Kennywood Park sits high on a bluff above the Monongahela River, with a sweeping view of the puffing steel mills on the river's shore and the coal barges that crawl slowly toward them.
For 100 years, this place - at first just a leafy picnic grove - has given the families of Pittsburgh's workers respite, a lofty remove from the workaday world below.
Kennywood Park is a 75-acre, family-owned amusement park in the age of Disney, Universal and Busch. It is located at the end of a labyrinth of city streets when other parks have their own interstate exits.
It is a National Historic Landmark, one of only two amusement parks so honored, in part because it has managed to adapt and survive in a century of rapid change. A quirky combination of gentility and newfangled rides has secured its appeal to generations of Pittsburghers.
And that's what brought me to Kennywood Park.
Though I now live in Maryland, a six-hour drive from my Pittsburgh roots, it was time for me to introduce Kennywood Park to the next generation of my family - kind of like opening up an attic trunk full of dusty artifacts when you decide your children are ready to hear the stories that go with them.
For Pittsburgh children, Kennywood Park is the place where the annual "school picnic" is held. From its opening in late spring until the July Fourth weekend, each school district books a day at Kennywood. Those schools still in session actually cancel classes.
"Other parks envy us our school picnics," says park spokeswoman Mary Lou Rosemeyer. That kind of attendance base - about 400,000 - has guaranteed Kennywood a good season in the worst of economic times.
"People in Pittsburgh will tell you: You can mess with the date of Christmas, but don't mess with our school picnic day," says Rosemeyer.
Located in the community of West Mifflin, about 10 miles southeast of downtown Pittsburgh, Kennywood opens its doors at 10:30 a.m. to busloads and carloads of school kids and their families, who have purchased discounted tickets for a day of rides and food and fun.
Pittsburgh residents whose school days are half a century behind them still buy tickets and stroll the park on their school picnic day.
Some actually "picnic." Families confidently leave their baskets and coolers - the Kennywood honor system is as old as the park - on the tables in one of the shady groves that have been the sites of family picnics since the 1860s.
Before the days of the one-price, ride-all-day wristbands, mothers would hold strips of ride tickets, using them to reel in their children for periodic checks during a 10-hour day. In those days, too, mothers would sew matching outfits for their children - the better to keep track of them in the crowded park.
And those mothers would wait at those rendezvous spots to cart home the sleepy, sticky kids, their little heads spinning and their stomachs slightly churning from the roller coasters and the sweets. The "Nighty Night" closing song plays over the park sound system, as it has for perhaps 70 years, and the park slowly empties.
That's what I wanted for my daughter, Jessica, and her friend Joanna Macknis. A day at Kennywood Park.
Modesty prevents me from saying how long it had been since my last visit to Kennywood. It was for "Safety Patrol Day," and I was one of the band of kid-police who kept order on the buses and in the halls of my elementary school. That status conveyed upon us a special day at Kennywood - Safety Patrol Day is always the first picnic of the season.
I was in sixth grade. I was Jessie's age.
Joanna's father grew up in Pennsylvania, too. Joe Macknis was raised in the hard-scrabble coal region to the east, in Mahanoy City. When he was about Joanna's age, his family made the pilgrimage to Kennywood. Even though there were amusement parks closer to home, none had the vaunted reputation of Kennywood. The draw that pulled Joe's family across the state was now pulling us across time and generations.
I wanted Jessie and Joanna to have what we had had.
I wanted them to break out the summer's first new shorts outfit and spend a pre-adolescent day trying to catch the glances of cute boys.
I wanted them to eat junk food and get sticky and slightly sick and stand in long, hot lines for too-brief fright.
I wanted them to get splashed on the Log Jammer and have the Wonder Wheel stop at the top. I wanted them to walk by the Thunderbolt again and again to see if they could work up the nerve to ride it.
I wanted them to watch the lights in the park blink on at dusk and to feel giddy with freedom at being out so late and on their own.
I wanted a Kennywood Day.
Park's 100th year
We made the drive to Pittsburgh and spent the night at Grandma's. The next morning, we zigzagged through the streets of West Mifflin to Kennywood.
It isn't as difficult as you might imagine. Everywhere around Pittsburgh, but especially on the telephone polls of West Mifflin, are yellow "Kennywood" arrows. That's how people give directions in this town: "Follow the signs to Kennywood and then ... "
The Kenny farm was a destination long before the yellow signs. Anthony Kenny had five groves of oak and maple trees, and he leased them to the owners - Pittsburgh banking millionaire Andrew Mellon among them - of the Monongahela Street Railway Co. Its trolley line ended there, and it promoted the Kenny groves to generate weekend ridership.
This is the centennial year of that trolley park. Slowly, a dance pavilion, a bandstand, a cafeteria and a merry-go-round were added, as were rowboats in the little lagoon. In 1902, a gentle "toboggan" ride was built.
In 1906, the trolley company turned over the lease to Kenny's woods to A.S. McSwigan and Frederick Henninger. They and their descendants have operated the park ever since, purchasing the land from the Kenny family in 1971.
McSwigan and Henninger knew the way to guarantee crowds was to book picnics. They began with the schools, but by the 1930s, the picnics had swelled to include communities, businesses, industries, trade unions, nationalities and family reunions. There is a Cheerleader Day, an Italian Day, a Belle Vernon Day.
During the Roaring '20s, Kennywood doubled in size and replaced its rides with newer, faster, more daring ones. The Jack Rabbit is the classic. A mild ride by modern standards, its lovingly preserved wooden track really rattles riders. It is the only coaster that still has a double dip, or camel back.
The Pippin opened in 1924, but was reborn in 1968 as the Thunderbolt. Taking advantage of the hilly terrain, it plunges deep into a ravine. It has been voted the top wooden roller coaster by the National Amusement Park Historical Association. Considered by many to be the finest roller coaster in the world, the Thunderbolt triggered a renaissance in roller coasters and helped secure Kennywood's solvency.
The girls and I didn't ride the Thunderbolt. I'm too old, and they were too nervous. But we did pester my nephew, Bill Helzlsouer, a college sophomore who works the Thunderbolt, a position of honor and responsibility that culminates his four Kennywood summers and is a source of tremendous pride for a Kennywood family.
There are about 1,200 summer employees, and most are high school and college kids who hustle, compete and pull strings for the hefty 60-hour-a-week Kennywood paychecks that have financed more than a few college educations.
Every winter, they wait anxiously for the "magic post card" that tells them whether their work habits earned them another summer.
Kennywood is slow to wake up. The park opens at 10:30, but the rides just begin to operate about 11 a.m. That gives you time to deposit your picnic dinner in one of the groves and stand in line at the lockers, where you can store extra clothes for the water rides.
First stop, the Turnpike ride. These cars represent the first driving experience for most Pittsburgh kids. They used to be gas-powered, and you could control the speed. But the cars are electric now and automatically spaced. A Gulf Oil sign used to turn slowly above this ride, but Gulf Oil is defunct now, and the sign says "CoGos."
Next is the Old Mill, which was never called the Tunnel of Love, no matter what old Pittsburghers remember. This charming old ride was constructed in 1901 and is the oldest water ride anywhere. It is a popular Pittsburgh myth that someone was once bitten by a water snake in the Old Mill.
The pace picks up with our next stop: the Racer, built in 1927. Red and blue cars appear to race each other, but it is an illusion. The cars are on a continuous track, one of just three rides like this left in the world.
Then it is onto the Log Jammer, Kennywood's first $1 million ride and installed 23 years ago. Don't worry - you won't get too wet on the splashdown.
The paddle boats in Lake Kennywood give you a view from
below of the Skycoaster. Kennywood was the first park to offer this combination of bungee-jumping, sky-diving and hang-gliding when it unveiled the ride in 1994. It takes extra money and extra, extra nerve to ride.
Pass kiddieland and there is the Auto Race, where the oil stains on the wooden track and the trees that shade its route date to 1926. It is the last of many of this kind of ride.
The Kennywood Train is the object of much good-natured ridicule. Built for the 1939 World's Fair, it passes around the perimeter of the park and through some of the corniest historical dioramas of western Pennsylvania history you can imagine. The Laughing Lady at the ticket booth was rescued from Laff in the Dark, an old ride.
Ride the Raging Rapids, a white-water tube ride, and you'll need that change of clothes. Kennywood employees, positioned in towers above the course, are paid to set off the geysers that soak you.
The Thunderbolt and the upstart Steel Phantom (named by employees) share the same ravine, and their tracks twist around each other in the close quarters of this urban park, fueling the rivalry of their fans. When the Steel Phantom was introduced in 1991, designed by a descendant of original owner Frederick Henninger, it was the fastest ride (80 mph), with the steepest drop (225 feet) in the world.
The Pitt Fall, a 251-foot tower painted the black-and-gold of the football Steelers, the baseball Pirates and the hockey Penguins, is the world's tallest free fall. The good news is, it offers a tremendous view of downtown Pittsburgh from the top. The bad news is, riders then plummet at 60 miles per hour to the bottom.
In the shadow of the Steel Phantom is the Centennial Midway, here just for this anniversary season. There are classic midway acts: a flea circus, a headless woman, a gorilla girl, an escape act, a contortionist and a boy who is shot out of a canon.
Noah's Ark, built in defiance of the disastrous St. Patrick's Day flood in Pittsburgh in 1936, was for years the symbol of Kennywood. Even when the wooden structure was found to be rotted nearly to pulp, Kennywood did not abandon it, but spent a year refurbishing it and adding some high-tech touches.
Nearby is the entrance to Lost Kennywood, an ambitious re-creation of the old park that opened on the site of the old swimming pool in 1995. The Whip, the oldest flat ride in the country, was restored here. The Pittsburg Plunge is a replica of the 100-year-old Shoot the Chute. The illuminated entrance is a faithful reproduction of the gateway to Pittsburgh's old Luna Park, built in 1905 to take advantage of the newfangled light bulbs.
The beautiful Victorian architecture of Lost Kennywood blazes with thousands of lights at night. The Wonder Wheel offers a spectacular nighttime view of downtown Pittsburgh. The stage shows at the lagoon are first-rate and a relaxing way to end the day at Kennywood.
Secret of success
If the Thunderbolt is the heart of Kennywood, then the Grand Carousel is its soul. The Wurlitzer bank organ provides the sound track to a trip back in time. A score of delicate Victorian paintings decorate the ornate ceiling. Many of the carousel's 50 jumping horses and 16 lions and tigers were painstakingly repainted for this centennial season, including one horse painted with tiny hearts to represent the loved ones lost to Kennywood and its employees over the winter.
Kennywood has survived for 100 years because it has understood how to carefully preserve rides like the Jack Rabbit and the Grand Carousel, how to adapt to its topography and the limits of its urban setting with rides like the Thunderbolt and the Steel Phantom, how to buy the best new rides - like the Skycoaster and the Pitt Fall - without getting into a deadly arms race with other parks.
The park survived the Depression and World War II, thanks to the picnics and the dance bands it booked. (The park used to give out free tickets to servicemen looking to meet girls.) The post-war baby boom filled the schools and filled Kennywood, but television was a threat. Kennywood responded by booking Jay "Dennis the Menace" North, the Lone Ranger and Lassie for its stage shows.
Kennywood has never tried to be anything it is not. Its traditions have been forged over a century, not whipped up by a marketing team. Kennywood maintains its character as a genteel European-style amusement park with gardens and fountains, while providing high-tech, screaming-out-loud rides to satisfy thrill-seekers.
The park has lovingly preserved rides like the Old Mill and Noah's Ark and the Auto Race and the Turtle because they are the rides where memories are stored - the memories that bring grown-up school patrols like me back with a new generation of children.
The girls had the Kennywood day I wanted from them. We rode and ate and rode and ate in the bright sun. And they jabbered on about the boys who flirted with them by bumping their paddle boat in the lagoon.
"We told them to get a life," Joanna said, with practiced arrogance.
The girls were recharged after dark, pulling energy from the park's lights. But they faded in the van on the way home to grandma's, clutching the stuffed tigers they'd won at the skill games in Sportland.
"I know what I'm going to name him," Jessie said sleepily. "Kenny Wood."
When you go
Getting there: Kennywood is located in West Mifflin, 10 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, on Pennsylvania Route 837. It is a five- to six-hour drive from the Baltimore area, depending on how often you stop.
The park is just minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. Take the most convenient route to Interstate 376 (Penn-Lincoln Parkway) and exit at Swissvale (No. 9), then follow the yellow arrows to 4800 Kennywood Blvd.
Parking: Free unless you choose preferred parking ($4). Remember where you parked by checking the signs near your car - the lot is labeled with the names of rides.
Where to stay: Comfort Inn, 1340 Lebanon Church Road, West Mifflin, 412-653-6600, $75; Hampton Inn, 1550 Lebanon Church Road, West Mifflin, 412-650-1000, $89; Red Roof Inn, 2719 Mosside Blvd., Monroeville, 412-856-4738, $65, Holiday Inn Parkway East, 915 Brinton Road, Pittsburgh, 412-247-2700, $119.
Hours: Kennywood is open through Labor Day. Gates open at 10:30 a.m., but rides do not open until 11 a.m. Park closes from 10 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., depending on crowd and weather. (Note: the park will open at 5 p.m. Aug. 31 to Sept. 4.)
Tickets: Ride-all-day passes are $16.95 weekdays and $19.95 Saturday and Sunday. This entitles the bearer to ride any of the 31 major rides and is the best buy if you plan to ride more than eight.
What to bring: Wear comfortable shoes. Bring towels or a change of clothes, including shoes, if you plan to ride - or even watch - the Raging Rapids, the Pittsburg Plunge or the Log Jammer water rides. Lockers near the Gran Prix can be used to store extra gear, but the line there is often longer than at the rides, especially just after the park opens.
Kid stuff: Kiddieland is perfect for little ones, and tickets are only $4.95 for children under 52 inches - and for you, if you don't plan to ride any of the big rides. Kiddieland is modeled on the big park with rides named Lil Phantom Coaster, Little Turtles, Kiddie Whip, Kiddie Merry-Go-Round and Kiddie Ferris Wheel.
* Strollers ($4) and wagons ($5) are available for rent at the main entrance and at the Guest Service Center near the Enterprise.
Where to eat: Kennywood is among the last amusement parks to encourage patrons to bring their own picnics. And they can feel safe doing so because baskets and coolers, deposited on one of the tables in the shaded groves and covered with a tablecloth, are rarely disturbed. It is a sacred Kennywood tradition.
* Parkside Terrace offers cafeteria-style dining with hot meals, cold salads and luscious deserts.
* Eighteen refreshment stands in the park serve corn dogs, hot sausage sandwiches, funnel cakes, fudge, the famous Potato Patch fries with your favorite topping and chicken strips. Hot pretzels, cotton candy, candied apples and fudge are made right in front of you.
Weather: Pittsburgh's summer weather is often cloudy and averages about 10 degrees cooler than Baltimore summers. Nights in the park can be cool and breezy, so bring a jacket or a sweat shirt.
Information: Call 412-461-0500, Ext. 120; online, go to www.kennywood.com.
An Ideal Day:
9 a.m.: Eat a hearty breakfast to tide you over until you can no longer resist the smells of junk food.
10 a.m.: Load the car with extra clothes and towels and a picnic dinner, then point it toward the yellow Kennywood arrows.
10:30 a.m.: Park in the upper overflow lot and take the sky-lift-style ride called "Kenny's Parkway" right to the front gate. Purchase a ride-all-day ticket and pass through the drab concrete tunnel. In about 50 paces, the sights and sounds of Kennywood will burst into view.
11 a.m.: Pick up a map of the park. Get your picture taken so your viewfinder key chain will be ready when you leave the park. Drop off towels and extra clothes in the lockers and your picnic on a table in the groves.
11:30 a.m.: Start slow with the Turnpike and the Old Mill and a stroll through the Penny Arcade.
1 p.m.: If you love coasters, the Jack Rabbit is the classic. Follow up with the Racer for a true sampling of the past. Both are from the 1920s.
2:30 p.m.: Chill out with a paddle-boat ride around the lagoon and watch the brave souls riding the Skycoaster above you.
4 p.m.: Prepare to get soaked at the Raging Rapids. That will require a trip to the lockers to get dry clothes.
5 p.m: Head to the groves for your picnic supper. And the nearby Kandy Kaleidoscope is waiting with sweets for desert.
6 p.m.: Check the schedules and make sure you don't miss the acts in the Centennial Midway.
After dark: Now is the time to visit Lost Kennywood. Pass through the spectacular Luna Park entrance, ablaze with the light bulbs that were the rage at the turn of the century.
9 p.m.: Work your way back toward the entrance and enjoy the illumination of the park. Ride the Wonder Wheel for a spectacular view of downtown Pittsburgh.
11 p.m.: Listen for the strains of "Nighty Night," the Kennywood lullaby. It is the signal that your Kennywood Day is over.