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Seeking a new buzz, Kennywood to end Steel Phantom's run

Tuesday, March 07, 2000

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Goodbye, Steel Phantom.

  The Steel Phantom takes Bill Linekheimer, vice president of America's Coaster Enthusiasts, high above Kennywood in 1998. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

Hello ... what?

"Just about anything is on the table at this point," said Kennywood Park spokeswoman Mary Lou Rosemeyer. The new coaster that will replace the Steel Phantom when the park opens in 2001 could be another steel one. Then again, it might be wood.

"We're trying to come up with the very best concept and then make that decision. The plan now is not to release any of the layout plans until next winter," said Rosemeyer, who on Saturday told a group of coaster enthusiasts that 2000 will be the Phantom's last season.

The reason?

"In order to stay competitive in this business, you have to continually add something that's new and exciting, and Kennywood likes to be on the edge of that," Rosemeyer said yesterday. "And new coasters are always very, very exciting."

In other words, Kennywood needs a new buzz.

"The Steel Phantom is 10 years old, and technology has come a long way in the last 10 years," Rosemeyer said.

"When the Steel Phantom was built, it was the tallest drop and the fastest coaster," said Gary Baker, national events director of American Coaster Enthusiasts. About 200 members of the group's local chapter met in East Pittsburgh over the weekend.

But this year, Baker said, the world's tallest title will pass to Cedar Point's Millennium Force, with a 310-foot tower and a 300-foot drop, surpassing the Phantom's 225-foot drop. Millennium Force, one of 44 new coasters opening in America this year, will reach speeds of about 92 mph, topping the Phantom's more than 80-mph speed.

With steel coasters, "everybody's trying to do taller, bigger, faster, different -- something with unique elements to it. With a wood coaster, you don't necessarily have to do that to have a good coaster ride," Baker said.

Whether the new coaster is wood or steel, Kennywood in part is trying to "broaden the audience for that space," Rosemeyer said, acknowledging that the Phantom is "very, very intense, so its audience is limited to the people who want that intense of a ride. But even if the intensity [of the new ride] is the same, it will have a wider appeal because it's new."

Kennywood's dilemma is that it has no room to grow.

"Given the fact that we're landlocked here, we needed a location, and the Steel Phantom location is a good location," Rosemeyer said. Of the park's 80 acres, only 35 acres are devoted to rides; the rest is surface parking.

Amusement park veterans know that while some rides -- even some coasters -- are tamper-proof classics, modern coasters come and go. Ten years ago, the Steel Phantom replaced the Laser Loop, which also had a 10-year life span.

"Many people were surprised, many were disappointed that we were taking the Laser Loop out, and that proved to be a very good decision," Rosemeyer said. The Phantom has been even more popular than the Loop.

"It continues to be ranked almost always in the top 10 roller coasters in the world," Rosemeyer said. "But there's always a time for change, and we know we can change and we know it will be better."

"That's what Kennywood's intentions are," Baker agreed. "They don't usually take anything out unless they can replace it with something better down the road."

"Typically we need to remove a ride to add a ride," Rosemeyer said. "For instance, this year we took out the Wonder Wheel to put in our new ride, Aero 360." The 360 features two long arms, with open-air cars on each arm "like Pitt Fall seats," another Kennywood ride. "The arms swing like the Pirate Ship and then go all the way around."

The arms are arrow-shaped, like the directional road signs that point the way to Kennywood.

"That was our general manager Pete McAneny's idea, and Zamperla [a New Jersey amusement ride company] was able to pull that off."

Rosemeyer said Kennywood hasn't chosen a manufacturer for the new coaster and isn't sure how much it will cost, only that it will be "in the millions."

Like the Laser Loop, now in a Mexico amusement park, many rides never die; they just get sold and moved. But the Phantom is unlikely to have an afterlife because of its site-specific design. It likely will be sold for scrap or parts.

"Maybe we'll open a gift shop and sell pieces of the Phantom," Rosemeyer mused. "The funny thing is, some people would buy it."

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