Specific Type: Wooden, Double Out & Back, Terrain
Forty feet tall... Forty-five miles per hour... A forty-five-degree drop... Time to yawn, right? Some may be compelled to do so when reading the statistics for Jack Rabbit at Kennywood, but as the saying goes, that would be judging a book by its cover, or rather, a surviving piece of wooden roller coaster history by today's standards. But in a world of Goliath steel coasters towering hundreds of feet in the air and rocketing off at speeds never dreamed possible, what does the 1920s-era wooden coaster truly mean today? Is it just a rickety construction to serve as a memory of the days before computer design and precision technology? Or does it reflect something more? Do the uneven wooden rails take us on a trip into the past, back to a less complicated time when families flocked to the local amusement park to picnic and enjoy a small collection of rides? Back then, it didn't matter if the park didn't have a dozen coasters, because three was something to get excited about. And back then, a coaster with forty-five-mile-per-hour speeds seemed like something out of the future.
At Kennywood, in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, there stands a wooden coaster, barely noticeable on the skyline. Its white structure humbly stands, set apart from the far newer rides like the twenty-five-story freefall tower PittFall and eighty-two-mile-per-hour mega-coaster Phantom's Revenge, and it doesn't have a twenty-three-story drop threading between the wooden tracks like Thunderbolt. There, on the edge of the park, the Jack Rabbit sits in a gully, with a lift hill barely rivaling the treetops. It appears less impressive than any other major coaster at Kennywood, even the relatively small 1927Racer next door. So what then makes this ride both a consistent fan favorite and historically one of the most important rides in existence? Jack Rabbit not only still operates as Kennywood's oldest roller coaster, but also as the sixth oldest operating coaster in the world. By strapping into one of the coaster's antique trains, riders take a step back in time to 1921 when it was the talk of the town, but often find themselves in for a ride far more intense by today's standards than what would naturally be expected. In contrast to the modern thrills delivered by unthinkable positive g-forces and inversions on a glass-smooth ride, Jack Rabbit is a prime example of a different type of thrill: the thrill of a classic, old-fashioned, hand-crafted wooden track taking the train on a seemingly out-of-control ride. If it isn't the quick double-dip into the ravine or seventy-foot drop that surprises first-time riders, it may be the coaster's abundance of airtime.
When Kennywood asked John Miller to design their new coaster for the 1921 season, they asked for something special. Miller was asked to work with a plot of land containing a forty-foot gully, using the natural hillsides to make drops possible that would otherwise require elevated support structures. By working with the terrain, new challenges arose, but in the long run the cost was lowered. The park built the new coaster with the assistance of Charlie Mach partially out of compensation for the loss ofKennywood's original coaster, Gee Whizz Dip the Dips, that same season. The final product was a double out and back layout with a station at the top of the ravine and lift hill halfway through the ride. It was produced for fifty thousand dollars, which was a very modest price tag compared to other rides that Kennywood built around
the same era. The 2,132 feet of wooden track that was installed for Jack Rabbit contained several surprises. One of those was a long, dark tunnel containing the coaster's second turnaround after the first valley from the station. Another was one of the most intense double-dip elements for the time, in which riders descended forty feet off of the lift hill, leveled, and then would be catapulted down another equally-sized drop into the ravine to reach top speeds. The ride was so successful that Kennywood built a similar coaster on the other side of the amusement park three years later and named it Pippin, although that ride would distinguish itself from Jack Rabbit in 1967 when it was remodeled into the experience known today as Thunderbolt. Even as the newer rides came and the trees grew up around it, Jack Rabbit would manage to remain a favorite with unwavering maintenance by Kennywood to preserve the coaster as a true classic and part of surviving history.
From the entrance of Kennywood, Jack Rabbit is located at the back right of the park, and visitors can use the 200-footSkycoaster's arch as a reference point to help guide them to the right corner of the property. The line takes guests behind the first turnaround, under the forty-foot U-turn from the coaster's lift. The next group of riders ascends a small ramp into the narrow station loading station to find their seats on a blue or pink train, eighteen at a time. Riders discover rows with no seat dividers, one of the reasons that the coaster is known as an official Coaster Classic by the American Coaster Enthusiasts. Small straps are fastened and single lap bars pulled down for each row, then the train gets rolling slowly from the station. Past future riders in line, the coaster rounds the initial turnaround, the first of four 180-degree left-hand curves that make up the ends of the double out and back course. After going straight for a short ways on ground level, the first drop begins on the edge of the ravine. Plunging down the hillside, the coaster dips about forty feet in altitude, pulling out of the valley on the other side and entering the tunnel. In darkness, a straightaway takes the train back to the second turnaround, and after wrapping the turn up, riders re-emerge to plunge down the second drop, slightly more shallow than the first but delivering a pop of airtime. With speed to spare, the train begins heading up the lift hill, then engages on the chain to help it up the rest of the slope.
The coaster levels out at the top of the lift with the station just to the right four stories below. As they round the top turn, riders get a brief view of the back corner of Kennywood: the Skycoaster arching above the lake, and the Aero 360 vertical ride on the other side. At the end of the bend, the Jack Rabbit's climax begins. The track plunges forty feet back to the ground diagonally, then levels out at a good clip of speed. The track disappears once more as it plunges ahead into the ravine, and the train hits the downward plunge while sending riders out of their seats with the ride's largest dose of negative g-forces. At the bottom of the ravine, the track pulls up again at top forty-five-mile-per-hour speeds, traveling to the left of the first drop and pulling up over the tunnel. The ride completes the final counterclockwise motion and begins the last, largest drop at seventy feet deep plunging back into the ravine for the fourth and final time. Either hanging on for dear life or holding their arms up, passengers are swept down to the bottom of the drop and pull up, then the Jack Rabbit hops up into the brake run and stops at the unloading platform after a minute and fifteen second ride.
The Jack Rabbit may be the world's sixth oldest operating coaster, but that alone isn't why coaster enthusiasts collectively consider it to be a world-class experience. Kennywood's years of daily preservation work have kept a piece of the past a piece of the present, and with well over eighty years under its belt, the Jack Rabbit invites the next generation of thrill seekers to experience its untamable thrills.
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