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Knoebels Amusement Park: A Trip Back in Time

By Christina Radvon, PassPorter Message Board Guide and Guest Columnist

Take a trip back in time -- all the way back to your childhood! Okay, hopping in your time machine isn't an option just yet, but you can still take a nostalgic trip back in time at Knoebels Groves in Elysburg, Pennsylvania.

My family -- my husband, son, and myself -- recently returned from a week-long stay at Knoebels Amusement Park & Resort. You read that right: one week at one park. For my husband Walt and me, it was a trip back to our childhood. We went to Knoebels with our parents and our parents went with their parents many years before. In 2000, Knoebels celebrated its 75th anniversary as an amusement park. 

Our Knoebels stay began with an unusual experience at most amusement parks -- our own cottage. We rented a cottage for the week. The three bedrooms, full kitchen and a huge wrap-around sun porch were all ours. The cottage backed up to a stream and was just 50 yards from the park perimeter. A little island of tranquility just outside the park - perfectly located for us to spend a few hours in the park each day with a nap mid-afternoon before heading back out to enjoy the sights and sounds each night. 

As we unloaded our bags, my son, DJ, skipped up and down the sidewalk, his little hand cupped behind his right ear, shouting "You hear that, Mama? That's a choo-choo whistle!" Good ears. And as I stood there watching him bounce and skip with his endless enthusiasm, I got a little teary. This was exactly why I'd wanted to go there.

Knoebels is an anomaly in the amusement park industry -- there is no entry fee. Ride tickets can be purchased at any ticket booth or window in the park. Even the ticket booths are a sight to behold. Many are decorated like circus wagons and carousels with richly detailed murals and curlicues. They're even themed, in some cases, to the rides near-by.

The ride closest to our cottage was Ole Smokey. It's one of two train rides that run through the Knoebels park. Ole Smokey is an old fashioned double-out-and-back kiddie steam train. The engineer can be seen at the station feeding the engine from the coal car at every stop. We know it's really real coal because we sat too close to the front of the train once and I got an eyeful of ash. DJ was too short to notice. Good for kids, but Moms and Dads beware! 

History -- Like many of today's amusement parks, Knoebels has humble beginnings. However, Knoebels is still family-owned and straddles the stream and the swimming hole that first drew visitors to Knoebel's Farm nearly 100 years ago. Originally a farm, run by Ole Hen (the family's patriarch), a saw mill and a lumber yard, the farm later became a destination for "tally-hos" around the turn of the century. Tally-hos were a Sunday afternoon hay or wagon ride with a destination often fit for camping, hiking, and even some swimming. Wily Ole Hen seized the opportunity. He began to charge 25 cents to water, feed, and care for the horses that pulled the wagons. Eventually, he began offering light refreshments and carnival-type snacks like popcorn, peanuts, and ice cream to the visitors.

The year 1926 brought the Crystal Pool to Knoebels. Visitors still loved the ole swimming hole, but the pool was a much anticipated modern convenience. Where the covered bridged once spanned the creek and the more daring leaped from its railing, we can see the high dives at the Crystal Pool -- still located in the same spot, though it has been renovated and expanded through the years. Unfortunately, the pool wasn't on our agenda for this trip. There was so much to do and so little time! 

The first cottage was built in 1917. While we couldn't trace the beginnings of our little cottage, the Knoebels History Museum provided us with peeks at the past. There is one in particular that has always caught my interest. It's a little tugboat that is still standing near the back of the pool area. The speed slides run right past it. It is the last remaining of the themed cottages. DJ makes quite a fuss whenever we pass it on the Pioneer Train (a 1 ˝ mile ride past the pool, slides, some private cottages, the campground, and out through the woods). We learned our lesson the first night on the Pioneer Train. The ride through the woods was so dark near the back of the train, the older kids screamed as we went through the tunnels. My little boy was scared to death on our first ride. We went to a nearby discount store and bought battery-powered glow-sticks from the sporting goods dept. We used them for late-night train rides throughout our trip. Every trip thereafter was a cakewalk thanks to our glow-sticks.

On several of our train rides that week, we had a special treat -- riders of the four-legged kind rode the train with us. Knoebels not only allows pets (on leashes) in the park, but they're even allowed on some rides! We must have pet a hundred dogs of all ages, breeds, and sizes that week! 

Back in 1926, the same year the Crystal Pool made its debut, Knoebels' first ride appeared for the season. A Philadelphia man named Joe Gallagher operated a steam powered carousel as a concession on the same site that the current Grand Carousel operates today.

Even I was surprised to find children leaning off their horses to capture the brass ring! Clearly, they had a system because most of the kids had 10 or more steel rings at the end of the ride. When the brass ring was caught, one of the agile Knoebels ride operators would leap backwards onto the carousel as it moved to exchange ride tickets with the holder of the brass ring. It's worth the 60 cents just to see this acrobatic act!

In 1941, just 10 days before the start of World War II, the current Grand Carousel was purchased by H.H. Knoebel and that carousel still runs and offers children of all ages the chance to catch the brass ring to this day.

Every ride in Knoebels has its own life, its own history. Knoebels does something no other park does -- it rescues rides and rebuilds or re-engineers them to fit within the park's borders. Nearly every ride in the park was once somewhere else before it found its home and its most appreciative audience at Knoebels. In 1985, Knoebels did the unthinkable -- they moved a whole roller coaster! The Phoenix was reborn at Knoebels from the ashes (timbers and track) of the Rocket at Playland Park in San Antonio, Texas where it was built in 1947. The Phoenix, a favorite wooden coaster among hard-core coaster enthusiasts like myself (it often makes American Coaster Enthusiast's top ten list of roller coasters each year), celebrated its 20th year at Knoebels this summer and I rode it! To read more about the other rides that found a new life at this vintage park visit http://www.knoebels.com/history.htm.

Knoebels isn't just history and recycled rides, though. It is old fashioned band organs, kettle corn, hot roasted peanuts, homemade fudge, covered bridges, camping, picnicking, games and more!

Food -- Knoebels offers culinary delights the likes of which most amusement parks can't begin to imagine, much less reproduce. Stony Gables Fudge and Nut Shoppe is one of the many rental cottages that were converted to concession stands. This gothic fairy tale cottage  with arched doorways, bordered by a profusion of flowers and indigenous shrubbery is nearly impossible to pass by when you see and smell it for yourself. (When you walk inside, lean in towards the old stove at the bottom of the stairs and look up and to the far right to see one of the original pointed-arch doorways.) The far right side of the cottage is a fudge kitchen offering nearly every flavor you can think of. The far left side of the cottage houses the peanut roasting equipment in a sort of outdoor, screened concession stand. Between the two is usually a line of starry-eyed children and expectant adults drooling over the glass cases full of fudge and other candied delights. We loved the fudge-dipped marshmallows on a stick!

Knoebels is well known for its outstanding amusement park food. It holds the Golden Ticket Amusement Park Food Award for the last 5 years! But if there's one indisputable fact, it's that Knoebels has incredible food and tons of options for even the pickiest eaters. 

When asked, neither my husband nor my son could choose just one favorite food or meal from our stay. Local treats like chicken and waffles with gravy, mac and cheese bites (deep fried, breaded spoonfuls of mac and cheese) and corn nuggets made everyone's list. Walt claimed gyros, eggplant fries, and top-your-own baked potatoes among his favorites. DJ loved the chicken finger kids meal, frozen yogurt, and pierogies.

At the top of my long list of favorite foods is the Deluxe Traveling Taco -- a single-serving size bag of Fritos, opened and topped with seasoned beef, cheddar cheese, shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, and a dollop of sour cream, served with a fork for eating while you walk.

Knoebels offers more than just good food. Great eateries like The Oasis (an open-air cafeteria that offers all-you-can-eat meals on certain days), The Alamo (an enclosed diner-style restaurant), and Phoenix Junction Steakhouse (a covered food-court with top-notch daily specials like NY strip steak and jumbo fried shrimp dinners) add even more unique offerings to Knoebels' line-up of incredible, award-winning food. You'll never go hungry as long as you don't run out of funds.

Thrifty vacationers have another unique option. Knoebels also offers a number of free, reserved picnic facilities. Just call in advance and they'll reserve as many tables as you need in one of the many picnic pavilions near the Crystal Pool. Bring just the basics like hot dogs and hamburgers and they'll even provide you with small, coin-operated griddles for the day. Large groups can bring their own or have the park cater their picnic with all the good foods found in the park.

Accommodations -- Friends and family were surprised to hear we'd planned to spend a week at Knoebels. Many assumed that meant we'd be camping! (I am not a happy camper.) Knoebels, to many people, still means camping and though we didn't get a look at the campgrounds on this or any of our previous trips, we've heard countless people rave about their camping experiences at Knoebels campground. We may try this one day when our son is older, but we found the cottage to be more than adequate for our needs and those of our young son.

Our trip was a new experience for us. It was our first week-long family vacation. Knoebels was just the right place to let us experiment with traveling with a toddler. While the cost of renting a cottage was a little steep ($900/week, Saturday to Saturday), the cost of ride tickets more than made up the difference. We spent $85 on $100 worth of tickets in advance (purchased at a discount through AAA). We had $20 in tickets left over from our weekend trip last year (cost last year: $17.00 through AAA). My in-laws came to visit for a day and bought $20 worth of tickets ($18.00 mid-week discount price). We bought another $10 worth of tickets ($9.00 midweek discount price) on our last night so we'd have enough for a few rides the following day. Added up: $150 worth of tickets for one week cost $129 (and $18.00 of that at my in-laws expense). We spent $111 on ride tickets for 3 people for 8 days at 1 park. But what we saved on ride tickets, we may have spent on games!

Knoebels offers typical amusement park games at atypical amusement park prices. We were pleased to also find some not-so-typical games. Many of the games are the kind you may remember from weekend visits to the Jersey Shore as a kid. We tried Flying Frogs, Ball Toss, Tip-a-Troll, and Roller Bowling, but as usual, we each have a favorite! Walt loved the Derby Races, DJ became an old pro at Kosmo's Tic Tac Toe and I triumphed over small children and teenagers at Killer Beez! Woohoo!!!

Knoebels is also home to one of the last few "Fascination Parlors" in the country. I gazed longingly at all of the fun prizes and the people seated on their stools, laughing and rolling the balls in an odd twist of tic tac toe, but never got around to playing the entire week! We stopped by the parlor one night early in our stay to find out how to play and the game caller gave me a handful of free tickets to use later in the week so I could learn. 

My husband and I continue to be amazed by the people at Knoebels. The employees surprise and delight us every trip. This trip it was the Fascination game caller. Last year, it was the ride operators in Kiddieland. We were happily snapping shot after shot of DJ on the Kiddie Whip late one night when I heard a very tired mother telling her son she wasn't going to pay for him to ride the kiddie bumper cars by himself when there was no point -- there was no one else riding to bump. The Bumper car ride operator called over 4 or 5 other ride operators who had no line at their rides. Adult park employees gamely got into kiddie bumper cars -- one with a cast on her foot and some with their knees folded up to their chests -- so the little boy would have someone to ride with and bump. 

Magic can be found in the most unexpected places at this nostalgic park from the past.

This article originally appeared in our September 22, 2005 newsletter -- subscribe to our popular newsletter today for free!

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    Updated 04/06/07 



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