Garfield’s Nightmare is Mine, Too

November 20, 2008 at 6:55 am (Published)

 Published in Pittsburgh CityPaper, June 25, 2004.


Garfield isn’t the only one having a nightmare. Last Thursday, I dreamt Kennywood took an historic, beloved ride and re-vamped it into a cheesy, commercialized attempt to fool park-goers into forking over more revenue. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, the nightmare is real: a line of customers that now winds among an overpriced gift shop stocked with (surprise) Garfield merchandise, a junk-food store, and a TV looming above with Garfield trivia and a brief history of the former ride; brightly colored boats which carry you through a story laden with 3-D visions of fanged “attack pizzas”; and a camera that photographs the riders in your boat with the option to purchase the photo once boaters disembark.


For many, it was the Tunnel of Love. I knew it first as the Haunted Hideaway and later as simply The Old Mill. The western skeletons were cheesy, to be sure, but in a park in which every year brings new rides or some other switcheroo to keep it competitive, The Old Mill was a standby families could count on. In fact, we looked forward to reading the silly names on the makeshift gravestones every year and watching obviously plastic bone-men ride in carriages or try to bust out of jail. A visit to Kennywood wasn’t complete without a ride on the Haunted Hideaway on the way into the park, and another on the way out.


I’ll always remember the year my dad’s girth caused the boat to be stuck when he sat in the back; he had to get out and push the boat, and it’s one of our family’s favorite Kennywood memories. In high school, the Haunted Hideaway offered other reasons to ride … until security cameras were installed. As an adult, it was one ride we could go on with grandparents who were less than spry, and lately, with babies and small children. It was dark but not too scary, quaint, and wonderfully familiar. It embodied the sense of continuity and spirit that any regional landmark should have. And it was the only boat ride in the world where I couldn’t get sick.


When things get old in our culture, they’re put aside; buildings are torn down, people are pushed into homes for the elderly. Old things, when they’re kept the same, can be a barometer for the passage of time, can inspire more memories over time as older generations bond with new ones when newly discovering old joys. Heaven forbid Kennywood keep one ride besides the carousel in perpetuity. The Old Mill is old … better get rid of it, or people will suddenly stop coming to Kennywood!


What else does it say about our culture when a ride isn’t exciting or innovative unless it caters almost exclusively to instantly gratified TV-watchers and 3-D video gamers? And further, what about a ride that glorifies a fat lazy cat where the worst nightmare imaginable is one where pizzas attack? I mean, attack pizzas? When millions in Third World countries and a growing number of people here are without food at all, I’m guessing the pizzas have more to fear from riders than vice versa. I’m thinking of this as one more reason for foreigners to shake their heads at America.


 My mother disagrees with me. “It’s wonderful,” she said. “Jim Davis even helped them design the ride, isn’t that neat?” Attempts to explain there might have been something in it for Jim Davis other than the joy of spreading Garfield awareness, during a summer when the Garfield movie is showing, didn’t register with her. My 7-year-old son, however, stepped off the ride needing a hug. “Mommy,” he said, his eyes glossing over with tears, “they messed up our very favorite ride! No more funny skeletons, no more saloon, no more graveyard. Just stupid Garfield and his stupid food. I’m very sad, you know.”


I’ve been pretty proud of my son during his life, but that moment was dearer to me than the rest of our whole day at Kennywood, because he showed me he wasn’t fooled. We’ll still go to Kennywood of course, and you probably will, too. But prepare for indigestion of the worst kind, because this year it is a lesser place.


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