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!



Wow! Kennywood I’d like traveling back in time !! Sounds like you’ve had some fun summers. That Turtle attraction is interesting.

I just posted … but on your previous post in posting information on the artist on that Epcot American Adventure concept piece at the Smithsonian. I am also still dumbfounded … but that Marc Davis pirates concept piece is a well known fake! How the Smithsonian got it is perplexing me and some other Marc Davis fans !!


Blogger MIKE COZART said...
Andrew : that American Adventure development sketch of Franklin’s Print shop was done by imagineer CLEM HALL …. Who also did the 1975 and on versions of the Haunted Mansion stretching portraits. Clem Hall was a master painter who had a background in formal portrait painting … then was a studio artist in Hollywood before coming to WED in the very early 70’s . At Disney Clem did lots of well used and published images of Walt Disney Worlds new Tomorrowland, Disneyland Space mountain and big thunder mountain railroad for both parks . He was a master at arial views and is probably most remembered for his Birds Eye view of EPCOT CENTER.

One thing I’m am dumbfounded about is that this is a Smithsonian exhibit and that Marc Davis rendering is a know fake!!

JB said...

I'm still trying to figure out how anyone could hear "$1,000" instead of "$10". I mean, they don't even sound alike! Nevermind that paying $1,000 to paddle around the lagoon for a while is just ridiculous. Oh well, now you have that story to add to your experiences from your time at Kennywood.

From what you said at the top of the page, I gather that working at Kennywood was exhausting, tiring, and at times annoying, but you wouldn't trade it for anything! Part of the crew of the famous Kennywood Racer... I think I'm jealous.

That's a beautiful picture of the carousel horse amidst the pink blossoms. Instead of trying to get rid of the raccoon, they should've just left it there and renamed the ride to the Rocky Raccoon coaster.... maybe not.

The Whip has always been one of my favorite vintage rides, even though I've never ridden it. I just like the way it looks and moves. According to the plaque on the side of the car, this ride was one of the early attractions at Coney Island before getting relocated to Kennywood. Pretty neat!

Cool, now you can add "voice of God" to your resume!

Love the neon Turtles against the deep blue and red sky with the silhouetted coasters. I put the Turtle ride in the same category as the Whip. I have a thing for vintage rides.

I saw the snowy Turtles pic and read where you forgot to hit the stop button in time, and thought, "Oh no! The ride kept coasting all the way into winter!" ;-)

I like the nighttime photo of the Wave Swinger. It looks like a giant radioactive mushroom.

Looks like the Merry-Go-Round has made the jump to lightspeed!

Andrew, I really enjoyed hearing your Kennywood stories and seeing these great photos. Thanks!

Andrew said...

Mike, thanks for the information about the artwork in the exhibit! The fact that they have a fake Marc Davis sketch on display is pretty bad. They didn't claim that it was his authentic work anywhere on the plaque, though, so maybe they're aware.

Andrew said...

JB, the person sounded genuinely surprised when they said "$1,000?!" I hope they were joking, but I've never met anyone with a sense of humor like that. I have loved my time working at the park, but it's not for everyone. For one you have to answer the question "am I gonna die?" like 15 times a day.

Haha, the mascot for Kennywood's sister park, Idlewild, actually is Ricky Raccoon!

I totally get what you're saying about the Whip. It's a great ride to just watch in action. I think the first Whip was at Coney Island, but all the plaques say that because Coney Island was the headquarters of the company that manufactured the ride. "Voice of God..." XD

As you know I also have "a thing" for vintage rides. Just a little bit. The Turtle and the Whip are Kennywood's two great flat rides from the Golden Age! Thanks to you, I now have "giant radioactive mushroom" in my vocabulary. I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

TokyoMagic! said...

I agree with JB, that picture with the pink blossoms is a beauty. And it's nice to see a wild carousel horse, frolicking in it's natural habitat.

Antique amusement park rides are the best! I hope Kennywood continues to hang onto it's historic attractions....and the buildings, too. I love the neon signage for The Turtle, and on that refreshment stand.

I was also wondering how someone could think you said $1,000, instead of $10. But maybe she was being sarcastic and implying that the cost may as well be $1,000? How long do you get to stay out there for $10? Is it just up to the guests? Knott's Berry Farm's Lagoon area had rowboats and paddle boats. They were all numbered and when your time was up out on the lake, they would call you back to the dock over a loudspeaker. I don't remember how long guests were allowed to stay out there.

I love that photo of you operating the carousel at night. And how great is that that you found it on Flickr!

Please tell me that if you hit the emergency stop button on the Wave Swinger, that instead of gradually coming to a stop, it stops turning immediately. I have the image in my head of it doing just that, and the shocked looks on everyone's faces as their seats fly up higher than ever before.

Thanks for giving us a further peek at Kennywood, Andrew. And for the behind-the-scenes information and stories, as well!

Andrew said...

TokyoMagic!, that "wild carousel horse" used to be on the park's highway sign, but they moved it to this flowerbed when it was replaced in the 90s. There's usually only one weekend a year when the bushes are in bloom like this!

I think we can rest easy that none of Kennywood's historic rides will be removed in the near future, especially after the removal of the Kangaroo caused so much uproar. A lot of them are nearing the century mark!

You have 30 minutes out on the lagoon, but not many people stay out the entire time when the sun is beating down. I'd have people come back after less than ten minutes, but usually people came back after 15 or 20 minutes.

Haha, maybe the Wave Swinger e-stop button does cause the whole ride to immediately halt! I've never hit the e-stop myself, but I will try it next time just for you.

Major Pepperidge said...

Andrew, Kennywood looks like a wonderful place, and I’m sure you will remember your time there for the rest of your life. The photo with the paddleboats on the water is a beauty. I am surprised that tickets were a thousand dollars though.

I am taking this opportunity to write “Monongahela”, because when else is that going to happen? Seeing those low hills makes me nostalgic for my years in Pennsylvania (though I was more in the Harrisburg area).

How did you get some of your “high up” views? From a roller coaster? Or Skyway-type ride?

Poor raccoon, couldn’t they have coaxed it down with a hotdog instead of spraying it with water? They should have somebody dress in a raccoon costume to put the real critter at ease.

I don’t know if the Kennywood version of The Whip is like the one I rode at the Santa Monica Pier, but somebody should have warned us to put the heavier person on the outside - the entire ride I was worried about crushing my young niece!

I love the look of that Turtle attraction, and it looks well-maintained. I hope it keeps running for years and years. What’s the story of that ride with snow? Did that happen over the Summer??

Those photos of the Carousel are nice, and it’s cool that you have that one of YOU in the middle of the swirling lights. Philip Johnson is a great architect, and apparently a very good photographer. ;-)

Thanks for sharing your Kennywood memories!

Andrew said...

Major, it's the best $1000 you could ever spend! You spelled Monongahela correctly, so you are a true Pittsburgher now (though many "true Pittsburghers" still don't know how to spell it). The landscape isn't too different from the central part of the state, so I get where you're coming from!

I took the aerial shots from the lift hill of the Phantom's Revenge. I shouldn't have had my camera out technically, but it was around my neck and I put it away before the drop. :-) Idlewild does have a Ricky Racoon costumed character that walks around the park hugging kids, maybe that would have helped get the raccoon down!

No, we didn't have snow in August! The park stays open through Christmas, but only a few rides are open. I took that picture one day when there was a pipe break that closed the park, so a friend and I walked around taking pictures for a while. We have a very nice Philip Johnson skyscraper in Downtown Pittsburgh, though I know Johnson does have a controversial political past. Thanks for the comment!

"Lou and Sue" said...

I love your pictures, Andrew - especially the Wave Swinger at night, and Merry-Go-Round at night.

What a fun picture of you at work. You'll have it as a reminder of the "good ol' days" - to treasure and share again in the future, just like the Jr. Gorillas do on GDB. Are you planning to work there this summer?

Andrew said...

Sue, I do plan to work at the park this season, so I have one more year of fun and craziness ahead of me, at least!