On his first visit to Pittsburgh, Nate Olsen experienced tunnel vision. As a designer for Hampton Creative, an Oklahoma-based branding agency, he was tasked with revamping Kennywood’s aesthetic, including the long subterranean entrance to the amusement park.
He found inspiration on Interstate 376.
“The biggest moment for me was coming through the Fort Pitt Tunnel and seeing the skyline,” Olsen says. “It’s so striking. One of the things that matters most to us is story. You can’t tell a story you don’t know. We take the time to get to know the client or, in this case, the city.”
Olsen and Chris Ensor, Hampton Creative’s sales and marketing director, spent four days in town last August. They toured Kennywood with local historian and author Brian Butko, who wrote “Kennywood: Behind the Screams,” swapped yarns with Cowboy Joe, visited PNC Park, attended Picklesburgh, indulged in various yinzer delicacies and spent a lot of time in traffic, where they noticed the iconic Kennywood arrows.
Using the directional signs as a template, they created a love letter to Pittsburgh in the form of a sprawling, yet simple, mural with the motto “All Roads Lead to Kennywood.”
It serves as a visual timeline of the park’s history, with various mascots, rides, logos, ticket stubs and food items represented in yellow, black and white. The heavily inked Olsen thinks the mural resembles a tattoo flash sheet.
During the several weeks it took for local painters to complete the project, Olsen prayed that Pittsburghers would accept the changes. He’d heard about a public backlash when the Potato Patch switched its cheese sauce recipe (and was forced to revert to the old formula) and he didn’t want to rock Noah’s Ark.
Since the start of Kennywood’s 125th season on April 16, the response to the mural has been positive.
“The murals really ramp up the sense of arrival and excitement as guests enter the park, which was a key goal of this season’s enhancement efforts,” says Mark Pauls, Kennywood’s general manager. “We’re glad to support the local economy by hiring skilled contractors to partner with our teams in making upgrades like these.”
The bold images instantly spark memories. If you stand in the tunnel long enough, you’ll hear people reminiscing about everything from Laffin’ Sal and school picnics to their first spin on the Rotor.
Ensor, whose mom grew up in McKeesport, was a child the last time he visited Kennywood. He remembers drinking from the mushroom-shaped water fountain and passing abandoned steel mills on the way home.
“When I went back, I realized Pittsburgh is surprisingly vibrant with a lot of energy, a lot of youth,” he says. “We enjoyed our time there.”
Hampton Creative also gave The Kangaroo a makeover, updated signage throughout the park, refaced The Old Mill, gave the Jack Rabbit a designated entrance, spruced up the midway, beautified the beer garden and overhauled the Kandy Kaleidoscope. All the while, they were mindful of the fact that Kennywood is designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
History and nostalgia are powerful things, Olsen says, and Kennywood in particular is a magnetic force that draws people to it. In fact, Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Hampton Creative is based, boasts a number of Steelers bars that cater to ex-Pittsburghers pining for Golden Nugget Dip Cones and corn dogs.
“We wanted to get to the heart of what makes Pittsburgh so passionate about Kennywood,” Olsen says. “When we got there, we realized you can’t separate the park from the city.”