Travel Note

9th August 2021

My Monday began with what was supposed to be a three-hour-and-change drive from Columbus to Kennywood Park. Things were going well until I reached the outskirts of Pittsburgh, when the arrival time on my Garmin screen abruptly jumped out by more than an hour. My first thought was to blame traffic, but on closer inspection it turned out that the wretched contraption had gone berserk and was sending me on a ridiculous and entirely unnecessary scenic tour of south-western Pennsylvania. All regular avoidances were turned off, and switching mode from fastest time to shortest distance only made things worse.

In the end I had no choice but to use Apple Maps on my phone, which enabled recovery with only a ten minute delay. Unfortunately getting back on track also required that I use the PA Turnpike, a toll road with no cash options and no way to pay online. The delightful people at Budget Car Rental sorted out the $4.70 toll for me, though this more than doubled the overall cost courtesy of that most American of taxes: a $5.95 "convenience fee". This was a mild embuggerance, though as things turned out it was but the prelude to the real car rental nightmare which exploded (quite literally) two days later.


Kennywood Park

9th August 2021

It's fair to say that I wasn't in the best of moods when I finally arrived at Kennywood Park, and things didn't get better on passing through the gate. The coaster that I'd come to ride was closed along with the rest of Steelers Country, and no obvious activity was taking place to change that. My next stop at Ghostwood Estate was equally unsuccessful, followed in short order by Raging Rapids which wasn't due to open until the afternoon. Storm clouds were already gathering inside my head when a surly operator refused me entry to Thunderbolt because single riders are not permitted. I'm pleased to say that the impromptu test of my anger management skills was successful, but it was a close-run thing.


The policy to require two people per row on the Thunderbolt is a safety restriction that has been in place for years, and in fairness I remembered it the moment it was flagged to me. Having said that, in times past ride operators were known to pair people up, even inviting disembarking guests to ride a second time in order to fill seats. Sadly this is apparently no longer park policy, presumably because it increases guest satisfaction, and management couldn't have that. The terse nature of the closed signs (see above) speaks volumes to me; it wouldn't have been hard to have printed something with just a little more humanity.

Eventually I wound up at Phantom's Revenge, a highly regarded Arrow/Morgan creation that was until recently the park's signature attraction. Today it was operating with one train and a wait time of around fifteen minutes. I decided against waiting for a prime seat, and ended up in row six, which was exactly what I needed to re-energise: the tracking was smooth, the layout was thrilling, and there was even some decent airtime. As ever the highlight was the magnificent second drop, which passes through the Thunderbolt superstructure at over eighty miles per hour. I've wondered before what might have happened if Morgan had been hired to build and/or overhaul the Big One; sadly we will never know.

One curiosity of the modified layout is the presence of two sets of magnetic trims towards the end of the track. Regular readers will know my views on such things, though in this case their positioning means that the impact on the overall experience is minimal. Online research has revealed that they were added at the end of the ride's first season because trains were going too fast for the brake run to reliably stop them. I'm sympathetic to the designers, having retrofitted similar fixes to quite a few of my RollerCoaster Tycoon creations over the years. Though a bit of a bodge, it does the job, and one presumes it to have been cheaper than redesigning the track.

I'd been very much looking forward to riding SwingShot, a ninety foot high S&S Screamin' Swing that premiered in 2006. It had been years since my last encounter with the type, since almost all installations are in America; as of this writing just four of the eighteen operating examples are outside of the lower forty-eight. Unfortunately my excitement was short-lived; an operator sitting at the entrance served as a visual indicator that this would be my fourth miss of the day. The ride was still closed when I walked past it a few hours later, though I did see it testing without passengers on my way out of the car park, so it's possible that it opened for the evening.

Instead I found my way to Sky Rocket, a launched coaster from Premier Rides recently brought back from the dead after eighteen months of downtime triggered by an electrical fire in the machine room. There was a lengthy queue, but I figured that I might as well stand in line for something, and after three quarters of an hour playing Superior Solitaire (shameless plug, tell all your friends!) my patience was rewarded with a top notch front seat ride. The highlight of the experience is the first few seconds: a rolling launch, a vertical climb, and an absolutely superb moment of hangtime across the apex. Most of the rest of the ride is respectable too; three inversions and a series of tight turns that are negotiated effortlessly. The only portion of the layout that doesn't work all that well is a very silly section of sideways movement (covered also in my 2012 report); a drop or an inversion of any kind would be a significant improvement.

Still Closed

After disembarking I made my way back to Steel Curtain in the hope of getting something conclusive about its operational status. There was nothing visible from the entrance area, but a walk to the back of the ride revealed an operator in the station and several members of staff working with a cherry picker in the vicinity of the brake run. I took this as a positive sign, and decamped into the air conditioned comfort of a nearby restaurant for an early lunch. Nothing had obviously changed an hour later when I was ready to face the world again, so rather than hang around I went to do something else.

The Old Mill boat ride is the oldest attraction at Kennywood Park, though it has been through many theme changes since it first opened in 1901. From 1974-1993 it was known as Hardheaded Harold's Horrendously Humorous Haunted Hideaway, an awesomely alliterative appellation almost as articulate as Wallis's Wonderful Wriggling Wirral Wacky Worm. More recently it operated as Garfield's Nightmare, which featured an elaborately colourful overlay augmented using 3D glasses. The "New Old Mill" design was installed for 2020, and it can be thought of as a reimagining of the original: a vaguely haunted journey with interesting scenery along the way. I enjoyed the ride a lot, though it loses at least a few points for the ridiculous number of signs indicating the positions of nearby fire extinguishers; I can only assume that these were enforced on the park by an overzealous insurance company.

Next up was Jack Rabbit, the oldest of the park's roller coasters. While researching for this report I discovered that the name is a contraction of jackass rabbit, and that it has been used for an incredible thirty-seven coasters over the years, the vast majority built between 1912 and 1925. Kennywood's example is one of the few remaining coasters with trains designed by Edward Vettel, notable for their fixed position restraint bars. The ride was running well today, with airtime over each drop and just the right amount of bounce.

I could have sat on it all day long, but it was at this point that I noticed a test train on Steel Curtain (#2911). Lots of other people had seen it too, causing what is probably best described as a gentle stampede. A large crowd had gathered at the entrance to Steelers Country by the time I arrived, but they could go no further; staff would not allow people into the waiting area. Instead an improvised queue had formed along the midway, blocking access to the various games and stalls. It had extended past the entrance to Racer when I joined it, and grew yet further over the next ten or so minutes as four more trains were dispatched with uniformed park staff on board. Then everything stopped.

The queue continued to move forward over the next hour or so as the more sensible guests bailed, but I decided to stay where I was; I'd bought admission with a specific coaster in mind, and I wanted to be in the right place to take advantage of even the briefest public opening of what was evidently a problematic piece of machinery. After an interminable wait in the baking heat my patience was rewarded; eight more test trains were dispatched and the ride opened, albeit with only one train in service. It was just before 3:00pm when I took my assigned seat on the right hand side of row four and pulled down my lap bar restraint.

Five Inversions

The experience begins with an unusually slow lift whose steep angle provides a spectacular view of the "banana roll", a manoeuvre that has been the cause of some thoroughly pointless debate in the enthusiast community: RCDB states that it's one inversion, while the park claims it as two. Whatever you believe, the three inversions (stirring the pot because I can) in this brief section of track are a thing of beauty to behold. As they pass out of view the chain lift accelerates, bringing the train to a 220 foot apex that is as of this writing the tallest of any coaster (and indeed any permanently-installed amusement ride) in Pennsylvania.

I'd have loved a brief pause here to admire the vista of the rest of the park, but there is no break in motion at all. Instead, the train rolls forward into the world's tallest inversion and a drop that changes direction on the way down. This section of track can't have been easy to fabricate, but I'm pleased to report that the fine people at S&S Sansei got things absolutely right; the train negotiates it with a finesse more typically associated with modern-day Vekoma. The rest of the layout consists of inversions and not a great deal else, but they are spaced out, comfortable, and varied. As multi-inversion rides go this one is definitely an upgrade over the Intamin equivalent, and about a million times better than the horrid Gerstlauer torture device in Europe England.

Being on the first train allowed me to rejoin the queue ahead of the multitudes, and after another forty-five minutes in line I enjoyed a second lap on the left hand side of row nine. The forces in this position were marginally stronger, though there was also a slight rattle that hadn't been obvious further forward. My feeling is that this would have limited my ability to do back-to-back rides, though in fairness the chances of being able to do anything like that outside of an Exclusive Ride Session are somewhere between zero and a complex number.

By the time I'd disembarked the queue had stretched to what an operator suggested would be "around two hours", and given that I decided that it was time to hit the road. I'd have loved to have done a front, a back, or even a third lap anywhere; maybe I will on a future trip if the reliability issues can be sorted. The park is at least making an effort; three weeks after my visit the ride closed for the balance of the 2021 season in order to ensure a roaring return next spring. Let's see what happens.


Waldameer Park

9th August 2021

I was quite a long way behind my planned schedule by the time that I departed Kennywood Park, and that presented a conundrum. I'd made arrangements to meet friends for drinks at their home in north-eastern Ohio, and while we hadn't locked in an exact time I didn't want to get there too late given that both would have work the next day. Routing past Waldameer Park would add at least anther hour to my arrival, plus however long I spent riding coasters. The decision process was complicated further by the Waldameer Park website, which warned that some attractions would be unavailable due to staff shortages. I briefly considered dropping the place entirely, but in the end my inner coaster counter got the better of me; a hands-free phone call to the advertised number confirmed that the ride I wanted was open and would remain so until closing.

The name Waldameer Park originates from the German phrase Wald am Meer, meaning "woods by the sea". Pedants may point out that the nearest sea is Hudson Bay, around six hundred miles to the north, though the average guest presumably doesn't care very much with Lake Erie a quarter of a mile away. (Those wondering about the Atlantic Ocean, as I did, might be interested in reading about the differences between seas and oceans; despite popular belief the terms are not interchangeable.)

One of the things I find endlessly entertaining about America is the amount of space devoted to the motor car. Waldameer Park is no exception to the rule; a very unscientific measurement using Google Earth suggests that a little over half of its thirty-nine acre land bank is reserved for parking, and by all accounts it is necessary: tonight the overflow area was not in use, but the primary lot was almost completely full. Readers retracing my steps should consider navigating to the backup area adjacent to Steel Dragon (42.1073, -80.1581); this is nowhere near as well signposted, and in theory should be somewhat quieter on busy days.


Guests not heading to the water park have three choices for admission: season passes, all-day wristbands, and individual smart cards. With a tight time constraint I selected the latter and uploaded just enough credit for the two wood coasters and my fifth figure eight spinner in four days. Whirlwind (#2912) was being run in an unhurried manner, and thus I was treated to a twenty-minute long reminder of why it's a really dumb idea to count coasters. On the positive side, though, my four lap cycle featured some unusually strong spinning.

With the new tick out of the way I headed to the Ravine Flyer II. The park's signature wood coaster is an extremely intense ride, and the lack of any wait time in an otherwise busy park made me wonder whether I was in for a beating. Out of an abundance of caution I chose a seat towards the front of the train, though I need not have worried; from that location the overall comfort level was fine. There were a few rough moments, but far fewer than might have been expected for a thirteen year old Gravity Group creation; it's clear that those maintaining the track know what they're at.

At the other end of the intensity scale was my lap on Comet, a wood coaster that sits firmly in the family friendly bracket. It is a very pleasant ride to sit on; being both relaxing and comfortable without being extreme in any way. Some years ago the original manual braking system was retired in favour of a computerised replacement, and while the enthusiast in me laments the loss of history I will at least admit that it has no effect on the overall ride experience.

I was treated to some real-life street theatre on the way back to my car. I'm not sure what happened in act one, but I caught the start of act two, which featured a middle-aged woman rushing up to a car while shouting at the top of her voice. The driver's window rolled down in what appeared at first glance to be an attempt to develop the dialog, but instead a can of pepper spray cut the conversation short. As the vehicle accelerated in the general direction of the gate the air rang out with a string of metaphors that were as colourful as they were heartfelt.