Photo Courtesy of Knoebels
By Dimitri John Diekewicz
For Harrisburg Magazine
In this 21st Century high-tech world of entertainment, where special effects and gadgetry must be updated on what seems to be a weekly basis to hold the interest of its target audience, a place exists where play and pastime were not only perfected long ago, but continue to be put into practice, with very little change, to this day. This is Knoebels Amusement Resort.
Opened in 1926 by Henry Knoebel in Elysburg, PA, on the boulevard that also bears his family name, (it is still owned and operated by the Knoebels), the resort is an exciting site carved out of a tranquil, mountainous landscape. Upon approaching the main entrance on a warm summer day, visitors will quickly realize that this amusement park is unlike most others. The large sign situated over the main entrance proudly proclaims, “America’s Largest Free-Admission Amusement Resort.” This assertion, coupled with the fact that no parking fee is charged, indicates that this is a unique family- and economically-friendly environment. Ride tickets can be purchased for any dollar amount with kiddie rides starting at $1.50 going up to $4 for some thrill rides. A $20 book of tickets should get a rider on to 7-9 rides.
Entering the park to the left, wooden picnic pavilions greet guests. Many people are gathered, enjoying the day with one of the truest expressions of summer — a cookout. The scent of grilled hot dogs and hamburgers not only delights, but awakens pleasant memories. This is true comfort food enjoyed in a classic picnic setting.
Past the picnic pavilions and onto the midway, a production of sights, sounds and aromas stimulate the senses, creating a kinetic connection to all the fellow visitors. Each face sports a similar expression — wide-eyed with anticipation.
The thrill rides cut unique configurations along metal tracks, plunging through cascading water, and soaring through mid-air, high above, all to the tune of bells and whistles that punctuate the proceedings.
“Kozmo,” a cartoon chipmunk, is Knoebels official mascot, and will serve as the tour guide throughout the park. His image is emblazoned on signs that not only direct visitors to various attractions, but also illustrate the proper height children must be in order to board some of the rides.
The park grounds are well-maintained, from the beautifully arranged petunias and geraniums to the fresh paint that adorns the various buildings that house thrill rides, food concessions, museums, live entertainment pavilions, and gift shops. These structures, composed of wood, stone and plaster, look as though they have been lifted from the canvas of an expressionist painting. They are dreamlike designs, where right angles and scrolled curves blend to create a whimsical world that is both fun and functional. Among the buildings, an outdoor dining area is housed under a giant birthday cake supported by candy cane pillars, both splendid and surreal.
Coursing through the middle of the park is a creek that is home to ducks and geese, adding an even greater natural dimension to Knoebels’ ambience. Several bridges span this waterway and connect to other areas of the park. Placards affixed on trees and posts at several locations indicate the maximum water height during the several floods that have submerged a large portion of the park through the years. The endurance of these structures is testimony to their superior construction and maintenance. Preservation and care by the park personnel is apparent throughout the grounds.
A few rides currently in operation were rescued from other parks. One such ride is the “Phoenix,” a classic wooden roller coaster that began its life thrilling passengers as the “Rocket” at an amusement park in San Antonio, Texas. Brought to Knoebels and renamed the “Phoenix,” this premier coaster has been delivering a shock to the senses of park patrons since 1985. Though a map of the park guides visitors to the attractions, it isn’t necessary to search for the “Phoenix.” The screams and shouts of the passengers on this rolling thunder of a ride will serve as the guide.
As visitors approach the “Phoenix,” the countless wooden supports and adjoining cross members create an almost hypnotic woven pattern to its intricate construction. Traveling up the walkway with other eager riders, guests first stop at the ticket office, hand the collector the appropriate number of tickets, then continue up to the ride platform. While making this journey, periodically it’s possible to hear and feel the shudder of this massive structure as the coaster carries its human cargo to new heights, then suddenly drops them again. All of this is followed by a chorus of ever present screams — a mix of surprise, excitement, and fear. After a short wait on the platform, the “Phoenix” comes in for a landing. As it rolls to a stop, passengers look slightly disheveled, but thoroughly stimulated. After the safety bar is lowered for the next group of riders, a ride handler walks to each car, examining the bars to make certain that they are in their locked position. With an arm wave to the operator that all is secured, a lever is thrown, and the “Phoenix” begins its flight.
With the rattling of chains, gears and pulleys, the journey begins. As this “bird of fire” ascends and reaches its highest altitude, visitors should enjoy the view because it’s quickly over as the bottom of the world seems to drop out, gravity reasserts itself, and riders are sent plunging downward. The “Phoenix” determines where each body goes and when it stops. This is the fast track with no rest stops. For a few minutes, riders are completely at its mercy, reveling in the moment.
As the tour through the park continues, visitors might feel as though they are being watched. Plaster clowns and ghostly images have visitors in their gaze as they arrive at the next destination, The Haunted Mansion. The setting is a Victorian home with what appears to be a tranquil façade, but appearances can be deceiving. What lurks behind those walls is anything but comforting. This dark ride into the unknown must be left to the imagination until one takes it upon themselves to enter — at their own risk!
For those curious about the history of Knoebels, its amusement rides, and the surrounding area, three museums in the park offer unique exhibits, each on an exclusive topic.
This is coal mining country and the Mining Museum chronicles the region’s deep exploration and harvesting of black gold. The Carousel Museum consists of an incredible collection of hand-carved carousel horses, many of them crafted in Coney Island, New York, by newly arrived European artisans. The fact that most of these artifacts were saved from demolition again highlights the preservation mindset of the Knoebels family.
Knoebels’ History Museum is a compelling compendium of photographs and retired attractions that showcase the park’s growth from its inception to the present day. The pictures and photographs that line the walls provide portals to the past that offer captured moments of merriment in the same fashion as today — proof that smiles and laughter can transcend space and time.
Each museum offers a rewarding glimpse of the past and its positive present-day application. These are true treasures that should not be missed.
For an even bigger trip back in time, visitors can test their driving skills with a spin in the Bumper Cars. According to the Knoebels’ website, they were introduced in 1947 as “Dodgems.” Selected as “Best Bumper Cars in America” by USA Today, this is in no small part because for many years the vintage cars were meticulously maintained and the ride overseen by longtime operator Jack Niedzwiecki, a.k.a.“Bumper Car Jack,” who was a legendary figure at Knoebels. His likeness is still depicted in a large painting prominently positioned on the pavilion back wall, admonishing drivers, “No Head-Ons!”
After passing through the wooden gate and onto the smooth metal plating of the track, drivers can scan the fleet of chrome-laden chariots that bear a striking resemblance to American automobiles of the 1950s. Drivers should quickly walk, but not run (another of Jack’s rules) and climb in the car of their dreams before anyone else can lay claim. After securing the safety belt, drivers pump the accelerator pedal (no braking during this drive) and with the ride operator’s flip of a switch, the car will be fueled through the electrified ceiling with which the commutator pole never loses contact. With each collision, riders are left jolted and jubilant. This is one ride where it is equally enjoyable being predator or prey.
Knoebels also offers a multitude of meal selections from pizza to pierogis and fast food to fine dining. There are numerous restaurants, stands and pavilions, which together have earned the “Amusement Today Golden Ticket Award” for best amusement park food in America for the past fourteen years. The decision as to which meal selection to choose may be difficult, but a mistake cannot be made.
With the coming of night, the park is illuminated with thousands of incandescent lights. The soft glow produced by these electric flames not only outlines and accentuates the structures, but bathes the entire area in an amber radiance that is timeless. The past is present and newly created memories shall remain, but soon enough the sights and sounds will beckon once again.
Knoebels Amusement Resort features classic roller coasters, kid-friendly rides, arcades, daily entertainment, swimming, camping, golf, and attractions for the whole family. Knoebels offers a welcome mix of vintage rides and newer attractions, including a log flume and the world’s only wooden bobsled coaster. Special themed events are also scheduled during the season. Located at 391 Knoebels Blvd., Elysburg, PA 17824, for additional information go to www.knoebels.com.