These Rotating Rodents Will Get You Laffin' In The Dark Like You've Never Laffed Before.

Pennsylvania's Kennywood, located just outside Pittsburgh, is one of the planet's most revered amusement parks, a living museum of scream machine history. On August 28th, 1987, Kennywood was officially presented with a bronze plaque by National Park Service historian James Charleton designating it a National Historic Landmark (an honor long overdue) and in 1998, Kennywood celebrated its first centennial, saluting 100 years of unwavering service to our needs. Of course, most know and love this sacred place for its spectacular collection of rollercoasters. Today, there are two surviving John A. Miller-designed coasters, the Jack Rabbit (1922) and the Racer (1927); the infamously gut-wrenching Andy Vettel-designed Thunderbolt (1968); and what was once the world's biggest looping hypercoaster, the Arrow Dynamics-designed, 80+ MPH Steel Phantom, now reborn as Phantom's Revenge, sans inversions. I can name but a handful of parks that possess any number of coasters as remarkable as this high-quality quartet.

But it's not just the coasters that make Kennywood such a nutritious part of any Thrillseeking diet; classic dark rides and walk-through fun houses have always been an integral aspect of the Kennywood experience. As a matter of fact, Kennywood installed its first dark ride, the float-through Old Mill way back in 1901, a year before the park even erected its first coaster (Fred Ingersoll's "Three-Way, Figure-Eight Toboggan," added in 1902). During its more than 90 years of operation, the Old Mill underwent a number of name and design changes, variously called the "Fairyland Floats" and "Hardheaded Harold's Horrendously Humorous Haunted Hideaway," but it currently operates with its original name and still offers a languorous, six-minute trip past several illuminated scenes and through a number of completely dark stretches (though it was never dubbed a "Tunnel of Love," it might as well have been, wink, wink...).

And perhaps no other single attraction better symbolizes Kennywood than Noah's Ark. This elaborate walk-through fun house (more accurately a fun boat), first appeared in 1936 at a time when Arks were considered de rigueur at a properly-equipped amusement park. Packed to the rafters with timeless gags like distortion mirrors, revolving barrels, shimmying floors and twisting mazes, the Arks also included figures of Noah and his two-by-two menagerie all inside a structure that gently rocked from stem to stern.

Throughout its history, Kennywood's Ark has been updated and revitalized. In 1969, a whale was constructed at the front of the attraction, allowing guests to enter through its gaping mouth, and in 1996, the entire Ark was rebuilt at a cost of nearly $2 million, with the addition of several new high-tech stunts (another example of the park's unmatched efforts to preserve its heritage). The whale entrance was replaced with the falling "Elevator of Doom," a stirring trick that deposits visitors into a genuinely creepy subterranean maze. And a new final show now takes place inside an "undersea" steel chamber that buckles and eventually succumbs to the ocean's exterior pressure, water spraying through the chamber wall's bursting seams.

(Sadly, just about all the Arks built in the 1920s and 30s have sunk without a trace; only three remain in the world today and Kennywood's Ark is America's last functional example.)

Along with the Old Mill and Noah's Ark, an impressive number of dark rides and walk-throughs have come and gone at Kennywood: Laughing Gallery, House of Trouble, Daffy Dilla (later renamed Hilarity Hall), Tumble Inn, 13 Spook Street (later renamed Daffy Klub), The Traver Engineering-designed Laff-In-The-Dark, Fun On The Farm, The Enchanted Forest, Zoomerang (later renamed the Safari and eventually, Le Cachot), Tornado (purchased from New York's defunct Freedomland theme park), Ghost Ship, and finally, The Gold Rusher, built in 1981 and still rolling today.

Since The Gold Rusher's debut, 19 long years passed before ol' Special K decided to turn down the lights once again. And now that we're in an age of thrill ride cross-breeding, it was almost preordained that Kennywood should cook up an attraction that combines the two things they do best: coasters and dark rides. For the 1999 season, the park unleashed the most intense dark ride they've ever created, a real head-turner called The Exterminator.

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Fully enclosed rollercoasters are no longer the rarest of novelties. Disney's several Space Mountains (at their parks in California, Florida, Tokyo and Paris) and the two Outer Limits: Flight Of Fear linear induction motor coasters at Paramount's Kings Island (Cincinnati, Ohio) and Paramount's Kings Dominion (Doswell, Virginia), are the most extreme examples of what can be accomplished by hiding a coaster's twists and turns from the harsh light of day. One could even argue that they themselves qualify as dark rides, too. But The Exterminator trumps them all as a bona fide dark ride by incorporating a meaty story, a "pre-show" that sets up the action, several way-cool scenic elements and a ride vehicle that has some diabolical moves.

For The Exterminator's hardware, Kennywood went to the French manufacturer Reverchon and ordered one of their Spinning Wild Mouse coasters. Up until recently, stock Wild Mice were typified by compact two-row, four-passenger carts zigging and zagging through hairpin turns and diving down abrupt drops. Reverchon's special edition incorporates those head-snapping turns and zippy dives, but its cars carry passengers in a single row and are capable, as the ride's name implies, of spinning.

Then, the park hired R & R Creative Amusement Designs to develop a dark ride around these wacky mechanicals. R & R Creative came up with a tale inspired by those Grade-B monster movies of the 1950's: sewer rats dwelling below fictional "Kennyville" have mutated into giant beasts and are causing havoc in the tunnels beneath the city. Exterminators from Vermin, Inc. have been called in to deal with the problem and they're up against much more than they bargained for.

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The Exterminator is located at the far end of the "Lost Kennywood" section of the park, inside an ominous cinder-block bunker rising behind the Pittsburgh Plunge Shoot-The-Chutes. The exterior portion of ride's queue winds beneath the elevated Plunge turn, taking us closer and closer to the entrance of an industrial access tunnel.

Parked right outside that entrance is a Vermin, Inc. van and a barricade warning that poison gas is currently in use. Listen closely and you'll be able to hear the van's radio squawking with urgent dispatches. From the tone of these messages, you can surmise that the operation isn't going as planned.

Eventually, we're led in groups inside the tunnel. Deeper and deeper underground, we walk through bare cement hallways lit only by heavy-duty wire-caged bulbs. Soon, we turn into an electrical systems monitoring station. The far wall is covered with dingy-green metal panels and innumerable gauges, switches and knobs, just the kind of outdated, pre-computer-age "technology" you'd expect to find beneath your average metropolis.

Two video monitors at either end of the wall alternately telecast alerts from an off-site authority and news reports from a local TV station. The alerts warn that a power grid beneath parts of Kennyville and Kennywood amusement park has been knocked out, and the newscaster gravely intones that eight-foot rats on a rampage beneath the city are the cause of the power failure. Even worse, the first team from Vermin, Inc. sent to kill the rats has disappeared. As the crisis mounts, the newscaster continues, a second team has been flown in from Atlanta, armed with a far deadlier arsenal. The story is punctuated with still shots of an exterminator geared up in a bright orange biohazard suit and packing some major weaponry. Looks pretty serious.

Exiting the monitoring station, we clamber onto the boarding dock's perforated metal platform. There's enough dim red light to keep us from stumbling into harm's way, but not much more. And what are we directed to climb into? A giant rat. That's right, we're now the targets for those exterminators. Yikes! (You should also note the number of available hand grips around you. You're gonna want to take advantage of these very soon.)

With lap bars firmly in place, we lurch forward and make an immediate left-hand turn, passing by more posted warnings and barrels of deadly chemicals. We roll straight through a pitch-black corridor, but there's something to see down on the left: peeking through a gnawed hole in the wall is a pair of glaring, bloodshot eyes.

There's another hard turn to the left and we mount the chain lift. Minus the threat of man-eating rodents in the vicinity, this dank, musty space would still be plenty unnerving. Those red utility lights cast an eerie glow over the metal tracks, blackened utility pipes and craggy walls, and over the clankity-clank of our ascension, the sound of a howling wind follows us up the inclined passageway.

Just before we hit the top of the lift, there's one of the exterminators and he's got his weapon drawn. As we pass by, he yelps into his radio, "It's huge!" Luckily, he seems to be too stunned to fire and we escape a blast of noxious gas by making another quick turn and heading back into total darkness. Now's when you might want to get a good grip on one of those handy rails, friends, cuz this rat is about to go berserk.

We rip around the first 180-degree turn, the lateral forces slamming everyone on board to the right. Too bad it's so dark you can't see your hand before your face, because there's no way to brace for - Whoa! - another mad reversal of direction. Skittering through the gloom, we zoom back around, turning on a dime. Plowing through these tight-radii twists is a kick, but remember, we're still locked down in a face-forward stance; our dizzy varmint is just limbering up.

A gray light hums over the murky surroundings as a bolt of high-voltage electricity crackles between two massive ceramic-ringed conductors. Better hope we're properly grounded! Avoiding electrocution, we scoot around a wall and dash through a narrow shaft with just enough time to read an overhead sign: DANGER - BOILER ROOM. Out of the fryin' pan and into the fire, people!

Yanking around a turn, we make a sudden plunge down into the steamy confines of the Boiler Room. Our frantic rat high-tails it back up and scrambles to the left, pulling us into another black hole. What is that up ahead, twisted metal track?! A second before we derail, we're turning and about to dive when a menacing claw reaches down and takes a swipe at us. We fall away in the nick of time, but our gathering speed should be cause for concern. We're about to enter the Spin Cycle.

Without warning, the vehicle disengages from its fixed position and our rat starts makin' like a whirlpool on wheels. Round and round, faster and faster, hurling through those 180-degree turns, we're plastered against the back of the car, plastered against each other, hangin' on for dear life. What little we could see before is now completely lost in a high-RPM blur. No matter how hard the centripetal forces work to compress yer lungs, you'll still find the strength to let loose with a barrage of ecstatic whooping.Waa-Hooooo!

The amber haze of the boiler flashes by again and again as we gyrate towards its bulky metal doors. Blinded by the steamy mists, we careen through the boiler itself, making a frenzied turn and dropping out the other end facing any way except forward. We get centered just in time to leap over a wicked little bunny hop that jolts us out of our seats, flying past two exterminators bathed in green light. See ya later, boys! Back into the dark, we go wonky again, twisting and twirling all the way into the final run. At last, we re-enter the station, still spinning out of control, as this little action-crammed horror movie ends the way they all should: Monsters win, "good-guys" lose!

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Don't take my word that The Exterminator is a winner; stand by the exit and watch as group after staggering group gallops back around the Vermin, Inc. truck, eyes wide with delight. These are verbatim quotes, folks: "Oh, man, that was awesome!" - "We gotta do that again!" - "When we started spinning, I thought I was going to lose it!" - "This is the best ride in the park!" Thought I might beg to differ with that last remark (how does one choose between so many of Kennywood's first-class attractions?), The Exterminator's impact is undeniable. I neither saw nor heard a single dissatisfied customer.

By throwing together the traditional scares of the beloved "spook house" with modern-day widgetry, R & R Creative, Kennywood and Reverchon have come up with an old-fashioned, newfangled dark ride that brings the decades-old genre into the 21st century. Thanks to The Exterminator, the spirit of so many dearly departed "Laff-In-The-Darks" lives on.

Exterminator logo artwork and "boiler room" illustration courtesy Kennywood and R & R Creative Amusement Designs, Inc. respectively. All Rights Reserved.




© Robert Coker.
All Rights Reserved
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