UPDATE May 2022: Defunctland, a YouTube channel about extinct theme parks, has just published an entire episode about Garfields Nightmare. We’ve included the episode at the bottom of this post or you can watch the episode on YouTube here.
I remember the first time I floated slowly through the watery, Day-Glo tunnel emblazoned with pizza, Ruffles chips and foot-tall cans of Mountain Dew.
Uncovering the Story behind Garfield’s Nightmare
A journey through Garfield’s Nightmare lasts less than five minutes, but the ride sticks with you – prompting lingering questions like “how did a ride featuring America’s premiere lasagna-loving, Monday-hating cat end up at Kennywood?” Last fall, I decided to embark on a journey of my own, to uncover the history of this beloved and much-maligned attraction. And although there were no Ruffles or 3D glasses involved, it was a journey that took more turns than I ever expected.
In September of 2019, I met up with Nick Paradise, Kennywood’s Director of Public Relations. We chatted on a bench just down the path from Garfield’s Nightmare. Nick acknowledged that I wasn’t the only one with lingering questions about the ride, saying, “we hear a lot of feedback about it. It’s probably one of the rides that generates the most conversation. People largely do want it to go back to the Old Mill, whatever that may mean for them.”
The Old Mill Era
Over the years there have been a lot of iterations of the ride. It was originally built as The Old Mill in 1901 (and rebuilt in 1921), but between then and now, it was also re-themed as Fairyland Floats, Rapid Gorge, The Panama Canal, Tour of the World and Hard Headed Harolds Horrendously Humorous Haunted Hideaway among others. Every few years they’d rename it The Old Mill again though the theming was always different.
Tunnel of Love
Brian Butko, Director of Publication at the Senator John Heinz History Center, looks at it from a historical perspective. “A majority of people in recent years say they dislike Garfield, but decades ago, it was the Old Mill’s haunted Old West theme that was scorned for being dated and dumb. At the time, it had become boring except for couples needing some dark/quiet time.”
Andy Quinn, who retired as Kennywood’s Director of Community and Government Relations a few years back, agrees. “It didn’t matter what the theme was. Anyone who rode that ride in the sixties, seventies, eighties, they were not on that ride to look at the scenes.”
Jim Davis and the Garfield Theme Park
Andy was the first person I reached out to who had been working at Kennywood during the ride’s Garfield-inspired transformation. I thought that he might be able to provide some context for Garfield’s arrival in the early 2000s. Andy explained that “at that time, there was a big push for amusement parks to align themselves with popular cartoon characters. Six Flags had Looney Tunes. And Jim Davis (the creator of Garfield) looked around at all the parks and all the big ones were taken. Our company had five parks at the time and I believe it was Jim Davis who called us.”
“We had a long relationship with Jim Davis,” Pete McAneny told me. Pete was the General Manager of the Kennywood Entertainment Company from 2003 to 2008. Since he’s retired, he’s been spending a lot more time with his grandson, who he was on his way to pick up when I reached him on the phone in his car. Pete recalls that his first contact with Garfield creator, Jim Davis, was related to an entirely different project. “Jim Davis wanted to build a Garfield themed park in Indianapolis and he asked if we’d come out and take a look at it and so we went out and met with him.”
An entire theme park just for Garfield?!?! Just think of the possibilities! Lasagna bounce house? Odie tongue splash ride? A 90-minute musical revue celebrating Garfield’s beloved teddy bear, Pookie? Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be, according to Pete, “that Indiana park never really came together. The property was there, but there just wasn’t the infrastructure for it or the capital. And so we talked about doing a Garfield ride at Kennywood.”
An Update to the Dark Ride
I tracked down Larry Kirchner after I saw his company, Halloween Productions, mentioned briefly in a 2008 Pittsburgh Post Gazette article about new attractions at Kennywood. In the early 2000s, Larry was installing a ride at Kennywood when he noticed that the Old Mill hadn’t been updated in a while, “so I mentioned that if anything comes up with any of your dark rides, we would love to do it. I would almost do it for free.” Larry started Halloween Productions, based in St. Louis, in 1989 and, as you might have guessed by the name, they had mostly built haunted houses and spooky rides up until that point, but he was excited to get into the “dark ride” business. As I learned in my research, “dark ride” is the industry term for an indoor ride that sends cars (or boats or trains) of visitors through lit scenes or tableaus. For instance, It’s A Small World at Disneyland is a dark ride as is Pirates of the Caribbean and, of course, Kennywood’s Old Mill.
Pete knew that it was time for The Old Mill to be replaced, but he initially wasn’t sure what to put there. “It’s a high maintenance ride with a huge footprint. There were some suggestions that we should tear it down and use that parcel for something that had a higher capacity, but tradition and history is an important thing at Kennywood.” Then he remembered his conversation with Jim Davis. They had already integrated some Garfield theming into the new ‘Pounce Bounce’ in Kiddieland, but Jim Davis was especially interested in a dark ride. Pete admits, “he wanted to sell merchandise, obviously. He thought if we put a ride together like that, then it would help.”
“So I got a call,” Larry told me, “and Pete said they were thinking of turning it into Garfield’s ride, but the budget wasn’t that big.” Larry took the job. As Pete remembers, Jim Davis himself wrote the script for the ride and did the initial drawings, but Larry remembers it a little differently. “We did 20 or 30 drawings. He didn’t do anything. I never talked to Jim Davis. The biggest thing was he, or someone, gave us some Garfield books and then we had to figure out which story we wanted to tell.”
“We Can’t Make it Too Great.”
Initially, Larry had big plans that involved 3D effects and CGI and animatronics. “We wanted to make it look like a billboard smashes open and there’s a Frankenstein food character, and then we squirt them all with water. I wanted to do other CGI effects so it wasn’t so static and so the characters were interacting with them. Obviously, there was a budget thing.” In addition to budget restraints, there was another reason that they had to scale the ride back. Larry remembers being told that, “we can’t make it too great because too many people would want to ride it. It has a pretty limited capacity since it’s a boat ride.”
Pete recalls that too and explained that many decisions at a theme park come down to ride footprints and capacity. “On a good day, that ride can accommodate 3,500 people in 10 hours. One of the things we had to do is not make it too spectacular because it doesn’t have a high capacity. So on a day that there’s 15,000 people in the park and if you made it too good, you’d have a line up to the Rankin Bridge.”
Reworking a Hundred-Year-Old Ride
Larry looked through the stack of Garfield books he’d been given, he remembers, “I came up with a simpler ride where it was more like you were riding through a book. So you’d see these captions and comics that showed him having a nightmare.” I asked Larry how they ended up going in the ‘nightmare’ direction. “We were known for Halloween and haunted house stuff so that’s probably why we went in the direction of Garfield having the nightmare.”
Reworking a hundred-year-old ride comes with some challenges. Larry points out that, “without doing some massive redo, you couldn’t move people faster or slower.” Since the flow of water is controlled by the one big water wheel at the front of the ride, there’s no way to speed it up or slow it down. “We couldn’t do a lot of the things we wanted to do because those boats pass through those scenes so quickly.”
Throughout the process, Larry had to submit everything to PAWS, Garfield’s holding company for review. “We had to do drawings of every scene and then get them approved by the creator of Garfield.” Despite the limitations and instructions to not make it “too great,” Larry and his team gave it their all. “It took months. We built and painted all the sets in St. Louis and then we sent painters to Pittsburgh and they worked through the winter – it was freezing.”
Throughout the process, Larry kept getting inspired and sneaking in more details. “We scrutinized every little thing. Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a salt and pepper shaker? What if we added a fork? We just kept adding more and more stuff. We were really creative and I don’t know if we made a penny doing it.”
Garfield’s Nightmare Officially Debuts in 2004
On May 1, 2004, Kenny the Kangaroo climbed into a wooden boat along with Garfield and Odie for the inaugural ride through Garfield’s Nightmare. “I remember being there on the day that it opened,” Larry told me. “I was there with my whole family. I have a video of my kids riding it and they loved it.”
Nick remembers his first ride a little differently. “It’s sort of humorous on a personal level because the first time I ever rode that with a girl, potentially for that private time, was the very first year that it became Garfield’s Nightmare. So you get in there and we’re like ‘what is this?’ This isn’t what we thought we were going into. So it kind of dampened the mood.” Garfield’s Nightmare is many things, but romantic is not one of them.
Despite the many detractors to the ride, Nick was quick to point out last fall that, “when you walk by on a Saturday afternoon and the line is spilling out of the queue it’s kind of like – it can’t be that unpopular.”
I asked Nick if Garfield’s creator, Jim Davis, had ever taken a ride through Garfield’s Nightmare. “I’m not sure. I don’t recall seeing anything in the coverage or in our photo archives.” Now I was even more curious. I made a mental note to make sure to ask every other person I talked to, to see if I could determine whether or not Jim ever experienced the ride.
Rob Henninger’s family has been involved with Kennywood for over a century. He started working at Kennywood over thirty years ago as part of the grounds crew. Now he’s the Assistant General Manager and Maintenance Director of the park. He remembers that first summer too. “I thought it was cute when it was fresh and new and a nice addition for smaller kids in the park.”
The ride worked out exactly as Pete had hoped. It attracted families but wasn’t so popular that it attracted too large a crowd. Brian Butko from the John Heinz History Center notes that at the time, “only one writer, a columnist, gave it much coverage, and he did mention that locals might be sad about the shift away from the tradition.”
After opening, Garfield’s Nightmare stood intact for a decade and a half, welcoming hundreds of thousands of Kennywood visitors into its watery, neon channels. Rob mentions that as one of the older rides, it does take a lot of upkeep between seasons. “The old tongue and groove system just swells up and it holds the water. If it’s not the last one in the world – it’s one of two. We rebuild some of that trough every year.”
Bringing Back the Old Mill
In recent years, the public outcry for a return to the Old Mill has grown louder. In September of 2019, Brian posed a question in his “Kennywood Behind the Screams” Facebook group. He asked “We know you want the Old Mill back, but tell us WHY.” That post quickly garnered 236 responses. Brian believes that, “one big factor in the shifting attitudes has been the rise of social media. There may have been regret at the time the Old Mill was changed, or when, say, the Dipper coaster or Gold Rusher dark ride were removed, but other than person-to-person chit-chat, the changes went mostly unnoticed. Now every minor tweak is shared instantly and a sense of outrage and entitlement can rise quickly if a crowd decides the change is for the worse.”
The Nightmare Has Ended
On March 9, 2020, Kennywood posted a video to its social channels that, at first, looked like a historical retrospective. Nick Paradise is giving an overview of The Old Mill’s many versions before the video cuts dramatically to a shot of a crane removing the ‘Garfield’s Nightmare’ sign from the ride’s facade. In the video, Nick announces, “We’re going to be bringing back The Old Mill as so many of you have requested, restoring the ride to the retro-western theme that’s been remembered by so many over the years but with plenty of new twists for a whole new generation to enjoy.” He pauses before adding dramatically, “The nightmare has ended.”
Over 1,300 people shared that post on Facebook alone.
Just a few months earlier I had chatted with Nick at Kennywood and while he had hinted that “Garfield’s Nightmare” might not be there too much longer, he also didn’t say anything to indicate that it would be gone by the next season. It seems that some dealings in the greater media world might have forced their hand.
In 2019, Nickelodeon (a division of Viacom) bought PAWS (the holding company that owns the rights to Garfield and some of Jim Davis’ other creations). Rob says Garfield’s new ownership was only part of the equation. “I think Garfield’s time has come and gone and so I pushed for the re-theming of the ride. It just kind of got stale over time and then they wanted to substantially increase the licensing fees so it felt like a good time to go back to the Old Mill that a lot of our guests were clamoring for.” I asked if anyone at Kennywood campaigned to keep Garfield’s Nightmare. “I don’t think there was anyone pushing to keep Garfield.” After 16 seasons at Kennywood, it seems the ride had lost its freshness, not unlike a 16-year-old lasagna still sitting on the counter.
Did Jim Davis Really Visit Kennywood?
While I had Rob on the phone I, naturally, had to ask him if he remembered Jim Davis ever visiting the park. I’m not sure why I became obsessed with this question but I love imagining a very meta scene in which Garfield’s own creator rides through his own creation’s nightmare. Rob didn’t recall Jim visiting but he did recall his brother, Dave, visiting Kennywood once.
I was curious about what happened to all those Garfield cut-outs and evil animatronic foods. Rob explains, “Those had to be destroyed. It would have been fun to have them around but with all the intellectual property, we even had to document it being destroyed.” It’s strange to think of an employee at the Nickelodeon offices watching that video of Garfield and Odie and that giant animatronic bulldog being smashed and pulled apart.
Larry Kirchner, of Halloween Productions, was sad to hear the news. He still thinks back fondly of Garfield’s Nightmare, adding thoughtfully “I think it’s some of the best artwork that’s ever been done in blacklight. It’s beautiful.”
Larry also would have liked to be a part of this new chapter of The Old Mill. “I wish that we could have redone it but they had some real time constraints and that was before coronavirus. They had to do it with some local people.” Larry’s still hoping to get back to Kennywood soon. He says, “my new goal would be to redo Ghostwood Estates.” He built the original ride and he thinks it’s ready for a refresh, adding that “all the CGI effects were done before HD so I would love to redo them all.”
Though Pete McAneny hasn’t been the boss at Kennywood for a number of years, all the recent decisions made sense to him. “You have to remember what the goal was back then – to keep the Old Mill concept in place but not make it so great that everyone who came to the park would want to ride it. So you have to gear it to a younger audience. And that’s probably what they’re wanting to do again.”
Confirming Jim Davis’ Visit and Ride through Garfield’s Nightmare
As Pete and I were wrapping up our call, I thought I’d ask my burning question one more time. Had Jim Davis, creator of Garfield, ever taken the trip through Garfield’s Nightmare? Pete responded immediately, “He came to Kennywood, oh yeah, he came a couple times. He rode the ride. His brother came as well. He was coming through Pittsburgh and we had dinner.”
Finally learning that Jim Davis did in fact float through the ride inspired by his feline creation was so satisfying. I imagine Pete and Jim sitting across from each other at an Italian restaurant, recounting their favorite parts of the ride as they dig into a piping hot, celebratory lasagna.
On June 7, 2020, Kennywood released a few photographs of the newest version of The Old Mill on their Facebook page. While Garfield and Odie are now gone, the Day-Glo paint scheme is still intact and there are even some appearances by the coyote from the old Gold Rusher ride.
The comments were full of people both praising and criticizing the new look. Nick understands their strong feelings, saying, “it’s always hard to compete with people’s memories. That’s always a big challenge here at Kennywood. We try to walk a fine line between staying on the cutting edge and staying modern while also honoring the past and people’s memories.”
Brian Butko adds, “My’ Kennywood: Behind The Screams’ group members sometimes veer into ‘I wish the park was as good now as it was then.’ I like to ask, ‘When was that perfect time — 1996? 1965? 1950, 1930?’ Logically we could go back to 1899, but even then, they cleared hundreds of trees to change a picnic grove into a trolley park. So, of course, the real answer is, it was best when we were young enough for nostalgia to make it all seem perfect.”
I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before someone starts a thread on Brian’s Facebook group pining for the good old days of Garfield’s Nightmare.
I’ll leave you with some bonus viewing.
In Case You Want to Relive Garfield’s Nightmare
Defunctland Episode on Garfields Nightmare
Check out some of our Kennywood stories…
- Did you know that Kennywood serves Pittsburgh Pickles?
- 15 things to know before you go to Kennywood
- Last summer 412 Brewery released a limited edition beer – Log Jammers Revenge
If you are interested in Kennywood history…
- Book // Images of America: Kennywood by David P. Hahner Jr.
- Book // More Kennywood Memories by Charles J. Jacques
- DVD // Kennywood Memories by Rick Sebak/WQED
📸 Header Image: Garfield makes an appearance at the grand opening of Garfield’s Nightmare in 2004. Photo courtesy of Kennywood.