Defunctland traces weird, horny history of Kennywood ride

click to enlarge Defunctland traces weird, horny history of Kennywood ride
Photo: Courtesy of Kennywood
Garfield’s Nightmare
Anyone who has lived in Pittsburgh long enough to see the opening of Garfield’s Nightmare at Kennywood was probably just as confused by the concept as the host of the popular YouTube channel Defunctland. As a result, Kevin Perjurer, who created and runs the series about vanished theme park attractions, decided that the ride needed a video all its own, one which takes a deep, thorough look at this now-closed curiosity.

Launched in 2004, Garfield’s Nightmare was a neon-tinged, 3D headscratcher that shared a name with a Nintendo DS game, in which America’s favorite orange tabby has terrible, food-induced nightmares. It was also the latest reinvention of the Old Mill, one of the historic park’s oldest and most beloved rides.

So how did this quaint, classic ride become an eye-searing tribute to one of the most popular comic strip characters of all time? Turns out the reason is full of interesting Pittsburgh history, amusement park business insight, and groping.

Published to YouTube on May 19, the nearly 34-minute long video, titled “Defunctland: The Bizarre Garfield Dark Ride,” traces how Kennywood grew from Kenny’s Grove, a popular, mid-19th century picnic spot on the Monongahela River. After being built on a section of leased farmland in West Mifflin, the park added a carousel in 1898, and the Old Mill soon followed in 1901.

As Perjurer points out, the Old Mill model, a slow boat ride through a tunnel with “no steep inclines or declines,” was common in many parks at the time, so Kennywood did its best to make theirs stand out. Over the next century, the ride changed multiple times, burned down, returned with a new concept, and changed some more, at one time adopting an Old West identity as *takes deep breath* Hardheaded Harold’s Horrendously Humorous Haunted Hideaway.
click to enlarge Defunctland traces weird, horny history of Kennywood ride
Photo: Courtesy of Kennywood
Newly renovated Old Mill at Kennywood
Along the way, the ride, as Perjurer explains, became a go-to Tunnel of Love-type destination for hormonal teens and randy freaks who wanted to secretly feel each other up in the cover of darkness. Eventually, Kennywood had to put a stop to these hornballs, even going as far as giving employees “plastic bats” to smack any bare asses they saw coming through the tunnel. (This is how kinks are born, by the way.)

To be fair, Perjurer took to Twitter to solicit the ribald tales of Kennywood’s dark ride, so he kind of brought this on himself.
Then came Jim Davis, the cartoonist and genius mind behind Garfield. While Davis had previously objected to the idea of a Garfield-themed amusement park ride, that changed in the late-1990s when he and a development company embarked on a 534-acre, $120 million project in his home state of Indiana. The park was supposed to center around Garfield’s Universe, a collection of rides and restaurants revolving around Garfield, his owner Jon Arbuckle, his dog friend Odie, and other characters from the comic strip.

So how did Davis go from having an entire “universe” in Indiana to a single, bonkers ride at a Pittsburgh, Pa. amusement park? You should definitely watch the Defunctland video, which includes tons of archival images, clips from locally produced documentaries like Rick Sebak’s Kennywood Memories, and plenty of good-natured jokes, including a shout-out to Pittsburgh City Paper's eulogy on the ride. (Watch below.)
Since the video went up, YouTube users have submitted hundreds of comments, many of which come from generations of people who remember the many iterations of the Kennywood ride. “I think that this might be one of the only Defunctland episodes about a ride I’ve actually been on. When we would visit my stepdad in Pittsburgh, I loved going to Kennywood and this was the ride I would go on the most because I found the other rides too scary at the time,” writes user Ethan and Mack: The Dream Team.

User Delirium Destiny captured the mixed feelings over Garfield’s Kennywood tenure, writing, “I lived 40 minutes from Kennywood for almost 30 years and went every year, I saw firsthand the public outcry when the Old Mill was taken away and how much everyone hated Garfield. I can tell you first hand I watched every year as the ride grew more and more worn down as everyone wanted the old mill back. Thank you for this.”

While Garfield’s Nightmare has been shut down and converted back to the Old Mill for Kennywood's 125th season, at least we’ll always have memories of menacing lasagna, murderous mice, and whatever hell else was on that ride.