Kennywood Bounces Back with Festivals
When John Reilly was named chief operating officer of Palace Entertainment, the North American subsidiary of Parques Reunidos, in early 2020, he was impressed by the unique collection of attractions—highly rated children’s parks, a large collection of free-standing water parks, and some of the country’s most historic amusement parks, including Kennywood, just outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“Palace is unique as it is made up of unique local parks, each with its own character,” says Reilly, citing the responsibility he felt to keep them fresh and exciting, while preserving and restoring what made them special.
Within weeks, however, the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shuttered Palace’s facilities, and the company’s focus turned to surviving the 2020 season. As things returned to normal in 2021, Palace started looking at ways to reconnect with its customers.
For Kennywood, that meant focusing on festivals. Joining the long-established “Celebrate America,” “Fall Fantasy,” and “Holiday Lights” events was a reworked fall event, “Phantom Fall Fest,” along with an all-new food festival, “Bites and Pints.” Kennywood partnered with Brian Pekarcik, a well-known local chef, to develop a curated menu of international foods and beverages.
“We launched ‘Bites and Pints’ to create an event that would bring in new customers who would not typically consider a visit to Kennywood, [such as] a middle-aged person with no kids. But even existing customers were surprised by the quality of the food,” says Mark Pauls, general manager of Kennywood and Sandcastle.
Rather than hold “Bites and Pints” in temporary booths, Kennywood erected seven permanent pavilions around its central lagoon to serve as the heart of the festival. The attractive wooden pavilions are now used most of the season, serving food, hosting craft demonstrations, and even functioning as temporary merchandise locations. “They are high quality and flexible,” says Pauls.
“Bites and Pints” was very well received and encouraged Kennywood to extend its festival lineup into a full “season of events” with seven festivals extending from April through December. New festivals for 2022 include “Swing into Spring”—featuring live music, family-friendly activities, and specialty food items—and “Summer’s On!” with an interactive entertainment series, nighttime light show, and limited-time food options.
But festivals are only one part of Kennywood’s post-COVID-19 repositioning. When Reilly started, he saw an opportunity to enhance the unique nature of Palace’s attractions and began a broad refreshing and repositioning of the facilities. First was Lake Compounce in Bristol, Connecticut, which received a makeover for its 175th anniversary in 2021.
“We’re doubling down on unique character and charm, giving visitors a fresh look,” says Reilly about the company’s plans. “We want to accentuate the charm, history, and quirkiness.”
In 2022, Kennywood and Sandcastle, Palace’s nearby water park, received the same treatment as a kickoff to a multiyear celebration of Kennywood’s 125th anniversary in 2023. Guided by Hampton Creative of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Kennywood’s multimillion-dollar makeover completely changed the arrival experience.
The parking lot was reconfigured, and a brick walkway was installed to guide guests to the front entrance, where a massive carousel horse greets visitors and the buildings sport a vivid new paint scheme. Kennywood’s iconic tunnel also received an upgrade with a colorful nostalgic mural, now a favorite photo spot.
Once emerging from the tunnel, guests see that the buildings along the entrance midway received upgrades, giving them a sense of fun and whimsy. Work ranged from new paint jobs to a complete renovation of the 120-year-old restroom building that installed all-new facilities while respecting the historic character of the building.
Two of the oldest rides, the 1901-vintage “Old Mill” and 102-year-old “Jack Rabbit,” received new facades, while an online poll selected a mural to adorn a blank wall next to the historic roller coaster. Other improvements included an upgraded beer garden, enhanced landscaping, and the repainting of three of the park’s roller coasters. Another online poll determined the new purple color of the “Phantom’s Revenge’s” tracks.
Capping off the improvements was the return of the “Kangaroo” ride, one of four rides removed in a cost-cutting change after the 2020 season. The last of its kind, its removal caused significant public outcry that prompted Kennywood to investigate the feasibility of bringing it back. Premier Rides was able to restore and upgrade the attraction, adding modern controls and safety features. An elaborate LED lighting package features a large lighted sign and kangaroo figures.
“Our guests brought the concept forward,” says Reilly, citing the fact that they are making better use of guest feedback. “The restoration and return of the ‘Kangaroo’ fit well into our strategy of enhancing the charm.”
The improvements extended beyond the aesthetics to making operations more efficient. Enhanced security screening and reconfigured ticket windows expedited the entry process, and self-serve drink stations, grab-and-go food locations, and cashless transactions sped up refreshment lines.
Halfway through an expanded 2022 season, Pauls has been gratified by how well Kennywood’s visitors have responded, noting the positive comments on social media and guests who stop him in the park to provide direct feedback. “It’s amazing, we get nothing but complements,” he says.