|On Wednesday, August 25th, Karen and I drove about five hours from Knoebel's to Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh. It would have taken an hour less if I hadn't left Knoebel's in the wrong direction. But we got to travel through some quaint villages on a bright sunny day. We checked into our Days Inn in Monroeville, about a twenty minute drive from Kennywood. The hotel had a good deal: one night's stay and two park admissions for $99. We booked a room for two nights.
It really was amazing to think how many people this park attracts. True, it's next to a major city. (Kennywood isn't really in Pittsburgh; it's in West Mifflin.) But getting to the park from the nearest highway was tricky. There were those three famous strategically-placed Kennywood arrows to help, but two of them were really small and easy to miss. The journey entailed traveling through heavy traffic down one of the narrowest and hilliest streets I've ever been on. It reminded me of San Francisco, with streets to either side either dropping steeply down out of view or rising up so sharply the street seemed more like a brick wall. (There was a lot of cobblestone.) Old houses were packed tightly together, often with two flights of stairs just to get to the front porch. A drive over a long crumbling bridge afforded a tantalizing view of the park's Phantom's Revenge and Pitt Fall. At the end of the bridge, on a hillside, was a gigantic yellow Kennywood arrow pointing left down another highway which traveled along the edge of a tall cliff. After about a mile, the park came into view on the left. The parking lot was on the opposite side of the highway. There was a series of three huge tiered parking areas rising up a hill. "Preferred Parking" cost $4, and it appeared most guests were taking advantage of it; the free parking areas were practically empty. So we paid the nominal fee. We drove under a Sky Ride identical to the one at Lake Compounce (which Kennywood owns). It wasn't running, and was simply a way to get guests from the uppermost parking area down to the entrance. The lot had numbered sections named for various rides. We parked in the Pitt Fall area.
This was Karen's first time to the park. I had been there only once before, for an American Coaster Enthusiast convention in 1991. My memories of the park were very hazy. Once we parked, we walked through an opening in the parking lot's chain link fence. There was a long row of small trees in large concrete planters, and beyond that the iron entrance gates. We were still technically in the parking lot. The entrance was quaint and nondescript. It didn't really visually say too much about the park. There was a sort of steeple-like structure with a clock and the name Kennywood. A metal sign out front proclaimed the park a National Historic Landmark. About a half-dozen ticket booths with gabled roofs were painted green. Beyond that were the turnstiles. We handed our tickets from the hotel and passed through some noisy metal detectors. Security was doing a thorough job of scrutinizing everyone. Beyond the turnstiles was an asphalt path lined with trees and flowers that curved downward and to the left, adjacent to the highway. It led to a long concrete tunnel underneath the highway. I do remember on my last visit that patrons were able to cross the highway at a crosswalk in front of what was then The Steel Phantom, or you could take the tunnel. The ticket booths were actually in the park. But now the only way in was through the tunnel.
We emerged from the tunnel and walked into another world. It was as if the highway didn't exist. We were suddenly in an amusement park, which previously was hidden from view. It was almost magical. And I barely recognized any of it. To our right was the Turnpike, an antique car ride with electric cars on a track (similar to a kiddie ride). It was at the extreme southeastern edge of the park. To our left was the Grand Prix (bumper cars). In front of us was a large dutch windmill and Garfield's Nightmare. Just beyond that was a ride I hadn't seen in a long time, the Kangaroo. Riverside and Waldameer used to have that ride. Cars that looked like Scrambler seats with a single wheel on the bottom were attached to a center post, around which they turned. There was a sort of ski jump, about six feet high. Each car would roll up the ski jump. At the end of the jump a piston would ease the car back down to the ground. The piston produced a sort of hiccup that would bounce riders up out of their seats. Everyone seemed to be having a great time on it.
Karen and I queued up for Garfield's Nightmare. It was once the famous "Old Mill" ride, a sort of Tunnel of Love with various dioramas. In its most recent incarnation, it was given a western theme and the unwieldy name of Hardheaded Harold's Horrendously Humorous Haunted Hideaway. That seemed to fit the ride's character. The new entrance was up a flight of stairs to the left of the ride and across a bridge. To the right about level with the bridge was a large flat area filled with stones and running water which formed a waterfall. Stairs led down to the right and into the main queue line in front of the building housing the entrance and exit tunnels for the boats. They were still the same old Philadelphia Toboggan Company boxy wooden structures, sort of like inelegant canoes. Against the building was a giant water wheel. Up to the left on the building were two shutters that continuously opened and closed, revealing a terrified-looking Garfield. There were video monitors in the queue line, but because of the glare from the sun they were nearly impossible to view. They played a video about the history of the ride. It was mentioned that the water wheel was motor driven and provided the water motion necessary to keep the boats floating through the trough. The video also featured an interview with Garfield's creator Jim Davis.
The premise of the ride (as explained in the video) is that Garfield the cat has overindulged on pizza and is having a nightmare where everything in his life comes back to taunt him. After about a twenty minute wait, the ride operators handed us 3-D glasses as we boarded. The boat we were in had taken on water and seemed a bit lopsided. A long wood flap held it against the platform. When the flap was released, we gently drifted toward the tunnel entrance. What followed was hands-down the most colorful ride I've ever been on. Everything was painted in garish day-glow colors and lit with black-lights. Basically, there would be a series of Garfield comic panels, one after the other, to set up a joke. We would round a corner and there would be a diorama that often acted as the punch line. Some of them were effective, some were not. I'm not sure what the purpose of the 3-D glasses was, except to make things blurry. There were only a few times that a scene appeared to be vaguely 3-D. I really like rides like the Old Mill. The one at Dorney was interesting (if slightly repulsive). There would be passages through darkness followed by a diorama. But with Garfield, there was no let-up. Every inch of the ride was packed with neon-bright cartoons. I felt overloaded. Plus, I've never liked the Garfield comic strip. I find the character annoying. So that put me at a disadvantage from the start. I can see how the ride's audience might be limited. Unless you're familiar with Garfield, you won't have a clue what it's all about. And if you don't like Garfield, you won't care about the ride. This certainly was a bold move on Kennywood's part. I'm not sure if it was successful. The theming seemed to clash with the historic nature of the ride. But I'm glad that at least the park has found a way to keep their rare amusement device running.
We walked uphill towards the east end of the park. We stopped into a gift shop. To my surprise, they were still selling Steel Phantom paraphernalia. We continue walking, circling around the park's big lake. We passed the old Jack Rabbit coaster and the Racer, with its relatively new station looking as if it had been there for seventy years. (It was in fact a recreation of the original 1927 station.) To cool off a bit, we queued up for the Log Jammer, an interesting Arrow flume built in 1975. The line featured colorful signs with cartoon kids asking questions like, "What will get you more wet -- having a lot of weight in the boat, sitting in front or sitting in back?" Signs like these were all over the park, and I really liked that. Perhaps they were installed for a "physics day" and never taken down. There were other signs that pointed out historical facts about Pittsburgh or the park and its rides. I liked how the park was gently educating patrons while they had fun.
A spiel at the Log Jammer announced that the ride was a "water coaster," which I thought was odd. This was built decades before Master Blaster, the first "true" water coaster. In a short time we were seated in the front of one of the classic Arrow log boats. The ride skirted the perimeter of the picnic grounds, which sat on the edge of the cliff. We drifted through the trough and were pulled up the first lift. We meandered through a twisty course about twenty feet in the air. We got a great view off of the cliff and down to the distant Monagahela River. Then the boat plunged down the first drop. It took me completely by surprise, because it really was like a coaster. When the log reached the bottom of the drop, the trough curved back up about ten feet and leveled out again. We even got a hint of air time. And what astounded me even more is that the water cascaded down the drop and then flowed up the subsequent hill! I would have thought that the water would have just pooled up at the bottom of the drop. I stared and stared at that section of the ride from the exit platform later, and I couldn't figure out how Arrow managed to do that. It made no physical sense to me. But there it was; water was flowing uphill.
The rest of the ride was pretty standard. We turned a corner, went up a lift and then plunged down with a splash that got us mildly wet. The exit line had signs with the cartoon kids explaining which theories were correct. We then went next door, to The Racer. This old John Miller racing coaster is famous because it's one of only three in the world with a continuous track. So if the a train leaves on the right of the station, it will return on the left. There was no choosing seats on this ride, but we ended up in the second seat anyway. Miller's other coasters at the park were well-known for their use of the hilly terrain. This ride was the opposite: notorious for *not* using the terrain. When the land dropped down, Miller built the ride up. The result was that an enormous amount of lumber was used. The ride experience was okay. There was some mild air time. The ride wasn't spectacular, but it was enjoyable and the coaster historically is important.
Then we went next door again to the oldest coaster in the park, Miller's 1921 masterpiece the Jack Rabbit. There was no choosing seats on this ride as well. But again we managed to get the second seat. The train was amazing, with the original flared back and heavily padded seats -- and the little grab bar. There were no lap bars on the ride, and just a thin cord to clip on for a "seat belt." That gave a real sense of vulnerability. The surprising layout still packed a punch, with great pacing, wonderful use of the terrain and some really potent air time. It still ranks as one of Miller's greatest creations. There was some mild outrage a few years ago when the park decided to replace the coaster's old skid brakes with magnetic brakes. With skids, any time it rained the park couldn't run two trains on the ride because the skids would slip. There was a danger that an incoming train could collide with one in the station. Although skid brakes have some historical veracity, they do have some flaws When the ride was built, that was about the only alternative, though. But when we returned to the station, I didn't notice any sign of magnetic brakes. It looked to me like the park had installed a modern squeeze-brake system instead (which would work fine in wet weather and be quite a bit cheaper).
We walked across the bridge over the pond where the giant Skycoaster was giving riders a thrill. We passed the Aero 360. It was very similar to the Time Warp at Six Flags New England, an inverting swing with ski-lift style seats. The color scheme left something to be desired: black. The ride's two arms, about thirty feet high, were decorated to look like the yellow Kennywood arrows. I thought that was clever. But couldn't they have painted the structure a different color besides black?
Next to that ride was a Cheese on a Stick stand. Delighted, we walked over and placed an order. But the girl behind the counter told us it would take too long to make. She suggested going to the Potato Patch. I wasn't aware that they made Cheese on a Stick there, but we said okay and headed back towards Kennywood's kiddieland. A large circular fountain stood near the entrance. Karen asked me where all the flowers were. I had told her for years that Kennywood was one of the most beautiful parks I had seen. But that was before we went to Busch Gardens. Kennywood had plantings here and there, but overall the park felt more industrial. Instead of dazzling with fauna, the park dazzled with architecture.
Kiddieland had a delightful collection of old rides. They were sort of all lumped together. Their mini Cadillac car ride was nicely laid out, next to the train tracks and cliff. It felt like that section of the park hadn't changed a bit since the 1950s. Right next to Kiddieland was Harry Traver's Auto Ride, the last one of its kind. Unlike standard Antique Car rides, the Traver vehicles were like 1920s race cars that rode in a boxy wooden trough. They got their power from an arm that protruded from the left side of the car and disappeard into the side of the trough. That's what actually "steered" the car. I sat in the front and Karen in the back. The car traveled at what seemed like too fast a speed. The steering wheel was nearly impossible to turn, and the front of our car bounced back and forth against the trough. It was a really fast and fun ride. I wish more of these were still around.
After exiting the ride, we encountered a display featuring "Laughing Sal," a sort of Kennywood mascot encased in a box with a plexiglass window. Sal was a cartoonish animatronic laughing lady whose body rocked back and forth. A soundtrack played a loop of a woman's voice laughing hysterically. It originally was for one of the park's fun houses. Karen got a big kick out of it. Then we boarded the Olde Kennywood Railroad. Like so much of the park, the front of this train was blatantly Art Deco. It looked like a chrome bullet. The cars were roomy. All but one were covered. Behind the station was a big diorama of a train. The ride began by entering a tunnel. Over the train's sound system, a narrator delivered an interesting history lesson. We turned right along the edge of the precipitous cliff and got a spectacular view of the large dam and lock system built by the Army Corps of Engineers. As we got to the extreme eastern edge of the ride, the narrator told of George Washington's visit to Pittsburgh and various worker rebellions. Dioramas illustrated the tales. As the train reached the turnaround, Springsteen's "Born in the USA" began playing and there was a long bas relief sculpture of various important people from the Pittsburgh area. I enjoyed seeing so much hometown pride.
Not far from the train's entrance was a large globe fountain similar to the one at Cedar Point. Beyond that was the Gold Rusher, one of Kennywood's three dark rides. We climbed the long set of stairs up to the loading platform. The entire ride took place on the second level of a stretch of buildings that housed games and food booths. From the platform, we had a great view of the rapids ride below. One of the fairly standard mine cars glided toward us and we got in. There was a sort of runway above the midway before the car entered the darkness. There were many standard stunts: skeletons, spiders and the like. A few were clever and original: a chorus of coyotes and a gigantic steam engine. My favorite part of the ride was the semi-circular waterfall near the end.
When we left that ride we were right in front of the famous Thunderbolt. The big sign on the station hadn't changed, but the painted wall in front of the queue had. Cartmell's famous quote about the Thunderbolt being the world's best coaster was gone. It was replaced with a colorful cartoon of the coaster. The line for the ride was really long, so we passed on it.
One thing that Karen was amazed by was the view past the Thunderbolt. We were used to being in parks where all the rides were surrounded by either trees or water. Here was a park that was surrounded by the sight of distant houses clustered against mountainsides, seemingly viewed from high in the air. It gave the park a much different atmosphere from any place we'd been to.
There in front of us also was the famous Potato Patch stand. So we walked up but didn't see Cheese on a Stick on the menu. We asked a girl behind the counter where we could get some, but she said she had never heard of Cheese on a Stick. We were a bit dejected. We turned around and there in front of us was a giant pink Art Deco stand strangely named Lucky. And there were the Cheese on a Sticks. We ordered a couple and found a bench near a waterfall. We sat and ate them. They tasted okay. But I think I'd have to rank my favorite Cheese on a Stick makers in this order: 1 - Corn Dog 7, 2 - Cedar Point, 3 - Wisconsin State Fair, 4 - Kennywood, 5 - Knoebel's. It became clear to me that the corn meal batter was really the most important part. That was what determined the overall taste. To me, a good Cheese on a Stick should be like a corn muffin wrapped around rich melted cheese. Corn Dog 7 is the only place I've found that consistently got it right. We really need one of those franchises in New England....
While we sat there snacking, I noticed that the music playing throughout the park didn't feel right. Here we were in one of the most revered traditional parks in the country, and over the loudspeakers came a peculiar mix of hip-hop, hard rock, new wave and alternative. (I even heard Gary Numan's old chestnut, Cars!) It just didn't seem to fit. I preferred Knoebel's method of simply letting their band organs provide the soundtrack for the park. At Kennywood, I expected big band or maybe '50s music. That probably wouldn't have appealed to teens, but this wasn't supposed to be a Six Flags thrill park. The character of the park seemed lost without the right music.
The elaborate Luna-Park-styled entrance to Lost Kennywood beckoned us. I found it really odd that a traditional old park (a national historic landmark at that) thought it necessary to build a midway that recreated a past it never had. Lost Kennywood was built in what used to be a parking lot. We entered through the large white archway. In front of us was a large white baroque fountain. The main water source was a three-tiered bowl in the center surrounded by a four-foot-high concrete perimeter that had grotesque blue fish attached to it every few feet. The fish spit streams of water out of their mouths and into a holding pool. The pool drained down three levels, like three massive stairs about ten feet wide and six feet deep. That created a roaring waterfall that spilled under an arching bridge and into a giant pool similar in design to the famous one at King's Island's entrance. The pool was about 100 feet long and about thirty feet wide. Many jets of water shot up in rows. It looked very nice. The fence around the pool looked like thick concrete railings but was actually plastic. At the far end of that pool was the lift and drop for the Pittsburgh Plunge, a Shoot-the-Chutes ride that produced a respectable splash. Strangely, the typical exit ramp for the ride was missing. Normally the exit would lead over a bridge that would get the brunt of the splash. But here the splash simply dissipated in the pool. There were small indented observation areas on either side of the run-out channel, and they got some of the side spray. Many children were standing there, jumping up and down delightedly when they got soaked. To the left of the Plunge were some flat rides: a Chance Wipeout, the Wave Swinger and the Whip (without a roof on it) to the left; to the right was Pitt Fall. There were various food and game booths interspersed.
Behind the Plunge appeared to be an old brick apartment building. But when I looked at it closer, I could see that the windows were painted on. We walked in that direction. There was what appeared to be an ambulance parked there, and some police barriers. There was also a queue line and an odd tunnel leading into the building. Above the tunnel was a not-so-friendly giant rat and the word "Exterminator." The ambulance was actually an exterminator's truck. The whole setup looked like it belonged at Six Flags. It certainly didn't fit in with the Lost Kennywood theme. We walked across the bridge spanning the waterfalls and spotted the exit for Phantom's Revenge. But we couldn't find the entrance. We wandered over to the big building at the entrance of Lost Kennywood and spotted a gift shop. We were drawn to it like moths to a flame. When we walked in, we spotted two large posters behind the cashier. One was a colorful artist's rendering of Lost Kennywood. The other was a terrific view of the Thunderbolt. The cashier offered to put copies aside for us, and we could get them before we left for the night. The pictures were pretty expensive, but they really were wonderful. So we splurged. Karen looked around some more. She spotted something that surprised us both.
When we were at Busch Gardens earlier in the summer, she found the perfect hat. She'd tried many, but none fit quite like this one. It was round and made of straw. The brim was the perfect size and it had little flowers embroidered on it. This became Karen's favorite hat. She wore it everywhere. When we went to Lake Compounce a month later, Karen and I took a trip on their Sky Ride. She put her head against my shoulder and her hat tilted back and fell off her head. It drifted silently fifty feet down and landed under a bush halfway up the mountain. There was nothing we nor the park could do. She felt very sad.
There in that gift shop was Karen's hat, the exact same style. In fact, there were several, all piled up. I suggested she get a couple of them, but she decided to get only one. She was very glad to be "reunited."
In 1991, Kennywood had Arrow build the Steel Phantom. Harry Henninger, Jr., then the park president, had a hand in its design. The imposing 163-foot-high lift at the west end of the park pointed across the street. The first drop, fairly standard for Arrow at that time, fell steeply while at the same time doubling back. The train rose up the second hill paused for a second and then plunged off the edge of the cliff through the structure of the Thunderbolt. The track went 225 feet down and made a huge left-hand turn. It was one of the longest and fastest coaster drops ever built and was really exhilarating. But after that turn the train flew into one of Arrow's typical tiny loops and then hit three more inversions, one right after another, all taken at top speed, before swinging into a helix and coming back to the station. It was the only coaster I'd ever blacked out on. It was estimated that the train I was in (sitting in the front seat) was doing 87 mph when it entered that first loop. I felt the blood rush out of my head and I lost my vision. When I returned to the station, I couldn't see. I sat dazed in the train for a couple minutes until I regained my vision. When I got out of the train, I had trouble walking straight. And I swore I would never ride that coaster again. I considered it an impressive but incompetent piece of engineering, much like Harry Traver's infamous Cyclones. I think if the first and second hills had been built shorter, everything would have worked fine.
After ten years of dwindling ridership and guest complaints, the park brought in Morgan Manufacturing, which had recent successes with their own big steel coasters. Morgan retained the train chassis and the lift hill through the top of the second hill. Everything else was removed. Then in an ingenious piece of engineering, Morgan grafted their own track onto Arrow's hill and created a 228-foot drop through the Thunderbolt. Instead of going into a loop, the track made a gigantic tilted helix and dove back down to the T-Bolt. At that point, the park was supposed to tunnel through the cliff and have the track pop up next to the midway. But cost constraints scuttled that plan. Instead the track simply followed the side of the cliff up next to the T-Bolt entrance. Morgan then added a series of bunny hops before returning to the station. The coaster received high praise from many who rode it. The Phantom's Revenge was born.
I was skeptical. It seemed ridiculously short, especially given the amount of energy the train had after that enormous drop. But we had to find out for ourselves. So Karen and I lined up for the front seat. While waiting in the station, we enjoyed looking out at the Thunderbolt's structure below and the silent Monagahela River. The Phantom train would come flying past over the bunny hops and then disappear from view down a ravine, only to reappear back in the station shortly after. We waited about twenty minutes. Right when we were about to board, the train was held for a family with a disabled man. We waited one more ride and then sat down. The seats were certainly like a Morgan train: contoured fiberglass with hard foam padding. I've never understood why Morgan couldn't use softer padding. The lap bars were unique. A four inch diameter bar about eighteen inches long stuck straight up from each side of the seat. The bars had a very slight inverted U shape to them. A retractable seat belt pulled out from below the bar's hinge point. The bar itself ratcheted down comfortably into place. There were no over-the-shoulder harnesses, and the whole process was simple and quick. I liked those restraints.
We glided out of the station, took a right-hand turn and engaged the long lift. The typically noisy Arrow lift brought us slowly to the top, giving us time to become nervous about how high up we were. Karen still couldn't get over how the park seemed to have been plopped down in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The train crested the hill and the track vanished. We started tilting to the right. The train curved sharply and we sped down the first drop heading back toward the station. We blasted through the odd flat run of track. (A tunnel would have been nice there.) Then we soared up the second hill. A slight turn to the right and a tip downward pointed us toward the river and the Thunderbolt's tracks. This is where Morgan took over. We plummeted down the seemingly endless drop, swooped around the huge turn up into the helix, then dove back down toward the Thunderbolt. After we raced under the T-Bolt's tracks we encountered a concrete tunnel that had been added recently. We emerged from the tunnel and flew into the first bunny hop. We were catapulted out of our seats with enormous force. Another bunny hop, and another -- and then a surprising double-down into the ravine, a sharp right-hand turn, another bunny hop and an enormous leap up into the brakes. I was laughing loudly. But Karen thought she had ruptured something. The entire ride was less than a minute, and the forces were pretty severe. The first half of the ride was fine, almost mild. But once we hit those bunny hops the personality of the ride seemed to change. We weren't at all prepared for such extreme air time. We were not only tossed up, but also thrust forward into the lap bars. It was like one of those coin-operated bucking horses for kids that sat outside strip malls.
The ride was a bit much for Karen. I enjoyed it, mostly because I remembered what it used to be. I was really impressed with what Morgan did. They made it rideable again, while keeping the original profile and the enormous drop, and also cramming the rest of the coaster into a tiny footprint. It was an impressive feat of engineering.
Noah's Ark was sitting across the midway. Another Kennywood rarity, these fun houses used to exist at many parks across the country. The park recently rebuilt the attraction from the ground up. Karen wasn't too sure about trying it out. But I told her that she'd probably never see anything else like it. As I remembered it, it wasn't scary at all and was actually pretty silly. It took us a while to find the entrance, which had been moved to the back of the ride near the heavily-themed Volcano (an Enterprise). That section of midway had a strange sort of Polynesian theming. The attendant was having groups of twenty enter together. I thought that was a good idea, because it kept kids from running through unchecked and causing trouble. The queue line wound around to the front of the ride. The giant ark slowly and methodically rocked back and forth. It was surrounded by fake rock walls. To the left of the entrance was an inexplicable structure, looking like a twenty-foot-high elevator shaft.
After about fifteen minutes we entered with a group into a cave-like tunnel. We rounded a corner and came upon an eerie sight: light coming up from about eight feet below, where there were skeletons in various states of decay. It looked as if the only way to get through that section was to hop across small pillars protruding from below, like stone lily pads. But the floor was actually glass. It was slightly unsettling to see, and it felt weird walking on what seemed like thin air. There were similar corridors branching off in different directions with no indication of where to go. We just followed the crowd in front of us. Karen wasn't having a good time walking through the pitch black corridors. We encountered some interesting stunts: a foam rubber floor, a vibrating floor and several dioramas. We emerged outside, on a walkway in front of the ark about ten feet up. The walkway turned left and entered inside the rocking boat. Karen had a bad feeling about that. We entered the darkened hallways and it was a really weird sensation. The floors tilted down, then they tilted up, then sideways -- and all the time the ark was rocking back and forth. I felt like I was on the Starship Enterprise when it was getting hit by enemy fire, with the whole crew rocking from side to side. It was nearly impossible to find solid footing. I kept telling Karen not to worry, that we were almost out of it. But the corridors just seemed to keep going on and on. There were some amusing colorful dioramas of Noah and his animals. But it was hard to look at them while we were struggling to remain standing. Finally a long narrow staircase led down to solid ground. [For those who wish to experience the ark for yourselves and be surprised by the ending, you should skip this next paragraph.]
We turned a corner, walked down a hallway and were herded into an odd narrow corridor that had a metal grating for a floor and a railing. On the other side of the railing, running the length of the corridor, was a sort of tank holding water a few feet below us. A wall was about six feet beyond the railing. The wall appeared to be made of riveted sheets of metal. Various sewer pipes ran along the wall near the ceiling. The corridor was dimly lit by small lights along the wall. Water was trickling in from the right. An unseen attendant closed the door from which we entered. We were trapped. We stood uncomfortably for a while, looking around, not knowing what we were supposed to do. A voice came over an intercom system. Some of what was being said was unintelligible. But the gist was that there was an emergency. Water pressure was building up and the area should be evacuated. Water began pouring in from the right side of the room, but oddly the water level didn't appear to rise at all. Alarms began going off. Lights began flashing. The voice on the intercom became frantic. The pipes began gushing water from their seams. All through this, though, we stayed dry. Then the wall in front of us began to bulge. It wasn't very perceptible at first, but it rapidly grew obvious. It looked like a gigantic balloon ready to pop. The whole wall stretched out toward us, appearing to be ready to split. Loud sirens were blaring madly. Then from behind us a door opened and outside light streamed in. We walked out into the fresh air.
That had to be one of the oddest endings to a fun house that I'd ever seen. I have no idea what it had to do with Noah or an ark, or for that matter anything else. I'm not even sure it was fun... Adventure Express at King's Island had a bizarre ending too, but at least it sort of tried to stick with the theme. It was as if Noah had a personality conflict. He didn't know whether the ark was supposed to be a haunted house, an old-style Wacky Shack or an experiential exhibit like Backdraft. As we walked away down the midway, my whole body was still rocking back and forth....
After that Karen and I needed a break. We entered the Parkside Cafe. The natural wood interior was lit with hundreds of small white lights that followed the outline of the arches in the ceiling. It was very pretty. It was a bit confusing to find the entrance to the cafeteria line. But once inside, this poor vegetarian was hard-pressed to find anything to eat. There was some pasta with marinara sauce, but I wasn't in the mood for that. There were pasta salads -- with meat. There were garden salads -- with meat. They did have cole slaw. So I got that and a tuna sandwich. We sat down out on the veranda. As I ate, I noticed a strange taste to the sandwich. I examined it and discovered it was made with eggs! Who the heck ever heard of a tuna and egg sandwich!? The cole slaw was pretty good, though. And Karen enjoyed the pasta she got.
I went back to the parking lot and got my video camera. As we headed back into the park, we could hear music. We walked toward the Swing Around, a spinning jets-style ride positioned high on a platform at the center of the park. Underneath the ride was the Garden Stage, surrounded by a babbling brook. The performers were in the middle of a rock and roll review, singing a medley of Beatles tunes. The performance was adequate, and the audience seemed to enjoy it. They ended with a truncated version of Hey Jude.
We found a winding path lined with flowers that led up to a large blue-tiled semi-circular pool. At the far end of the pool was a stone wall. A long strip of various fountain heads ran along the base. The heads would spray water at different heights, and the water would dance in time with the music that was playing in the park. There were some benches placed around the pool's perimeter. I really liked how the park left space for a display that did nothing but provide relaxation and something nice to look at.
The line had diminished at the Thunderbolt, so we queued up for it. This coaster began life as Miller's Pippin. In 1968 Andy Vettel grafted another section onto the ride, a strange sort of lopsided double helix around the station. And that change secured the ride's fame. We lined up for the front. The park had installed a plexiglass wall on the loading side of the station, because otherwise guests could literally reach out and touch the Phantom as it sped by. We sat down in the comfy over-stuffed stainless steel National Amusement Device train. Although the headlights were gone and it looked the worse for wear, I was glad this rare train was still being used. The lap bar clicked into place, and off we went down the first drop. The ride was a little bouncy, but comfortable. We glided up the other side of the ravine, turned a corner, dropped down again and on a double-up engaged the lift hill. There was something about the sound of the NAD train on the track that set it apart from other coasters. It had a deeper rumbling sound, somehow. It felt more solid. Karen loved the look of the ride. Its white structure with red railings and blue catwalks made for a picture-perfect old style coaster. From the top of the hill we turned right and then swooped down into the double helix. But what made this helix different was that there was very little banking of the track. So Karen was flung into me as we sped around the corners. It's sad that lateral forces on most modern roller coasters have become a novelty. We crested the flat run next to the station and then dove down into the ravine again, flying up the last turnaround, down the ravine again for the deepest drop and then into the brakes.
I remembered why this coaster impressed me so much when I first rode it years ago. It was simply a lot of fun. The drops into the ravine were smooth and fast. The turnarounds provided pops of air time. If it were just a trip back and forth through the ravine, it would get boring. But that helix broke up the pacing of the coaster and turned it into a surprisingly potent thrill ride. Then it resumed the ravine trip, but with much more force. There was a wonderful theatricality to the ride. Plus, it offered great scenery and those comfortable NAD trains. And the ride just looked the way a classic wooden coaster should look. It was Kennywood's crown jewel, and I could see how Robert Cartmell rated it so highly.
By then it was about eight in the evening, and the parade was about to start. There were several area marching bands that had come to the park. We stood across from the Kennyville Stage and watched them march by. There were a few really large contingents. Each band was separated by a very strange float, pulled by a big pickup truck. Like so much else in this park, I didn't know how these floats related to anything else. Each had a soundtrack playing, and a few people in costume waving cheerfully. There was one that had a giant glittery grasshopper while the soundtrack played a song called "Doodlebugs." Another had a giant jack-in-the-box. Yet another had three teddy bears sitting in front of a spaceship. Interspersed with these were costumed characters walking by: Harry Potter and Dumbledore, Spiderman, Shrek and other unrelated but well-known figures. Maybe I've just gotten too used to "theme" parks and wanted to see more consistency. But this parade just seemed to be all over the map. I guess for kids it wouldn't have mattered. For a child, the spectacle would be delightful. The parade finished with a float that had an old pickup truck, pointed nose-down on an angle, looking as if it were about to crash into the real pickup truck that was pulling it. Inside the pickup truck was -- you guessed it -- Santa Claus.
By the end of the fifteen-minute parade, the sun had set. And the real Kennywood began to emerge. Thousands of colorful twinkling lights and neon strips lined every single building. Lost Kennywood was especially stunning. The entire entrance building was completely outlined in lights. The fountains were lit from under the water in rainbow hues. The Carousel Food building, what used to be the original carousel pavilion, was an Art Deco masterpiece in multi-colored neon. Across the lake, the reflection of the blinking Racer sign danced in the rippling water. The gigantic Kennywood arrows on the Aero 360 were flashing in a dizzying pattern as the ride spun around. It seemed as if we were in a completely different place. I don't recall any other park so spectacularly lit. It might as well have been Christmas.
We picked up our posters and headed back to the car. We really didn't want to leave the park; it was so beautiful at night. But we still had another day and we needed our rest.
Return to Karen and Jay's Excursions