Kennywood Park

10th August 2005

As a coaster enthusiast I am occasionally prone to doing exceptionally silly things in pursuit of my hobby. This morning I woke up in a hotel in Cincinnati Ohio, with a requirement to get to Columbus Ohio by the evening, a drive of roughly one hundred miles achievable in less than two hours. The sensible move would have been to have a lazy breakfast and perhaps a session in the hotel gym before departing mid-morning. Instead, I decided to get up at a stupid hour so that I could shoehorn in a visit to Kennywood Park in the outskirts of Pittsburgh. I knew at the outset that this slog would get me no more than half a day in the park, but decided to proceed regardless as there were several coasters there that I really wanted to ride.

The first few hours of the journey went very smoothly, and I was within thirty miles of the park at noon when the traffic abruptly came to a complete standstill. Roadworks on I-79 meant there was only one available lane, and that had been blocked completely by an accident. Though frustrating there was absolutely nothing I could do except sit in increasing agitation as my precious park time ticked away. By the time we started moving again the damage had been done, meaning that it was after 2:00pm when the park skyline finally came into view. Under normal circumstances this sight would have improved my mood, but not today; it was abundantly clear that there wasn't going to be enough time for me to enjoy the park properly.

Kennywood Park

Rather than start with a coaster I decided to begin my visit with Pitt Fall, a highly regarded drop tower from Intamin that was once the tallest anywhere in the world. The short wait gave me several opportunities to indulge my sadistic inner self as I watched the faces of other guests making their rapid return to earth, and their unbridled horror cheered me immeasurably. By the time I was rising up the tower myself I'd made the inevitable decision to scrap my programmed departure time even at the cost of a late arrival into Columbus; I was going to do all of the coasters at least once no matter what. The drop was every good as bit as I'd hoped, and I disembarked with a wide grin on my face and a renewed spring in my step.

I decided that my first coaster should be Phantom's Revenge (#519), the park's largest. When it first opened in 1991 the ride was known as Steel Phantom, and the three thousand feet of track featured four inversions. Reviews from the time suggest that these were negotiated with the utter lack of finesse typical of Arrow rides of the period, resulting in numerous guest complaints. At the end of the 2000 season Morgan Manufacturing were brought into solve the problem, which they did by removing the inversions in favour of a series of airtime hills interspersed with helices. They also rebuilt the trains with lap bars in place of the original over-the-shoulder harnesses, allowing for a much more open and comfortable ride.

There was a three quarter hour wait to board today, and it quickly became apparent that this was mainly because the ride's second train was parked on the transfer track. The operators seemed to be in no particular hurry, and the restraint checking process coupled with a two minute long ride meant that a train was dispatched about once every four minutes. The coaster gods decided to smile on me, perhaps in payback for the hassle earlier in the day; as I approached the station there was a perfectly timed call for a single rider in the back seat, saving me precious minutes while also giving me what I fully expected to be one of the best seats on the train.

One of the unique features of the ride layout is the fact that the first drop, though substantial, is not the tallest. That honour falls to the second drop, which takes full advantage of park terrain to plunge almost seventy metres into a ravine, passing through a small gap in the support structure of one of the other coasters at over eighty miles per hour. This near-miss is negotiated brilliantly without even the faintest hint of jarring, and within seconds I'd decided that it was now my favourite moment on any coaster. The remaining layout was a high speed blur that was supremely thrilling, even though it came to an end far too soon. I'd have liked more track, but it's worth noting that any extension would have an awful lot to live up to given the standard of what's there.

My next stop was at Exterminator (#520), an enclosed Reverchon spinning mouse described by the signage as unlike any ride you've ever experienced, an assertion that felt more than a little misplaced given that this was my fourteenth example of the breed. There was an hour long wait to board, and much of it was in the blazing sunshine. As far as I could tell a full complement of cars was in use, and the operators were keeping them moving at maximum efficiency; it was just a case of demand outstripping capacity. Disney identified this problem when they installed a similar attraction, choosing to install two tracks; perhaps Kennywood Park should do the same thing? If that isn't possible, it would be a good idea to enclose more of the queue, or at the very least put up some sun shades so that guests in line don't collapse from heat exhaustion.

Thunderbolt

There was a rule forbidding single riders on Thunderbolt (#521), the fastest of the three wood coasters in the park. The reason for this wasn't clear, but on this occasion it worked in my favour as there was an empty seat in the front row as I approached, giving me pole position without having to wait. I'd somehow failed to notice that the lift hill wasn't at the start of the course, and thus the fifty foot drop out of the station came as a nice surprise. There was a second drop prior to the main lift hill courtesy of the terrain that came within a few feet of Phantom's Revenge, and we were treated to a superb if brief view of screaming riders as a train shot past.

The operator on Lil Phantom (#522) was somewhat nonplussed when I approached his ride without a child in tow, but he recovered quickly and helped me shoehorn myself into the seat. The coaster, my first from American company Molina & Sons, was a simple oval punctuated by small airtime hills, and as per usual with a ride of this size we were given more laps than I wanted to count. It was interesting (and rather nice) to see no strict limit on the number of people in each car; if three children could fit in the seat together then they could ride together.

The park is home to one of three operational wood coasters worldwide to feature two connected tracks in a möbius loop, meaning that riders who board in the left hand station come to a halt in the right hand station, and vice-versa. In an ideal world I'd have ridden both sides of Racer (#523) for comparison, but an hour long queue coupled with no ability to choose sides meant that one lap was the limit today. The reason for the wait was glacially slow operations, exacerbated by the fact that only two of the four possible trains were in use. One of the guests in front of me became quite agitated about this, remarking loudly that a recent switch from individual attraction tickets to a flat rate admission fee meant that there was no longer any incentive to run rides to capacity. Though cynical, this assessment did seem to be on the money (pun intended); the trains seemed to be spend more time in the station than out on track.

With that done my final credit became Jack Rabbit (#524), an out and back design dating from 1920, making it one of the oldest operating coasters anywhere in the world. As with Thunderbolt the layout took full advantage of the terrain, with two respectable drops prior to the lift hill. The highlight came at the apex, with a superb double down element that lifted me completely out of my seat. I'd have loved to have gone back for a second lap, but with several hours of drive ahead of me there simply wasn't the time.

It was with considerable regret that I began my journey towards the park exit, walking past a variety of interesting-looking attractions that I'd have loved to stop for. I was most of the way to the gate when I realised that it would be unconscionably rude to leave without a second lap on Phantom's Revenge. Once there I decided against my better judgment to wait the extra twenty minutes for a front seat, which cemented the ride as one of my favourite coasters of all time. Minutes later I'd arrived back at my car, dissatisfied with having to rush but grateful for having had at least a few hours at Kennywood Park. Hopefully I'll be able to return in the not too distant future.

Steel Phantom