sunny Memorial Day, Karen and I drove north to Elysburg in the coal
country of northern Pennsylvania for a day at one of our favorite
We arrived at about 9:30. There were just a handful of cars in
the parking lot. We took advantage of the quiet time to wander
along the shady paths
winding through the park. Unlike the parks we had just been to
for Coasterfest™, Knoebels didn't have formal midways. Rides and
concessions were scattered around what was basically a giant picnic
grove. This was our first non-camping visit. I could
happily have spent a week at this park. But I was glad we were
able to spend even just one day. Knoebels was also one of
the few parks remaining in the U.S. that still sold ride tickets.
In fact, on this particular holiday weekend, it was the only option
Even though Knoebels was always evolving, like Hersheypark, it did so while maintaining its traditional look. So while the park constantly offered something new, you wouldn't notice that if you hadn't before visited the park. The changes were always organic. For example, since our last visit the park had begun operation of no less than four major rides. But they were difficult to pinpoint. And when we found them, they looked as if they had been there all along.
The ride I was most curious about was the Flying Turns, a ride that in this day and age only Knoebels could have created. Dick Knoebel had, for many years, wanted to re-create the legendary 1930s Norman Bartlett/John Miller Flying Turns, the first bobsled-style roller coaster. Out of the three originally built, none remained. Other big companies like Intamin and Mack built steel versions of those rides. But no one had attempted to build one to the original specifications, and for good reason: the bobsled troughs were built from cypress. But Knoebels was also a lumber company and they built two other world-class wooden coasters in-house. So this was just another project for them. It took nearly eight years from conception to completion, including years of testing different trains and configurations. The ride had a soft opening at the end of last season. And now it was finally open to the public. I had to experience this one-of-a-kind coaster.
We strolled past many familiar sites. There were the whimsical signs, such as the Knoebels posing as the famous American Gothic painting. There were unique structures, such as the giant birthday cake pavilion. We finally arrived by chance at the Flying Turns. It was well-hidden by trees, and its all wood construction made it seem more like a forest than a ride. It was much more compact than I had imagined. We stood at the back end of the ride. We could hear the lift chain clacking, followed by the low rumbling of the train rolling through the wooden troughs. We spotted a long straight stretch of track with a large deck next to it. I thought at first it was the brake run and an unloading platform, but it was a transfer track area for train storage. Three maintenance men stood at the far end. As a train returned over that last hump before the transfer area, it would slow to a stop, unable to make it up the last hill. The men would grab the train and attach a cable and electric pulley. They'd winch it up over the last hill and then push it down through the transfer station where the train would then round a corner and get pulled up a short lift hill, then make a right-hand turn into to the station. The trains were beautiful, custom-built bobsled-style cars that looked more like vintage aircraft, complete with a tail fin on the back. Each car could seat two people, one behind the other, and there were three cars in a train. The train wheels were angled outward and made of polyurethane (which kept the ride remarkably quiet).
With every ride cycle, the men would have to pull each train over that last hill. Eventually the trains gradually made it farther so that the men could simply push the train along, making sure it didn't roll back. Karen and I walked around the ride. There wasn't much to see, since the bulk of the track curved inward. The back of the trough was about all that was visible. But the park seemed to know what I was thinking: underneath the transfer track was an entryway to an area inside the ride. A flagpole was at the center, and track completely surrounded it. From that vantage point, we could watch trains fly by just a few feet away. It was yet another thoughtful touch, and created a great photo spot.
We walked around to the ride's entrance. Guests at Knoebels campground had already begun lining up for the ride, and there was still an hour before the park opened. Karen and I decided we should find some place to buy tickets. All the ticket booths were still closed. We walked over toward the office. A friendly security officer there asked if he could help. When I asked about tickets, he said that they wouldn't be opened for a while. He then poked his head inside the office door and said we could buy tickets in the office in a moment, when the clerks were done with other guests. That exemplified the friendliness we saw continually at the park. It never seemed forced, as if workers were told to be polite. Everyone there genuinely seemed to care.
Within a few minutes, we had our tickets: two $20 books. I was used to parks that listed the number of tickets needed for each ride. (A major ride would be, for example, six tickets while a kiddie ride would be one.) But Knoebels issued tickets of different denominations ($1.00, 50¢ and 25¢). Each ride had a cash value assigned, and you'd use however many tickets to total the cost of the ride. Some, like the Flying Turns, were easy: $3 per rider meant three $1.00 tickets. But then there were other rides like the antique cars that were $1.75 for the driver and $1 per passenger. You didn't get "change" for your tickets, so you had to have the correct amount, or spend more than the ride required. I ended up confusing my 50¢ and 25¢ tickets. So Knoebels did well by me that day.
Once we had our tickets, we headed back over to the Flying Turns. The line by that point was stretching part-way around the ride. So we took our place in line. The trains were by then cycling smoothly through, with no assistance. Karen wasn't a fan of bobsled-style rides, so she decided to sit this out. We stood together in the line chatting, waiting for 11:00 to come.
When the queue finally opened, the line had reached all the way around the coaster. The queue snaked inside the ride and over to the station. Each rider had to first be weighed to determine his/her position in the train. That made for a slow loading process and also meant you had no say over which seat you got. I expected another half-hour wait at least from where I was. But on the second ride, an attendant called out for a single rider and I raised my hand. Within a minute, I was weighed and seated in the back of the next train. The seats were padded and comfortable, with plenty of leg room. There was nice detailing, with dials and readouts on a fake dashboard.
We rolled out of the station and dropped into a wide trough, turning a sharp right and picking up a surprising amount of speed. The train swung up the side of the trough. There were protective rails on either side in case we swung too far, but the train didn't make it that far. The rails closed in and "pinched" the train, stabilizing it as we approached the lift. The train smoothly engaged the chain which swiftly pulled us to the top of the lift. Once we crested the top, the train was swallowed up into the trough and we began our figure-8 descent. The train curved around and swung gently from side to side. But as the ride progressed, we rapidly picked up speed and the train movement became much more pronounced, swinging much higher up with each turn. The changes of direction were dizzying, and I had no idea where we were until I caught sight of the observation area with the flagpole. We rolled smoothly up into the transfer area and gently rolled through, turning the corner and then climbing the short lift back to the station.
What a wonderful ride, a perfect fit for the park and an impressive technical achievement! Knoebels had a thrilling ride suitable for almost every member of the family. And it was a ride that only Knoebels could have built; I don't think any other park would have committed the patience and the resources necessary to build it. The park's typical attention to detail was evident everywhere. The structure must have looked impressive at night, with its lights built into the troughs. I was glad the park persevered and finally got the ride opened.
We walked back along the now-bustling paths and headed for the Phoenix, the ride that set the standard for roller coaster preservation. There weren't that many people in line, and the park was running just one train. But in a few minutes, we were seated in our customary front seat and dispatched into the twisty pitch black tunnel leading up to the lift hill. Perhaps because I had just ridden the much more compact Flying Turns, the Phoenix seemed much larger than I remembered it. We crested the lift under the cupola and plunged down the first drop. We flew out of our seats rising up into the second hill. Each drop was smooth and fast and every hill was an airtime extravaganza, all the way through the insane bunny-hop run back to the station. The Phoenix remains my all-time favorite coaster.
Following that exhilaration, we mellowed a bit on the antique cars which travel underneath the structure of the Phoenix. It was a long and relaxing ride, punctuated by the roar of the Phoenix train as it flew by us. After that, we were ready for lunch. So we headed over to the circular stand selling Knoebels famous perogies and tri-taters. We sat down under the adjacent pavilions with the spinning roofs, structures built from old carousel mechanisms (one of them powered by the old water wheel attached to the nearby ice cream stand). Karen was amazed at how inexpensive (and good) the food was compared with other parks. The perogies were very tasty, with light pastry over the rich cheese filling. The tri-taters were thick triangular-shaped hash browns. Knoebels also had its own branded water.
After that refreshment, we we walked across one of the many bridges that span the picturesque brook bisecting the park. The brook had caused many floods at the park, and there were many markers noting the water level over the years. We headed toward the one area of the park that had a sort of theme to it. Next to the kiddie ride section was an area that featured wood carving and blacksmithing. It was a sort of a frontier area. The pungent smell of coal-fired furnaces and freshly cut lumber filled the air. The old children's carousel, with its decorative rounding boards depicting area landmarks, was busy. Its band organ was playing a roll of songs that used to play on the Mountain Park band organ when I worked there.
Next to the carousel was Ole Smokey, the unique coal-fired miniature steam railroad. It featured single-person seats that could face either forward or backward. The seats were designed for children and felt precarious. The train moved at quite a clip, and even though there was a thin seat belt it felt as if I could tumble out of my seat at any moment. The train left the station and circled around the kiddie area, paralleling the park's access road and crossing above the boat ride. Then the train came barreling back through the station at high speed (a nerve-wracking experience), speeding off toward the other end of the frontier section, circling around a picnic grove past cottages where guests could stay.
We next strolled over to Totem Treats, the nearby food stand that served cheese-on-a-stick. I was eager for it, since I hadn't eaten any in nearly a year. The last time we were at Knoebels, the cheese-on-a-stick was fairly standard except that they substituted different types of cheese (rather than the usual block of American cheese). This time, we were served cheese kabobs; they were balls of deep-fried cheese on a skewer, coated with something more like what would be on fried chicken (as opposed to the usual cornbread). They were tasty, but not the cheese-on-a-stick I was expecting.
I was curious about another recent addition to the park. Knoebels had rescued another one-of-a-kind ride, the Golden Nugget, a hybrid roller coaster and dark ride built by the Philadephia Toboggan Company in 1960. It was being discarded from a New Jersey park, and Knoebels bought it, restored it and re-opened it. The only problem we had was finding it. We asked one of the employees who steered us in the right direction. Black Diamond was housed in a huge steel building, but it was positioned in a way that made it blend in with its surroundings. Karen wasn't sure what was in store, so she passed on riding it. The station was nicely themed to look like an old western street. The trains looked like small mine cars. PTC was the largest manufacturer of wooden roller coasters, but curiously this ride had a track entirely made of steel, like a kiddie coaster track. I ended up by chance in the front seat, and the train was dispatched. It took a 90-degree turn to the left and then rolled to a short lift hill up into darkness. Black Diamond turned out to be one of the darkest dark rides I had ever been on. I could hardly see anything. There were lots of humorous animatronic "stunts", such as a man attempting to pull a donkey, but most of them were barely visible. The ride was wisely aimed at families, including young children; there was nothing scary in it. There were a few surprising dips and turns, but even those were fairly mild. It was all good fun and a pleasant ride. I just wish I had been able to see a bit more....
Next door was Knoebels' Anthracite Mining Museum, an homage to the park's coal country roots. There were lots of displays on the history of coal mining, a video reminiscence of the dangers involved and even a dinosaur. Also housed in that building was Knoebels' own history, with a detailed timeline along one wall that had a humorous bible-inspired beginning. They also had a few of their old rides on display, including a now-rare Swinging Cage.
From there we walked a short ways to take a ride on Knoebels' other dark ride, the famous Haunted Mansion. This was one of the few rides in the park that was an up-charge, even if you had purchased a wrist band. But it was worth every penny. The exterior of the building was fairly unassuming; it looked like a pretty innocuous home. There were no skeletons, ghosts or spider webs to indicate it was a haunted house. But inside held plenty of thrills. Karen didn't particularly care for dark rides, but she consented to ride with me -- and screamed all the way through it. All of the stunts inside were simple yet clever and very effective. The ending had been modified since the last time we were there, and the ride seemed a little bit longer. I had a great time!
The day was getting warmer, so we walked the short distance to the park's shady flume ride. The line moved quickly (Knoebels has really efficient queuing!) and we were soon floating along. The ride was swift yet relaxing. After that we walked to the opposite end of the park to take a ride on the popular Pioneer Train, also known as the One-and-a-half Mile Train. Knoebels ran two separate engines, and the ride was almost always filled. The course ran by the waterpark area, underneath the structure of the Twister roller coaster and then off into a heavily wooded area by the campground. It was another great family ride.
As if that wasn't enough relaxation, we headed over to the Skyride, the ski lift that traveled up the side of an adjacent mountain. The climb was steep. The most precarious part was gliding over the park's access road. The return trip offered impressive views of the park. After that, we were getting hungry. There were innumerable food choices in the park, from full meals to more casual offerings. We opted for Cesari's Pizza. Karen got a regular slice of cheese pizza and I got a "Sicilian" slice. Mine was mostly pizza dough about an inch thick with a little sauce on top. Hers was mostly cheese and sauce with a little bit of crust. They were both good, but I wished I had gotten a regular slice instead. Naturally, after the pizza had to come ice cream! So we made our way to the Old Mill where I got a delicious caramel sundae and Karen got a dish of cookies-and-cream.
After that refreshing treat, we wandered around the park. The Grand Carousel was spinning a lot of happy riders, many of whom were reaching for the rare brass ring mechanism. I stopped to listen to the great-sounding and huge Frati band organ outside the ride. Knoebels had three of their eight band organs running while we were there: the Frati, the Wurlitzer 165 next to the Phoenix and the Bruder organ on the carousel next to Ole Smokey.
We stopped into The Brass Ring, the park's carousel museum and gift shop. We bought some souvenirs, including a puzzle featuring all of Knoebels' roller coasters. Knoebels still sold some of the most unique gifts of any amusement park. We checked out other gift shops, including the appropriately-themed Christmas Cottage. There were all manner of laser-cut Christmas ornaments, from the trains to the Haunted Mansion to the Flying Turns. There were scenes of the park painted on wood. There were model roller coaster trains. There were beautifully designed afghans. A well-heeled park enthusiast would have a field day at Knoebels!
Karen noticed some miliary-themed displays along the midway. One was a replica of the Iwo Jima memorial. Another was a tribute to U.S. soldiers who served in Afghanistan. In any other park, it might look disingenuous having those memorials juxtaposed with smiling flowers and talking pretzels. But somehow it all worked, because it all seemed sincere. There was both a genuine sweetness and a sentimentality to Knoebels. Maybe that's why, whenever we've visited, I've never wanted to leave.
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