Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Good Old Kennywood

Today's post is a tad different from my regular "trip report" posts. Instead of reporting back from a park visit, I'm going to share some memories from my last two summers working at Kennywood. This was the park that started my love for amusement parks, and it still might be my favorite. Working there has made me appreciate theme park employees all the more, not to mention that it has long been a goal of mine to work at an amusement park.
Last summer, I was on the Racer crew, which also has to staff the paddleboats on the park's lagoon. On busy days, there is nothing better than being out there in the hot sun with all 14 boats out in the lake and a big line of people waving their tickets in your face. And of course, every boat will always want to come back to the dock at the same time. It wasn't too bad though, as operating the Racer was awesome and made this crew worth it! The paddle boat tickets were $10, and people would frequently ask how much the tickets cost. One time I told a lady that a ticket was $10, and she indignantly replied, "A thousand dollars?!" (I promise, I will be making none of these stories up.)

One of the best things about Kennywood is its stunning setting on a bluff overlooking the Monongahela River, with industry contrasting the surrounding Pennsylvania greenery. 
It just so happens that the last large steel mill remaining in the Pittsburgh area, the Edgar Thomson Works, sits directly across the river from the park. Built in 1873-1874, this was Andrew Carnegie's first steel mill and sits on the site of an important battle of the French and Indian War, Braddock's Defeat. Some of the roller coasters provide gorgeous views of the valley as they dive down the ravine. The arched bridge on the right of this image is the George Westinghouse bridge, which spans the Turtle Creek valley. Turtle Creek is where Westinghouse built major factories that transformed his business into an empire.
Here's what the view looks like at night from the park's miniature train ride.
Kennywood was originally a picnic grove dating back to the 1860s, and it still retains much of its wooded charm. That includes wildlife too. One time a raccoon somehow found its way into a net that hangs above the station of the Sky Rocket coaster, and I watched maintenance trying to get it down by pelting it with water from a hose. The raccoon didn't want to budge, but I guess they somehow got it to leave eventually!
Several times I heard someone scream "90 YEARS?!" when I would play the pre-recorded spiel on the Whip that says "The Whip has been operating for over 90 years." The Whip is one of my favorite rides because it's a simple ride that never fails to get everyone smiling and laughing. Like the Turtle, the ride is still operated with a rusty speed control crank that is identical to the kind you see on old streetcars. It says "WESTINGHOUSE ELECTRIC & MFG CO. PITTSBURGH, PA USA."

Some of the picnic groves like this two-level building date back to the early 1920s. Kennywood doesn't have as many picnics as it used to, but there is still a fair amount throughout the summer. Catholic Day is always an interesting experience, especially when you get groups of priests coming up to ride a roller coaster. One time I came on the microphone at the Racer to say the safety spiel, and I heard a priest say, "Is that the voice of God?" The Catholic Diocese also does a mass every year in a picnic pavilion, and they even made a video a few years ago of a couple priests riding the Phantom's Revenge.
Kennywood's big claim to fame is that it is one of only two amusement parks in America that is designated a National Historic Landmark. It earned the honor in 1987 because it retains many buildings from the early 1900s, seven major rides from the 1920s (including three roller coasters), a few rides from the 30s, and rides from every decade since then too. It's always great when people have no idea that something is almost a century old. I'd have people ask me how old the Wurlitzer band organ was on the carousel, and they'd seem amazed when I told them it was from 1916. 

The Turtle is a last-of-its-kind flat ride that is from 1927, and it has a great neon sign with four turtles in a row. This has to be one of my favorite pictures I've taken at the park.

I got to operate this ride on a couple of occasions, and it's probably the most difficult ride in the park to operate because it's still entirely manually controlled. There's a forward button, a backward button, a stop button, and a speed control crank. Starting up the ride requires you to make it go forward then backward in the station to help the train of vehicles gain momentum, meaning it takes the following sequence: forward button, speed up, stop button, speed down, backward button, speed up, stop button, speed down, forward button, speed up. Then you have to kill the power at a specific time to bring the ride to a stop. It's easier to just actually do it than explain it here!
One time I forgot to hit the stop button in time and the train of turtles didn't have enough momentum to make it over the second hill. But it was easy to just bring them backward into the station, and no coworkers knew it happened because I was alone. All the guests were giving me weird looks though!
The Wave Swinger is the first ride I ever operated. We didn't need to physically check the restraints on this ride, so I would delight in speed-walking around the inside of the ride with my eyes darting to make sure every seatbelt was safely secure. People had the tendency to lose stuff while they were gliding through the air, including their souvenir drink cups, shoes, and cell phones. Someone successfully found their cell phone stuck in a tree once when the ride came back down to the ground. Sometimes the ride even joined in the fun itself and would lose a lightbulb while it was spinning. 
Multiple times on the Wave Swinger, I saw coworkers hit the "lift" button on the control panel, but they didn't press the "turn" button down far enough. If that happens, then the ride telescopes up into the air and tilts at an angle but doesn't start to spin, leaving everyone dangling! Also if you hit the emergency stop button on this ride, the ride will stop spinning, but it won't lower back down to the ground.
The park's 1926 Dentzel Merry-Go-Round will always be one of my favorite rides, especially for its band organ music. You have to walk around the platform while the ride is running, and at first, I had a hard time finding my balance and had to hold on to the horses as I made my way around the platform.
Here's a picture of me operating the Merry Go Round during Christmas that I stumbled across on Flickr. Photo credit goes to Philip Johnson. Note how fast the ride is spinning! ;-)
I hope you've enjoyed these Kennywood memories. I have enjoyed working at the park very much over the past two years! I have more to share that I will get to with time!