Hut, Hut, Hike: Inside Steelers Country at Kennywood with JRA’s Rick O’Connell

After months of teasing, Kennywood revealed plans for not only their newest coaster, the S&S-manufactured Steel Curtain, but also for the new land where the coaster would reside, Steelers Country at Kennywood. This immersive new land is the brainchild of Cincinnati, Ohio based design firm, JRA. 

In business since 1987, JRA caters to five main markets: Theme Parks and Attractions, Museums, Branded Experiences, Children’s Experiences and Sports Halls of Fame, and the Steelers Country project represents a compilation of several of these areas of their business. We were able to catch up with Rick O’Connell, Senior Project Director for JRA, who is heading up the project, to learn a little more about it. How did you get your start at JRA, and how long have you been with the company?

Rick O’Connell: I was at the University of Cincinnati (UC) as an Industrial Design Major. I went to UC originally to be an automotive designer. I got an internship at JRA my sophomore year and got to work on the Reds Hall of Fame. I grew up in Cincinnati, I’m from the west side, and my grandpa was friends with Pete Rose’s dad. Cincinnati baseball was in my blood. When I found out I could design projects for the Reds and be a part of that instead of working on bumpers for Honda, that was an eye-opening day for me, and it pretty much changed my career path. I’ve been with JRA now for 18 years. Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on?

Rick O’Connell: I have a couple. One of them we’re getting ready to open – the Mascot Hall of Fame – it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’ll be in Whiting, Indiana there finishing it up in the next few weeks. I’ve had a lot of fun working on that. It’s themed as a sports attraction, but it’s primarily a children’s experience. We want school groups to come in and be able to use it for field trips. We’ve hit a lot of core STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) standards, but in a fun, wacky and goofy way. There’s fur everywhere!

Probably to date, my favorite project has been Independence Plaza at Space Center Houston. They were given the 747 that carried the space shuttle around on earth, and they placed a replica shuttle on top. We built a museum inside the 747, which was as fun as it was challenging. We actually won two awards at IAAPA in 2016, and apparently beat out Shanghai Disney for one of the awards. It wasn’t a huge project – less than 3,000 square feet, but the plane provided amazing scenic backdrops where we could talk about its history with NASA. JRA has a wide portfolio of past work. Is Steelers Country designed as a compilation of most of the facets of your business? 

Rick O’Connell: Absolutely. There’s the amusement park angle to it, which are things like the coaster, midway games, and restaurants. The brand experience building, which is probably the second biggest component after the Steel Curtain, is more of an experience that we would put in a museum or attraction. How did the project for Steelers Country come to you? Roughly, how long has it been in development?

Rick O’Connell: For some background, Kennywood is owned by Palace Entertainment. Palace put out an RFP for the coaster, sometime around mid-2017. S&S won that RFP. Kennywood was moving forward with the coaster, but they didn’t have a theme for it yet. Palace is actually owned by Parques Reunidos, and the CEO of Parques Reunidos is very much into incorporating IP into their projects, so they brainstormed what would be  a good IP for Kennywood. They had actually just finished a Thomas the Tank Engine area for kids as well.

The CEO of Palace thought, well, it’s in Pittsburgh, and Kennywood’s black and yellow, so what makes sense? Let’s call the Steelers. They called the Steelers, and the Steelers were immediately interested, so that portion of it was done before we came on board. Kennywood, Palace, and the Steelers got together and sent out an RFP to us and other companies. There weren’t any prescribed attraction ideas other than that they wanted some kind of a “brand” experience; they wanted a restaurant, and they wanted a retail component. We took that, came up with ideas, won the RFP, and went straight to concept.

I think we got the RFP in March 2018. I was actually working out at the gym with our VP when the RFP came in. While we were on the treadmill, we thought of some ideas to try to win it. We came up with what we thought were a few pretty cool concepts. We submitted those ideas, and two weeks later we had a brainstorm kickoff at Heinz Field with the Steelers, Palace, and a representative from Kennywood. It was a very quick turnaround.

We were done with the entire concept by the end of May, and we did all of the schematic and detail work over the course of the next four months. We worked hard and fast to get that concept package and all those renderings to a level that we felt comfortable. The NFL is notorious about their branding and how their teams are portrayed. What was it like working not only with a theme park, but with an NFL franchise?

Rick O’Connell: Believe it or not, the Steelers were about as easy as it gets. They were fantastic to work with. I’d like to think that was because we nailed the design! (laughs) They supplied us with pretty much whatever we needed. They were quick to comment. They knew that what we were doing experience-wise was fresh and exciting for a younger audience. They were mostly concerned with how we were representing their brand and logo in places.

If you’re familiar with their logo, it says their name, and there are three kind of diamond shape things that are red, blue and yellow. They’re called hypocycloids, which I learned during the process. They only wanted to use the blue and red if it was part of the logo. No accent blues or reds anywhere. Things like that are what they would comment on. What’s your favorite element of Steelers Country?

Rick O’Connell: The coaster is going to be the star for sure. We helped them with the paint colors, and we designed the coaster car as well. That was kind of a minor role for us on the coaster. For me, the brand experience is the other big element, and I think within that, the Two Minute Drill. It’s essentially TopGolf, but with footballs. Each football is going to have an RFID chip in it. You’ll check into your booth by scanning your bracelet. The game knows who’s in each booth, and as you grab footballs – think of it like a grocery store checkout – you pull it back over a short wall, there is an RFID reader in that short wall, and so the ball will read that RFID, to know what bay is being used and who’s throwing the ball. Then you’ll throw it through a target, or you’ll miss, and you’ll either score points or get zero. We’ll be able to track how you’re doing. I think that’s going to be a hit!

The entire experience is going to be RFID-driven. Each guest will have a bracelet on, and those will all tie back to a jumbotron – we’ve got a few jumbotrons in the area, including one outside the building that is themed to the Jumbotron at Heinz Field. Then we’ve got a few smaller ones inside on each level. All the different experiences in the brand attraction will keep track of how you’re doing. For example, with the Two-Minute Drill, if you throw really well and hit a lot of targets, you might be the daily passing yardage leader at Kennywood. Or if you have a season pass and you go all the time, you might be the season passing yardage leader, or the season rushing leader, or the season receiving yardage leader, etc.

I think the one that’s going to get the most social media shares is probably going to be the 40-yard dash, and that’s just because it’s going to be funny. Two guests race a full 40 yards. If you’re familiar with the NFL Combine, you know that 40-time is important. What we’re going to do is allow guests to race a full 40 yards and keep track of their time. Not only that, but you’ll get to select a Steelers player to race. That player is going to race the full 40 yards next to you as a projection – and beat you pretty badly (laughs). There will be some funny moments, some really good athletes. You’ll get some good high school athletes who think they can keep up with an NFL wide reciever, when in reality they can’t keep up with an NFL offensive lineman. It’ll be fun. JRA also designed the Coaster Cars for The Steel Curtain. What was the process behind that?

Rick O’Connell: The Steelers brand is really pretty straightforward. They don’t have a lot of different logos. Their uniforms are pretty simple – not a lot of colors, so what we decided to do was figure out what’s iconic about the Steelers. It’s the helmet. They’re one of very few teams if not the only team in the NFL who wears the numbers on their helmet front and back. The number 33, if you’re unaware, represents the year the Steelers were founded. The train itself was given to us – the structure and what it’s going to look like. There’s a lot of metal bars, so we said “that kind of looks like a facemask,” what if we made this look like a helmet? That’s where that came from.

We used the sleeve stripe along the side of the train. And then the football came from when were on a tour of Heinz Field. The team has several golf carts that they were showing us, and the seating, instead of white leather, was brown football leather. The project manager from Palace saw that and really liked it, and he said we could do something like this on the seats. We tried it out. It’s football leather on the seat cushions. As a company with roots in both the sports and amusement park sectors, do you see a future for other sports-branded amusement park properties?

Rick O’Connell: Absolutely. I’d be surprised if the Cowboys, once they see this come out, don’t call Six Flags Over Texas, and ask them to create a Five Points area. I think if it’s as successful as we think it will be, you’ll start to see these sports attractions pop up all over the place. I think the Steelers are a good pioneer for this, because they’re one of the four or five best known franchises, at least in the NFL, and maybe all of American sports. I think some of the only other teams who could pull it off as a starting point would be teams like the Yankees or the Cowboys, those big national brands. What’s the most difficult thing about your job?

Rick O’Connell: The most difficult thing is different for each project. For me, mostly working with sports and museums, it’s the science behind things. Most clients now want to hit those STEAM standards and be able to use their attraction for field trips, so digging in and learning about the science behind those things is usually the most difficult. We’re never experts when we start on a project. I didn’t know anything about the plane at Space Center Houston other than it was a 747. You have to learn all of the tricks that NASA had to do when they retrofitted the plane, like putting in extra struts and supports. They even had to remove the weight of the carpet in there because it was too heavy. Things like that. How do you transform what you’ve been downloaded over the course of a three-hour brainstorming kickoff into not only compelling exhibits, but ones that meet the science curriculum standards and are also fun? On the flip side, what’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Rick O’Connell: Seeing people’s faces when an attraction opens, for sure. That wow factor is always most rewarding. Also seeing the clients faces when a project is complete. They’ve been through it with us, and they can’t wait until it opens, and that sigh of relief that it’s open, and it looks great, and they can tell right away that it’s going to be a success. I like that part a lot, too. Anything else you’d like our readers to know about Steelers Country at Kennywood?

Rick O’Connell: Come check it out. It’s branded as Steelers but its an experience any football fan – or non football fan – is going to love. It’s fun. There’s a lot of stuff to do. If you’re someone like me who really dislikes the Steelers team [authors note: Rick is a diehard Cincinnati Bengals fan], you’ll still have a great time here. The last question I ask all of my interviews. Are you a roller coaster fan?

Rick O’Connell: I have severe motion sickness, so I’m not! (laughs) I didn’t mind the Backlot Stunt Coaster at Kings Island. I’m trying to take my kids on some of these smaller ones that I can handle, just so they don’t end up like me, terrified of how sick they’ll be afterwards! (more laughter)

Thanks to Rick for his time. For more information about JRA, visit their website. For more information about Steelers Country at Kennywood, you can visit the park’s website by clicking here. 





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