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Kennywood main entry gates

Along with the many iconic and widely recognized amusement and theme parks scattered throughout the nation, there are also a handful of historic parks that continue to endure the test of time against their competitors. From Coney Island to Lake Compounce, many older amusement parks continue to thrive long into the modern age. 

One such park resides in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. This, of course, is the historic Kennywood park that first opened to the public in 1899.

The spot, originally known as Kenny’s Grove, first opened as a popular scenic picnic area and trolley park at the end of the Monongahela Street Railway that overlooked the nearby river. In the early days of operation, the park featured few attractions aside from a carousel and dance hall, but as the park grew to welcome the 1900s, some additional rides and attractions were added with the growth in popularity.

In 1901, the park added the Old Mill, a tunnel of love style ride that would see guests through a boat ride of various sets and props. Although this attraction has seen several rethemes and renovations throughout its lifespan, the Old Mill continues to operate to this day making it not only Kennywood’s oldest operating ride, but one of the oldest rides in operation in the United States.

Kennywood's Old Mill
Kennywood on Facebook

 

Kennywood’s first roller coaster–the Figure Eight Toboggan–was added the following year.

In 1906 after less than a decade of operation, the trolley company decided to withdraw from managing the park. That year, Kenny’s Grove began operating under the name of Kennywood Park Limited. With the change in management came new opportunities and growth for the park, and it enjoyed a steady climb in popularity throughout the early 1900s. Along with a growing number of thrill rides, Kennywood also introduced a number of recreational areas such as swimming pools, picnic pavilions, and a scenic railroad.

Between the 1910s and 1930s, many rides rotated in and out of Kennywood’s roster. The park added a number of impressive roller coasters including the Pippin, the Jackrabbit, and both the original and renovated incarnations of the Racer.

In 1930, Kennywood also saw the addition of its first car-based, electrified-track dark ride, Laff in the Dark. A remnant of this ride can be found in the park to this day, inside the arcade, where an animatronic woman can be heard laughing raucously from behind her glass box. This is Kennywood’s own Laffing Sal animatronic, who once drew guests into the Laff in the Dark attraction during its years of operation. After the closure of the dark ride, Laffing Sal was moved to the Olde Kennywood Railroad where she remained for many decades, entertaining (or terrifying) small children.

Laffing Sal at Kennywood
Kennywood on Facebook

 

In 1936, the first incarnation of the Noah’s Ark attraction was opened. This classic attraction was a fan favorite funhouse recounting the biblical story in a mischievous and lighthearted manner at a handful of amusement parks, but the one in Kennywood is the last still in operation. This funhouse steadily rocks from side to side, the floors tremble, and small blasts of concentrated air may surprise unsuspecting riders, but it continues to be an enjoyable experience for all ages–especially for those too nervous to tackle some of the larger thrill rides offered at the park.

For several decades, the park continued to grow and swap around rides. The 1960s in particular saw a number of changes to iconic and beloved rides in Kennywood, as well as the introduction of some successful additions. 1965 saw the removal of Laff in the Dark, which was replaced by the Turnpike, a car-themed track ride, the following year.

In 1968, the Pippin was renovated and renamed the Thunderbolt, a coaster that remains in the park to this day. During the 1960s, Kennywood introduced its new slogan–“The Roller Coaster Capital of the World”--which it proudly held until the 1990s.

1975 saw the introduction of the Log Jammer, a longtime fan favorite that enjoyed many decades of operation at the park. This log flume ride offered guests and easy way to cool off during the summer months, and was also the first multimillion dollar project to be added to Kennywood.

The 80s did wonders for the park’s popularity with the additions of the Laser Loop, Wave Swinger, and Raging Rapids, as well as the filming of the documentary Kennywood Memories (1988). This documentary detailed the history of the park up to that point and featured employee experiences, guest satisfaction, the must-do rides, and more. In 1987, a year before the documentary’s release, Kennywood was designated a national historic landmark.

Kennywood Main Gates
Ski2007, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One of Kennywood’s crown jewels was opened to the public in 1991. The Steel Phantom coaster was as ambitious as it was unique; At the time of its opening, it held the record of the tallest coaster drop (228 ft.), breaking the previous record of Cedar Point’s Magnum XL-200 (195 ft.). This coaster design was unique because its record-breaking drop was not the first, but the second drop on the ride. It utilized the speed gained from the initial drop and the hilly terrain of the area to make its second, taller drop extra thrilling.

Almost immediately, engineers found that the Steel Phantom was overperforming. The train would regularly exceed specified speeds, and riders would complain of neck and back pain. Despite this, the roller coaster was well-liked and frequently made appearances on top ten lists. 

Believing the coaster to be too intense, Kennywood made the decision to pull the plug on the Phantom in 2000. Guests were quick to defend the ride, and Kennywood ultimately decided to keep the coaster, but add in some additional modifications to make the ride more gentle on riders. The coaster reopened in 2001 as Phantom’s Revenge, short the inversions that made the original so intense and shortening the ride time by about fifteen seconds. Despite these changes, Phantom’s Revenge has a remarkable track record compared to its predecessor and is widely praised for its airtime, thrills, and modifications to the overall ride experience.

Phantom's Revenge Coaster Train
WillMcC, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As a kid who grew up around Pittsburgh, I naturally spent much of my childhood inside this amusement park. For I, and many other nostalgic fans like me, Kennywood is an essential visit for park enthusiasts seeking out a hidden gem. Though it is not as famous or flashy as the likes of Disneyland, Kennywood has a deep rooted history and legacy tied to the area. Anyone from Pittsburgh, West Mifflin, or the surrounding area will tell you Kennywood is a must-do when visiting from out of town, and for good reason. If you’re looking for a trip as rich in history as it is in thrills, look no further than historic Kennywood park.

(And if you need a food recommendation–you can’t go wrong with the Potato Patch fries. Trust me on this one.)

 
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