The Thunderbolt Isn’t Just a Roller Coaster, It’s a Pittsburgh Rite of Passage

The historic coaster has been cruising through Kennywood for generations.

In a city known for its quirky regional dialect, Pittsburgh’s Kennywood amusement park has worked its way into the local lexicon. When a fellow yinzer tells you that “Kennywood’s open,” they either mean that the gates are opening for the first time each spring—or that your fly is down. And while most Pittsburghers have ventured to larger parks like Cedar Point, Six Flags, and Busch Gardens to check out some of the world’s most daring thrill rides, the majority of us locals will still claim that our hometown coasters are the best around. Kids in this city grow up picnicking with classmates in the shady groves at the park, and parents are more likely to measure their child’s growth milestones by which rides they are eligible for than by tick marks on a door frame.

I grew up going to Kennywood. As a parent myself now, I’ve begun taking my four kids to the park—even splurging on season passes so we can ride over and over or pop on down for a quick evening of fun. This summer several of my kids were finally tall enough for my favorite ride in the entire park, a wooden coaster called the Thunderbolt.

The Thunderbolt roller coaster from above

I will never forget the first time I was tall enough to queue up for the Thunderbolt, one of the oldest rides in the park. I had spent years of my childhood watching it race past the sidewalk, rattling the ground and shaking the vegetation as it jostled past, and I almost chickened out the first time I was eligible to squeeze into the car. Its white frame swoops and dips along the Monongahela River as it jerks riders around like only a wooden coaster can. Despite the fact that most of the other wooden coasters in the park allow young children to board, the Thunderbolt has a tall height requirement of 52 inches. I have a vivid memory of my mom spiking up my best friend’s hair to see if we could sneak her on with me when she was a mere quarter inch too short (it didn’t work).

This summer, as I hopped into line with my tall-enough kids, my nine-year-old daughter pointed out a plaque mounted on the facade. It read, "National Historic District: Once named the King of Coasters by The New York Times, the Thunderbolt opened in 1968. Its unique design uses the first two and last two dips of the Pippin, with the lift hill structure and helix turns added that year. The trains, also from the Pippin, are still in use today."

My curiosity was thoroughly piqued. By the sight of the plaque, it was not new. I just had never noticed it before. King of Coasters? The Pippin?

The Thunderbolt roller coaster in the 1970s
Photo courtesy of Palace Entertainment

I decided to reach out to Palace Entertainment, which owns Kennywood Park and several other local amusement and water parks. It turns out the history of this local classic is storied and fascinating. Lynsey Winters, the communications director for the park, told me the ride did indeed first open in 1924 under the name “the Pippin.” This is the coaster my own parents first rode, before it was reimagined as the Thunderbolt. For the 1968 season, the track was redesigned in-house by Andy Vettel, Sr.

The most daring part of the ride—the drop into the ravine along the river—was part of the Pippin. Vettel added a lift hill and several helix turns in the middle of the ride that upped the thrill factor significantly. Three of the Century Flyer trains still in use on the ride have been racing around the track since the 1950s, without much change. It’s not a huge surprise; when you settle into the car and the bar drops, it feels barely secure, though I’ve not flown out yet. Smaller riders actually “get air” on some of the larger drops, though my now-middle-aged body now wedges itself securely in place.

Thunderbolt roller coaster sign
Heinz History Center

Winters explained that the plaque, which commemorates the New York Times naming the ride the “King of Coasters” in 1974, put Kennywood on the world stage for the first time. “It’s also credited as having an essential role in the ensuing worldwide coaster boom,” she told me.

This history and worldwide notoriety certainly make our loops around the Thunderbolt feel more special, as if we are cruising along on a piece of history. At the same time, I’ve loved this ride for as long as I can remember because it is ours. Through decades in a sooty steel town trying over and over to reinvent itself, a few things have remained consistent: We are good at football and even better at thrill rides.

As a kid riding the Thunderbolt, I always worried I would fly out of my seat. As an adult, I simply schedule a massage for the day after I choose to ride it. Clambering aboard the Thunderbolt secures local kids a bravery card amongst their friends as they discuss who has done it, and who has yet to go through this rite of passage. My own kids have now earned these bragging rights. And through the years, the Thunderbolt speeds on.

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Meg St-Esprit is a contributor for Thrillist.