What goes on off-season at Kennywood
By Larry Ciptak
March 11, 1988
White clouds of steam from the Edgar Thomson Works rise above the King of Coasters, animating a seemingly deserted amusement park. From the outside, Kennywood seems to be resting up for the onslaught of thrill-seekers and picnickers who flood the park in the spring and summer.
But the off-season doesn't stop Kennywood's crew from preparing for the park's 91st season.
"People ask, 'What do you do in the wintertime?'" said Richard Henry, Kennywood's operation manager, "They don't realize it's a constantly ongoing business."
Kennywood employs 50 to 75 in the winter, "depending on what projects are going on," said Andrew Quinn, promotion director. The number will swell to between 1,000 and 1,200 in the summer, and recruitment for employees has started at local schools and universities. Quinn estimated that 75 percent of this year's ride operators, maintenance, concession and stage performers will be students who worked there last year.
The off-season workers aren't alone in the park, as Kenny the Kangaroo shares his domain with other transient animals. Deer, raccoons, rabbits, dogs and cats — most without names — make Kennywood Pittsburgh's most unorthodox zoo.
"People have a tendency to drop off stray animals here," Quinn said, "and a dog will live here a while, until it gets befriended by one of the shop guys, who ends up taking it home as a pet." He referred to Henry, who took one such stray home — and had it for 12 years.
Deer come up the hill from the Monongahela River — presently five of them are loafing in the park, Quinn said. He added that the employees enjoy having the animals, even the pesky raccoons, in the park.
The cars on the roller coasters and other thrill rides are conspicuously absent, and many buildings not enclosed in the summer, such as the carousel, are covered or boarded up. "Everything is winterized," Henry said. Although the threat of snow and sub-freezing temperatures may be over, upkeep of the park's sprinkler system and fire prevention remains the top priority of the off-season crew, Henry said.
"Over the years, we've done a lot to replace the older buildings that were potential firetraps," Henry said, and all the older buildings in the park are sprinklered, including Noah's Ark, built in 1939, the Haunted Hideaway and the restaurant.
The last major fire was in 1975, when the Ghost Ship, formerly the dance hall, burned down. The loss of the structure, one of the first in the park, reinforced the need for fire prevention. Kennywood's 13 fireplugs are regularly inspected, Quinn noted. He added that in 1981 the park's 78-year-old wooden arcade building was replaced.
Kennywood's out-of-park trademark — those 400 yellow wooden arrows so recognizable to Pittsburghers — are visibly absent from local streets, as the traditional landmarks which have graced utility poles since 1925 get repainted each year.
"Who moved the signs?" joked Jerry Lisanti Jr., sign painter at Kennywood. Lisanti also paints 100 to 150 park signs during the winter, from Jeeters and Colonel Bimbo to ride and concession signs. Henry added "People do rely on the signs. If one disappears, we start getting calls."
A potbellied stove helps heat the shop where workers paint the cars for the Lazer Loop, and do a thorough checking of The Monster, torn apart for testing and maintenance. Some parts will be sent to a lab to have the strengths of alloys checked, said Henry, assuring that all rides get the same scrutiny.
The stove burns wood taken from The Racer, as Andy Quinn promised "No coaster is more than 10 years old." He referred to the park's policy of replacing sections of the coasters each year.
Kennywood also sends employees to various safety seminars throughout the year and many are state-certified to perform inspections on the rides, Henry said. He mentioned Kennywood's insurance company frequently sends inspectors to the park.
Asked about the increase in liability insurance, Quinn said it has gone up several thousand percent in the last few years, and attributes this year's ride-all-day price increase — from $12 to $14 — to the insurance hike. "It is something that is regulated by the insurance industry." he said, and claimed it has nothing to do with Kennywood's safety record.
"Nothing is 100 percent safe," Quinn said, "but as far as major accidents, we haven't had any in the last 15 to 20 years."
The park's last fatality occurred in the mid-1970s, when a 7-year-old girl stood up and was thrown from the Cuddle-Up.
In addition to the safety precautions, employees are getting ready for two new rides this season. The Rotor and The Flying Carpet, as well as a new fountain area. Gone will be the Bayern Kurve and the Mini-Scooter, sold "to make room for the new rides," Henry said.
The Rotor is "similar to rotors we've had in the past," said Henry. Riders are held against the wall of a rotating cylinder with centrifugal force as the floor pulls away. The first Rotor was brought to the park in 1955, Henry said.
Henry described The Flying Carpet as a "boat-like carpet ride … going in an oval motion, working its way back and forth until you make a complete 360-degree oval." Describing the motion with his hands, he added, "When you're up here, your stomach's down there, and when you're down here, your stomach's up there."
Also new is a "dancing fountain," being installed at the site of the old golf course. Water jets, driven by computer, will dance to music ranging from classical to modern.
A magic act will be added for the first time "in a couple of years," and the derby race will now be called the pig race, said Henry, "Pig racing is in," he noted.
Local merchants are eager for the park to open, as a large part of their business often depends on the park's visitors.
Pizza Hut manager Randy Conn said business "goes half" when the park closes. Looking into a near-empty seating area at lunchtime, he added. "We're here principally for the park."
"The park's [food] prices are too high, so people come over here," said Long John Silver's manager Bob Oeler, himself a veteran of winter work at Kennywood. "Sales go down a little bit," he said, as four senior citizen customers showed no intention of deserting the restaurant.
Gas Pump owner Elizabeth "Libby" Cox said her bar "packs 'em in" during the season, and she sells "plenty of six-packs." The Gas Pump is a hangout for Kennywood employees, and Libby misses "the kids," although she has a "big, big problem with the young girls."
Henry, who started as a ride operator in 1972, and met his wife at Kennywood, looks forward to the park's opening again. He's "anxious to see the first people come in," because for the off-season crew, "the heavy work is over."
"They've [off-season employees] put in a lot of hours in the spring, put everything back together, testing, and making sure everything's just so. I think they all breathe a sigh of relief; the park's open, things are going again, and everyone's back to work," said Henry.
"This business gets in your blood."