Reviving the “Old Mill” Dark Ride at Kennywood with ScareHouse’s Scott Simmons

Earlier this year Kennywood opened a new version of one of their most historic rides: The Old Mill. The dark boat ride is well over 100 years old, and has been through numerous iterations in its lifetime. Most recently, the ride was themed as Garfield’s Nightmare, before closing last year for a refresh. The idea to refresh the ride was to tie it back into its original roots with a haunted, but comedy, theme, and return the Old Mill name to the front. For more on the history of the ride, and our thoughts on the new version, check out our recent review.

The team pegged to do this was a local Pittsburgh group known not for rides, but for making one of the scariest Haunted Houses in the country. ScareHouse started in 1999, and has been going strong ever since. Creative Director Scott Simmons — who co-owns ScareHouse with his father Wayne — generously took some time out of their busy season getting ready for this year’s ScareHouse to go deep into the Old Mill with us. We get into his own history with Kennywood, how they came up with a vision for the new ride, what they were able to incorporate from the ride history, and much more.

ScareHouse, Kennywood, and the Old Mill

The Old Mill was always one of my favorites, always saved for the last ride of the night.  There was, and still is, an incredible feeling of atmosphere and authenticity with that structure.

Coaster101: First, could you just give us some background on ScareHouse, and your history with Kennywood and the Old Mill in particular?

Scott Simmons: I’m a Pittsburgh native who grew up riding Kennywood’s classic dark rides back in the 70s and 80s.  Haunted Hideaway, Le Cachot, Noah’s Ark, Gold Rusher, and even the Hoot ‘n’ Holler railroad were all in operation during my summers as an adolescent and largely created my passion for dark rides and themed attractions.

The Old Mill was always one of my favorites, always saved for the last ride of the night.  There was, and still is, an incredible feeling of atmosphere and authenticity with that structure.  You can feel all the decades of history there. It’s an analog experience. It’s probably no surprise that “wild, weird west” remains one of my favorite genres of old school dark rides given that the Old Mill, Gold Rusher, and Hoot n Holler were such a big part of my childhood.

So I would spend summers experiencing these classic dark rides (which always excited me more than the roller coasters and thrill rides), and in the fall I’d face my fears inside any number of regional non-profit haunted houses.  In the 80s there were well over a dozen low-budget haunted houses all around Pittsburgh, most of which were fundraisers created by fire departments or community organizations.

Weird Wild West of the Old Mill (courtesy Kennywood)

I was a weird kid. While other kids were playing football outside I was creating haunted houses in my parents’ basement. I’m part of the initial generation of what is now a world-wide industry of professional haunted attraction owners.  Across the country you had all these nerds like me growing up obsessed with Halloween, dark rides, and neighborhood haunted houses. As we became adults we all figured out how to turn these passions into actual careers as “professional haunters.” As a child, my dad took me to Kennywood and rode the scary rides with me. Now as an adult, we’re both the co-owners of ScareHouse, How crazy is that?

C101: Being Pittsburgh based, had you worked with Kennywood before? Had any of your team ridden any of the earlier iterations of the ride?

Simmons: Very familiar with Kennywood and the former versions of the ride, and our paths had certainly overlapped many times of the years, but this was the first time ScareHouse ever directly collaborated with Kennywood on a project of this scale.  I had pestered them for years about letting us retheme The Old Mill, and when the call came I was just absolutely thrilled. I think our team was a bit too young to recall The Old Mill as vividly as I did, but they were certainly excited to work on something much more playful and silly than our usual ScareHouse content, which is very much an intense horror experience.

C101: How did you go about researching the original rides, and how much of what you guys built is based on past versions of the attraction, both from a story perspective and design/engineering view?

Simmons: The first thing we did was reach out to local archivists and dark ride fans. They provided us with additional photos from the Old Mill. Over the years quite a few people had posted online that they wanted to see The Old Mill return in some form, so I also spent a great deal of time essentially creeping on social media and monitoring what scenes or memories were frequently mentioned.  It quickly became clear that no matter what we just had to create new versions of the jail scene, the ghostly iron worker, and the saloon.

The Vision for a New Old Mill

I wanted us to create something that rewards people looking to follow the story and pick-up on all the Easter eggs, but not punish anyone who’s just looking for a fun ride.

C101: What was your creative vision behind the new ride? What kind of thing were you going for in the re-design, and what were some inspirations for the art style?

Harold, the Hero of our story.

Simmons: Previous versions of the ride were essentially non-linear and random.  Even Garfield’s Nightmare was essentially a collection of gags with no real plot. Kennywood wanted the ride to feel closer to The Old Mill feel, yet still be a fun and playful family ride.  We aimed for something midway in tone between the original Old Mill — which was almost pitch dark at some points, yet not as overwhelmingly colorful as Garfield’s Nightmare — which was continuously bright and vibrant.

The actual structure, which is nearly 100 years old, is a continuous trough broken up by elevated stages that lend themselves to vignettes.  We decided to pack the stages with our scenes and color, but keep most of the actual troughs as transitional, low-detail and dim areas. I think that contrast makes the actual scenes pop much more.

As we started plotting out the new versions of the classic scenes we wanted to recreate, and adding in new gags that we thought would be fun, we realized that they could be arranged into a linear story surrounding a hero character — who, in reference to the previous version of the ride, we named Harold.  So instead of random events you are actually following Harold, a bone-headed bandit who loves to cause mischief, on his latest adventure. We gave him piercing blue eyes and a flashy sense of style so that he’s easy to follow through the story.

C101: Related to that, you guys decided to go with no narration or talking during the ride, and just a silent movie style music track and title cards. Can you tell us a little bit about that decision?

Simmons: Whenever we design any kind of attraction we try to design something that can exist on multiple levels. It has to entertain the guests who are just looking for a quick distraction as well as people looking for a deep dive. You can’t punish the people who just want to relax and not think. But, you also can’t bore the people looking for story and layers of design. So I wanted us to create something that rewards people looking to follow the story and pick-up on all the Easter eggs, but not punish anyone who’s just looking for a fun ride.

You’re also dealing with a very wide range of guests from toddlers through grandparents, and it’s a low-tech ride with very little control of the actual vehicle. This isn’t an attraction like Haunted Mansion where you’re able to swivel the doom buggies around to hit certain beats or sync along with a soundtrack — these boats are powered by gravity and momentum, not technology.

For me personally, the greatest design challenge was trying to figure out how to introduce “Harold” to guests. We’re not dealing with an existing IP like Garfield, this guy is something created just for this ride. So how to introduce a character and reveal his attitude in a matter of seconds?  I found myself thinking of the old newsreels, especially something like The Great Train Robbery, and realized that having the ride start with a looping film reel of short gags and title cards would do the trick — not only revealing our hero and his personality in less than 30 seconds as planned, but also establishing that we’re stepping back into a stylized version of The Wild West.

Once we figured that out, we then realized that set-up could create the architecture for the entire story of the ride. And, the title cards allowed us to work even more puns into the actual scenes.  Initially we were actually thinking of having the title cards in the troughs between the scenes so that it would follow a similar rhythm as the newsreel, but that was one of those ideas that makes sense conceptually but was just confusing in real life.  Putting the title cards actually in the scenes helps people quickly grasp the story beats.

Incorporating the Old Into the New

I’m proud to say that this was Old School engineering through and through.

C101: Were there any old pieces of theming/props that were iconic to the original ride that you were able to incorporate?

Simmons: Once we started thinking of this as a reboot and tribute to Old Mill I started thinking about all the other old dark rides, and wondering how we could work in Easter Eggs and references to them as well. Kennywood still had existing props from Gold Rusher which were able to incorporate, such as the Coyotes and a locomotive animation (all of which we restored). As a kid I always thought that Old Mill and Gold Rusher were both part of the same world, so it was fun to kind of combine them. And again, highly surreal to be marrying elements from my favorite dark rides as a kid.

Nothing original from the Old Mill was still around but we were able to create our own new versions of those classic gags and scenes — albeit it with new twists.  The ghostly iron worker has returned, but now he’s working alongside the coyotes from Gold Rusher, for example.

The ghostly iron work with  Gold Rusher Coyotes. And is that an orange cat in the background?

C101: What were some challenges related to working on something that is so old and constrained? How did you approach working on this differently from if you were designing it from scratch?

Simmons: It’s a very old structure with very limited hourly throughput and is essentially a low-impact family ride. So, while it’s fun to fantasize about unleashing a multi-million dollar audio-animatronic makeover, that wouldn’t actually be terribly feasible in terms of return on investment (for the park).  Working within the limitations of what you can do is actually part of the charm of the ride, and always has been.

While our video and audio is fully digital, the actual gags and motion effects rely on very simple pneumatics and mechanics — stuff right out of the 70s era dark rides. That was what made it fun.  You often see press releases and stories bragging about the new technology and advanced engineering required for some new thrill ride, but I’m proud to say that this was Old School engineering through and through.

Behind-the-scenes putting together the new sets.

C101: We were all fans of Garfield’s Nightmare, basically for how weird it was. We see a lot of a similar aesthetic with all the cool neon and blacklight on the new attraction, how much of Garfield’s Nightmare did you reuse? 

Comparing the bright color of Garfield to a slightly more subdued look of the Old Mill. Still lots of blacklit pop, but with splashes of subtler color mixed in.

Simmons: The choice to stick with UV was a way for us to create something a bit new.  No one from ScareHouse or Kennywood wanted to just recreate previous versions of the ride — it shouldn’t be a museum piece, it should pay tribute to the old versions while also being colorful and new for the younger generations who responded to Garfield.

The brighter, cartoonish color from La Cachot, a dark ride that lived at Kennywood from the 1970s until 1998.

And — personally — I thought of the color palette as an additional tribute to Le Cachot and the Bill Tracy dark rides.  Everything is blacklit, but I think we still found ways to vary the tone and temperature so that certain scenes are bit more contrast-y or subdued, which makes the really vibrant scenes feel even more alive.

We only used one prop from Garfield, and I won’t tell you what it is, but can confirm that it’s in the same scene as our iron worker and his coyote pals.

C101: Can you give any hints on where to find some of the Easter Eggs related to old versions of the ride?

Simmons: Tons of Easter eggs to previous versions of the ride, especially within the tombstones and wanted posters and opening video. We have a few unnamed orange cats lurking in there too.

C101: How did it feel to sort of “resurrect” history with this?

Simmons: It was so surreal to be walking those troughs in the off-season. As a kid I never could have imagined being allowed to run amok inside one of my favorite dark rides after hours, let alone be in charge of creating new scenes for it!

C101: Anything else you’d like to add about the project/process, or things on it we should look out for?

Simmons: I would just encourage folks to take a ride for themselves!  The POV videos online are fun but nothing beats going for a ride in real life. Not to mention knowing that you’re supporting a neighborhood institution.  No amount of new and whizz-bang technology can beat the feeling of floating inside a giant, 100 year old dark boat ride.

Huge thanks to Scott and the ScareHouse team for taking the time to give us a deeper look into the new Old Mill ride at Kennywood. We love good dark rides and historic rides, so we’re always excited when something like the Old Mill can get a wonderful refresh like this that both pays tribute to its history, while also doing something new.

For more info on ScareHouse check out their website, and if you want to know more about Kennywood, go pay their website a visit. You can also check out our recent episode of the Coaster101 Podcast about re-opening day at Kennywood.

If you’ve ridden on the Old Mill yet, let us know in the comments or on social media (we’re at @Coaster101) what you thought. And if you haven’t yet, follow Scott’s advice and get on it. Thanks again to Scott and ScareHouse, we hope they get to do more awesome work like this in the future!