber-tooth squirrel, was a sort of updating of the old Road Runner/Coyote cartoons.  And judging by the audience reaction (mostly kids), the character was really popular.

Following our 12 minute cool-down, we headed back to Lost Kennywood to have some Rita's Frozen Custard.  It was refreshing, especially eating it next to the giant fountain and waterfall.  After that, we entered the nearby gift shop.  On past trips, we had acquired some beautiful Kennywood artwork there.  The shop didn't have any this time.  But they did have a wooden Kennywood arrow for sale.  Karen bought it for me as a Father's Day present.  I also got a book about Kennywood and a magnet.  Then we walked over to the gift shop near the Thunderbolt for a t-shirt I wanted.  And that completed our day at Kennywood.

On the way out, we stopped next to Cowboy Joe to swap yarns with Bob and Yvonne Wheeler from the club, and we were soon joined by Geff and Noreen Ford.  They all admired our latest acquisition.  Then we parted ways.

Kennywood offered us more to do than many other parks we've been to.  On most rides, we could see parents and grandparents riding together with their kids.  And that to me is what parks are all about.  They're a family pastime.  As we've done in the past, we would really need to spend a couple days at Kennywood to fully enjoy it.  There were many rides we didn't go on simply because we thought we'd pass out waiting in line in the heat.  There were other rides, like the flume and the train, that we could have go on over and over.  Kennywood has molded itself into a true family park with friendly employees, classic rides and a beautiful setting.  It was sad to leave, but it was refreshing to know that a park left me wanting more.  And I knew we'd return again one day to enjoy this classic American amusement park.

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