For today’s conversation in nostalgia marketing, let’s talk about the most loved Pittsburgh icon outside of the Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates: Kennywood Park. The family and I went a few weeks ago and I can’t tell you what a brilliant experience it still is. Heaven is sharing your childhood with your kids, not through stories, but example.
I, of course, expected vicissitudes. New trends mixed in with the pillars of nostalgic Kennywood standards. While my family is there constantly, I haven’t actually made it to the park in years—this was going to be awesome. I didn’t expect too much to change, and in the end, there were just a few disappointments. To be honest, I have absolutely no idea what anyone was thinking with the stripped down train ride that’s nothing but a collection of old pictures (are you kidding me?)(I do, I do, I certainly do feel like the train is 1,000 steps down the wrong path as it stands now), but the park is now about 30% new ideas mixed with the same old Kennywood Park that I remember.
But what I didn’t expect is what happened when I saw the park through the eyes of my children.
The Kennywood Park Brand
Kennywood Park’s marketing and business minds have added rides and attractions designed to bring a new generation of fans and followers to the park, whether that’s the inclusion of Johnny Rockets to converting the Old Mill to the Garfield’s Nightmare. It’s like the powers that be decided to take a page from the Disney playbook, but without actually visiting Disney and rather operating entirely on hearsay from a friend-of-a-friend’s description of the iconic behemoth. The attractions stand out like a clown in church. But that’s okay, if they work. And maybe somewhere Kennywood has statistics that says that they do (but remember, with statistics, question everything). And is Garfield actually pertinent to today’s generations?
I was there with my six year old, four year old, and 1 1/2 year old. I thought, just like in the strange world of emoji communications and bad pop songs, that I would quickly discover that while I don’t particularly understand the appeal, that my kids would show me that there is a reason Kennywood made some of the decisions–that the new rides and attractions would appeal to them with the same fervor that George Lucas uses to justify the inclusion of Jar Jar Binks into what are otherwise alright movies. But, surprisingly, that’s not what happened. At all.
Hey Hey Hey Hey! Come and Have Fun!
Throughout the day, my kids fell in love with the very same things I loved when I was their age. The Jackrabbit. The gold and red helicopters in Kiddieland. The Racer. I think we went on the Log Jammer three times in a row. My oldest was so fascinated to try the rides that I loved as a kid. She wanted to see the world I saw in 1986. Not because I encouraged it, but because she fell in love with those things on her own. She knew that what stayed in my memories is very likely to be things she’d fall in love with, so she encouraged me to share and share and share until Yvonne King and the Alvino Rey Orchastra filled the air with song. She loved the chipped white paint and the clatter of the tracks as you turn the corner on the Jack Rabbit. The Potato Patch French fries (which my wife, from Baltimore, did not enjoy)(don’t worry, she IS a Steelers fan). In the Arcade, it was straight to skee-ball. Everything the kids loved was everything I loved–and all without encouragement.
Do you know what wasn’t mentioned at all? Garfield’s Nightmare.
And that’s the trick–there are times when a brand is so iconic . . . so good at bringing a father/daughter combo both nostalgia and first-time thrills at the same time . . . that it doesn’t need Garfield’s Nightmare to confuse the brand. I can understand how changes like this happen—you have a marketing department looking at what other parks are doing, wants to “get in on that,” and tries something “fresh and new.” But the thing that Kennywood Park forgets is that other parks don’t have what Kennywood has so much of—nostalgia and memories wrapped around each of our hearts like cotton candy on a stick. That’s your brand, Kennywood.
I got to share 1986 with my kids. My parents shared 1962 with me when I was a kid. And my daughters loved 1986. And when I was a kid, I loved 1962. The Thunderbolt doesn’t take you around the bends, it takes you back in time. And you get to travel back with those you love. I wish I could have gotten each of my kids “the grapes,” but I thankfully believe that my mom still has a few of those in storage somewhere. Next time, we’ll smuggle them in. And yes, they still have the Simpsons and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video games next to the co-op Fortune Tellers. Pick your year—it’s there waiting for you.
What Kennywood needs to do, and has a times, is double down on what feels so good to each and every Pittsburgher—the park and the memories that have stood the test of time. Rarely does a brand do so well at creating something so powerful and loved by so many. That’s why you see companies trying all kinds of things to be “hip.” Kennywood, my sweet Kennywood, you don’t have to do that—ever. You just have to embrace and love all that you already are. Make that your brand. And when you grow bigger, grow bigger with the same mindset that got you where you are in the first place.
My kids will never know what life was like without Netflix. They will always hold the world’s knowledge in their pocket. But my daughter was beautifully afraid of falling out of the second dip of the Jack Rabbit for five beautiful minutes in line, where it could have been any year from 1921 until now. If this is what your brand can deliver day-after-day, family-after-family, then you really never need to look to anything more when it comes time to sell and market your park. Just be you. Be a great, wonderful, nostalgic you, Kennywood. You do it better than almost anyone on the planet.
And please bring back the Old Mill. Or the Panama Canal. Or the Haunted Hideaway. Whatever. I know you didn’t throw the skeletons out.