Tucked about 10 miles from downtown Pittsburgh, Kennywood Amusement Park has been the Steel City's best-kept secret for over 120 years. You think you're lost at first, winding through the neighborhoods of West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, where traffic funnels to a frustrating crawl, but eventually, the Rankin Bridge emerges. Your path clears. Just a few minutes up the road lies your new favorite summer destination.
The entrance hasn't changed in years. At least, not in all the years I've been going there. Dropping down underneath Kennywood Boulevard, a concrete tunnel -- doubling as the park's entrance and exit -- is vintage Pittsburgh. When I was younger, it stretched for miles. Being back at 27 years old, it's smaller than ever, but exactly as I remembered. Even before I emerged onto the brick entryway, where the Front Gate gift shop sells candy apples and vintage T-shirts, something about this visit felt different. Now, towering above everything, was a black and gold monstrosity.
You can't miss it. I completely ignored the Jack Rabbit, a wooden coaster first built in 1920, on my right. I didn't even consider the Kennywood Racer -- two coasters that chase each other, another John Miller-designed classic.
I just couldn't take my eyes off the newest, largest expansion in the history of Kennywood Park.
You're greeted by a giant sign that reads "Steelers Country." A worthy title considering the city's two pillars are Kennywood, and of course, the six-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Soon to be accompanied by interactive games and new dining area, the crown jewel of Steelers Country is what towers above it all. Alongside about 80 to 100 people, we "ooh'd" and "ahh'd" as the park's record-setting roller coaster began practice laps, cutting through the thick, morning air swirling over the Monongahela River.
Fittingly, it is four National Football League legends who lend their nickname for Kennywood's newest attraction: The Steel Curtain.
Who Was The Steel Curtain?
If you know anything about Pittsburgh's rich football history, the coaster's name rings beautifully, as it honors the team's transcendent defensive line of 1970's -- "Mean" Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White, all four of whom are Pro Football Hall of Fame members.
During that time, the Steelers defense dominated the National Football League. Accompanied by all-time greats like Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, Mike Webster, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Andy Russell, Mel Blount, and Donnie Shell, head coach Chuck Noll led Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl titles between 1974 and 1979.
It's only fitting for Pittsburgh's newest attraction to bear the name of the Steelers dynasty that founded the Steel City as we know it today.
"I don't know of two entities more engrained in the community and this area than Kennywood and the Pittsburgh Steelers."
-- Jerome Gibas, General Manager of Kennywood
The Steel Curtain Roller Coaster
At 220-feet, The Steel Curtain is the tallest roller coaster in Pennsylvania. With nine different inversions (a record in North America) during its two-minute adrenaline rush, you feel like your upside down most of the ride. Most notably, the coaster's tallest inversion, at a whopping 197 feet above the ground, sets a new world record.
Chris Walker is a Baldwin, PA native and long-time member of American Coaster Enthusiasts. Before riding the Steel Curtain, Walker told me he'd been on 167 roller coasters, exactly, in his life. After getting off this ride for the first time, the seasoned veteran had only two words.
"Best ever. Best ever!"
After First Ride winners of the Project 412 contest took off on the public's first-ever experience, it was finally my turn. Riding by myself, one of the new roller coaster's workers -- wearing a pinstriped shirt resembling a football official's jersey -- asked if I minded buddying up with another single rider.
His name was Howard. Wearing a full black suit that was a little too big, a red necktie that hung way too short, and a red handkerchief jutting from his pocket, only one question popped into my mind.
"So, Howard, what do you do?"
"Oh, I throw up for a living."
It was the beginning of a beautiful ride.
As the Steel Curtain rose above West Mifflin and overlooked the Monongahela River, Howard told me how he'd been performing as a juggler and comedian at Kennywood for the last 26 years. Even his two daughters worked there during the summers growing up. Never had he seen anything like this, though.
Two minutes, nine inversions, child-like screams, and a few laughs later, the ride ended. Howard couldn't have described it better.
"I feel like a five-year-old!" he exclaimed, perfectly capturing my excitement as I caught my breath.
I've ridden the Phantom's Revenge numerous times. The Exterminator is pretty good, the Aero 360 is fun, and Black Widow is a riot, but nothing at Kennywood compares to the Steel Curtain.
Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, Senator of PA's 45th District Jim Brewster, West Mifflin Mayor Chris Kelly, and numerous other area officials were on hand for the grand opening ceremony, which was led by longtime radio announcer and voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Bill Hillgrove.
Four-time Super Bowl champion Mike Wagner, three-time champion John Banaszak, 12-year NFL veteran Craig Wolfley, Super Bowl XL and XLIII champion Chris Hoke, and current Steelers captain and two-time Pro Bowl defender Cam Heyward were among the Steelers players who took a ride on the coaster, capping one of the most memorable days Kennywood Park has ever had.
The next day, the Steel Curtain roller coaster opened to the general public and another iconic Pittsburgh tradition was born.
With the help of Kennywood's parent company, Palace Entertainment, as well as S&S Worldwide, which led construction of the project, Steelers Country breathes new life into Kennywood Park and figures to be a staple of the area for another 120 years to come.
After my day concluded, there was only one thing left to do. I got back in line and rode it again. Twice.
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