DelGrosso’s Amusement Park – Tipton, PA

Wanting to redeem the day for Joel, Vivian stayed behind at the Altoona Hampton Inn while I drove Joel to Tipton, Pennsylvania (about 20 minutes away) to our third park of the day: DelGrosso’s Amusement Park.  The DelGrosso family, purveyors of spaghetti sauce and other Italian food items, have owned the park since 1946.  It’s a small park where you can pay by the ride or for the day, and has about 25 rides, mostly for young kids.  Across the road (connected by a bridge), they also have a small water park, a lush miniature golf course, and go-carts.  We rode the Wacky Worm and Crazy Mouse coasters, the Pharoah’s Fury (swinging pirate-ship type ride), and the carousel.

DelGrosso’s is famous for Mafalda “Murf” DelGrosso’s potato salad, an item so popular that it often sells out during the day.  We bought a quart (I brought half back for Vivian), and it was certainly one of the best things we ate on the trip.  It was at this point that we figured that every theme park is required by law to be famous for some potato-based product.

After dinner, we went back to the hotel, in need of their hot tub. The manager apologized, informing me that it was not working this week.  I told her about my day and all the rides that were out of service.  She said, “Well, we have one suite that has a Jacuzzi in it – it sounds like you could use a break, so I’ll upgrade your room.”  It was very classy of her (and appreciated by us) – and is yet another example of why I love Hampton Inns.  The room was beautiful and the Jacuzzi was enormous. We got in and watched the Tony Awards from the tub.  It was the perfect end to a crazy day.

DelGrosso’s Roller Coasters ridden: 2
Total for the tour after five parks: 26


Lakemont Park – Altoona, PA

We went to Lakemont Park in Altoona for exactly one reason: to ride “Leap-The- Dips”, the oldest operating roller coaster in the world.  It is also the only side-friction roller coaster operating in the US – such construction gives the feeling that the coaster could fly off the track at any moment.  We finally arrived only to see a small sign on the ticket window: “Leap-The-Dips is not open today.”

I immediately flashed back to the movie “Vacation” and felt like Clark Griswold at Walley World.  The lady at the box office said, “I’m sorry – the coaster is old.  It might be fixed in a few days.”  We did walk over to Leap-the-Dips, which looks like it’s being held together with Scotch tape.  Vivian exclaimed, “I’m glad this thing isn’t working – you might have been killed!”

Lakemont feels like a creepy deserted amusement park you might find in an old Scooby-Doo episode. There were more employees than guests at the park, and the employees look bored and depressed.  We did ride Toboggan, a portable enclosed coaster, and Skyliner, a wooden coaster from the 1960s that bordered the minor league baseball stadium next door. They do have some classic carnival rides, paddle boats, a small water park, and an arcade, but overall, I would stay away, unless you really want to ride Leap-the Dips. We quickly departed in our Dodge Mystery Machine before some ghoul in a rubber mask started chasing me, Daphne, and Shaggy around the park.

Lakemont Roller Coasters ridden: 2
Total for the tour after four parks: 24

Idlewild Park & Soak Zone – Ligonier, PA

We found Idlewild Park to be absolutely charming.

We arrived at 10:30am to find an unusual system – you pay for (or redeem) your park tickets at the parking entrance (and parking is free), so you then drive in, park wherever you want, and enter from one of the many park entrances.  It feels more like admission to a national park – no turnstiles, no ticket takers, no handstamps.

We started the day off with a leisurely stroll through Storybook forest, where we were greeted by Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and other characters from fairy tales.  We also saw representations of various nursery rhymes, from Humpty Dumpty to the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe (which Snow White was guarding, for reasons she couldn’t quite explain).  It was a reminder of how morbid most of these stories are, but the path was quaint and scenic.

When the rides opened at 11:30, we headed straight to the Rollo Coaster, a wooden coaster built in 1938 from trees in the park (they built a saw mill in the park to create the structure).  Although it was short (only 900 feet), we enjoyed it.

Next stop was the “Mister Rogers’ Land of Make Believe ride”.  Fred Rogers grew up in nearby Latrobe and is revered in this part of the state.  He personally oversaw development of the ride and recorded most of the voices.  While the ride itself was rather cheesy, including some poor animatronics and a segment that was completely broken, seeing King Friday XIII and Lady Elaine Fairchild brought back fond memories of my childhood.  Actors from the original series, like “Mr. McFeely”, frequently come during the summer to greet guests, sign autographs, and pose for pictures.

Most of the rides in the park were either for very young kids or the carnival-type spinning or twirling rides we don’t like.  They do have a beautiful carousel dating back to the 1920s.  We did take the scenic train ride and rode the Paratrooper, but otherwise, the rides didn’t really appeal to us.

Joel and I liked Confusion Hill, a crooked house where balls roll uphill and water flows backwards.  Not for those with vertigo.  Joel found it very amusing and even volunteered to be part of the tour!

The park itself is beautiful – foliage everywhere, with a river running through the park.  There are many picnic areas, and you are allowed to bring your own food.  It has a welcoming feel, and Vivian declared it to be her favorite park so far.  In 2010, Idlewild took the “Best Children’s Park” crown from Legoland California.  I may be biased, but I greatly prefer Legoland, which we have visited many times and has greater appeal for teens and adults as well.  Joel would have loved this park when he was five, but since he was “double the age of a five-year-old” (his words), he was not impressed.

We had a few disappointments: the Dizzy Lizzy’s Saloon haunted swing has been permanently shuttered due to expensive maintenance costs, and the old rare Caterpillar ride was removed last summer.  The park’s second coaster, the Wild Mouse, is frequently out of service and will not open until later in June.  These things happen.

We moved on to Soak Zone, Idlewild’s water park.  Despite it being a warm Sunday in June, we encountered few lines, and Joel and I managed to do the all the major waterslides and a lap around their new lazy river in about an hour.  It’s a decent water park, with a wave pool and a large play structure with smaller slides.  Considering that admission is included with an Idlewild ticket, it’s a good deal.

We finished up the afternoon with salads, panini, and a hoagie at “Big Zack’s” (how could we not?), and as an added bonus, they had Potato Patch fries next door!  Kennywood and Idlewild are owned by the same company, and they were smart enough to bring Kennywood’s famous fries to Idlewild.  Made my day, especially since I was just lamenting how I might never have them again.

Our big revelation of the day?  The town is called “li-go-NEER”.  I tried to pronounce it at first as if it was French, and the locals looked at me like I was insane.

We left the park by 3:30pm, heading off to Lakemont Park in Altoona.

Idlewild Roller Coasters ridden: 1
Total for the tour after three parks: 22

One night in Latrobe

Arnold Palmer Ball

We headed out from Kennywood to Latrobe, Pennsylvania (the nearest town to Idlewild Park). We’re staying at the Marriott Springhill Suites on Arnold Palmer Way in Latrobe. Not only was Palmer born here, but he still lives in town.

Arnold Palmer shrineHis holding company owns part of this hotel, and it is a shrine to Palmer. The main “Presidential” meeting room is adorned with pictures of Palmer with US Presidents alongside letters written by these Presidents to Palmer. He comes here several times a month for meetings. The hotel is fantastic – brand new, beautiful rooms, with a restaurant & bar, gym, and indoor pool. The attentive staff told me that they were rated as the #1 Springhill Suites in the US for this past year.

Mister Rogers PhotoLatrobe is also the birthplace of “Mister” Fred Rogers, who was a classmate of Palmer’s. In addition, the banana split was invented in 1904 at a soda fountain in Latrobe. For a small town, they have three great additions to American culture of which they are all very, very proud. As well they should be.

Kennywood Roller Coasters

I was surprised by the roller coasters at Kennywood – these were some of the best we have ever ridden, and all for different reasons.  With three classic wooden coasters and three modern steel coasters, it was a microcosm of coaster history, which added to the overall experience.

Sky Rocket – This launched coaster is the newest in the park.  It goes from 0 to 50mph in 4 seconds – not fast after Top Thrill Dragster yesterday, but with three inversions (with only a lap bar to keep you in place) and a great layout, we thought it was an A+ coaster.  When it ended, Joel smiled and said, “Smoooooth!”

Phantom’s Revenge – This steel monster kicked off our day, and we rode it again before we left.  Topping out at 85 mph, it was the fastest coaster in the world at the time it was built and is still one of the 10 fastest coasters in the US.  It also takes you through a lot of greenery, which we don’t see in SoCal parks.  I need to find some good synonyms for “thrilling”, but this ride was exactly that.

Racer – This coaster from 1927 blew my mind.  Two cars race side by side, much like Gemini at Cedar Point, but this one is much more fun.  What makes this ride particularly unusual is that even though it’s a racing coaster, it’s on one continuous track – when you finish, you find yourself on the other side of the boarding station.  The cars criss-cross at the beginning, making for this unique and surprising design.  A true highlight.

Thunderbolt – A great classic wooden coaster, originally built in 1924 and rebuilt and expanded in 1968.  It’s extremely well padded – knees, side, back armrest – and not very bumpy.  Loved it.

Jackrabbit –  The oldest coaster in the park, built in 1920.  It’s bumpier than the other two woodies, but still a good time.

Exterminator – An oddly themed indoor spinning wild mouse ride – you’re a rat (or perhaps a wild mouse?) trying to escape exterminators.  It was a little like Primeval Whirl at Animal Kingdom, but rougher.  Joel thought it was fine – I did not like it at all, and it was the only one of the day that hurt.

Kennywood Roller Coasters ridden: 6
Total for the tour after two parks: 21


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.

Cedar Point Roller Coasters

We rode all 15 roller coasters – the park boasts that they have 16, but one is a kiddie coaster that can only be ridden if you have a small child in tow. I almost borrowed a six-year-old, but thought better of it.

I consulted with my ten-year-old son, and we mutually agreed on the rankings below for the coasters in the park, from best to worst.

1. Millennium Force – a dramatic name for an amazing coaster. This was one of the most thrilling rides we have ever experienced. It’s one of the tallest, fastest, longest roller coasters in the world – it rises over 300 feet and flies at up to 93 mph. It’s like being on a rocket, but had an incredibly smooth ride. It is a must for anyone who loves roller coasters. Amusement Today magazine rates it as the best steel coaster in the world, and from what I have experienced so far, I have to agree.

2. Top Thrill Dragster – TTD briefly held the record as the tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world. This launched coaster goes from 0 to 120mph in 4 seconds, shooting you 420 feet high. The entire ride lasts for about 17 seconds (you are in the car for a few minutes pre- and post-ride). Xcelerator at Knott’s Berry Farm is similar, but half the height and 2/3 the speed. TTD is an experience you can’t forget.

3. Maverick – Incredible speed, a 95 degree drop (it turns inward), and a tightly-designed track make this one of the best coasters in the park.

4. Raptor – A great inverted coaster. With various inversions and turns, it’s a wild ride, but a smooth one. The same company built Silver Bullet at Knott’s Berry Farm, but we liked Raptor more.

5. Gatekeeper – This winged coaster with the tallest inversion in the world opened in May 2013, making it the hottest attraction in the park. It certainly takes you on a long, fun ride with some unusual elements (like flying you sideways through two towers near the park’s entrance), but didn’t find it to be as revolutionary as others have.

6. Wicked Twister – a launched shuttle coaster, which sends you rising and twisting up and down two columns, forward and backward, at up to 70 mph. Almost identical to V2: Vertical Velocity, which we enjoyed riding at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Northern California.

7. Cedar Creek Mine Ride – Based on the name and the wood supports, I expected this to be a bumpy ride. Quite the contrary – with the steel track, the Mine Train is lot of fun and quite smooth.

8. Iron Dragon – A suspended coaster similar to Ninja at Six Flags Magic Mountain, we started our day at Cedar Point swinging our way through the trees on this mild but enjoyable coaster.

9. Gemini – Our first racing coaster, where two cars start simultaneously on separate tracks and race each other (Radiator Springs Racers at DCA borrowed this concept). We loved the idea of the race, but thought the coaster itself was just okay. It gets extra points because we won our race.

10. Magnum XL-200 – This was one of my few disappointments at Cedar Point. Magnum is historic – the first coaster in the world built over 200 feet high, and Joel was thrilled to see the “scream guards” akin to those on California Screamin’ at Disney California Adventure. I know it’s very popular and highly regarded, but we just didn’t love it. I found it bumpy and I didn’t care for the track layout. A letdown.

11. Woodstock Express – a family coaster similar in size and scope to Gadget Go-Coaster at Disneyland or Coastersaurus at Legoland. A great coaster for young kids. Has a cute Snoopy/Woodstock themed train, but the overall theming is sparse.

12. Corkscrew – With its three inversions and its beautiful blue track running through the center of the park, I was excited to ride Corkscrew. It’s unfortunately showing its age (built in 1976) and was a rough ride. Bummer.

13. Blue Streak – The oldest existing coaster in the park, it’s much smaller than its big brother Mean Streak, but unfortunately gives a rough ride without the fun that good wooden roller coasters have. We closed our day with those coaster and vowed to sit in front or second row of all subsequent wooden coasters, where the ride should be smoother.

14. Mean Streak – This enormous wooden monster reminded me of Ghost Rider at Knott’s Berry Farm – until I rode it. Mean Streak is indeed mean – incredibly rough for a modern coaster, and I couldn’t wait to get off.

15. Mantis – This stand-up coaster was so terrible that it risked ruining the day for us. This ride shook our heads back and forth so much that my ears hurt after the ride and Joel had a headache. I found that pressing my head against one of the headrests helped, but I regret not doing my research and seeing how many other people hate this ride. It’s an embarrassment at a park that has so many great attractions.

Cedar Point Roller Coasters ridden: 15
Total for the tour after one park: 15