Old Mill Ride

This year’s Spring Carnival had a lot of activities and events — from Ferris wheels to the booths built around the theme of “Planet Earth” to Sweepstakes. But this year has also seen the addition of another attraction that was designed and built entirely by Carnegie Mellon students — the Old Mill Ride. The ride is a celebration of visual and sound effects which, put together, create a sensory experience that will remain memorable to visitors.

The Tartan interviewed Project Manager Roly Garcia, a junior majoring in Information Systems, and his team on Wednesday, one day before the opening of the dark ride. A visibly excited Garcia and his team members Donovan Gionis, a first-year majoring in electrical and computer engineering (ECE), and Jack Dagremond, a senior also in ECE, gave The Tartan a tour of the ride, which was located in the Skibo Gym.

Garcia and his team created a fictional museum called Garfield Steel Works Museum — the name inspired by the Garfield’s Nightmare ride at the Kennywood Amusement Park — and developed a backstory about how the museum was built in an abandoned steel mill as an attempt by mill workers to keep history alive. Since the museum is “under construction” and is running on backup power, visitors will be pushed around in wooden vehicles by tour guides.

As soon as one enters through the gym doors, a rusty sign with “Garfield Works” emblazoned upon it greets them along with strains of 1920s Jazz music. Garcia and his team’s attention to detail is evident in the form of a “break room”, a room with a closed door opposite to the ride’s entry, where they set up a hidden speaker in the hallway that created sounds as though there were people talking behind the closed door.

There’s a display of the kind of clothes that steel mill workers had worn when it was functioning. The team had also sourced a green full-sleeved shirt that was actually worn by a steel mill worker and even bore some stains due to working in the mill. The first thing that visitors will see is a work cart that was actually used by steel-mill workers.

“This work cart is real,” said Garcia, “it was from the Chemical Engineering department. They got it from god knows where, but this is real!” Chemical Engineering department’s Matt Kline is the one that kept it, Garcia informed us.

There’s a recorded voice that narrates, providing interesting tidbits of information about each of the displays as soon as we approach them. The next display is that of a big diagram of a blast furnace. “We’re going to label it up with different temperatures and how it works,” elaborated Garcia. The recorded voice that was narrating in the background over Garcia’s explanation suddenly goes fuzzy before cutting off. “This is where stuff starts going a little weird,” explains Garcia.

The tour guide then drives us into a wooden enclosure with a flashing yellow lightbulb — the furnace — before leaving to check what’s going on. The lights shut off revealing a single strip of red LED lights surrounding the furnace floor. “What happens here is the blast furnace starts up and you’re going to smell all the burning coal — and as this is happening what’s going to happen is you’re going to have a photo-op — you’re going to get an on-ride photo! And your tour guide is going to run in freaking out and push you out of the blast furnace,” said Garcia. The next few moments in that furnace until the tour guide came involved some really interesting and creative sound effects which, coupled with the darkness that is banished only by the crimson LED light strip on the ground, create an intense sensory experience. The smell of coal, explained Donovan Gionis, is due to a hidden humidifier. The smell outside the furnace — the scent of dirt — is the smell of iron ore.

Soon after moving out of the furnace, the next display awaits — a steam engine. A huge moving wheel with six spokes, it has steam pouring out of it — the work of another humidifier, Garcia reveals. After passing by the steam engine, there will be a surprise awaiting right around the corner in the form of a railroad track that will come rushing at the visitors and the tour guide, who will push the visitors out of “harm’s way.” Of course, it’s all a part of the ride’s experience, and is actually a piece of railroad track that’s being straightened by a bunch of steel rollers. But that’s not the end of the “danger.” “And we come over to this last little area over here — this is just like a big ambiguous part. The tour guide recognizes where you are now but will be like ‘Where’s the steel crucible?’ And they look up and it’s about to pour right on top of you!” exclaims Garcia, pointing towards a tilting bucket, filled with a golden metallic fabric that depicts the slag, hanging from the roof. Again, the audio effects here are noteworthy — with the sound of bubbling liquid subtle but prominent over the sound of chugging machines.

The ride is the brainchild of Garcia, who said that the idea had taken root in him about a year and a half ago: “I woke up one day and said ‘I want to build a dark ride!’” He started the process by doing a little bit of research on ride systems that people have previously built, and since people had built tiny single-person dark rides that were motorized and automated, he says that he thought “If they could do it, I could do it!” He started gathering a team, starting off with just friends.

“They thought that I was crazy, at first,” he said, chuckling. “But we sat down in an architecture studio, discussed our options, and then we decided that this was a feasible idea. We wrote up an initial budget which was very very rough. In fact, our budget didn’t actually change very much from the beginning,” he revealed. After writing their budget, they did more feasibility research, and what was left was coming up with a story. “The story ended up becoming about Pittsburgh,” he said. “Initially we were going to do an urban legend or something weird like that, but we decided that it’s probably better to base it off on Pittsburgh steel history because that’s Pittsburgh in a nutshell.” They worked on their story and did the storyboarding for about six months. “We worked through the summer,” he said. And when fall came around, they went to Student Dormitory Council and Graduate Student Assemby and received some initial funding.

The ride is the result of a year and a half of dedicated work — half a year of Garcia doing research by himself, and a year of working as a team. “Monica was the first member on my team,” he said, pointing to Monica Toren, a senior in Architecture. “She was the first person that I walked up to and said ‘We’re building a ride so come on!’” The first engineer to join the team was Benton Shortridge, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. Shortridge had just started the Theme Park Engineering Group on campus, a brand new club under whose umbrella the Old Mill Ride had been made. The actual first round of construction — their first big purchase worth $2000 of vehicles and walls — started right before winter break. Purchasing pieces for the track, set pieces, doing all the work of electronics was the second phase, said Garcia. The third phase was putting it all up.

So why the name Old Mill Ride? Garcia said “There was this old ride that was built in Kennywood in 1901. It was called the Old Mill, but the Old Mill was like a kind of ride, it’s like a type of attraction, it’s like a tunnel of love thing. And that was actually closed down in 2004 for a ride called Garfield’s Nightmare, which I will not comment on in public.” Garcia’s team members chuckled at the jibe. He continued, “But we’re hoping that this brings back the movement to bring back the Old Mill Ride to Kennywood.”

“I used to ride rollercoasters — I rode my first one at the age of 12, so a lot later than most. But before that, all the rides that could satisfy me were dark rides, and the little stories they told and the weird stuff that they did — so funny! So that’s where this came from. And I said, you know what? I’m gonna do it,” reminisces Garcia. “And this is the biggest achievement of my life.”

Seems like Garcia and his team’s work did pay off. After the ride opened, lines stretched out of the Skibo Gym doors every day, with people eager to experience the ride for themselves. Sunjana Kulkarni, a computer science first-year, experienced the Old Mill Ride on its last day of running after waiting 45 minutes in a long line. “I was very confused during the ride and after it ended. The sound and light effects were scary, and the tour guide’s ‘panic’ made me quite worried!” laughed Kulkarni. “I was very impressed by the acting skills of the tour guide who pretended to be freaking out and steering us away from the trouble throughout the ride!”