Find adventure and inspiration in Kennywood’s Space Oddity
[Editor’s note: On Wednesdays, Theme Park Insider invites a leading themed entertainment professional to take over the page and share one of their favorite attractions around the world. I have asked them to go “off the beaten path,” if you will, and highlight an attraction outside the familiar favorites at places such as Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando. I also have asked participants to stay clear of their own company’s work. Today, Chris Durmick, Principal, Thinkwell Group, takes us back a long time ago to a regional amusement park not so far away from many Theme Park Insider readers.]
I grew up on the edge of the Midwest. My dad was a sales rep for a local brewery and in the late 70’s when I was a boy we moved often between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. It was an amazing time and place for amusement parks and I had the rare chance to visit several: Conneaut Lake, Euclid Beach, Geauga Lake, Kings Island, West View Park, Idlewild, Cedar Point. Yet, as a youngest, I enjoyed the greater permanence of all my five brothers. I lived for six consecutive years in the Golden Triangle, graduated from high school and started my college career there. As far as I’m concerned, Pittsburgh is my hometown and I have a huge fondness for this place. So it should come as no surprise that one of my favorite attractions in the world is Kennywood Park in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania. What’s a surprise is that of all the delights I’ve enjoyed there over the years, the one I remember most often today is a short-lived hodgepodge of a ride called A Space Odyssey.
Now, growing up there in the late 1970s wasn’t easy. The steel industry was beginning to disappear and move west, while the mills and foundries, which had employed generation after generation of workers, closed more and more often. Layoffs were common, and my friends, many of whom relied on these stable, unionized positions, would soon be competing with their parents for work, even low-paying jobs. With the world turned upside down, it’s no wonder the people of Pittsburgh clung to symbols of stability, Heinz Ketchup, the seemingly indomitable Stillers, and in the spring, the appearance of tulips, daffodils and those bright yellow signs in the shape of an arrow from Kennywood.
Kennywood Park is one of America’s oldest amusement parks and one of the last remaining tram parks still in operation. In the 19th century, light rail companies were independent operations that competed directly with each other and often created end-of-line destinations and picnic parks to attract riders. Kennywood stands above the Monongahela River, not far from where a young George Washington fought alongside British General Braddock after a surprise encounter with French forces at Fort Duquesne. The historical marker still stands near the entrance to Kennywood Park.
Family owned and operated for over a hundred years, Kennywood is today listed as a National Historic Landmark, along with many of its still-classic ride offerings like the Old Mill roller coaster, The Auto Ride, The Jack Rabbit and Racer and the crown jewel. , an ever-moving Noah’s Ark fun house. All of these hold a special place in my heart, but oddly enough, the quirky, low-rent mash-up known as A Space Odyssey still stands out.
Photo courtesy of Detre Library and Archives, Heinz History Center via Historic Pittsburgh
The path opened in the spring of 1974, and at first glance seemed like a superficial marketing hook, a “new attraction” in a tough economic year. And yet, it worked. A Space Odyssey was an immediate success and remained one of the park’s most popular attractions for several years. In fact, similar attractions with the same name had long runs at nearby Dorney and Del Grosso parks, but with different ride equipment under the dome.
At Kennywood, the centerpiece of the experience was a flat carnival spinner known as The Scrambler, a ride that had been running for years on an open tarmac under the trees near Penny Arcade. You know the route. Magic Mountain still operates one. It consists of three boom arms with four passenger vehicles each. Each of the clusters rotates on its axis while the whole construction rotates on its central point. The resulting effect is like being whipped to one side, then pulled back and thrown in the other direction, then pulled back and thrown in that direction, and then… well you get it.
Kennywood placed his well-worn Scrambler inside a repurposed opaque geodesic dome, which was outfitted with a decidedly inexpensive sound and light show of ready-to-go DJ strobes, lasers and party lights. . Once the four passengers were seated and secured in place with a large cotter pin, the dome lights went out. As the whirlwind began to pick up speed, the dome resounded with the opening notes of a very familiar theme: the work of Wagner. Also Sprach Zarathustraaka the theme of 2001, A Space Odyssey. After the first three notes, as the music crashed “Bum-BUMMMMM”, the ride moved at full speed and the dome erupted in a dizzying light show. Twinkling stars swirled overhead as luminous bars created the illusion of greater speed. The light shifted from one effect to another as the music rose to its crescendo: “daaaaaah…… daaaaaaah….. DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH” and the dome erupted in a final mayhem of percussion and strobe lights. As the final note hung in the air, the dome went black again and the ride slowed to a stop as everyone on board whistled and cheered.
Of all Kennywood’s iconic classic rides, this one comes to mind most often. Why was it so captivating? Well, in the summer of 1978, my two friends and I were all on Twitter about a little space western that had been drawing crowds for months now. It was a little movie called star wars. It was years before it became Episode 4: A New Hope, and decades before our colleagues at Disney guided us to The Galaxy’s Edge. Instead, we donned our karate gis, wrapped our legs in Ace bandages, sheathed our handmade blasters (safety be damned. It was 1978) and lined up at the local dollar movie theater for the, uh, thirteenth… not fourteenth… no, fifteenth time.
For me, A Space Odyssey was the closest thing to doing the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs. Sure, the public domain music was off-brand, but it was space music! The Scrambler’s rudimentary hardware was as functional as a droid and as unpromising as a landspeeder. The inelegant aluminum hold-arm became our cockpit control panel, and in flight we fought off a barrage of imaginary Imperial fighters. “Hey! I have one!” I said. “Great kid, don’t be arrogant!” called my brother. Then, as the music soared, we blew the light up in speed; the strobes came alive and then went black as we emerged to our destination far away.
I look back on that driving experience with two basic takeaways. I’m still impressed with the ingenuity, simplicity and efficiency of this kit of parts. It was the purest and most unimpeachable example of an invention born of necessity and a fine, if imperfect, example of how regional parks can surprise and delight with limited means and pure will. . Second, it continues to remind me that the key to the success of our work is to engage the imaginations of our guests. They are not only consumers of our creations, but our partner in bringing these artificial worlds to life. It is the key that transforms our experiences into adventures, our moments into memories.
Kennywood was purchased by Parques Reunidos in 2007, and has been expanded and improved over the years with new rides and area development, but it has all been done with a watchful and loving eye on Kennywood’s heritage. The scenic tram park rolls into the future, but refuses to ignore its glorious past or rich local identity. Take a visit today and you can still ride the same rides, laugh the same laughs and squeal the same people did a long, long time ago at that amusement park not so far away.
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