Kennywood lights up the season with holiday celebration

| Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012, 8:55 p.m.

It takes approximately 1 million lights, 12 miles of extension cords and a lot of festive spirit to turn Pittsburgh's iconic amusement park into the Kennywood Holiday Lights celebration.

The local landmark switches its gears from summer fun to holiday cheer for the seasonal event, which offers caroling, visits with Santa Claus, treats, entertainment and tons of lights, according to Marie Ruby, director of ride operations for Kennywood.

“Kennywood is a tradition for many families, and Christmas is a tradition, also. So we wanted to combine the two,” Ruby said. “And they can see Kennywood in a completely different way.”

The event will take place from 5 to 9 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 30, as well as from 5 to 9 p.m. Dec. 26 and 27.

After a successful first year in 2011, Kennywood officials knew they wanted to step it up for this year, said Jeff Filicko, Kennywood's public-relations manager.

So to add to the merriment, there will be more days, rides, lights and food this year.

“It's just such a festive atmosphere. It really creates that warm, fuzzy feeling inside,” Filicko said.

As soon as visitors walk through the park's tunnel entrance, they'll be snowballed over by the seasonal sights and sounds, complete with holiday music, decorations and Christmas trees, which are “covered from top to bottom” with lights, Ruby said. The park has more than 50 trimmed Christmas trees, she said.

Holiday music will be playing, and a number of rides will “have a holiday twist,” Filicko said.

For example, the Gingerbread Express, regularly known as the Olde Kennywood Railroad, has a special holiday theme, he said.

And the spooky Ghostwood Estate gets the jolly-holiday treatment as the haunted ride is lightened up with ghosts and goblins dressed in Santa hats and seasonal decor.

The park's merry-go-round, Paratrooper, Kangaroo, Turtle, Auto Race and a host of Kiddieland rides also are operating.

Murrysville resident Ryan Mondics, who attended Kennywood's Holiday Lights last year, said he and his friends went on this year's opening night, Nov. 23.

“It helps me get in the mood,” said Mondics, 24, who works in marketing and advertising at MARC USA in Pittsburgh's Station Square.

His favorite ride is Ghostwood Estate, so he was happy to see it included in the ride lineup and also “rode pretty much everything,” he said.

But rides take a back seat to what Ruby said makes the holiday event the most spectacular.

“The main attraction is the lights. It's definitely the lights,” said Ruby, 45, of McKeesport, who has been with the park for 26 years and in her current position for 14.

She said the transformation, which slowly began in September, really took off after October's Kennywood Fright Nights.

With about half of the park open and decorated for the season, a holiday lights show is scheduled every half hour beginning at 5:30 p.m. in the area surrounding the lagoon. The lights will be set in time to holiday music, which also can be heard playing throughout the park.

Families also can visit Santa Claus, who will be waiting to hear gift requests while sitting in a decorated roller coaster car on the tracks at the Racer.

“It's probably one of the most unique photo opportunities with Santa,” Filicko said.

Ruby said parents can purchase photo packages.

Young visitors also can visit a petting zoo at the Kiddleland area, write letters to Santa at the Penny Arcade or dance with Kennywood's costumed characters by attending Parker's Dance Party on the Kennyville Stage, located near the Parkside Cafe, Ruby said.

Local choirs, dancers and other performers will entertain hourly beginning as early as 5:30 p.m. on the Sounds of Holiday Stage across from the Parkside Cafe, as well, Filicko said.

Some of the entertainment will include the Good Shepherd Handbell Choir from Braddock at 7 p.m. Dec. 14; The Elite School of Dance by Elena from North Huntingdon at 8 p.m. Dec. 16; and the St. Rita Church Choir from Jefferson Hills at 7 p.m. Dec. 21, according to a show schedule.

Leslie Wilcox of Oakmont said she and her daughter, Natalie, 5, enjoyed the ice-sculpting demonstration near the Racer.

Because it was a mild evening, there wasn't any snow, but, Wilcox said, the ice sculptor fixed that.

“He made it snow on everyone,” said Wilcox, 31.

She said Natalie, a kindergartner at Tenth Street Elementary in Oakmont, really liked the lights, rides and cookie decorating, which took place in the Parkside Cafe.

“She actually ate a lot of sweets,” Wilcox said.

The Brenkus family of Moon was able to hear Pittsburgh documentarian Rick Sebak read “'Twas the Night Before Christmas” to the crowd.

The Kennyville Stage will have more nightly readings of the classic poem by local Pittsburgh personalities, including Sally Wiggin on Friday, Kelly Brennan on Sunday, and Ashlie Hardway on Dec. 22. All are of WTAE Channel 4 Action News.

Adam Brenkus, 35, said he assumes his daughter, Freya, 21 months, enjoyed seeing the park all lit up because of her reaction.

“It was a blast. (Freya) was overwhelmed by all the lights,” her father said.

Either way, he said, the Potato Patch fries helped make the night.

And, he said, the family definitely will return next year.

Filicko said the Pittsburgh Independent Hi-Railers have provided an impressive model railroad layout, which is on display at the Parkside Cafe.

Mike Simon of New Castle said he really enjoyed the model trains last year. He's proof that people don't have to like amusement-park rides to enjoy the Holiday Lights event.

“I'm really not a rides person at all,” said Simon, who teaches sixth grade in the Sewickley-based Quaker Valley School District. “I go more because I like the idea of the tradition of the park.”

Simon said he was impressed by the “cool visuals” and enjoyed drinking hot chocolate and just walking through the open areas.

“I would say it was really festive, being able to experience the (park) in a new way,” said Simon, who is planning to attend this year, as well.

Along with Kennywood's popular Potato Patch fries, visitors can enjoy foods that evoke the season, such as cinnamon funnel cakes with hot apple topping, roasted nuts, cookies and other baked goods, said Filicko, of Munhall.

The Kandy Kaleidoscope, located near the entrance to the park, is offering holiday treats such as gingerbread- and candy cane-flavored fudge, said Marissa Zapf, a Kennywood employee who is working in the store during Holiday Lights.

Zapf, 16, of Whittaker, said she gets into the festive mood every time she goes to work and that Holiday Lights is great for people of any age.

“Even as you get older, you still get that little-kid feeling, and it brings back memories,” said Zapf, who is a junior at West Mifflin Area High School.

Robb O'Daffer and his wife, Ariane Serenity-O'Daffer, visited Kennywood for the first time to celebrate her 26th birthday.

They moved to Saxonburg from Ohio five years ago.

The couple rode the Turtle three time in a row, watched the light show, ate some fudge and visited the petting zoo in Kiddieland, said O'Daffer, 32.

“We actually got a milk bottle and fed a baby zebra,” he said.

The couple is a good example of a point Ruby made — that the event is not just for families coming with children and that the lights and music can provide a great date-night atmosphere.

All the folks at Kennywood need is a little help from the weather to create the perfect scene.

“An inch of snow would be a really nice addition,” Ruby said.

Natalie Beneviat is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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