The Keystone, Timbers, and Vengeance Tour - Part 5

Edited: August 18, 2018, 12:20 AM

To read the previous report from Kings Island, click here.

When planning for this tour began, there were only two things that I was 100% certain would be part of it. The first was a visit to Cedar Point in order to ride Steel Vengeance, as that is the most exciting coaster to open in North America in several years (aka since Fury 325). The second was to include Kennywood in the trip, an older park that rose to the top of my priority list after knocking out the Florida parks last fall. While the park doesn't contain the latest and greatest extreme thrill rides, it has a ton of history behind it and is full of attractions that don't really exist elsewhere anymore. Additionally, one of the goals of this trip was to experience the widest variety of parks possible, so an old-school traditional park is just what we needed after spending several days at Cedar Fair's iron ride parks. There's just one slight problem...we're in Florence (Ya'll), Kentucky, and our park for the day is all the way in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania.

The Keystone, Timbers, and Vengeance Tour
Part 5: Kennywood

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With a five and a half hour drive awaiting us before reaching the day's destination, we woke bright and early to be out of the hotel by 7 A.M. Unfortunately, not all of us would be making this journey...Kevin needed to return to Los Angeles for a family event the next day, so his time on the tour had come to an end. We dropped him off at the surprisingly busy Cinicinnati Airport, then took off in a now slightly roomier car for a trek across Ohio, through the corner of West Virginia, and into Pennsylvania.

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Five hours later, the GPS ordered the car off the interstate and took us on a 30 minute jaunt around several small towns until, without any warning, yellow Kennywood arrows began to point the way.

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At the edge of the parking lot, we pulled over into a conveniently located A&W/Long John Silver's combo to partake in the worst meal of the trip (Joshua, the only one who opted for the fish, wasn't feeling so good afterward), then made our way into the free lot and down to the park.

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Kennywood, possibly my most anticipated park of the trip, was the first new park to me on this tour (and, in fact, it was new to all of us as Evan had missed the Kennywood day on a previous group tour). The park was originally created as a trolley park at the end of the Monongahela Street Railway, with an official opening date of May 30th, 1899.

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As a family-run business, the park kept to the traditional model, and operated as a pay-per-ride park until the mid 2000s. Today, the park is now run by Palace Entertainment (a subset of Parques Reunidos that primarily operates family entertainment centers and smaller parks), and while it still feels like an old-school park from the golden age, signs of the corporate owners have started to creep through the gates. Nevertheless, it remains one of only a dozen or so trolley parks still in operation, and one of only two that are considered a national historic landmark (the other is Playland Park outside of New York City).

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Originally, the trip plan called for a full day at Kennywood. While it is only a medium-sized park, as it was a park I had never visited I want to be sure there was enough time to experience it. Unfortunately, an itinerary change trimmed our time at the park to just an afternoon and evening, though thanks to fairly manageable crowds that ended up being just about right.

Upon entry, the first coaster we encountered was the SBNO Sky Rocket, a Premier Rides LSM coaster that has been down much of the season due to a motor room fire. I'd known in advance this would be the case, and while I would have liked to experience the coaster it also looked fairly average. Undeterred, we made our way to the park's oldest and most historic coaster, the Jack Rabbit.

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By today's standards, most anyone would consider the Jack Rabbit a family coaster. When it opened in 1920, however, this John Miller creation was one of the most terrifying rides ever built. Despite only a 40 ft. tall lift hill, the ride uses natural terrain to feature a 70 ft double dip with some significant airtime, made even more extreme by the lack of safety restraints. The ride is a simple layout made interesting by the location, with two sizable drops prior to the lift and two afterward. To be honest, I wasn't quite as fond of this one as the rest of the group...it was just one signature element on what is otherwise a family woodie, and doesn't compare favorably to other coasters of the same vintage. That said, it is still a special experience to ride a nearly 100 year old woodie, and it would be a sin to visit Kennywood and not take at least one spin on this remarkably well maintained coaster.

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Naturally, the thought of a coaster didn't sit well with Joshua following his Long John Silver's experience, so he opted out of the Jack Rabbit (he would end up riding a couple times later in the evening). To appease him, we decided to backtrack slightly to Garfield's Nightmare, a modernized retheme of Kennywood's 1901 Old Mill ride (the oldest ride at Kennywood). An indoor gravity-powered flume ride, the attraction takes guests past simple cardboard cutouts of Garfield and company partaking in antics straight out of the comic strip. The scenes are painted in florescent colors, and optional 3D glasses (which I refer to as trippy glasses) create a semi-3D effect while on the ride. As a dark ride, this one is a joke, though it falls into the "so bad it's good" category. However, it is a historical attraction that must be experienced, and it shows how far theme park technology has come over the years.

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With Joshua now feeling up to a coaster, we headed back to take on a second classic wood coaster...the Racer. Another John Miller design, this ride is a family-friendly racing coaster made unique by its mobius track. Trains depart on one side of the station, race through a compact double out-and-back layout, then return to the opposite loading platform. Beyond the racing aspect, the ride itself isn't really anything to write home about, but it is such a unique ride that I ended up doing this one the most out of Kennywood's coasters.

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As may have been expected, Joshua was now in need of a break from the coasters. Therefore, we made our way over to the still under construction Thomas Town to ride a kiddie ride just next to it. The Auto Race, an attraction designed by Traver Engineering, still operates here as the last of its kind.

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Essentially a very early predecessor to rides like Autopia, the Auto Race features small electric cars driving along a wooden side-friction track. Now completely automated to prevent collisions, the ride is a historical attraction that, like many of Kennywood's old-school attractions, doesn't compare to modern rides for thrills or theme but is well worth experiencing for historical value. In fact, I would go as far as to say this...if you only have time for one of Kennywood's historical classics (shame on your for planning such a short visit), Auto Race may be the one most worth experiencing.

But not everything at Kennywood is an old historical ride. Standing on the other side of Thomas Town is Ghostwood Estate, a shooting dark ride far better than most. Initially, I expected this to be a modified form of the standard Ghostblasters attraction, but it is actually a wholly original creation unique to Kennywood. The attraction begins with a well-done preshow in which Lord Kenneth Ghostwood invites visitors to assist him in evicting unwanted spirits from his mansion, with the ultimate prize of spending the afterlife there. Despite being largely a safety video, the presentation is very well done. Afterward, guests are ushered upstairs to board trackless vehicles for a ride through the mansion, blasting unwelcome ghosts along the way. While the shooting mechanic is fairly standard, the set design in the attraction is excellent, and it is a shame the park didn't take more advantage of the trackless ride system. Due to limited operating hours, I only managed to do one ride on this one, but I would have loved to go through again to just ignore the gun and take in the scenery.

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With both dark rides out of the way, it was time to return to the coasters. Naturally, with two classic woodies down, it only made sense to complete the trio. Thunderbolt, Kennywood's third classic wood coaster, is notably larger and more intense than the others.

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Originally the Pippin, this coaster was extended in 1968 with a longer course and super forceful double helix.

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How forceful, you ask? Well, the Thunderbolt does not permit single riders, as the lack of seat dividers could result in injury if someone was thrown across the seat. Therefore, you must be careful on this ride, as you have a role to play...squisher, or squishee?

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All in all, the Thunderbolt was my favorite of the park's wood coasters...it's got a couple pretty good drops into a ravine and a helix that gives Legend a run for its money. It's a shame that Kennywood was only running one train on this coaster, as that meant a lengthy line (~30 minutes) in an exposed switchback queue.

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Towering above Thunderbolt stands another ride with a similar history. In 1991, Kennywood opened the Steel Phantom, a monstrous Arrow looping coaster featuring a 225 ft. drop into the same ravine as the Thunderbolt and several high-speed inversions. While initially popular, the ride itself was extremely intense and quickly became very rough and uncomfortable, plus the high forces of the train put tons of stress on the structure. In 2000, the Steel Phantom was retired, only to be reborn the next year as a Morgan hypercoaster dubbed Phantom's Revenge.

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If there is a top tier coaster at Kennywood, it is this ride. Often considered among the top 15-20 steel coasters in the United States, the Phantom is usually the first ride that comes to mind when asked to name the best non-B&M/Intamin/RMC steel coaster. I personally rank this ride a little lower (it's 35 on my personal steel list), but there is no denying that it is a very good coaster.

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An extremely smooth ride with the largest drop coming second, the ride takes great advantage of its setting for the first half before becoming an airtime machine in the second half.

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The ride doesn't feel short, but it is a quick ride given its size, lasting just under two minutes station to station. With only single train operations, that actually isn't as bad as it sounds, though I would prefer something a little longer.

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Regardless, Phantom's Revenge is awesome, and I just wish the line was shorter so I could have gotten a third ride in (this was the longest line at the park at around 45 minutes).

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With the big coasters complete, we opted to do a couple flat rides while waiting for a friend of mine to arrive. Rob, who I met on the 2014 trip, heard about this tour and decided to drive up from Virginia for the weekend to hit a couple Pennsylvania parks he hadn't visited before. Unfortunately delays prevented him from leaving on time, but within 20 minutes or so he had arrived. Once we regrouped, it was time for Kennywood's last coaster...the Exterminator.

Six Flags received a ton of flak for the Dark Knight coasters, which were essentially wild mouse rides in a box. People tend to forget that Kennywood did it first, as this ride dates all the way back to 1999. A stock Reverchon spinner, Kennywood stuck this ride indoors and themed it to an abandoned factory. After guests make their way through the winding queue inside a sewer, they board the ride and play the role of mice on the run from exterminators attempting to kill them off. It is a creative theme executed very well, and while the ride won't make any top coaster lists it was probably the most fun I've ever had on a spinning mouse (certainly a whole lot better than Disney's Primeval Whirl).

As the sun began to drop in the sky, we decided it best to grab something for dinner. According to most enthusiasts, Kennywood's go to for food is the Potato Patch. This place serves nothing but French fries, with a variety of toppings available. I opted for cheese and bacon on mine...an unhealthy combination, but a tasty one. While the fries weren't as legendary as some make them out to be, they were still enjoyable.

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The remainder of the evening consisted largely of returning to attractions we rode earlier, as Rob hadn't done them yet and I wanted re-rides on pretty much everything. We also took a stroll through Noah's Ark, an old funhouse themed to the biblical ship. This was a quirky and bizarre experience, with the entire structure rocking back and forth as if at sea. Another attraction that is the last of its kind, I'm slightly surprised it is still in operation given the sue-happy culture of America.

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However, much of Kennywood defies the norms of modern theme parks. Here, much of what exists is simply what works, with little need for extra safety features. Roller coasters run without station gates, only a line on the floor reading "Do Not Cross." Manual operation is the norm, with only the newest attractions featuring computer controlled operating systems. Upkeep is not as good as you'd find at the larger regional theme parks, yet nothing feels like it is simply abandoned like at some other properties. Instead, everything has its own character, which adds to the charm of the park as a whole. Kennywood is not about immersive themed environments that use popular IP to draw guests (though arguably their new area for next year is going that way...more on that shortly), it is "themed" to what an amusement park used to be like. As a foil to places like Cedar Point and Kings Island, it works beautifully, and including it in the same trip was an excellent choice (especially for Douglas, who has limited experience with smaller parks).

Unfortunately, Kennywood has just enough irritations that I can't rank it among my favorite parks. As noted above, operations are not the greatest, with one train operation on the headliner coasters. I also take issue with the park inviting outside vendors into the midways, as it makes it feel more like a carnival and less like a proper amusement park. For a pay-per-ride property, it's a bit of a different story, but when the park is pay one price it should only be locations operated by the park that do business within. Lastly, I'm not a huge fan of the way this park operates their rides...not everything opens at opening, and not everything is open until closing, with not every ride posting operating hours out front. It can be a bit of an annoyance to trek halfway across the park only to find out the ride you're trying to reach is closed for the day. Minor annoyances aside, however, Kennywood really is a wonderful park. It's not one I'd make a special trip for, but it will absolutely be included in any future trips to the region.

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As we wandered the park enjoying delicious Italian ice from Rita's (which I accidentally got Rob hooked on), we came to the construction site of Kennywood's 2019 project. At the time, it was all rumors, but now the project has been revealed as Steel Curtain, a gigantic S&S roller coaster featuring 9 inversions.

This will be the largest thrill ride at Kennywood, and will anchor a new area called Steelers Country (themed, of course, to the Pittsburgh Steelers). Honestly, I'm pretty mixed about this concept. For a park like Kennywood, where 90+% of the visitors are local, it is a brilliant way to reach out to a new segment of the market and promote something that can be instantly identified. At the same time, I really hope it doesn't become a trend, as I could see it being a huge problem for parks drawing from markets with more than one team. While the area as a whole doesn't appeal to me, Steel Curtain does, so it's very likely I'll be back at the park within 2-3 years to see how well everything is pulled off.

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As night fell and closing time approached, there was still one more ride for us to experience. Called the Kangaroo, this one-of-a-kind flat ride doesn't look like much. Cars simply travel a circle, jumping off a ramp located on one side of the ride. Surprisingly, however, it is a ton of ridiculous fun, with a cheesy "sproing" sound accompanying the bounce of each car. It was a great way to finish off our day at the park.

Out in the parking lot, we helped Rob get directions to his hotel (his phone wasn't working), then said our goodbyes. We'd see him again later, but tomorrow he was off on his own. Meanwhile, we made our way to our hotel on the outskirts of downtown Pittsburgh and turned in for the night, as the next day held not one but two parks. The first is a throwaway, but the second? None other than the legendary Knoebels.

Kennywood Coaster Rankings:

B:

1. Phantom's Revenge x2
2. Thunderbolt x2

C:

3. Exterminator
4. Racer x3
5. Jack Rabbit x2

Next Time: A credit stop and a carnie haven

To read Douglas's recap from Kennywood, check out his completed report on WDW Magic.

Replies (2)

August 20, 2018, 7:26 AM

For those wondering, you can see Kennywood on the big screen, as it is the main setting for the movie Adventureland (2009). There's some clever filming and CGI to make the park look slightly different than it does in real life, but it probably one of the few major Hollywood productions to be set almost completely inside a current amusement park.

August 25, 2018, 6:02 PM

Terrific post! I grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, and every year, our school picnic was at Kennywood. How great to get a sanctioned day off from school from first grade to senior year in high school to go to an amusement park. I haven't been there for many years, and have a strong sense of nostalgia for this park. It's reassuring to see an amusement park from 1899 keep a lot of the elements from its storied past as well as make some updates for new attractions. I remember a slow kiddie ride called "the Turtle" with charming turtle shaped cars that would travel up and down little hills in a circle. "Noah's Ark" fun house, with its vibrating wooden floor boards to shake you up, black light and neon colors, "precarious" rope bridge over jungle animals, and entrance by entering a whale and bouncing on its pink tongue was so much fun when I was a kid and I bet it's one of the last of its type in existence. I remember "the Turnpike" car ride which was similar to Disneyland's Autopia, and I'm also thinking about a slow dark ride haunted house called "Le Cachot". All the spooky figures were behind fencing! You must look this one up to see what I mean! :)

It's nice to see "The Whip" and "The Old Mill". My Dad would talk about the rollercoaster called "The Pippin" and "Laff in the Dark". I also remember eating at the Potato Patch (!) and getting little fruit flavored drinks in plastic drinking vessels (with sippy straws) in the shape of the flavor you were drinking---the bunch of purple grapes was especially cute!

Riding "The Racer" was always a big deal when I was a kid. You and your friends would get in one car, and everyone in our car and the car on the opposite track would yell, "we're going to beat you, we're going to win" as half the fun was watching to see which coaster car was in the lead! You'd get to the first pinnacle on the slow climb, and right at the top was a sign of a skull and crossbones with the ominous warning "don't stand up!" It was a great ride.

I live in Long Beach, CA now, and Disneyland is 20 minutes or so away; I hope someday to get back to Pittsburgh and make Kennywood a stop. Every year we also used to go to Sea World and Geauga Lake in Aurora, OH for the big family weekend trip. Cedar Point was a big deal and further away--even so I was able to go there a handful of times as well.

Thanks, AJ, I appreciate your road trip to Kennywood more than you could guess. I'm glad you had fun there.

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