Garfield is gone, Harold brings new life to Kennywood’s Old Mill

ATB. Derek Shaw

WEST MIFFLIN, Pa. – Depending on when people first visited Kennywood Park, they knew this ride by a certain name and theming. However many young lovers throughout the years have nicknamed it the Tunnel of Love. After 16 seasons, Garfield’s Nightmare has been retired, reverting back to a previous name, the Old Mill with brand new theming done by the creative team at Pittsburgh’s ScareHouse, a seasonal haunted-house attraction, regularly ranked as one of the best in the country. 

Scott Simmons, creative director and co-founder of the company remembers Hard Headed Harold’s Horrendously Humorous Haunted Hideaway (the name of the ride at the time he first rode in the mid-1970s). The attraction (and more importantly the theming inside) was responsible for Simmons life-long love of dark rides and haunted attractions that lead to a career in the horror/entertainment industry. His company created an updated version of the Old Mill as both a tribute and reboot, incorporating references to other classic dark rides and attractions found at Kennywood.   

The exterior and wooden boats have not been changed or modified. The aesthetically-pleasing water wheel is still in operation, continuing to serve as the power source. New is what is contained inside. The western/skeleton theme has returned, along with extensive use of black lights which allows the scenes to vividly “pop” for the rider.

“It was definitely a collaboration. This ride means a lot to all of us. Kennywood wanted the ride to feel closer to The Old Mill feel of the 1980s, yet still be a fun and playful family ride.  We aimed for something midway in tone between the previous ride (which was whimsical but dimly lit and bit more creepy, almost pitch dark at some points) yet not as overwhelmingly colorful as Garfield’s Nightmare,” said Simmons on the relationship.  

“So the challenge was to create something a bit spooky at times, and bring back a little bit of the moments of dim lighting between scenes – but keep it so that it was still fun and not too intimidating for small kids to ride. Kennywood had some initial concept sketches featuring skeletal characters in western scenes alongside animal creatures and also connected us with a wealth of archival photos from previous versions,” said Simmons. “One of the first things we did — along with input from Kennywood — was [to] identify the core gags that people remembered the most fondly from previous versions… and then figure out how we could put little twists on them. I didn’t want to just recreate a ride as a museum piece featuring the exact same scenes and tone as before but as something that celebrates the past while creating something new and vibrant for modern family audiences.  We decided to pack multitudes of puns and details to reward repeat riders.” 

Marie Ruby, director of ride operations, explained how the new theming came about. “I had come up with the idea of the new Old Mill being the story of Harold (a reference to the ride’s onetime name Hard Headed Harold’s Horrendously Humorous Haunted Hideaway) along with some drawings that were done by Bryan Bartley, a longtime ride mechanic at Kennywood.

Simmons explained the storyline from there. “Our new story follows the latest adventure of Harold — a big-hearted but bone-headed bandit with a penchant for mischief. Within the Old Mill we’ve created a world in which skeletons go about their business alongside various woodland creatures such as possums, snakes, and coyotes. We follow Harold (distinct from other skeletons due to his piercing blue eyes) as he hitches a ride on a train looking for trouble… which he finds by way of sneaky skunk. After a series of misadventures, Harold and the skunk join forces to rob a bank … it’s a Stink Up! So now can they stay out of trouble long enough to get away to their hideaway?” 

“Although it is a dark ride, we want it to be a family ride, so it is not scary,” said Ruby. “The scenes are comical and family friendly.  We have also hidden “Easter eggs” throughout that pay homage to Kennywood’s history. To catch all these hidden treasures, you would need to ride it a few times.”

The new ride experience has a silent movie quality with only upbeat piano music and cue cards throughout the 1,000-foot-long, five-minute journey to assist with the story.  This is the oldest continuously operating chutes-style water dark ride in the world.

Simmons first tweeted Ruby the idea about offering his help in 2015. “Although planned for many years, the turnaround time for the project was rather fast,” said Ruby. “The Garfield brand changed ownership over the winter, which necessitated taking action on a re-theme more quickly than originally envisioned. We started the process in February and began work that same month.” In four months, the ride was ready.  

Asked about any down time due to the pandemic, Simmons said, “During the quarantine phase of COVID-19 in March and April, our team continued working on props, mechanics, scenic pieces, and audio files … but from their homes. Our kitchens and basements were suddenly packed with skeletons, coyotes, bats and neon facades.” 

Simmons is very pleased with Kennywood’s commitment to maintaining this and other vintage attractions. “As a Pittsburgh native and a fan, I’m just so grateful that Kennywood remains committed to so many iconic dark rides such as Old Mill and Noah’s Ark, not to mention the classic wooden roller coasters that are still operating.  I think other parks might have replaced Old Mill with some “trendy” attraction at some point, especially since it’s such a massive structure that takes up quite a bit of real estate. Kennywood is not only preserving these rides, but willing to spend the time and money to keep them fresh and exciting for new generations.”  

Kennywood is delighted with the final result. “A ride like this isn’t necessarily a major driver of attendance, certainly not like a roller coaster. But it helps the character of the park and definitely fits with what our market and audience love and appreciate about Kennywood,” said Ruby. “The ScareHouse team did a great job with all the curveballs the shutdown threw at all of us. They stayed within all of our parameters while adding great creative insights of their own. They definitely delivered.”

This article appears in the SEPTEMBER 2020 issue of Amusement Today.
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