What’s It Like Inside Kennywood’s New, Old Mill?
Kennywood gave fans their most-requested makeover with help from Pittsburgh's masters of macabre manufacturing.
Nostalgia has always been a key part of the cross-generational appeal of Kennywood.
When parents bring their children to the park for the first time, they get to revisit their own childhood memories. They climb onto the same carts and boats they did decades ago, passing on the thrills they loved when they were the wide-eyed tots and experiencing them anew through the next generation’s eyes.
“This is Pittsburgh,” says Nick Paradise, the park’s director of public relations and social media. “At Kennywood especially, so much is based on tradition, nostalgia and what resonates — those shared experiences over the years.”
Unlike some ever-advancing theme parks, Kennywood features resurrections and rehabilitations of classic rides almost as often as modern innovations. This year, that meant the return of perhaps the most dearly missed ride in recent memory — even though that ride was still standing, featuring some of the same equipment it had for more than a century.
With a major assist from the design team at the ScareHouse, the Old Mill is back.
After years of speculation and fan requests, the park made the announcement before the 2020 season: This year, the dark ride most recently known as Garfield’s Nightmare would once again become the Old Mill. While the basic mechanics of the ride had been unchanged under the cartoon-cat theme it had sported since 2004, fans wanted the Old Mill of the ’80s and ’90s. The old Old Mill. Skeletons cavorting in Old West scenes; a lightly spooky dark ride with boats whisking past tombstones and cobwebs.
Breaking the news in March 2020 via a surprise video on the park’s Facebook page, Paradise promised the park would be “restoring the ride to the retro, western theme that’s been remembered by so many over the years.”
Brian Butko, who is the director of publications for the Sen. John Heinz History Center and has written the “Behind the Screams” series of books on Kennywood, says the ’80s and ’90s are “the current peak of Kennywood nostalgic fandom.” In a “Behind the Screams” group he runs on Facebook, he says, “Anytime I post pictures from that era, there’s always a comment — ‘That was the park at its peak.’”
It’s not the ride’s first return to form; throughout its nearly 120-year history, the ride has repeatedly tried on new names before reverting to its original moniker. Or almost reverting to its original moniker. When it opened in 1901, it was “Ye Olde Mill.”
Little is recorded about the contents of the ride’s first incarnation, but it was almost certainly a spooky experience; a brief mention in a Pittsburgh Press article soon after the ride’s construction mentioned “effigies of His Satanic Majesty … surrounded by fire and other alleged accessories of the lower regions.” The theme would change rapidly.
“Right after [opening], for five years or so, it was Fairyland Floats,” Butko says. “It was Tour of the World, where you would see Tokyo, Paris, San Francisco.” For a time, the ride depicted the construction of the Panama Canal.
Garfield wasn’t even the first character to leap from the funny pages to the ride; after a razing and rebuilding in 1926, the ride reopened with cavorting comic-strip characters. “Whether it’s the Panama Canal or these cartoon characters like Mutt and Jeff,” Butko says, “it wasn’t always meant to be a scary ride.
“In fact, I would argue that over 120 years, the idea of being scared or entertained was secondary to what most couples were riding it for.”
When Paradise posted the video announcing the change, his narration ended with a somewhat loaded reference to the previous theme: “The nightmare has ended.” It’s not just a play on words; for many fans, Garfield’s Nightmare was a branded affront to the ride’s legacy.
Marie Ruby, the park’s director of ride operations, is quick to point out that Garfield’s Nightmare wasn’t necessarily unsuccessful. “It was still popular with the younger children,” she says. Paradise adds that, even in recent years, “It pretty frequently had a nice line” for admission. “They might not have known Garfield too well, but he was a friendly cartoon character.”
Still, the park knew that a change was overdue. It had been considered in 2015, when another historic attraction, Noah’s Ark, underwent a similar renovation. “There were initially plans to do both rides that offseason,” Paradise says, but it was determined that Noah’s Ark “was more pressing.”
“If you look at the timing of the re-themes, it had been about 20 years for Noah’s Ark, while Garfield’s Nightmare was only about 10 years old.”
Several major projects, including the high-tech Steel Curtain roller coaster and the branded “Thomas the Tank Engine” area, delayed any work on the Old Mill. Meanwhile, the park’s contract with Paws Inc., then the owners of the Garfield intellectual property, had been renewing every two years; the latest agreement ran out after the 2019 season. Coincidentally, Paws sold the rights to Garfield and his friends to media giant Viacom at that time, necessitating fresh negotiations. Rather than re-up, Kennywood decided Garfield would not be back for the ’20s.
A return to the ’80s version, themed as an Old West ghost town with an invisible blacksmith and slapstick skeletons, meant that the ride would be at least in the neighborhood of spooky. The park didn’t want to truly terrify anyone — “It’s just dark-ride fun,” Ruby says, “not meant to be scary” — but certainly wanted the Old Mill to have some Halloween hallmarks.
For that, they went to the experts.
ScareHouse, the nationally lauded haunted attraction that has become a Pittsburgh institution, creates new, terrifying walk-through attractions on a yearly basis. A float-through attraction wasn’t too different in the mind of Scott Simmons, ScareHouse’s co-owner. After the Noah’s Ark renovation, he tweeted (repeatedly) that his crew would be more than happy to report for duty if the Old Mill were ever up for a renovation.
“I was experiencing the dark rides at Kennywood before I was ever brave enough to go through walk-through haunted houses,” Simmons says. “The Old Mill has always been very special to me; it was always the last ride we did at the end of the night.”
Nominally, Kennywood and ScareHouse are competitors; the park’s Phantom Fright Nights attraction is another October heavyweight. “There’s a bit of a friendly rivalry between [us],” Paradise says, but “there’s plenty of room for both, and our attractions differ in a lot of ways.” Securing a collaboration between the seasonal rivals was seen as a cool, mutually beneficial hook for the new Old Mill.
Ruby reached out to Simmons in February. She presented the ScareHouse team with some drawings and concept ideas she had developed with Brian Bartley, the park’s former director of maintenance. By March 1, work had begun.
That work was quickly interrupted by the stay-at-home order in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even amid uncertainty on when the park would re-open, Ruby says, there was never any doubt that the project would be completed.
“We knew we were going to open at some point this summer, and we wanted to be sure we gave something new to the guests.” Plus, given the nostalgic nature of the project, “It was a good thing in a world of change — a bit of the past to bring you back to better times.”
For Simmons and his team, however, that meant a very unusual work-from-home experience.
“A lot of the individual pieces were built off-site,” he says, including a set of coyotes that had been preserved from the Gold Rusher. Those coyotes were older than some of the ScareHouse crew members.
“Nicole [Danielle Conniff, ScareHouse’s design manager] took the coyotes home with her. During the worst part of the national quarantine, she was restoring coyotes in her house.”
In spite of the ScareHouse’s reputation as a terrifying, boundary-pushing attraction, Ruby and the park were pleased to find Simmons’ team committed to a family-friendly creation. “I’ll admit I was a little worried about that,” she says. “But we told them what we wanted, and they were very cooperative.”
“This is what the ride wants to be — the ride is a family-friendly boat ride,” Simmons says. There are a few “modest startles” that will surprise more than scare, but, “No one wanted to make a big scary thing, because that wouldn’t make any sense.”
The focus of the design, Simmons says, was paying ample tribute to the ride’s earlier incarnation while adding modern touches. “I believe that if we had brought back the Old Mill the exact same way it looked in the ’70s, it’s — careful what you wish for. That would’ve been fun and cool, but more modern audiences and kids would’ve been like, ‘OK…’ In time, it would’ve faded.
“As a huge fan myself of the Old Mill, what are the things that I’d want to see that remind me of that — but also, what can we do to twist it?”
That started with a central character, a skeleton named Harold — named for the ride’s ’70s title, Hard Headed Harold’s Horrendously Humorous Haunted Hideaway — and a story that would land him in jail, re-creating the previous Old Mill’s iconic ending scene.
“What would that guy do to get himself in jail? And how do we make it so it’s kinda fun and playful? Internally, I said, ‘I think Harold is kind of like Paul Newman in ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ … yes he’s robbing banks, but he’s doing it out of a sense of mischief and fun.’”
The Kennywood pitches had also included another character — a skunk sidekick. That led in turn to one of the ride’s new centerpieces: “What if he’s robbing a bank with a skunk?,” someone proposed. “Then the floodgates opened for the puns. ‘You mean like a stink-up?’”
The Old Mill follows Harold through a long day of mischief. Silent-movie title cards accompany each display, along with an original score by local musician and producer Bengt Alexander. The ride begins with a cartoon giving background on Harold; like much of the ride, that opening film is packed with references to other bygone Kennywood attractions.
“As a kid growing up in the ’80s,” Simmons says, “There were two spooky, Old West dark rides at Kennywood,” with the Old Mill and the Gold Rusher adopting the same theme. “It would be fun to make that connection a little more explicit,” with additional references to rides including Le Cachot and the Hoot n’ Holler Railroad.
The ride opened with the park after COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, on July 11. Paradise says the response to the ride has been entirely positive. “People really like that it pays a lot of homage to the old Old Mill,” Paradise adds. “That’s a lot of what we’ve heard — people appreciate a return to more traditional form for the ride.”
The return to form is an exception in the amusement industry, which is much more inclined to move on to bigger and faster rides than to revitalize a century-old attraction.
“That the Old Mill is still there is kind of a miracle,” Simmons says. “The Old Mill building takes up a lot of real estate, and a lot of other amusement parks would’ve, at a point, thought, ‘We can put in a new, exciting thrill coaster there.’ But Kennywood understands their legacy and their history.”
Now that the Old Mill has returned to form, what’s next on the agenda? Neither Paradise or Ruby will officially comment on any other planned comebacks; the Old Mill was the most frequently demanded ride, they say, and there’s nothing else in the park’s immediate plans.
Paradise does, however, give one clue: “One [ride] is referenced in the Old Mill, among the tombstones in the end,” he says.
There are many tombstones, full of puns and nods, in the back half of the ride. But one grave, in particular, may fit the parameters of Paradise’s hint.
It reads: “T. Pike — I’ll Be Back!”
The new Old Mill is packed with nods, references and in-jokes. See if you can find these 5 hidden gems on your next float.
- For copyright reasons, Garfield cannot be found anywhere in the ride. That doesn’t mean the lasagna-loving cat doesn’t get a nod, however; look for a non-cartoon but distinctly orange cat in a few scenes. (To be clear, Nick Paradise says, “It’s definitely not Garfield.”)
- Kennywood icons and local celebrities are spoofed on wanted posters hanging toward the end of the ride. Look for a Western outlaw who bears a striking resemblance to a certain “Jurassic Park” and “Independence Day” star.
- Long before Thomas the Tank Engine joined the Kennywood lineup, the park’s railroad also had an Old West theme. Find a nod to the bygone Hoot n’ Holler Railroad when Harold emerges astride a locomotive engine. (The engine itself is a callback to a scene on the Gold Rusher.)
- “Like most weirdos, we’re all fans of Tim Burton,” Scott Simmons says. “The neon aesthetics of the afterlife scenes in ‘Beetlejuice’ were a definite influence on our version of the ride.” Scan the room for a key “Beetlejuice” prop when Harold tries on a new outfit.
- Another former Kennywood dark ride, Le Cachot, featured a skeleton riding a motorcycle on its facade. Could that character have been our Harold? Keep an eye on the video that opens the ride to find out.