One of the most extraordinary things about Pittsburgh, PA, is its love for keeping its history alive – especially regarding theme parks. I recently had the pleasure of visiting Idlewild and SoakZone, and I loved them as much as I did as a kid. Here’s everything you need to know about “Pittsburgh’s Best Amusement Park.”
Idlewild Park: A Quick History
Since 1878, Idlewild Park, or as the locals call it, Idlewild, has been thrilling guests since 1878, making this year its 145th anniversary. Created as a campground, it sits roughly 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh proper in Ligonier, PA, and the Laurel Highlands area of the state.
A sister park of Kennywood and Sandcastle in Pittsburgh proper, it’s the oldest amusement park in Pennsylvania and the third oldest in the U.S., behind Cedar Point in Sandusky, OH, and Lake Compounce in Bristol, CT. Since I’m talking about park accolades, it is the world‘s number one children’s theme park.
While there are two roller coaster-style rides in Idlewild, the Rollo Coaster and Wild Mouse, I genuinely love that the others are all old school. That doesn’t mean that there not just as fun; it’s simply a refreshing theme that makes it seem like you’re stepping back in time.
If you grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on public television, you’d love that the park is filled with homages and tributes to the Pittsburgh hero. For children of this generation, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, a spinoff from the original show, has an adorable dedicated trolley ride that looks like the one from decades ago.
There are 26 rides in Idlewild, ranging from a plane-style ride called Flying Aces and Tilt-A-Whirl in the Olde Idlewild section to the Tea Party and Turtles, which has been operating since 1930 in Racoon Lagoon. If you think the age of the rides may be a factor in the park experience, you’re right; but it happily only adds to the nostalgia as each is kept up with today’s safety standards.
Storybook Forest was created around the adoration of Mother Goose fairy tales. From the minute you step through the massive storybook, you’re on a path filled with these rhyming tales, but they come to life with the help of whimsical buildings decorated in the style of each. Additionally, many have fairytale characters inside or around to talk to the children about their daily lives.
If I could only recall one vivid memory of my childhood vacations near Pittsburgh, it’s Storybook Forest. I remember the talking tree, the Crooked House, and the Goodship Lollipop. I also love that I took my daughters there when they were younger to become immersed the way I did.
The Pittsburgh area has no shortage of hot, humid summer days. I know of several theme parks that have added a separate waterpark area, and I’m very thankful that Idlewild did in the mid-1980s. Currently, SoakZone offers several open and enclosed waterslides, a raft ride, a lazy river, a wave pool, and dedicated areas for smaller children.
If you’re not a fan of the sun beating down on you all day, covered cabanas are available for an extra fee and can be rented online or on the day you visit the park. My daughter and I had one right next to Wowabunga Wave Pool, and the location was ideal. Having a meal service with a dedicated menu was lovely, even though it was an extra charge. The employees came around with ice and were happy to check on us during our time in the park.
When I’m in a theme park, theme park-style food is precisely what I want. I have to hand it to Idlewild and SoakZone for offering everything from pizza to chicken, sandwiches to funnel cakes, and ice cream to Dole Whip. You don’t have to visit Walt Disney World to get your fill of the popular icy treat.
By far, the most popular dining area is The Potato Patch. The french fries are thickly cut and topped with a massive amount of cheese sauce and bacon if you like it. Both Kennywood Park and Idlewild guests go wild for the side dish, and it’s completely understandable as they are delicious.
Seasonal events are part of why the park’s locals purchase annual passes. They’re fun to take in during the open season, including Passholder Appreciation Days, Kids Fest, Neighbor Days, and HalloBoo when kiddos get to trick-or-treat around Storybook Forest. From July 1-4, Celebrate America has nightly fireworks for guests, making the nostalgia of the park even more.
While the price of admission is affordable and starts at $34.99 a day for military members, the fact that it’s three parks in one makes it a great visiting value. But I wouldn’t do this post justice if I didn’t discuss the freebies that come with guest entry.
First, there’s always free parking. The property has several parking lots that offer access to specific park areas. I recommend parking in the D Lot if you’re visiting SplashZone the most. Are you headed to Storybook Forest? Hit the lot immediately past the entrance turnstiles for the most accessible parking.
Next, you can eat at any park’s pavilions if not booked in advance. My daughter and I found a shady picnic table in one and enjoyed the respite from the heat. And speaking of heat, if you’re thirsty, visit any dining spot that offers fountain drinks and ask for a cup of ice water – it’s complimentary, too.
Lastly, and this is a big one, certified caregivers get in free. All you need to do is provide proof before you enter the park.
Extra Information You Need To Know
Idlewild Park & SoakZone are cashless parks. Happily, in case you forget about the rule when you visit, there is a remedy: the park offers several cash-to-card exchangers that are simple to use. Additionally, there is no additional fee to swap your cash for a card; it may be used outside of the park should you have a balance left on it.
Where To Stay Near Idlewild Park
If you want a place to stay that’s not only gorgeous, it’s comfortable and historical, Thistledown at Segar House is the spot. My daughter and I had the pleasure of calling it home for a night, and I’d visit again.
The property offers free parking, a tea and coffee bar, an ice machine, a communal fridge, and comfy beds – and it’s only two miles from the park. We stayed during summer, and our room was cool, making for an enjoyable time.