I love Kennywood at night. If I’ve ever had a run of encounters all summer with less than inspiring corporate parks that have left me wondering why I continue to invest so much time and effort in this hobby, I need only to head across the Pennsylvania border to Pittsburgh, where a weekend at Kennywood (as well as a couple of the state’s other charming small parks) will quickly remind me why. I love the lights, the character, the community, the energy… but most of all, I love the roller coasters. Kennywood is the only park in the world with both wooden and steel coasters in my personal top ten lists. And there would be a new roller coaster at Kennywood I have not ridden before. It’s called Sky Rocket.1
Kennywood’s roller coasters are successful because they take simple, time tested technology, and then add a creative twist to the layout that makes it stand out above their competitors. Land is tight in Kennywood so every attraction is built with care and purpose, and if it doesn’t live up to the standards set by the rest of the amusements it will very quickly find itself facing retirement. As a result there are no bad rides in Kennywood,2 and choosing what to do next can be painful if only because there are so many good choices. That said, I’ve become worried about the future of Kennywood because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to meet that standard of excellence in an era of increasing corporatization and uniformity of industry practices. Rather than take active involvement in the creation of attractions, more and more of the work is being outsourced to engineering and creative firms who do the same work for all of their competitors. A few of the more recent attractions, while far from bad, don’t have quite the same special touch that once defined the entire roster at Kennywood. Ghostwood Estates, for example, is by no stretch of the imagination a bad ride, but I can’t shake the feeling that the creative team they hired were more inspired by certain attractions at Disneyland (and their innumerable spawn throughout the theme park world) rather than the qualities that gave classic dark rides in urban parks their colorful, local flavor. Sky Rocket I worried would feel the same way: a decent steel launched coaster that could be found at any other park… but Kennywood isn’t just any other park.
Thankfully, there’s a lot to like about Sky Rocket that makes it feel at home amid Kennywood’s tradition of excellence. Absent of any bulky restraints, it’s a supremely comfortable and smooth ride without necessarily being gentle and dull; the speed with which it takes the initial overbank turn and barrel roll can be a bit startling to watch for the first time. The electromagnetic launch has been around long enough that at this point it doesn’t count as a gimmick but just another element in the designer’s toolbox, and the coaster earns most of its style points on the merits of the layout that follows: a varied, creative mix of inversions, banked turns, steep drops, airtime, and a few random bits that are ‘just-for-fun’. Even the visual look of the cars, with their simple, boxy, minimalistic design, reminds me somewhat of the classic rolling stock on the nearby Jack Rabbit.
Most of the elements come in pairs or small clusters: i.e. two near-vertical drops, two barrel rolls, two bunny hops, three or so speed turns and a bundle of “surf curves”. This allows for enough repetition that the layout never feels reduced to a series of disjointed, arbitrary elements, but allows for enough variation that the experience never becomes stale, with new ideas introduced all the way to the very end of the ride. It does suffer a bit from a sense of descending action; all the high octane elements are front loaded in the layout, and the surf curves and bunny hops in the final act, although cute, are more one-dimensional than their tight curvatures suggest the dynamics should be.
The biggest problem with Sky Rocket is the visual appearance from the midway is rather undesirable. Silver supports are everywhere, growing out of the ground like a 100 year old steel forest, and it looks a bit of a mess. For some reason, nearly the entire layout is built ten to twenty feet off the ground, with only the station, launch, and valley after the midcourse drop set at ground level. The layout should have been designed to follow the terrain more closely. Not only would this have saved on steel and construction costs, but it would have reduced the visual noise of all the supports that fill the area and possibly have made the on-ride experience feel faster and more thrilling. However, since there’s not much that can be done about the layout now, I’d at least recommend Kennywood take the time to do something creative with the supports so the area doesn’t look so bland and industrial. How about if every support column gets assigned to a local amateur artist, who gets to paint the bottom ten feet of it with whatever colors, styles, or pictures they want? Maybe there’s a way this could be made into a charity event or fundraiser for nearby high schools’ art programs. Or even just landscape the area beneath the ride with a lot of silver-leaf plants and silver birch trees, accented with cobalt flowers? Sky Rocket has the potential to become another iconic attraction for the Pittsburgh park, but not until it looks the part will it be able to become the part.
Phantom Fright Nights is often regarded as one of the best amusement park Halloween events outside of the major theme park hubs in Florida and California, and it seems to combine all of the things I like most about Kennywood, so a Friday night pitt-stop on a weekend autumn trip to a couple parks in Pennsylvania was most definitely in order. The park opens at 7:00pm, pretty much right as the sun has dipped below the horizon, and it finishes at 1:00am, which means plenty of time to score some cool night rides. Nearly every light bulb in the park is replaced with different colored filters just for the couple of weekends of Phantom Fright Nights – and that’s a lot of light bulbs! The results are quite effective, and manage to create a very different ambient environment than one would find during the summer. To be honest, the park is almost a bit too bright and colorful, and there’s not as much fog used as one might come to expect from amusement park Halloween events which can make it difficult for masked performers to leap out unexpectedly. (I suspect this is due to the close proximity of Kennywood Boulevard to the midways, as they can’t let too much fog vapor escape the park and create hazards for traffic.)
Most of the notable thrill rides operate during Phantom Fright Nights, although the water attractions and many of the low-key family rides are closed for the season. The event is not recommended for children under thirteen, as the compact premises make it difficult to cordon off sections that are safe from scares; the entire park is basically one big scare zone. This was really only problematic in Lost Kennywood, where nearly every ride in the area was dark and vacated except for the Exterminator all the way at the back of the midway, which was also completely dark (can someone please tell me why all the special effects have been replaced with one emergency light in the middle of the room?!?) but usually had a full queue.
However, even in these cases, the missing rides aren’t terribly distracting, as a big part of the appeal of Phantom Fright Nights are walking around the midways and enjoying the ambiance. Lost Kennywood in particular is worth spending some time in even though there’s nothing open to ride between the Swing Shot and Exterminator. Rethemed as “Gory Park”, it seems to simulate a dank side of town after being ravished by a nearby prison break… or possibly an alternate-dimension version of Kennywood if they didn’t have security keeping watch over the many teens that come for Phantom Fright Nights. The midways are strewn with dead leaves and shredded newspapers, and the trees are covered in toilet paper, creating a cool atmosphere with minimal budget (although the janitor’s bill at the end of the season can’t be kind). Be sure to keep an eye out for the dude puking his guts out into a steel barrel. Not even the bathrooms are necessarily a safe house from scare actors, and one girl in a motorized wheelchair was possibly able to get the biggest screams out of any of her colleagues.
Other designated scare zones themed to the wild west (“Death Valley”) or a circus (“Fear Festival”) are smaller and not quite as effective (without much fog nor much room to hide the scare actors contribute more to the ambiance than the thrills), although they can be hard to distinguish from ‘normal’ midways because the creepy atmosphere pervades every corner of the park. Unfortunately the haunted mazes are both few in number and not particularly spectacular. There are only four significant haunted walkthroughs not counting Noah’s Ark. The first is Villa of the Vampire, a gothic vampire themed in the Penny Arcade near the front of the park. Then we have Mortem Manor, located in the Parkside Café in the center of the park; this is a generic haunted house theme, but also has marginally better sets and scares. There’s the new Biofear in a picnic pavilion near the Log Jammer (which we didn’t do due to the long line), and finally Voodoo Bayou, which is interesting for its location in the trough of the raging rapids, and while you get a decently long walk-through integrated with a mystical backstory told near the beginning, it’s a bit short on jump-out-of-your-skin thrills. Truth be told they’re all kind of the same, and consist mostly of cheap construction materials creating narrow hallways with strategic scare points for actors to hide behind. Not much in the way of narrative, suspense, or even subtlety, the haunted mazes pretty much consist of a series of ‘gotcha’ moments whose only purpose is to make the teenage girls scream bloody murder. At that, they are very good. I got a bit tired of it after two walkthroughs, so if you only have patience for one haunted walkthrough (the lines can get rather long), I’d recommend Mortem Manor, if not only because the queue runs next to a sheet tied up between the trees playing a “drive-in movie” of classic black and white horror films; otherwise, you’re probably better off riding the roller coasters and spending another night to get your haunt on at Pittsburgh’s ScareHouse.
The Jack Rabbit is the most improved of the roller coasters by this event, as they positioned floodlights below the track inside the tunnel which creates an interesting strobe-like visual effect as the light shines up between the crossties and catches a bit of fog vapor that’s drifted over from the midways. Phantom’s Revenge and Thunderbolt continue to be their usual glorious selves, although not enhanced by many special Halloween effects save for the eerie green lighting throughout the station (even all of the tracer lights on the Thunderbolt are turned Phantom green), but these rides don’t really need it when the shadows of the ravine are already plenty creepy after midnight. Especially because they overlook the steel plants billowing flames and smoke on the other side of the Monongahela River, which can look like a backdrop out of a post-apocalyptic nightmare.
All said, I’m not entirely certain that Phantom Fright Nights are necessarily the best Halloween even at any regional amusement park in the country, if only because the haunted walkthrough attractions aren’t really worth driving long distance for. However, it’s certainly a top notch seasonal event, mostly because it’s an excellent excuse to ride some great roller coasters into the wee hours of the morning right before the season is over, and the extravagant lighting package is jaw-droppingly stunning, showing a completely different personality to a great historical park that’s never short of personality. After the crowds had thinned out between the final hour of midnight and 1:00am, we rode the Phantom’s Revenge about six times in a row without getting off. Those are the kinds of experiences that make any late autumn roller coaster weekend trip worth every penny.