Park of Memories Pittsburgh: Every day's a picnic at beloved Kennywood, where the young and the young at heart enjoy good, old-fashioned fun spiced by a few high-tech thrills.

July 19, 1998|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN STAFF

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.

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