Kennywood: a journey to the past

Kennywood lies just outside of Pittsburgh, but it’s most distinguishing characteristic is not where it is, but rather when it is.  As you emerge from the tunnel that connects the ticket booths to the park itself, you feel like you have been transported back in time.  Kennywood was founded in 1898 as a trolley park (a picnic and play area at the end of a trolley line), and it beautifully balanced the old and the new.

Many of the park’s attractions are from the early 20th century, but they have retained their charm and fun.  Three of its six coasters are over 85 years old, yet all three rank in the top 50 wooden coasters in the world.

They also had two world-class steel coasters: “Phantom’s Revenge” and “Sky Rocket”.  We could have lived without the strange Kennywood characters and the awful “Garfield’s Nightmare” ride.  That said, we loved the Carousel, the Whip, the Turtle, the Ghostwood Estate dark ride, and more.

Potato Patch – No trip to Kennywood is complete with out a trip to the Potato Patch, where the lines can be long, but the hand-cut French fries are the best we have ever had!  They’re available with a variety of toppings, ranging from garlic salt to cheese.  They opened another stand in the Lost Kennywood section of the park called Small Fry’s, where you might find a shorter wait.

Golden Nugget – Very popular stand for hand-dipped ice cream.  Vivian and Joel both declared that their treats were delicious.

Parkside Café – We had lunch here, in one of the remaining original structures dating back to 1898.  We had decent sandwiches, salads, and turkey, but nothing special.

The park opens at 10:30am, but rides open at 11:00am.  We arrived shortly before 11:00am and headed straight for the “VIP Coaster Tour” desk, where there were no employees in sight, even after the rides opened.  I asked a few employees when the VIP Desk opened, and the general response was “Huh.  Usually it’s 11, but sometimes 11:30 or so.”  Nice.  I finally found a manager, who sent for someone to open the booth.

VIP Options

VIP Coaster Tour: For only $15/person, we bought front of line passes for all the coasters, and for an additional $3/person, we got to sit in the front car of each one.  It’s an unusual system: there are six coasters.  You get to ride one per hour in a set order at specific times, and you can’t do the first coaster until 2pm, so you need to stay until 7pm to do all of them and not wait in line (and if you don’t buy the pass in the morning, they can sell out).  You can also buy VIP passes for thrill rides or water rides (full menu here).  The system truly worked – we walked on to every roller coaster, and the system was very efficient.

Parking: Preferred Parking costs only $6 and is very close to the park entrance.  Regular parking is free, but a longer hike to the front gates.

We did more non-coaster rides at Kennywood than we did at any other park.  They have many others, but here are the ones we squeezed in between coasters:

Whip – A classic oval-shaped ride, where cars “whip” around the curves.  The “Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree” ride at DCA is a take on the whip.  This is one of the oldest Whips in the world and is the only one operating with 16 cars.

Turtle – Known as a Tumble Bug ride, there are only two of these operating in the US.  Up to four people get in the car, which is connected by a rod to a center of the ride, and the cars go around a track that changes elevation.  Much more fun than it sounds.

Garfield’s Nightmare – This “Old Mill” style ride, the oldest in the park, guides boats through a series of dark tunnels (some of these types of rides were referred to as the “Tunnel of Love”).  This has been re-themed several times over the century, but the current Garfield theming makes it one of the worst attractions I have ever seen. The fact that only one group goes in each boat (whether there are two people or five people) makes the queue much longer than it should be.  Nightmare, indeed.

Olde Kennywood Railroad – A slow train ride that shows some of the old artwork from the park.  It also gives a view of the gigantic Edgar Thomson Steel Works steel mill (built in 1872, now part of U.S. Steel) across the Monongahela River.

Grand Carousel – A beautiful (and large) carousel, dating back to 1927.  Music comes from a 1915 organ, the oldest of its kind.  A classic.

Ghostwood Estate – a combination of the Disney Haunted Mansion ride and a shooting gallery.  Similar in concept to the “Lost Kingdom Adventure” ride at Legoland California.  As you shoot the skeletons, paintings, etc., they move or animate in some other way.  Fun.

Noah’s Ark – An unusual dark walk-through attraction – part funhouse, part natural history taxidermy exhibit.  The idea is that you’re walking through Noah’s ark, seeing the animals.  Strange but entertaining.   Go early in the day before the lines get long.

Log Jammer, Raging Rapids, & Pittsburg Plunge – typical log flume, river rafting, and “shoot the chutes” splash rides.   Each is a good way to cool off on a summer day, and there is a $10 front of line pass available that covers all three rides.

The park has a number of other rides commonly found at other amusement parks, and at least two others that are the last of their kind: the “Kangaroo” ride and the “Auto Race” electric cars.  There were just not enough hours for us to do them all.

The music throughout the park was generally hits from the 1980s – Joe Jackson, Madonna, Pet Shop Boys, John Cougar, etc.  While I didn’t mind the music, it seemed out of place – I would have preferred instrumental music more apropos of the period the park represented.

For entertainment, the main show was a stunt show called “Undercover”, which had to do with spies and a mad scientist.  It was poorly written, not funny, and barely kept our interest.  It did, however, allow us to sit for 20 minutes, which is the best thing I can say about it.

My only the regret of the day is that the park closed before sundown.  The park is filled with exceptional lighting and is surely stunning at night.

In some ways, Kennywood reminded me the most of a Disney park, beautifully combining the past and present. I had heard wonderful things about this park, and it lived up to expectations.  We had a very special day.


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