Stepping back into the ‘Golden Age of Amusement Parks’ at Kennywood

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Reporting from Kennywood in West Mifflin, Pa. - With its extensive collection of turn-of-the-century rides and attractions, Kennywood in West Mifflin, Pa., is a living, breathing, trapped-in-amber ode to the “Golden Age of Amusement Parks.”

Photos: Top 10 oldest rides and attractions at Kennywood

As you pass through the tunnel from the parking lot to the park, you’re transported back in time to a place full of memories and free of worries.

Filled with vintage wooden coasters and rare old rides, the quaint and nostalgic park is the kind of place passed down from generation to generation.

In a typical scene, I watched as a son helped his wheelchair bound mother off the 1918 Whip after she rode the classic flat ride with her grandchildren.

Tradition plays a central role at the park, where visitors truck in their own coolers for shady picnic lunches in a rite of passage celebrated on an annual basis by schoolchildren, community organizations and neighborhood groups.

With more than a dozen pre-World War II rides, the 92-acre park has been named to the National Register of Historic Places for its collection of “rare, exceptional and highly representative historic amusements.”

In 1898, the Kenny’s Grove picnic area was transformed into a trolley park with the addition of a carousel, casino and dance hall. Over the next few years, the park added an Old Mill dark ride and a figure eight toboggan coaster.

Added in 1995, the Lost Kennywood area of the park visually references Luna Park, a short-lived Pittsburgh rival that operated in the early 1900s. Lost Kennywood includes modern versions of classic rides such as shoot-the-chutes and the wave swing as well as the park’s 1918 Whip.

The area next door to Lost Kennywood feels like an old carnival midway with the Gran Prix bumper cars (1973), vertically spinning Volcano (1978), undulating Musik Express caterpillar ride (1987) and alpine-themed Bayern Kurve circular bobsled ride (2009).

A closer look at the top 10 oldest rides and attractions at Kennywood:

--Old Mill
Kennywood’s oldest ride and the world’s oldest operating Old Mill dark ride has gone by many names since its 1901 debut: Panama Canal, Fairyland Floats, Around the World and Hard Headed Harold’s Horrendously Humorous Haunted Hideaway. The current incarnation still sends boats through the same dark tunnels, albeit with a Garfield’s Nightmare theme based on the comic strip cat.

After all these years, the 1918 Whip still whips riders around an elliptical track to the shrieks and shrills of hysterical laughter. Designed and built by W. F. Mangels Co. of Coney Island, N.Y., the simple ride consists of two opposing turntables with a cable loop that pulls cars around a laminated wooden track. Kennywood also has a smaller version called the Whippersnapper for kids.

--Jack Rabbit
Opened in 1921, the $50,000 Jack Rabbit wooden terrain coaster, designed by John A. Miller with a distinctive double-dip element and unconventional mid-course lift hill, has been designated an American Coaster Enthusiasts classic.

--Wacky Wheel
The classic 1924 kiddie Ferris Wheel with six caged cars was also built by the W.F. Mangels Co.

-- Thunderbolt
Once dubbed the “King of Coasters” by the New York Times, the 1924 twister-style Thunderbolt wooden terrain coaster designed by John A. Miller was known as Pippin until 1968, when the American Coaster Enthusiasts classic was expanded using parts from the original ride and renamed Thunderbolt.

-- Racer
Built in 1927, the $75,000 Racer wooden coaster, designed by John A. Miller, features an ingeniously crafted, continuous track layout that departs on one side of the station and returns on the other, making it the only single-track racing coaster in the U.S.

--Dentzel Carousel
Considered the soul of Kennywood, the 1927 carousel built by the William Dentzel Co. of Philadelphia features 64 horses, with music provided by a 1916 Wurlitzer band organ. With hand-crafted lions, tigers, jesters and cherubs, the carousel has been named a National Historic Landmark. Kenny’s Karousel, a miniature merry-go-round built by the W. F. Mangels Co. in the children’s section of the park, actually predates the larger carousel.

One of the last operating Tumble Bug rides, the 1927 Turtle features six cars traveling around a circular undulating track. A junior version of the ride can be found in the kiddie section of the park.

--Auto Race
Built in 1930, the last-of-its-kind Auto Race lets drivers navigate electric cars through a twisting and turning trough-like wooden track.

--Noah’s Ark
The 1936 Noah’s Ark walk-through dark attraction takes visitors through the boat and past the animals on board. Built by coaster-maker Philadelphia Toboggan Co., the Kennywood attraction is one of the last of its kind still in use today.