Ticket to Ride



Illustration by Patrick Neil

One of my earliest memories of Kennywood isn’t of a particular ride or of a particular scary-eyed kangaroo or of a particular cheese-smothered food or of a particular high-stepping, jazz-handed song-and-dance routine put on by a super-smiley team of high school students sweating to death in sticky taffeta.

Rather, my earliest memory of Kennywood is the drive to the park each summer. It seemed to take forever (20 eternal minutes), and we would make the drive feel faster by counting how many yellow arrows emblazoned with the Kennywood logo and nailed to light posts we could find on our way there. When I was a child, the excitement of spotting those arrows on the way to this legendary amusement park can only be compared to the excitement of an adult woman finding a trail of diamonds leading to a pot of gold being held by a paid-up-for-life personal maid.

My second-earliest memory of Kennywood is the ticket books.
You know. The ticket books.

I realize some of you out there are looking at me all, “Whuzzah?” as if I just started talking about El DeBarge, but I’m seriously telling you that there was a time when you purchased books of tickets instead of one ride-all-day pass. Each ride required various numbers of tickets in order to gain admission—perhaps one ticket for the train, two tickets for Noah’s Ark and maybe three or four to embark on the super-cool Laser Loop.

The Laser Loop was a state-of-the-art roller coaster that went super fast on a level track then went around a big loop and then returned you backward through the loop. That’s all it did. What a rush!

I recall my mother and father sitting on a bench in Kiddie Land holding the ticket books while chatting with my grandmother then handing out tickets to the five of us for each ride we were planning to enjoy. Gradually we grew into the big-kid rides, and our father would grab a few tickets to ride along and make certain we weren’t ejected from our seats during the double dip in the Jack Rabbit.

(I’m told it’s impossible, but tell that to my flying, flailing, terrified, 7-year-old body. It sure didn’t FEEL impossible.)

Kennywood was a huge part of my childhood: It was one day out of the year that I couldn’t sleep the night before and would wake up at the crack of dawn as if it were Christmas morning. I’d be dressed and ready to head out at 6:30 a.m. to an amusement park that didn’t even open until 11.

And if we woke up and it was raining? “Wailing” doesn’t even begin to describe the reaction. “Gnashing of the teeth” does a better job. Rending of the garments. Donning of sackcloth and ashes.

Recently my childhood memories of Kennywood came crashing up against my new adulthood experiences. There was a big chunk of years between high school and the second birthday of my first child when I didn’t go to Kennywood. So it had been frozen in my mind as a place of ticket books, personalized sailor hats and long jean shorts with baggy T-shirts and sneakers—that was the girls’ standard attire—and how could I forget the old man who rode the merry-go-round all day while standing on the very edge and leaning backward, his hands in his pockets.

As an adult spending the day at Kennywood, I was first struck by how very, very old it makes me feel. I mean, kids, I can practically see your butt in those shorts that say “Juicy” on the backside, and are 4-inch wedge platform sandals really the appropriate footwear for those shifty floor boards in Noah’s Ark? You’ll put your eye out!

And when did teenagers get so un-awkward?! If life were fair, teenagers would still have the “awkward” years, but it appears that via evolution, the human race has eliminated that phase from our genetic makeup so that instead of baby, toddler, child, pre-teen, awkward teen and swan, humans now go baby, toddler, pre-teen, STUNNING SUPERMODEL.

The ticket books have gone the way of the Laser Loop, replaced with fairly expensive ride-all-day passes and the scream-ripper-outter Phantom’s Revenge, respectively. The rides are scarier, the lines a bit longer, the food a bit pricier and the security a bit stricter.

That said, I take comfort in the constants that have survived: The merry-go-round minus the old man, the train, Kenny’s scary eyes, Kiddie Land, Potato Patch fries topped with cheese hot enough to melt down gold, laughter, families, friends, lasting memories—and above all else—the horrified look on my kid’s face the first time he hit that double dip in the Jack Rabbit and popped up in the air like a piece of ejected toast.

I should have taken a picture.

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