battle of the amusement parks: a pittsburgher conjures a kennywood-cedar point throwdown

A Kennywood picnic, that day when your school, community or affinity (Cheerleading Day! Hip, hip, hooray!) is feted is a rite of passage for Pittsburghers. For many, there is nothing like a day spent hopping on the Jack Rabbit and eating Potato Patch fries.

Or is there? Leave it to our friends in Greater Cleveland to up the ante at Cedar Point, an historic and much-loved amusement park on the shores of Lake Erie, where old and new blend seamlessly and bigger is always better.

So who wins this mano-a-mano throwdown? Here's the tale of the tape:

Thrill rides: Cedar Point has 17 roller coasters to Kennywood's six, and goodness knows these ain't Grandma's coasters at the Point. Magnum XL-200, opened in 1989, is the steel coaster that put Cedar Point on the map and is a hair-raising, three-minute ride, especially if you sit in the front car as I did.

The park debuted Millennium Force in 2000 and the coaster heads skyward at the beginning, dangling you over Lake Erie (not really, but it sure feels like it). After an 80-degree ascent, you drop at 90 mph and twist and turn at top speeds along a smooth, steel-blue track. Dazzling. Kennywood answers the Force with Phantom's Revenge, a green-on-purple steel coaster that reaches a top speed of 85 mph and whose second drop is much more intense than the first. Perhaps they should rename it Phantom Menace, since that's what everyone calls it anyway.

Cedar Point's top thrill ride is the aptly named Top Thrill Dragster, which slingshots you -- aircraft-carrier style -- at 120 mph (no kidding, my husband's glasses were plastered to his face). It sends you straight up at 90 degrees, over the hump, and back down at the same right angle. The ride is over in about 20 seconds and you'll see why only 30% of park visitors are willing to give it a try. It's NUTS! Kennywood's top thrill is the Sky Rocket, which zooms 0 to 50 mph in its first three seconds and then twists and turns in a series of loose 360s. "Awesome!" squealed my nine-year-old son.

Who wins?: This one goes to Cedar Point -- mo betta, fasta rides, and if thrills are what you're looking for, the park has it in spades.

Wooden roller coasters: Kennywood's classic wooden coaster is the Jack Rabbit, which dates to 1921 and has been a starter coaster for generations. Though small by today's standards, the 70-foot, double-dip drop halfway through is priceless. The park went big with the Thunderbolt, a sprawling wooden coaster that opened in 1974 and distinguishes itself by starting off with a dramatic plunge as opposed to a steep ascent. The clickety-clack of wooden rails adds immeasurably to the experience.

Cedar Point's answer to the 'Bolt is the Mean Streak, a mammoth wooden coaster whose 1.7 million board feet of Southern pine would make it to Chicago if laid end to end. This baby shakes, rattles and rolls with a vengeance and reaches speeds of 65 mph. A sweeter ride is the Blue Streak, Cedar Point's iconic wooden coaster that debuted in 1964. The Streak looks positively puny next to the giant coasters in its midst, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in soul. I sent my husband and son for a ride and was happy to take a pass until my son insisted I join him for another go-round. "Mom, you have to do this one, it's the best coaster in the park!" he exclaimed. We took a middle seat and, right away, I knew I was in for a treat -- the wooden track sang a gentle melody and there was minimal side-to-side action. "Arms up, Mom, arms up!" my son yelled halfway through and, for the first time ever, I thrust my arms skyward. Mother and son shrieked the rest of the way.

Who wins?: A tie -- the large coasters cancel each other out and the small woodies have their own unique charms.

Classic rides: While Cedar Point has a number of classic rides, including a tilt-a-whirl, Ferris wheel and two gorgeous antique carousels, they tend to get lost in the maze of roller coasters and thrill rides. The pleasant exception is the Sky Ride, an elevated gondola that gets you from one end of the park to the other.

Kennywood, on the other hand, possesses a collection of classic amusement park rides and it's half the fun of being there. The Bayern Kurve and Musik Express each send you flying around a circular track, the former toboggan-style and the latter flattening you against your seat mate amid wall-to-wall sound. The Gran Prix is a bumper car ride that appeals to all ages, the Wave Swinger whirls you high above the ground in swinging chairs as your flip-flops flap to the ground, and the Whip is as simple as its sounds: a round car whipping around a turn over and over and never, ever getting old. There's a Dentzel carousel here, too.

Who wins?: Kennywood, hands down.

Water rides: Both parks have the same three rides, though the experiences vary. The log flume rides at both Kennywood and Cedar Point satisfy while Kennywood's Pittsburg Plunge (yep, no "h" in that once-upon-a-Pittsburg spelling) and Cedar Point's Snake River Falls send you on a steep aqua-drop followed by a wall of water that lands smack on your head. When it comes to river rapids, however, Kennywood's Raging Rapids, navigated on a six-person "white water" raft, will get you far wetter than a ride in Cedar Point's 12-person Thunder Canyon raft.

Who wins?: Kennywood is wetter and wilder. Thankfully, both parks offer step-in "dryers" that restore you to comfort three minutes and $5 later.

Food: Seriously? Can anyone really compete with Kennywood's fabled Potato Patch fries, thick-cut taters slathered with cheese sauce or beef gravy that are positively addictive? Cedar Point is certainly trying and, to that end, has opened the first outpost of Pink's Hot Dogs east of Las Vegas. An L.A. institution, Pink's is known for its hot dogs, serious weiners topped with creamy chili, and I dare you to eat just one. The fries at Pink's are crisp if a bit thin compared to Kennywood's and the 'Burghers represent with thick, never-greasy chicken tenders. Kennywood's soft serve ice cream is more artery-clogging awesomeness while Cedar Point's frozen custard is, surprisingly, more frozen than custard.

Who wins?: Kennywood.

Atmosphere: Cedar Point is perched on a spit of land that juts into Lake Erie, and the breeze that wafts in from the lake keeps things cool. The views, especially from the tallest rides, are spectacular and there's even a beach for a midday break. The park itself is amazingly clean and neat and ongoing renovations have had a noticeable impact; ample real estate means the park never feels crowded.

Kennywood feels like one big family gathering thanks to its cozy confines and popularity among Pittsburghers and, on a summer day, you're likely to run into at least one person you know. The park also allows "picnic baskets" and the quaint baskets of yesteryear have been replaced by fully-loaded coolers.

Who wins?: Toss-up -- depends on what you want!
- Photos 1-4: Cedar Point by Elaine and Fen Labalme
- Photos 5-8: Kennywood Park by Brian Cohen
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