Kennywood leaps into action to save the Kangaroo
Classic park has impressive collection of vintage rides
We are often drawn to theme parks and amusement parks to experience the latest cutting-edge technology, innovations, and entertainment. Think: monorails, virtual reality, 3-D media, motion simulators, PeopleMovers, augmented reality, “real” magic wands, and launched roller coasters that blow way, way past the legal speed limit.
At the same time, parks call out to us for their nostalgic appeal; they hold cherished memories, often going back to our childhood and passed down from generation to generation. It is a curious juxtaposition that has always fascinated me and is one of the (many) things I love about parks.
With coasters such as the magnetically launched Sky Rocket and the 220-foot-tall, 75-mph Steel Curtain, Kennywood, outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is no slouch when it comes to high wow-factor rides. But the park, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year and is one of the oldest remaining trolley parks, also pays homage to its glorious past. Perhaps more than any other U.S. park, Kennywood maintains an extensive lineup of classic rides, some of which date back more than 100 years.
Case in point: The park restored its aging Kangaroo ride and returned it to its longtime home on the midway this season. That wasn’t the original plan, however.
In late 2020, Kennywood announced that it would be removing four older rides, including the Kangaroo. To put it mildly, that didn’t sit too well with the park’s fans. Folks in the Pittsburgh area and beyond are deeply invested in the beloved park and almost consider it a sacred shrine. Along with the Penguins, the Pirates, and pierogies, Kennywood is an integral part of the city’s fabric. Pittsburghers made their voices heard loud and clear.
In response, Kennywood reversed course and decided instead to refurbish the vintage ride.
“We’ve learned something pretty profound with the Kangaroo, and that is we listen to our guests,” says John Reilly, the COO of Palace Entertainment, which is Kennywood’s parent company. “They told us this ride is special.” He confirmed that the park could have put in a splashy new ride for the cost of rehabbing the old one, but chose the Kangaroo. Or, as Reilly puts it, “In reality, our guests chose the Kangaroo.”
So, what is so special about the ride? At first glance, it wouldn’t appear to be much.
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Known in the industry as a “flat ride,” or more colorfully as a “whirl-and-hurl” or “spin-and-puke” ride, the Kangaroo sends passengers in circles. Once per revolution, their vehicle ascends a small ramp and then jumps off when the ramp abruptly ends.
Part of its appeal is that it is accessible to a wide range of ages and visitors with varying degrees of thrill tolerance. Opened in 1962 and celebrating its 60th anniversary, there’s also the tradition factor and the whole generation-to-generation mystique.
“On the very first ride this season, there was a grandfather, father, and two kids all enjoying it together,” says Mark Pauls, Kennywood’s general manager. “Everybody loves this ride.”
To return the Kangaroo to its glory, the park brought in Premier Rides, the same company that built Sky Rocket. In addition to rebuilding the ride to last another few decades, the vehicles now have additional padding for added comfort, and the loading process was improved. The Kangaroo also features a nifty, retro backdrop that is particularly evocative when it is illuminated at night.
At one time a number of parks offered the ride, which was known as a “Flying Coaster.” Now, Kennywood lays claim to the last remaining model. That also helps explain its cachet.
It’s not the only ride at the park to hold the distinction. Kennywood also has the world’s last Tumble Bug, which the park refers to as “Turtle,” as well as the only surviving Noah’s Ark, a walk-through funhouse. This year, the park restored that attraction’s shaker floors.
First opened in 1901 and sporting a variety of themes through the years, the Old Mill is still ferrying passengers through the tunnel of love-style attraction. And then there are the park’s three legendary wooden roller coasters, Jack Rabbit, Racer, and Thunderbolt, which all hark back to the 1920s.
If fans adore the vintage rides, the mechanics who painstakingly maintain them, often using old-school craftsmanship, take the relationship to the next level.
“They love the classic rides,” Pauls says. “It’s like the rides are part of their families.”
In addition to Kennywood, Palace Entertainment has a number of other historic amusement parks in its portfolio, including Lake Compounce in Connecticut, which is the oldest, continuously operating park in the U.S., as well as Idlewild in Pennsylvania and Story Land in New Hampshire.
“We see ourselves as stewards of these beloved parks,” says Palace’s Reilly. “Along with that comes a responsibility for preservation.”
And a responsibility to preserve an endangered species, such as the Kangaroo ride.
Have you been to Kennywood? Do you have a special fondness for vintage rides and classic parks? Let us know.
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