Kennywood welcomes Thomas the Tank Engine
It's a long way from the U.K.'s Island of Sodor to Pittsburgh. But Thomas the Tank Engine will be making the transatlantic journey. The cheeky little engine and his pals will be taking up residence at Kennywood when the historic amusement park opens Thomas Town this summer.
Based on the popular Nick Jr. series Thomas & Friends, the highlight of the new land will be a ride aboard a train led by a full-size replica of the blue locomotive. Four additional rides themed to other characters on the program, along with an indoor play area and a show, will also be debuting. Like the Nick Jr. series and the Thomas line of toys, Thomas Town will be geared to young children.
Thomas will commandeer the existing Olde Kennywood Railroad. According to Nick Paradise, the park's director of public relations, the seven-minute train ride will chug along the same route it's been taking for years. It will meander along a bluff that overlooks the Monongahela River and offer views of the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, one of the nation's oldest mills. "It's an industrial, yet natural setting," Paradise says. "Riders will feel like they've been transported to the Island of Sodor."
The park's 36-inch narrow-gauge railway trains have a colorful history. They date back to 1939, when visitors at the New York World's Fair first rode them. After the fair, Gimbels, the department store in downtown Pittsburgh, bought the trains. In 1945, Kennywood moved the trains to its park, where they have remained ever since. Coincidentally, the first of the Railway Series books, which later introduced Thomas the Tank Engine, was published in 1945.
Some Six Flags parks had small Thomas-themed areas for a couple of seasons, but they have since removed the branding. In 2015, Edaville Family Theme Park in Carver, Mass., opened a Thomas Land. Kennywood's land will mark the second permanent location in North America where kids and their families will be able to visit Thomas and his friends.
Hemmed in by the river, and located on hilly terrain, Kennywood has precious little space to expand. "We have to get creative when adding new things," Paradise says. The park was able to carve out just under an acre next to its Auto Race ride for Thomas Town. Despite its small size, the land will incorporate a slew of new features.
The other attractions will be similar to ones at Edaville's Thomas Land, including Harold’s Helicopter Tour, a Dumbo-style spinning ride. Passengers will be able to move the helicopter vehicles up and down using a joystick. Riders aboard fire trucks will circle a faux burning building and shoot water from cannons to try and extinguish the flames for Flynn’s Fire Training. Diesel Drivers will send a convoy of diesel engines around a short track. Passengers aboard Cranky’s Drop Tower will ascend 45 feet and plummet back down. Other than infants, riders of virtually any age will be able to experience all of the Thomas Town rides except for the drop tower, which will have a 42-inch height requirement.
The land will have an indoor play zone with a climbing structure and a model railroad display area where kids will be able to become conductors and engineers. Clips from the Thomas and Friends series will be screened in the climate-controlled space. Three times daily, the park will also present Steel City Adventures, an outdoor show featuring Sir Topham Hatt, the imposing head of the railway, and Gordon, James, Emily and Percy, four of the trains at Tidmouth Sheds. Paradise says that the show will help explain why Thomas and the gang are in Pittsburgh. "The audience will learn that the trains are bringing special things to Kennywood, like wood for the wooden roller coasters," he notes.
Kennywood is known for its trio of wooden coasters, which date back to the 1920s. The oldest, Jack Rabbit, opened in 1920. Kennywood traces its origins back to 1898, when, appropriately enough, it was a trolley park. Around the turn of the century, railway companies built and operated parks at the ends of their lines to encourage weekend ridership. Kennywood is located on the outskirts of Pittsburgh in West Mifflin. While there used to be hundreds of trolley parks, Kennywood is one of a handful that remain in operation today and is designated a National Historic Landmark.
The park's Kiddieland was one of the amusement industry's first areas dedicated to rides for young children. Thomas Town will offer Kennywood's first new kiddie rides in 10 years.
Unlike modern theme parks, Kennywood is a classic amusement park. It's more of a random collection of rides than attractions designed to tell stories and conform to unified themes. For the park's 120th anniversary, the highly themed Thomas Town marks a departure. "We have to walk a fine line," Paradise says. "We continue to evolve and offer new attractions for today's guests. But we also stay true to our roots."