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Ride Rehab

Old Amusement Park Attractions Ride Again at Knoebels

Scott Carlson

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By Scott Carlson | Posted 5/23/2007

We turned down an old farm road, descending into a forested valley, with the remnants of old logging operations here and there amid the trees, when some old amusement park attractions came into view--the coal-fired train, a carousel, a rocket-ship ride, hidden in the forest. It was like a lost world or a fantasyland.

My friend Marty and I had endured a three-hour drive with a couple of antsy 4-year-olds to find Knoebels Amusement Resort, an amusement park in central Pennsylvania that is little known but much praised among connoisseurs. Knoebels has been run by the Knoebel family since the early 20th century and is more akin to the parks of 50 years ago than modern-day Six Flags, Disney, or Universal. There is no giant roller coaster named for the latest Marvel Comics/Hollywood film synergy. There is no Imax theater. And as far as we could tell, there also aren't any actors filling in the suits of plush trademarked characters, part of some multimedia marketing scheme aimed at the under-6 crowd.

Instead you get rides that you haven't seen for 25 years, or maybe have never seen before, sometimes for 70 or 80 cents a ride. You get delicious funnel cakes bigger than your face for a couple of bucks. You get a haunted-house ride and two roller coasters that are considered among the best of their kinds in the country. And you get in without paying an admission or parking fee, so you can actually leave this place with money in your pocket.

"It's just a great park," says Rick Davis, the director and co-founder of the Dark Ride and Funhouse Enthusiasts, one of a number of groups that has given Knoebels top ratings for its rides, particularly its haunted house. "For those of us who are older, it is a reminder of the way amusement parks used to be."

"Because there is no admission fee, you can just sit underneath a tree on a park bench and enjoy the ambiance," says Mark Cole, a middle-school math teacher in Florida who is the president of the American Coaster Enthusiasts. "It's a unique place. You go once and you're hooked."

After our car came down the hill into the valley, we were waved onto a grassy meadow with stone driving paths. My son Jack and Marty's boy, August, clambered out of the van and we made our way past rows of old park benches, where families were setting up barbecues, to the ticket booth. A ride called the Downdraft was lifting carriages full of screaming people into the air, letting out a pneumatic hiss with every launch. There was an antique smell of gear grease in the air.

Knoebels Amusement Park was officially founded in 1926, but its origins go back to around 1900. Henry Knoebel mainly operated a farm and sawmill on the land, but in the summers he dammed up two creeks that run through the area to create a swimming hole, which attracted families from nearby coal-mining towns. Visitors could bathe for 10 cents, and Knoebel would feed and water their horses for a quarter. The summer retreat grew in popularity, and eventually Knoebel added cabins, a swimming pool, a restaurant, and a carousel from a nearby park.

For decades, the park grew slowly, adding rides as they were decommissioned at other parks. Buying used rides has been a way to save money--even when old, broken parts have to be replaced with custom-manufactured components--but reviving old rides is also part of the park's mission to preserve old-time amusements, says Joe Muscato, a spokesman for the park.

In 1985, Knoebels got ambitious, deciding to buy its first wooden roller coaster. A park in San Antonio was going out of business, and its coaster, called the Rocket, was in good shape. Against the advice of others in the amusement industry, who thought the project would be too expensive, Knoebels took the Rocket apart, shipped it to central Pennsylvania, put it back together, and renamed it the Phoenix. Muscato says that scores of news outlets, like Good Morning America, did segments on the "crazy" people who were resurrecting an old wooden roller coaster. The publicity led to a steady rise in attendance from 200,000 a year in 1985 to more than a million today. (The project was also cheaper than the skeptics thought it would be: Knoebels spent a little less than $1 million to move the coaster; a new coaster would have cost more than $2 million.)

The resurrection of the Phoenix also earned Knoebels the gratitude of groups like the American Coaster Enthusiasts, which works to preserve wooden roller coasters. Cole, the president of the group, first rode the Phoenix in 1992, when he joined American Coaster Enthusiasts.

"I tell people that if I could ride one coaster every day for the rest of my life, it would be the Phoenix," he says. "It's got airtime, where you come out of the seat. It's got little hills that not many coasters have. It's not the biggest, it's not the fastest, but it's just the most fun."


Because we had two 4-year-olds leading us around the park, there would be no riding the Phoenix for us. Instead, we spent our day working through a cluster of kiddie and all-ages rides on one end of the park. We started off on the smaller of two carousels, which revolved to the music of a crashing, thumping mechanical organ. Murals on the carousel depicted life in central Pennsylvania and images of the Knoebel family, and a sign said that the horses had been hand-carved in 1912. The larger Grand Carousel was just as raucous and even more beautiful. As the wheel spun and a bell rang, kids on the outer end of the circle hung precariously off of their horses to grab brass rings from a dispenser. I hadn't seen that for years and had to wonder whether that tradition got nixed at other parks by nervous lawyers.

We rode the motorboats--real boats that float around a water track (and sometimes, when a 4-year-old is at the wheel, bang into other boats and get lodged between the concrete sides). We took a trip on Old Smokey, a miniature steam-engine train that runs on coal. Jack and August rode on the Skyfighters, a rocket ride that took me back 30 years.

But the hands-down favorite of the day was the Whipper, a ride that dates to the 1930s. It's a primitive version of the popular Tilt-a-Whirl. Carts on steel casters ride around an oval track, connected by a spring-loaded arm to a cable on two giant geared wheels. As the carts reach either end of the oval, centrifugal force whips them out, then the spring arm yanks them back. By modern standards, it's a simple ride, and yet I could feel my gut flutter with every whip. My son was in laughing convulsions after his first time on the ride. "See ya later, giggle boy," the ride operator said when we left.

Whip rides used to be common at amusement parks, says Rick Davis, of the Dark Ride and Funhouse Enthusiasts, but they are becoming rare as most parks don't want to put in the effort to maintain old rides. "Knoebels is not afraid to bring back some of the older attractions," he says.

Fortunately, Knoebels has a team of engineers, carpenters, and mechanics to keep the rides in working order and refurbish new acquisitions. Davis is looking forward to a ride that will open this summer, a trackless coaster, similar to a bobsled, that was popular in the 1920s and '30s. This coaster, called the Flying Turns, is a replica--the last of its type was torn down in the late 1960s--and it is being designed and built entirely by Knoebels' staff.

Muscato says that because Knoebels has been refurbishing rides for years, the park's staff members have a unique set of skills. Some families have worked at Knoebels for five generations. Muscato himself is a Knoebel family member--he quit his job as a university professor after he was hired to direct advertising for the park, and he eventually married Leanna Knoebel, a granddaughter of the founder.

The emphasis on families seems to pervade the place. For me, the best part of the day was the quiet moments we sat under the trees. I cut up an apple I had brought and gave it to Jack and August as they climbed on an old log that had been cut into the shape of a race car. I couldn't imagine having a moment like this at Disney World or Six Flags. Muscato says that even though big resorts like Hershey Park are not far away, Knoebels survives because of this sort of low-key atmosphere.

"It doesn't matter if you are a rider or not a rider, we're not going to pop you for $40 just to walk in," he says. "If you're looking for the giant thrill rides, we're not the place for you. If you're looking for a family outing in a beautiful setting, we're a fine place."

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