Pennsylvania's Picnic Groves and Trolley Parks (PAGE 2 OF 8)
by Phil Gould
: Added February 2013

Situated in the Laurel Highlands near the town of Ligonier (which looks like the hometown of Marty Mcfly out of Back To The Future). It was set up in 1878 and is the third oldest operating amusement park in the United States. A sister park to Kennywood it was also operated by the same family until being sold at the end of 2007. Rides sit alongside Picnic Groves, Storybook Forest and the rather strange but wonderful attraction that is Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood.

Driving around 50 miles to the east of downtown Pittsburgh, with a slight detour to go and visit the Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece Fallingwater, I found myself on the Lincoln Highway in the middle of rural Pennsylvania. Not the most obvious place for an amusement park. But this is where I found the truly enchanting Idlewild. A park that is set in the middle of a heavily wooded area. From the road you can see some of the picnic groves and nursery rhyme buildings. But most of the park is shielded by the trees so you can't see what is on offer until you are actually walking among its many attractions. The place is divided by Loyalhanna Creek. Which has tended to make a nuisance of itself from time to time by flooding. It is divided into themed areas - Storybook Forest, Raccoon Lagoon, Mister Rogers Neighbourhood, Hootin' Holler, Olde Idlewild, Jumpin Jungle (an overgrown play area) and the ubiquitous water park Soak Zone. Although each area has its own character they tended to blend into one another because of the nature of the park. Some of these sections while not being exactly historic are probably worth a mention because of their quirkiness.   

I will start off my tour in Olde Idlewild which is home to many of the traditional amusement rides and probably the nearest Idlewild gets to having a midway. On what was originally a large lawn I found a number of rides including the Spider, an octopus ride with two cars per arm, this was new to Kennywood in 1979 but moved to Idlewild in 1991, and a 16 car Eli Bridge Ferris Wheel. Just below these were a set of Dodgems. the building dates back to 1931 but the cars themselves were of a more recent vintage. Just eight years later the park added its current Whip ride which had replaced an earlier travelling version. This open topped version manufactured by W F Mangels has 12 cars - not the originals as they were ruined when the Loyalhanna once burst its banks. Also in this area are the Lifting Paratrooper dating back to 1969, Tilt-A-Whirl transferred from Kennywood in 1989 and replacing an earlier model and the Super Round Up.

Moving along the midway I came to one very rare ride indeed The Caterpillar. Manufactured in 1947 by Allan Herschell this is one of the few rides of its type still operating complete with a canvas cover. Just peaking out of the tree tops behind this ride I spotted a unique attraction that was very familiar to me. The Wild Mouse. This was built by Vekoma for the Prater in Vienna in1985. Two years later it was bought by Alton Towers in North Staffordshire. I remember going on the ride and thinking it was pretty rough and it had very harsh braking too. I didn't have chance to renew my acquaintance with the the ride as it wasn't operating on the day I  visited Idlewild. I can't say I felt that upset. I also understand that the ride hasn't operated at all in the 2012 season and its future might be in question.

Walking away from the creek I passed the 1977 Eli Bridge Scrambler and a more recent arrival the Flying Aces or Flying Skooters ride. I also found the park's Carousel which was one of the last to be manufactured by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company in 1931. It has 48 horses and two chariots on its spinning platform. The ride was the subject of major restoration in 1985 and has been designated an historic landmark.

Alongside this and heading off into the woods was the junior wooden coaster the Rollo Coaster. Also built by the Philadelphia Toboggan company in 1938 this ride uses the park's terrain to create a fun out and back ride. Although it only has shallow hills it is still worth squeezing yourself into the train for a trip round the track. Most of the course of the coaster is hidden from view because of the dense trees that surround it.

Doubling back on myself I found Hootin' Holler. This was built in 1976 to commemorate the US Bicentennial and modelled on a typical 19th century Western town. There is a log flume and two unusual attractions. Dizzy Lizzy's Four Quarters Saloon - a haunted swing attraction which wasn't operating on the day I visited and Confusion Hill. The latter is a walk through attraction and uses optical illusions to confound and confuse guests during their guided tour. Visitors are spun a yarn by their guide about how the hotel came to be in the state it is in before witnessing such things as water running uphill, walking through a titled room and sitting on a chair halfway up a wall.

I then followed the path back down to the creek and walked across a wooden bridge to find myself in Raccoon Lagoon. This is the children's section of the park and replaced Kiddieland when the Wild Mouse was constructed on that attraction's site. Although it has moved across the creek it still contains many of the vintage attractions from the defunct section of the park. It covers eight acres and many of the attractions are hidden among the trees.  Rides included are The Turtle which first took children for a spin around its shallow undulating track in 1956, miniature ferris wheel dating back to 1955, the hand carts from 1954 and the Streetcar from a year later that still takes youngsters for a nostalgic trip. They have been joined by more recent arrivals including the Red Baron and mini Dodgems.

Also on the south side of the creek is a truly unique attraction Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood. Opening in 1989 this was based on an American television show which was aimed at pre school children. It was the brainchild of Fred Rogers who was born in nearby Latrobe and often visited Idlewild as a child. The television show ran from 1968 to 2001. On the ride guests board a tram to be taken on a tour of the neighbourhood meeting all the regular characters that are still remembered by parents. The ride used to end up with a singing and huggin' party at King Friday's Palace. Luckily for me the park has now dropped the insistence on huggin' as cuddling strangers isn't a very English thing to do.              

To reach the final area of the park  I headed back across the creek and away from the midway. Here I came to something that used to operate as a separate attraction before is now incorporated into the main park - Storybook Forest. In the 1950s Arthur Jennings worked as the clown Happy Dayze at Idlewild. He was also an accomplished engineer and approached the park's management about creating a nursery rhyme and fairy tale park which would be based on 'emotion rather than motion'. He built many of the models himself and when it first opened for business in 1956 there were also live characters to greet visitors. During the 50s - known as the baby boomer years in the States - many similar road side attractions sprung up. But finding a storybook land these days is increasingly rare. It was  fascinating to wander round such a historic piece of amusement park history.

I entered the Forest through a large book which started with the legend 'here is the land of once upon a time'. Once inside the book I was greeted by Mother Goose. As this coincided with a passing rain storm (the only one during the entire trip) we got chatting and as soon as she discovered that I had come all the way from London she seemed very impressed that I had made the effort to visit Idlewild. It turned out that her son was the park general manager and she gave me a potted history of the park which certainly helped pass a few minutes as the storm clouds retreated. We were joined by Captain Candy who lives on the Good Ship Lollipop. He is very popular with young guests as he is a friendly pirate who hands out sweets. After the Captain had returned to his ship Mother Goose informed me that it was very rare to have a lad acting as pirate as the part was usually played by a young girl. But apparently this Captain had wanted to charter the Good Ship Lollipop since being a schoolboy. Once the sun had returned I set off around the path visiting such characters as Humpty Dumpty, Little Miss Muppet and Snow White. When I met the Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe and she found out I was from London she told me how her niece had moved to England to get married but had recently revealed she was getting divorced. We spent a few minutes discussing the state of marriage as an institution in the UK. A topic I wasn't expecting to end up discussing in the land of happy ever after! Story Book Forest was a great way to pass an hour and a suitable way to finish my day at Idlewild. Truly a fantastic park with many unique attractions. I think I was lucky to visit on a quiet day as I understand the park can get very busy. If you are going to visit Kennywood make sure you take a short detour to visit Idlewild too.                                  


General view of Idlewild, in its wooded setting. Picture: Phil Gould

The very rare Caterpillar ride. Picture: Phil Gould

The Carousel, a national historic landmark. Picture: Phil Gould

The miniature ferris wheel in Raccoon Lagoon. Picture: Phil Gould

The entrance to Story Book Forest. Picture: Phil Gould

Humpty Dumpty in the Story Book Forest. Picture: Phil Gould





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