Tuesday, August 25, 2009

An Idlewild and Crazy Adventure: Part 1

Editor's Note: This post is the first in a three-part series covering NPN's recent visit to Idlewild and SoakZone. Be sure to check out Part 2 and Part 3 as well!

As you know, Mike and I recently engaged in a bit of historic Pennsylvania park hopping. As you also know, there is no shortage of historic parks in the state of Pennsylvania! Since there was, however, a shortage of time and resources that could be dedicated to this particular trip, we were forced to whittle down our wish list. When the dust settled, we found ourselves clear across the state in the traditional park mecca that is western PA. Nearly everything on this trip was new to us, so we were very much like kids in a candy store. And now--countless coasters, numerous interviews, and well over 1000 photos later--we are ready to share our adventures with you!

So where shall we begin? Hmm... How about the beginning!

Our high-tech GPS device. Don't be hatin'.

Our trip began bright and early on a Thursday morning. [For an exact definition of "early", refer to our kick-off post.] While it was difficult to part with the cloudy skies and torrential rains of Allentown, we made the selfless decision to take one for the blog and proceed with our trip as planned.

First stop: Idlewild and SoakZone! Located deep in the heart of the Laurel Highlands in Ligonier, PA, Idlewild is widely recognized as one of the best children's parks in existence. It also happens to be the oldest park in the state of Pennsylvania and the third oldest park in the entire country. What better way to kick off a "historic PA parks" tour?

Well, here we are. Welcome to Idlewild!

Wait... What? Did I get my photos mixed up? Did Mike and I make a wrong turn at Albuquerque and end up at a state park rather than an amusement park?

The answer to both of those questions is a resounding NO! There's a reason why Idlewild has been called "America's most beautiful theme park", and you're looking at it. This park is positively, indubitably, unequivocally gorgeous! [That's Ms. Thesaurus to you.] For those of you who haven't visited a true traditional amusement park in a while, your heads may be in danger of exploding at the very prospect of all this greenery. But you better warm up to the idea in a hurry, because you're going to be seeing a lot of it throughout this series of posts.

Wee, not so wee, or friggin' huge? You be the judge. I've certainly formed my opinion...

Upon arrival, our first order of business was twofold: (1) Get a feel for the lay of the land, and (2) seek out our friend and Idlewild's Marketing Manager Ed Saxton. The latter was a piece of cake. Ed was ready and waiting, and gave us some great information about the park which I will be sharing with you throughout this story. The former? Not so much. Let it be stated for the record that Idlewild is the biggest "small" park I've ever seen! In fact, it can hardly be placed in the "small" category at all and I shall henceforth cease and desist in referring to it as such.

Our exploration of Idlewild began with Hootin' Holler, an area built to resemble a turn-of-the-century wild west mining town. Based on its extensive theming, you'd never guess that this area of the park is a "transplant" of sorts. Many of the buildings found in Hootin' Holler have roots in Idlewild's former Historic Village, which was constructed next to Story Book Forest to mark the nation's bicentennial in 1976. Historic Village was moved and reincarnated as Hootin' Holler in 1984.

One of Hootin' Holler's headliners, Paul Bunyan's Loggin' Toboggan, has its own relocation history. This Arrow Dynamics flume ride originally operated at Old Indiana Fun Park in Thorntown, IN. It was purchased by Idlewild in 1997 and made its PA debut in 2005. Ol' Paul may be mild by an enthusiast's standards, but he's a perfect fit for Idlewild's kid friendly environment.

Another "must see" attraction in Hootin' Holler is Confusion Hill. This unassuming little structure takes a turn for the wacky as soon as you get past the entrance area. The sign on the front warns that you must be "free from the effects of vertigo" to enjoy this lopsided attraction. HA! I'm an enthusiast and this is a mere tilt house. What could it possibly do to me?

So confused, my inner ears are...

Whoa. Okay, I take it back. I take it all back! And may the dark ride gods have mercy on my soul...

Seriously, this is one heck of a walk-through attraction. And once the spirits of Confusion Hill have sucked you in, they've got you for 15 whole minutes! Our tour guide treated us to quite the entertaining story, but unfortunately I was too busy trying to soothe my inner ears to remember a lick of it. She also had a few tricks up her sleeve, not the least impressive of which involved a chair. Now if you're dying of curiosity, a quick Google search will yield quite a few photos of this stunt. [I happen to have one myself...and I may happen to post it on Facebook later this week.] But why spoil the fun? I highly encourage you to make your own pilgrimage to Idlewild and see it with your own two eyes!

In addition to Confusion Hill, Hootin' Holler also boasts another classic dark ride: A haunted swing which goes by the name of Dizzy Lizzy's. It's also the home of Howler. Yet somehow in the course of our walking, talking, and photo taking, we managed to miss those. (You'll have these things when you're hitting four parks in three days and doubling as reporters-slash-enthusiasts to boot.) We did, however, manage to catch a bit of a show in progress at the Gazebo Stage later in the day!

Satisfied that we had sufficiently covered Hootin' Holler (and obviously before we realized that we had missed Dizzy Lizzy's), we went in search of a means of conveyance to transport us to the other fanciful lands which awaited us at Idlewild. Hello Loyalhanna Limited Railroad!

This charming little railroad affords some beautiful views of both the Loyalhanna Creek and Idlewild's signature shady woods as it makes its rounds between Hootin' Holler and Raccoon Lagoon. It's only fitting that this park have a proper train ride, as Idlewild owes its very existence to a railroad. The first "pleasure grounds" to appear on this site were established by Judge Thomas Mellon, owner of the Ligonier Valley Railroad, in 1878. Like many other railroad proprietors of his time, Mellon was looking to drive additional profits by building passenger as well as freight traffic on his line. By the time the Ligonier Valley Railroad hauled its last load in 1952, Idlewild had become a well-established amusement resort which no longer depended on the railroad for its survival.

Here is yet another gorgeous scene for your viewing pleasure, compliments of the Loyalhanna Limited. As a central PA native, I've long since grown accustomed to landscapes such as this. (Just maybe not at amusement parks!) But Ed noted that this is not the case for all of Idlewild's visitors. Many arrive at the park having never seen trees this big, or even squirrels for that matter! For those who fall into that category, Idlewild is a sight for sore eyes indeed. "Fall is huge when we do our Halloween event," he added. "People come out just to see the leaves."

But to paraphrase an old adage, with great beauty comes great responsibility. Due to the sheer size and volume of Idlewild's wooded areas, constant monitoring is required to ensure that all trees remain healthy and do not present any imminent dangers to guests or property. "We have a tree service that's here every morning," Ed told us. They also get frequent visits from consultants who check root samples. And if a storm hits--which they frequently do in this state--even more diligence is required. I guess Kermit the Frog said it best: It's not easy bein' green.

Raccoon Lagoon is an area reserved for the very smallest of Idlewild's visitors. Comprised solely of kiddie rides, it's like a miniature dream come true. It even offers pony rides--Bonus!

While Raccoon Lagoon features some of Idlewild's oldest rides, the area itself is relatively new. Around the mid-50s, all of Idlewild's kiddie rides were consolidated into a single area called Kiddieland, which was located across the Loyalhanna Creek from where Raccoon Lagoon now stands. By 1990 it was time to expand, and Raccoon Lagoon opened at triple the size of the former Kiddieland. All existing kiddie rides were subsequently moved to the new area, and it has continued to grow with the addition of more and more rides through the years. Speaking of which...

Finest tea party this side of Boston.

Ta-da! Allow me to introduce you to one of Idlewild's new attractions for 2009, Tea Party. And yes, that's attractions, plural. It's an exciting year for Idlewild. "We try to add something every year," Ed told us. (And might I add that the hint of a potential upcoming 2010 announcement was in the air...)

It may not be brand new, but our next attraction has reasons of its own to celebrate in 2009. The one and only Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood of Make-Believe is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and what a "storied" 20 years it has been. This heartwarming attraction, which is 100% unique to Idlewild, was conceived by Fred (a.k.a. "Mr.") Rogers himself. And the selection of Idlewild as its location was no accident. As a matter of fact, it was specifically designed for this park.

Fred Rogers was born and raised in nearby Latrobe. And with the widespread popularity enjoyed by his well-known children's show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, he has become quite the local legacy. "It still has a very large local appeal," Ed said of the show, noting that Mr. Rogers re-runs are still on the air in this neck of the woods.

It just so happens that Fred also made many visits to Idlewild as a child. The park obviously made quite an impression on him, and ultimately inspired him to approach Kennywood Entertainment Company in 1989 with the idea of designing a custom-built attraction that would complement Idlewild's family friendly atmosphere. The result was this fanciful trolley ride through the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

"Come along, come along, to the Castle Hug-and-Song!"

Along the journey you meet many of the characters from the popular TV show, who encourage you to spread the word that everyone is invited to a "Hug-and-Song" party at King Friday XIII's castle. (And after all, who in their right mind would turn down a Hug-and-Song party?) All of the characters' voices were provided by Fred Rogers, who also wrote the entire script. It was--and continues to be--an overwhelming hit at Idlewild. "It's amazing, the emotional appeal that people have attached to that show," Ed noted. "And then they can come live the show while they're here."

As if the ride itself weren't popular enough, each summer Idlewild kicks it up a notch by holding a week-long event where some of the "neighbors" make live appearances. During this special annual event, the characters interact with guests, sign autographs, and even take a spin or two on the trolley to attend the Hug-and-Song party. It's a tremendous draw for fans. "We have people come out from across the country for that event," Ed told us.

But even if you're not a fan of the show (or if you're staring at your computer screen right now saying, "Mr. Who?"), it's impossible not to enjoy this ride. Just picture it: Friendly-faced animatronics, combined with the feel-good vibe of a Hug-and-Song party and topped off with the soft-spoken voice of Mr. Rogers. You'll temporarily forget that you're at an amusement park, that's for sure!

On that note, I'm going to temporarily forget that I'm a writer...but not for long! We've hugged and sung our way through Part 1, but Part 2 promises to be more of a Splash-and-Spin affair. Stay tuned!


Nicholas Tucker said...

great post! This is a park I haven't heard or seen much about.

Sabrina said...

Glad you enjoyed it, because you'll be hearing and seeing a lot more of Idlewild in the days to come!

Vickie said...

I am one of the cross-country visitors that made sure to be at Idlewild during the special Mister Rogers' Days this past June. It was a wonderful experience and Idlewild staff was the best! Thank you to all!