Finding Adventure and Inspiration in Kennywood's Space Oddity

April 27, 2022, 11:36 AM · [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 at the gateway to the Midwest. My father was a sales rep for a local brewery and in the late seventies, when I was a boy, often relocated us between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. It was an amazing time and place for amusement parks and I had the rare chance to visit many of them: Conneaut Lake, Euclid Beach, Geauga Lake, Kings Island, West View Park, Idlewild, Cedar Point. Still, as the youngest, I enjoyed the most permanence of any of my five brothers. I lived for six consecutive years in the Golden Triangle, graduated high school and started my college career there, so as far as I am concerned, Pittsburgh is my hometown, and I have enormous fondness for the place. It should come as no surprise then, that one of my favorite attractions in the world is Kennywood Park in West Mifflin, Pa. What is a surprise, is that of all the delights I’ve enjoyed there over the years, the one I recall most often today is a short-lived hodgepodge of a ride called A Space Odyssey.

Now, growing up there in the late 1970’s was not easy. The steel industry was beginning to fade away and move west, while the mills and the smelting plants, which had employed generation after generation of workers, were closing with ever-increasing frequency. Layoffs were common and my friends, many of whom were counting on those stable, union positions, would soon be competing with their parents to find any work at all, even meager-paying jobs. With the world turned upside down, it’s no wonder Pittsburghers clung hard to the symbols of stability, Heinz Ketchup, the seemingly indomitable Stillers, and in the spring, the appearance of tulips, daffodils, and those bright yellow, arrow-shaped Kennywood signs.

Kennywood Park is one of America’s oldest amusement parks and one of the last remaining trolley parks in operation. In the 19th century, light rail companies were independent operations that were in direct competition with each other, and often created end-of-the-line destinations and picnic parks to attract riders. Kennywood sits high above the Monongahela River, not far from where a young George Washington fought alongside British General Braddock after a surprise encounter with French forces from 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 registered as a National Historic Landmark, along with many of its still classic ride offerings like the Old Mill, The Auto Ride, The Jack Rabbit and Racer roller coasters, and the crown jewel, a still-rocking Noah’s Ark walk-through fun house. All of these hold a special place in my heart, but oddly enough, the quirky, low rent ride mash-up known as A Space Odyssey still stands out.

Space Odyssey
Photo courtesy Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center via Historic Pittsburgh

The ride opened in the spring of 1974, and at first glance appeared to be a shallow marketing hook, a "New Attraction" in a challenging economic year. And yet, it worked. A Space Odyssey was an immediate hit and remained one of the park’s most popular attractions for the next several years. In fact, similar attractions with the same name had long runs at nearby Dorney and Del Grosso's Park, but with different ride hardware under the dome.

At Kennywood, the centerpiece of the experience was a flat carnival spinner known as The Scrambler, a ride that had been operating for years on an open tarmac beneath the trees near the Penny Arcade. You know the ride. Magic Mountain still operates one. It consists of three boom arms with four passenger vehicles apiece. Each of the clusters spins on its axis while the entire construct spins on its center point. The resulting effect is like being whipped out to one side and then pulled back and flung in the other direction, and then pulled back and flung in the direction, and then... well you get it.

Kennywood placed their well-worn Scrambler inside a repurposed, opaque geodesic dome, which was fitted out with a decidedly inexpensive light and sound show consisting of off-the-shelf DJ strobes, lasers, and party lights. Once the passengers were seated four across and secured in place with a big cotter pin, the lights in the dome blacked out. As the whirligig began to gain speed, the dome echoed with the opening notes of a very familiar theme: Strauss' (*fixed) Also Sprach Zarathustra, a.k.a. the theme from 2001, A Space Odyssey. After the first three notes, as the music crashed “Bum-BUMMMMM,” the ride was moving at full speed and the dome erupted in a dizzying spectacle of light. Twinkly stars swirled overhead as light bars created the illusion of greater speed. The light shifted from one effect to another as the music built to its crescendo: "daaaaaah…… daaaaaaah….. DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH" and the dome erupted in a final chaos 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 aboard whistled and cheered.

Of all of the iconically classic rides at Kennywood, this one keeps coming to mind the most frequently. Why was it so captivating? Well, in the summer of 1978, and my tween friends and I were all a-twitter about a little space western that had been drawing crowds for months now. It was a little movie called Star Wars. This was years before it would become Episode Four: A New Hope, and decades before our colleagues at Disney would guide us to The Galaxy’s Edge. Instead, we donned our karate gis, wrapped our legs in Ace bandages, holstered our handmade blasters (security be damned. It was 1978) and lined up at the local dollar cinema for the, uh, thirteenth... no fourteenth... no, fifteenth time.

For me, A Space Odyssey was the closest I was ever going to get to making the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs. Sure, the public domain music was off-brand, but it was space music! The bare bones hardware of the Scrambler was as functional as a droid and as unpromising as a land speeder. The inelegant aluminum restraining arm became our cockpit control panel, and in flight we battled a barrage of make-believe Imperial fighters "Hey! I got one!," I said. "Great kid, don’t get cocky!" called my brother. Then, as the music crescendoed, we made the light to jump speed; the strobes came alive and then went black as we emerged at our destination far far away.

I think back to this ride experience with two elemental takeaways. I am still impressed by the ingenuity, simplicity, and efficiency of this kit of parts. It was the purest, most unapologetic example of invention born of necessity and a fine, if flawed example of how regional parks can surprise and delight with limited means and sheer will. Secondly, it continues to remind me that a key to success in our work is engaging our guest’s imaginations. They are not just the consumer of our creations, but our partner in making these artificial worlds really come to life. That is the key that transforms our experiences into adventures, moments into memories.

Kennywood was purchased by Parques Reunidos in 2007, and has been expanded and upgraded over the years with new rides and area development, but all of it has been done with a careful and loving eye on Kennywood's legacy. The quaint trolley park rolls along into the future, but refuses to ignore its glorious past or its rich local identity. Pay a visit today and you can still ride the same rides, laugh the same laughs, and squeal the same squeals folks made long, long ago, in this ride park not so far away.


Replies (15)

April 27, 2022 at 1:37 PM

Great story! Thanks for sharing Chris. I think a lot of us share similar experiences from our childhood. Going to these parks was truly mind blowing to a kid in their ability to transport you to other places or times.

April 27, 2022 at 10:25 PM

Thanks for sharing this Chris. Your words were quite evocative and had me wishing I was there riding with you guys!!!

April 27, 2022 at 3:59 PM

Nice one. They had the same sort of indoor scrambler at the amusement park in Panama City Beach, Florida when I was a kid, though it was called the Abominable Snowman and had a huge Yeti leaning against the building. Ours usually played unbelievably loud 70s rock (e.g., Slow Ride), and the strobing lights made it appear that you were going to slam into the other riders (instead of narrowly missing them in the pass)

The ride usually lasted too long, whoever was on the outside of the car would be squished, but hear hear! It absolutely ruled.

April 27, 2022 at 7:52 PM

great story! i love when parks re-purpose an old ride and give it new life. my main theme park was six flags over texas and around that same time (1975, i think) they took a himalaya and put it in a building with a disco theme. i think it was called roto-riculous or something like that, not a terribly disco-ey name but it was complete with music, mirror balls, flashing lights, etc. i don't think it was an old ride of theirs as i don't remember them having a himalaya, but dang that line got awfully long on a hot summer day since it was in an air-conditioned building. not sure how long it lasted but it seemed like it was only a couple of seasons.

April 27, 2022 at 8:10 PM

Great memory. I remember riding the Space Odyssey many of times. That is what Kennywood does best. They find creative ways to take an existing attraction and turn it into something new. Pippin -> Thunderbolt. Steel Phantom -> Phantoms Revenge. Heck Scramblers where always fun they just dialed up the volume a bit.

April 27, 2022 at 10:48 PM

Terrific article about a really good park that is completely underrated. One minor mistake though.
Wagner did not write "Thus Spoke Zarathustra." Richard Strauss did.

April 27, 2022 at 10:51 PM

OMFG, I cannot believe I missed that. Laurie's gonna kill me for that. Fixed.

April 28, 2022 at 12:00 AM

I blame myself! I must have been thinking of Apocalypse Now!

April 28, 2022 at 3:37 AM

Great article! I've done several indoor scramblers and think all of them should be in the dark with special effects, but the one that stood out the best was the Astrosphere at a small park called Funtown Splashtown up in Maine. I knew there was something strange about it upon entering the blacklit dome with the neon yellow ride sitting in the middle of a floor covered by space patterned carpet, but figured it would just be your typical lights and music. What awaited was sensory overload as the dome was filled with lights, lasers, projections, strobes, and fog all synced up perfectly to ELO's "Fire on High," resulting in a one of a kind experience so awesome I hopped right back in line to do it a second time. It remains to this day one of the single best flat rides I've ridden anywhere.

April 28, 2022 at 10:54 AM

great story! Kennywood remains near the top of my bucket list — can't wait to make it out there.

April 29, 2022 at 10:40 AM

Lovely article Mr. Durmick! Brought back many great memories of CV school picnics!

April 29, 2022 at 4:33 PM

Very interesting, highly descriptive, well-written article! It's only during the past couple of years that I've managed to get to Kennywood, to participate in the Coasting For Kids event, but that park is a real gem.

May 1, 2022 at 10:32 AM

Fun article! The last time I was in Pittsburgh on business, I had two goals for myself besides work: see a Pirates game at PNC Park and visit Kennywood. The park was a lot of fun; the Pirates… well, it was a beautiful day for a ballgame.

May 3, 2022 at 10:10 AM

I used to love the one in Myrtle Beach at the Pavilion. I was in High School back then and thought it was the most fun. Then Kings Dominion had a similar attraction in the mountain that was great as well. The attraction at KD you could even watch the riders from above. Such memories.

May 4, 2022 at 8:32 AM

@looperfan - That attraction was called Mount Kilimanjaro, and was subject to the same fate as many other gravitrons. Since the attraction was composed of bare walls with a dropping floor, passengers were frequently climbing up the walls, and the speed of the ride was much faster to keep guests stuck to the ide of the ride as the floor dropped. It was a common occurrence to see guests losing their lunch on the attraction or shortly after in the exit hallway.

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