Kennywood scores a touchdown with The Steel Curtain coaster
AT: B. Derek Shaw
WEST MIFFLIN, Pa. — Pittsburgh, the City of Champions, is now also home to an emerging champion — The Steel Curtain. Rising up in the northeast corner of 40-acreKennywood Park, the black and gold roller coaster is themed to thePittsburgh Steelers with football-styled seats, featuring T-bar restraints, waiting to cradle its next riders. With nine inversions, the most on any coaster in the western hemisphere, the ride scares some people and thrills others while tossing all around, safely. The Steel Curtain holds a world record for having the highest inversion at 197 feet and it is also the first collaboration between an amusement park and a professional sports team in North America, namely the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.
For non-sports fans: The term “The Steel Curtain” refers to the Steelers defensive line of the 1970s, which helped the team win four Super Bowls in that decade.
The ride, part of a three-acre Steeler Country area, is complete with theming details including one train sporting a “19” and the second, “33,”paying homage to the year the Steelers were founded. The experience starts in the locker room (station) where the voice of the SteelersBill Hillgrove and Color CommentatorTunch Ilkin provide safety and boarding instructions, including leaving “Terrible Towels” in the bins provided, before players (riders) take their position (seat) on the field (train) and being checked by safety officials (ride attendants). The lift starts slow, then speeds up withRenegade by Styx (a standard motivational anthem, every 3rd quarter at Steelers games) is heard, increasing the intensity. After ascending the 50-degree lift going through the final steel beams, it is as if the 24 riders are splitting the uprights. At the top is an incredible, albeit brief, view of Kennywood to the left, the Monongahela River andUS Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works, the last operating mill in western Pa., to the right. Then the massive playbook kicks in.
The 197-foot fake-out inverting, high-speed drop piques the visual senses of onboard guests before gravity takes effect, propelling The Steel Curtain through the next eight elements including a banana roll, sea serpent, top gun stall, dive loop, corkscrew and ending with a cutback, before the clock runs out.
Riders see a banner on the right when re-entering the station with Roman numerals indicating all six Super Bowls the Steelers have won thus far. They also hear the roar of fans cheering with Hillgrove saying, “There’s the final whistle. Another huge win for the Steel Curtain” — all this in just over two minutes.
The tight layout shows a massive amount of track in a minimal footprint. Also ingenious is that multiple pieces of track use the same support column structure. The Steel Curtain holds another record: it turns riders upside down an average of once every 444 feet. The ride provides just enough time between elements to process what just happened before looking at what is next. The T-bar lap restraint allows passengers a sense of flying unencumbered, without over-the-shoulder harnesses sometimes associated with inversion coasters.
This project was massive in size and scope for S&S. In fact, it was the largest coaster ever built by the Logan, Utah operation. Total investment in Steelers Country was the largest investment ever made byPalace Entertainment’s parent company,Parque Reunidos.
Pete Barto, director of salesS&S Worldwide, Inc. explained how the project came to be with Kennywood. “We have a pretty solid relationship with the folks at Palace Entertainment, and after doing Merlin’s Mayhem atDutch Wonderland, it opened the door for us to discuss other projects with them. We had been wanting to do a new, large, signature coaster in the U.S. to showcase how far our company has come in 25 years and having the opportunity to work with them again was a blessing. We knew they wanted to do something to make a big splash at Kennywood but [we] were not aware of the Steelers intellectual property when we submitted the ride.”
“I have to go back almost two years when the ideas were first coming in," added Kennywood General ManagerJerome Gibas. “The whole idea was a coaster, but we wanted to theme it to something. There was a lot of discussion between Kennywood and our parent company Palace [Entertainment]. We came upon this idea of working with the Steelers. With the help of our now-CEO,Rolf Pagert, and our team at Kennywood, discussions were had.”
“The team at Palace Entertainment was looking to beat the North American record of inversions from the very beginning,” said Barto. “They wanted to beat that record by more than one inversion to make a statement, but it was key that the ride have adequate transitions between inversions so that the ride was enjoyable and re-rideable. You want people to like the ride, not just conquer it.
“We discussed the project for the better part of a year before getting a contract signed in 2017,” said Barto. “Although this is a pretty tight time frame for a coaster of this magnitude, we had begun some work behind the scenes to prepare for the project and have the resources in place to handle the project if it came our way, which it did.”
The first half of 2018 involved numerous meetings, engineering, site visits by S&S and site preparation so Kennywood could start installation as soon as the summer season came to a close. At times multiple crews were working simultaneously on erecting the coaster and Steelers Country.
Of course, the mid-Atlantic region is not without weather challenges in the busy off-season construction time as Gibas explained, “We had some pretty bad weather. We started off with one of the wettest years here (2018) at the beginning of the year. We were way up on rain a lot this winter, which was unusual for us in January and February. That put us down a little bit. A project of this size with parts and pieces, something was delayed here or something happened — just normal things for a project. Then surprisingly when we got higher up in the air, the wind became an issue for us because not only was it the workers [were] that high but steel is coming up. They couldn’t work on certain days after the wind got higher. That was surprising for me, because the wind down here is one thing. When you get up 200 feet in the air, the wind is a lot different up there. That delayed us a bunch of times this spring.”
Once The Steel Curtain was complete, Barto was asked about the approval process with thePennsylvania Amusement Ride Safety Division of the Department of Agriculture. “The approval process went pretty smoothly. We have a pretty good relationship with theCommonwealth of Pennsylvania and understood what was expected of us after recently going through the process withHersheypark’s Triple Towers and Dutch Wonderland’s Merlin’s Mayhem. Obviously, the park had a great relationship as well given how many rides they have opened over the years. They really took the lead and we provided support as needed.”
“We had a pretty good feeling that the ride would perform as expected, but you never really know for sure until it goes over the top that first time and works its way back to the station,” said Barto. “If all goes well with the accelerometer tests and the ride performs as we expect, then things can move pretty quickly and we can do the commissioning, safety testing, training and finally fine tune the ride.”
The Steel Curtain was not just a marketing gimmick as Barto explained, “As the structure and track continued to rise into the skyline, I took a photo showing some of our team back in Utah how it towered over the Jack Rabbit wooden coaster. I believe it was that moment that it sunk in how massive this project was and how much attention it was going to generate for our company and the park.”
The Steel Curtain was a winner out of the starting gate. “This coaster needed to be a 10 out of 10. After getting a chance to ride it a few times, I rated it an 11,” said Barto. “The key was the super smooth track and seamless transitions. When building a coaster with so many inversions, you want to be sure the coaster is enjoyable from beginning to end. You don’t want the coaster to just be a marketing gimmick coaster. The Steel Curtain is not a gimmick. It is the real deal.”
The S&S team won high praise from Gibas: “Outstanding. That whole team is unbelievable. They are easy to work with. Everybody just bent over backwards for anything and everything we needed.”
Barto had a similar experience with the park. “Kennywood is a great park with tremendous history. You still have members of the original family ownership active at the park and they remain interested in seeing the park be successful. Despite the magnitude of this project, they remained poised and focused on the prize. It was a pleasure to work with Kennywood,” he said.
“It’s everything we hoped it would be,” Gibas summed up.
The rest of Steelers Country is scheduled to open late this summer.
Rival fans tackle Steel Curtain
Football superfans from across the nation stopped into Kennywood to brave the nine inversions of the park’s new Steel Curtain roller coaster from S&S Worldwide, Inc. The group is part of Pro Football’s Ultimate Fan Association (PFUFA). COURTESY KENNYWOOD