August 27th, 2013


Will shake us up all day

Now, to talk about the roller coasters of Kennywood. As a class, they're weird. Kennywood is weird. But the roller coasters there are just odd ones, and even the weird week we would have after this didn't shake my feeling about this.

Our first roller coaster, the Jack Rabbit --- a name that used to be almost the default name for any park that didn't just call theirs ``Roller Coaster'' --- is also Kennywood's oldest. It's got a beautiful neon sign of a rabbit leaping between a moon and a star that shines at night. It's also got some of the elements that make Kennywood roller coasters so Kennywood. Like many old-fashioned wooden roller coasters its basic footprint is easy: you go out and back a couple times, with drops --- in this case, a double dip where you drop down, level out, and drop again, for the feeling of being launched out of your seat in the middle of the drop hill --- for extra fun. But the Jack Rabbit, like many of Kennywood's coasters and like much of Kennywood, is built on a ravine. It's able to start with a drop, and save the lift hill, that slow ratcheting up the incline, until the middle of the ride, which you're rewarded for with another loop out and back, with pleasant drops.

The ride also doesn't have restraints, in the modern sense, just a bar which you may grab on if you feel the need to grab something. This helps make it quicker loading and unloading people --- no pesky double-checking that the seat belts are on and the lap bars as snug as possible -- and means that when the coaster drops out from under you, you can really feel yourself pulling out of your seat. We got two rides on this coaster, and not nearly enough.

The Racer, from 1927, was our second coaster of the day. It's weird in a way we encountered at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, too: it's a racing coaster, with two trains set out on roughly parallel tracks at one and riders seeing who gets back to the station first. Or at least, locally, they're parallel tracks, as the Racer is a Möbius coaster, with the train that leaves on the left side coming back to the station on the right and vice-versa. bunny_hugger and I have now been on two of the three operating wooden Möbius coasters, and we'll surely get to La Feria Chapultepec someday to ride the other. (La Feria Chapultepec also has a shuttle-loop roller coaster that used to be at Kennywood for extra fun to anticipate there.)

The Gemini racing coaster, at Cedar Point, has a few spots where people on the two trains can reach out and high-five (or, wide-five) each others' hands. bunny_hugger reached out to the other cars on Racer, which gets a lot closer than Gemini's trains do, but apparently the dueling hand-slapping isn't part of the Kennywood culture. I tried encouraging it on our second ride, when I was in position to, and got only the one taker. Too bad.

The Racer has got a lovely Don't Stand Up sign at the top of its first hill, but unlike its Grand National twin at Blackpool doesn't seem to have signs marking how far one is along the course, or a clear Winning Post finish line. It does go out over the ravine, though, so there's great views and great chances to drop along the way.

The Racer, bunny_hugger delighted me by explaining, had a spot of controversy. It's got a gorgeous station, the sort of thing you see in pictures of classic parks, only this alive and active. That's the result of recent renovations which restored the facility to its original, 1920s, appearance. The thing is that the ride had been completely renovated in the 1940s, and quite a few people argued that restoration should have brought it back to what so many people remembered from their childhoods. The 1940s station, based on pictures, also gorgeous, looking somewhat like an attraction from a Fleischer Superman cartoon. I'm a little more sympathetic --- without nostalgia to bias me --- towards the 1920s station because those are even rarer than the 1940s style ones, but obviously the thing for Kennywood to do is build a new wooden roller coaster with a 1940s-style station.

Thunderbolt is Kennywood's other classic wooden roller coaster and it dates back to either 1968 or 1924 depending on just how you consider questions of identity. This is probably the most Kennywood, the most eccentric, and the most weird of all its coasters. It was originally opened in 1924 as Pippin --- another mildly popular but vanished coaster name --- and like Jack Rabbit, it opens by dropping into a ravine so you get the big immediate thrill of the drop without that boring lift hill, which, originally, came at the end. But in the 60s Kennywood felt the need to refresh its coasters and so it renovated Pippin, adding into the middle of it a lot of side turns and twists and curves before feeding back to the last loop out (and down) and back up. It dubbed the ride Thunderbolt.

The result is a roller coaster as Stravinsky might have designed. This has all the familiar motifs of a classic 1920s wooden roller coaster --- the drops, the banked spirals, the twisting track, even the way the cars (dating back to Pippin days) twist and compress as the track turns --- but all the normal flow of a ride is shattered. It's dissonant, shocking: nothing happens quite when an experienced rider should expect it. I was infatuated, but am hard-pressed to evaluate it quite fairly since the storms of the day robbed me of the chance to re-ride it, but I don't believe I'm overrating it. It is a roller coaster not quite like any other one I've ridden, and that I sorely want to ride again.

In comparison the modern, steel coasters of Kennywood are a less eccentric bunch, but they are still wonderfully strange in their ways. The first of the steel coasters we rode, Phantom's Revenge, is like Thunderbolt a redesigned version of an earlier coaster. A decade before opening as the Phantom's Revenge it had been the Steel Phantom, one designed by Arrow Dynamics and therefore, since Arrow Dynamics really specialized in this, featuring about eight jillion loops. In 2000-2001 the ride got redesigned, with the loops taken out yet the ride increased in length and shortened in running time. This probably doesn't sound too strange yet, but consider these two statistics taken from the Roller Coaster Database about the ride as it now exists:

Height: 160 ft
Drop: 228 ft

Yes, it takes advantage of Kennywood's ravine-based topography and manages to have a drop that's much farther than its lift hill. Better, this coaster manages to have its biggest drop be the second drop of the ride. It loops over the Tumble Bug and approaches the Thunderbolt, for the wonderful design of of rides that overlap other rides, the sort of thing you don't see in modern and carefully cultivated parks, to their loss: I think it's great to have rides on top of rides, and my experiences at Blackpool and at Kennywood just make me more sure that I'm right.

The Exterminator is a spinning wild mouse coaster, better in its theme and setting than really fundamentally weird, though the cars are pleasantly off in being four-seaters with the only restraint being over-the-shoulder bars that seat two at a time. The cars are also, for some reason, purple, with green, slit-eyed and fanged creatures, as if they weren't sure the theme of ``rats overrunning a power plant'' were quite enough. The props are great, though, with the blinking control panels of a circa 60s Big Important Somewhat Computerized factory, and which look like they come from actual factory salvage. The buttons are labelled too mundanely and the panels scuffed and rusted too inartistically for me to quite believe that it's something other than, someone at Kennywood asked General Electric for some obsolete hardware and they were happy to turn it over. There are supposed to be videos featuring Pittsburgh-area TV anchors introducing the ride but when we visited they were not playing.

The Exterminator was also exceptional in our visit for being the only roller coaster with a substantial wait for it. bunny_hugger has observed that if any roller coaster in a park has a wait it'll be the wild mouse, probably because of the mix of their being low-capacity rides (they take only four people at a time, after all) and not being particularly frightening (they don't have 200-foot drops or loops or the like, and they're typically steel so they look like they're less rattly than wooden coasters), and this was so that Tuesday. We spent at least a half-hour and probably closer to an hour getting into the building, through an in-ground tunnel underneath a big sign of a crazed giant rat crushing steam pipes in his claws.

The last of the Kennywood coasters we rode --- and the most recently installed one, a mere three years old --- is the Sky Rocket, and truth be told it's almost weird just in being not particularly weird. At least it's the ride which one could most easily imagine being picked up and dropped into, say, Great Adventure or Cedar Point without it being obviously out of place the way Thunderbolt would.

And yet it's weird in its quiet way too. The ride doesn't use a traditional lift hill, instead using a ``linear synchronous motor'' that speeds the car from zero to fifty miles per hour in three seconds, the way monorails in science fiction stories are supposed to do. This is used to throw the train up a near-vertical hill and then drop back down again (literally down: the roller coaster database credits it with a 90 degree drop), much like Top Thrill Dragster or Kingda Ka will (though they, needing about four times the altitude and two and a half times the speed, use a hydraulic launch instead), but here the sudden speed and the lift aren't the whole of the ride. They almost could be: the Sky Rocket is at the edge of the park, and it looks to be on the shoulder of the highway that divides Kennywood from its parking lot (and necessitates that grand opening tunnel). The ride, just past the entry tunnel, I should mention is also very elevated; from it, or its ride queue, you are distinctly looking down at people, so the height of the first hill is bigger than its measurements suggest.

But after the burst of speed and the big hill, the ride continues, with wonderful sweeping curves and loops and a corkscrew, a full and satisfying ride that doesn't depend just on the initial thrill. The cars are fairly oddball, too, looking much closer to the kind you'd get on a wooden coaster than on a 2010-era steel, electromagnetically propelled roller coaster, with a restraint system that's just a lap bar, nothing over the shoulder. The cars feel like they belong to a much smaller, more intimate and tamer ride than they actually are on, and the feeling that one is almost flying uncontrolled is powerful.

(There is also a kiddie coaster, which we didn't ride and probably couldn't have fit on anyway, the Li'l Phantom.)

A couple weeks later, when counting carefully the roller coasters I can say with certainty that I have ridden, I would determine that I reached my 100th different roller coaster on this day.

Trivia: Harry Weaver, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis's director of research when it began sponsoring Jonas Salk's polio research, was a philosophy PhD. (He had also been a professor of anatomy for Wayne State University, and had overseen substantial medical research before his controversial appointment.) Source: Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio, Jeffrey Kluger.

Currently Reading: Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise And Fall Of States And Nations, Norman Davies. Davies spends surprisingly little time on Byzantium --- just a couple dozen pages --- which considering there were like 280 pages on the Polish-Lithuanian Union seems odd. Maybe he figures Byzantium is easy to find information about, what with how Gibbon hated it and all.