|For the second half of our summer trip, Karen wanted to bring the grandkids to one of our favorite parks, Knoebel's Amusement Resort
in Elysburg, PA. So we set off from Cedar Point on Sunday morning
about 10:00. Around halfway through the journey we needed to stop
for lunch. I asked my iPhone where the nearest family restaurant
was and Siri directed us to The Pizza Shop
in Knox, PA. It didn't look like much from the outside. But
the inside certainly had character. All the walls were covered
with ephemera and taxidermy. We sat beneath a deer and a bear.
The bear was posed with its paws upturned as if to say, "Hey, you want
a piece of me?" Ben, our two-year-old grandson, sat next to
me. He would point up at the bear and roar. He was also in
a phase of pointing at things and asking, "What that?" It was
almost a game, where I had to name everything he pointed at. He
was given a chocolate milk to drink and had his first experience
drinking out of a straw. The waitress thoughtfully brought the
kids cut straws, so they wouldn't be so long. Ben curiously took
a sip and his eyes widened in surprise as the milk shot up into his
mouth. He caught on quickly and soon drained his cup. We
ordered a cheese pizza for all of us, and it arrived in a huge square
pan. It was quite good. When we entered the restaurant,
there were just a few customers. But by the time we left, the
place was nearly filled. It certainly seemed popular.
We arrived at Knoebel's at about 4:00 and pulled into the campground. Karen had reserved a cabin for all six of us. The person in the cabin next to us commented that this was the first time in her 20 years of camping at the park that she had to get an air conditioner for her cabin. The stifling heat that had enveloped much of the country was present at Knoebel's. The humidity was so high, it made it difficult even to sweat. But the cabin had three windows with screens, and that gave us a little cross-ventilation. And Karen had brought a fan, which she put in one of the windows. There was also a vent fan mounted in the back gable. The cabin's interior was surprisingly spacious. To the right of the door was a long counter with two wood benches under it. There was a large loft at the back of the cabin that held two foam mattresses. A thick wood ladder bisected it. Under the loft was a queen bed on the left. On the right was a large empty area where Karen set up a portable crib for Ben. She then set up a cot next to it for Isabelle. Heather and Andrew took the queen bed; Karen and I would sleep in the loft. In less than an hour, we were settled in and headed off to the park. We were near the west end of the campground. Most of the roads were named after Canadian provinces; we were in the Ontario section. It was a long walk to the park, but there was also a shuttle bus for campers. We decided to stretch our legs after six hours on the road.
On weekends, Knoebel's didn't sell wristbands; you had to purchase individual ride tickets. That didn't dampen the crowds though. As we walked across the covered bridge out of the campground and into the park, the midway was busy. This year marked the park's 90th anniversary, and there were banners proclaiming that. Karen wanted to visit the Christmas Cottage, the wonderfully-themed gift shop. She wanted to show the kids the North Pole, a steel post outside the cottage that was continually covered with ice.
By then it was suppertime, and Andrew wanted to dine at the park's indoor restaurant The Alamo. When we arrived, it was really busy but we got a table near the back. I ordered a tuna sandwich with chips and a pickle, and it was tasty. The kids got macaroni and cheese and couldn't finish it all, so I tried some of that and it was also really tasty.
After that we strolled through the park for a while and then headed back to our cabin. Karen had brought camp chairs for everyone, including little ones for the kids. We started a small campfire and they roasted some marshmallows and made some smores. Karen had also brought a string of blue lights that she strung along the outside; that helped us find our cabin at night, since the bathrooms and showers were located in a different area. Then we turned in for the night.
The next morning we all headed over to the International Plaza for breakfast. Besides offering unique fare like sweet potato fries with caramel, the Plaza had standard breakfast items like pancakes and home fries, which is what I got (and they were delicious). The others ordered eggs, juice and home fries. The carnivores in the group added bacon. What was remarkable though was that for all six of us, the breakfast was just over $20.
From there we walked around the park, biding time until the ticket booths opened at 10:30. In yet another example of the park's whimsy, we spotted a roller coaster car with rubber tires that had been repurposed as a sort of mobile brochure dispenser and cooler holder. Nearby was Impulse, the recent steel coaster addition to the park. It was similar to Canobie Lake Park's Untamed, which I didn't enjoy. So I passed on riding it. But it was fun to watch the single-car train quietly speed through the twisting trackage. One thing I noticed was that unlike Canobie's ride, the Impulse trains didn't have over-the-shoulder harnesses. That would probably have made for a much more comfortable ride. The coaster was also well-placed, with its bright green trackage towering next to the highway.
It was finally 10:30, and we lined up at the ticket booth. The park had several offerings: a $47 all-inclusive wristband; a $39 wristband that didn't include the coasters (which Karen got); and a $25 band for the kids. Though the prices didn't exactly seem cheap, the park made up for it by having free parking and inexpensive food.
The first coaster Andrew and I wanted to ride was the Flying Turns, which usually had the longest wait because of the laborious loading procedure and low capacity. There was hardly anyone in line, so we queued up while Karen, Heather and the kids headed for the kiddie rides. Flying Turns was a ride that only Knoebel's could have built. First, Knoebel's was also a lumber company and could acquire the quantity and types of wood they needed. (The troughs were built out of cypress.) Second, since they built it all themselves, they were able to take as long as they wanted. And it took nearly eight years. But it was totally worth it. I loved the sign in front of the ride: "They told us we couldn't build it, but we did anyway." That represented Knoebel's philosophy and it was one of the things that made the park so special.
The maintenance crew continued testing the ride with sandbags, past the park's opening time of 11:00. Guests were allowed to board at 11:15. I was glad we got in line when we did; by the time the queue opened, the line stretched all the way around the ride. It didn't take too long to advance up to the station. There were still two trains being tested with sandbags, and as they rolled into the station a technician and an attendant would unload the bags and stack them near the dispatcher.
The attendant at the station entrance was in charge of sort of pre-balancing each train: she would line up each rider at different gates depending upon body type. I was originally placed in a front car and Andrew in a back car, with two small boys between us. When we entered the next gated section and stood on the scales, another attendant shifted my position with the two boys. So I ended up in the middle car. Since the trains were only three cars long, it wasn't a big deal. We all entered our individual holding pens. An empty train rolled in, the gates opened and we boarded. The unique trains were comfortable and had a retractable seat belt for safety. Once we were all belted in, the train was dispatched up the first lift. At the top of that short hill, we rolled into a sharply curved trough, heading us in the opposite direction from where we started and the through a couple more turns over to the "real" lift hill, which pulled us to the actual starting point.
When we rolled out into the upper trough, the ride quickly picked up speed and became much more intense than I remembered it from my first ride two years ago. Every curve had us arcing up nearly to the edge of the trough. It was completely disorienting as we swooped through the figure-8 layout and into the brake run, which slowed us down and brought us to a small lift that returned us to the station. The ride was short but really potent. In Knoebel's typical tradition, it was a family ride that was just intense enough to provide a lot of thrills without making you sick. The ride's photo booth offered digital downloads for $10. Since I was wearing my Flying Turns t-shirt, I had to get a copy.
From there we hiked over to the far northeast corner of the park where the large kiddieland area was. We finally tracked down the family at Kozmos' Play Area, a sort of jungle gym for kids. I spotted the happy grandmother high on a bridge with the kids. She took them down a tube slide and then climbed around through the large wedges of Swiss cheese and the gingerbread house. Then Heather and Andrew took them on the Panther Cars, a vintage antique car ride for kids. They followed that up with a ride on the Pony Carts. The kids probably could have ridden that one all day.
After a few more rides we decided to get snacks from the nearby Totem Treats. Karen got some waffle fries. I opted for Knoebel's unique version of cheese-on-a-stick, basically skewered mozzarella balls. We then walked past the bandshell where the Walten's Acrobatic Variety Show was underway. I recognized them immediately; they were the same performers we saw at Knoebel's nearly a decade before and they were pretty amusing. Willy, the acrobat of the duo, had to be in his 80s at that point. I was amazed how he was still fit and doing his same routines.
Karen was beginning to overheat, and Andrew and Heather wanted to go on some rides together. So Karen and I took the kids back to the cabin for a while. It was a peaceful and shady (if opressively hot) stroll through the winding roads of the campground. Karen had gotten Isabelle some notepads and colored pens. They all sat at the picnic table outside the cabin and took turns drawing pictures. While she relaxed with the kids, I went back to the park to create a walk-thru, a challenge since Knoebel's didn't have a traditional midway to follow. It was an exhausting process, especially with the heat. Afterward, I headed back up to the cabin. Then Karen, the kids and I headed back for the park. As we crossed the bridge to the campground, Karen noticed a couple walking their dogs. It was the Waltens. I mentioned to Willy how much I enjoyed their performances and he was glad to hear that.
We met up with Heather and Andrew and walked over near the venerable Phoenix roller coaster. They wanted to take the kids on Gasoline Alley, the park's big antique car ride that wove through the structure of the Phoenix. Nearby, the big Wurlitzer band organ (one of six band organs in the park) was playing a jaunty tune. Karen and I boarded the car behind them and we took an enjoyable trip along the densely wooded course.
Andrew wanted to take Isabelle on the nearby flume. She had just made it to the 36" mark and it would be her first "adult" ride. Heather was worried about Isabelle falling out. They queued up and Karen, Ben and I watched from the observation deck. Karen gave Ben a quarter and had him drop it in the water cannon slot just as their log boat rounded the corner. Unfortunately, that spooked Isabelle and she tried to climb out of the boat as it climbed the lift hill. But Andrew held on to her and they all splashed down safely.
By then it was supper time. We walked over near the center of the park to three carousel-like pavilions all grouped together. The largest of them sold delicious perogies and tri-taters (sort of like triangular hash browns). Next to them was Cesari's Pizza, which obviously sold pizza. Karen went to order perogies while I went to order the pizza. The attendant there suggested I wait three more minutes, because on Mondays at five o'clock the park took $3 off the price of a large pizza. So I bided my time. Another guest was there for the same reason and said, "When you hear the different music start playing, we can order." Sure enough, at 5:00, the air was filled with the sound of Italian music. So I placed my order, was given a number painted on a wooden pizza pie and was told to wait by the patio. So I waited. And I waited. Andrew walked over to keep me company. After about fifteen minutes, our number was called. We took the big steel pie pan back to our table and feasted.
Heather wanted to go rest, so she left for the cabin. The rest of us went back to the kiddieland area and boarded Ole Smokey, the kid-sized coal-fired miniature steam railway. While we waited in line, the kids were dancing to the band organ music coming from Stein & Goldstein carousel next door. They watched fascinated as the train full of passengers flew back through the station along its route. In a couple of minutes we were seated and rolling along the peaceful route between kiddieland and the highway. The kids really enjoyed it. And so did I.
For the next adventure, Andrew wanted to take Isabelle on the Sky Slide, the rocket-shaped chutey-chute. He thought Ben would be too small to ride, but we later saw parents ride with kids much younger. Isabelle was certainly having a lot of adventures. Andrew walked her across the bridge to the dark stairway that led up to the top of the ride. Karen, Ben and I waited quite a while for them to emerge; the tower held a lot of people. I kept Ben occupied by watching Ole Smokey pass by. After several minutes, I saw an older woman emerge who had entered in front of Andrew. We all watched as they appeared at the bottom, sliding past us on their cloth mat, Isabelle clinging to her father's legs.
Next Andrew wanted to take the kids on the Motor Boats, but not the kind that simply turn together in a circle. These were actually steerable through a man-made creek. It was surrounded by the Kozmo's Kurves kiddie coaster and the track of Ole Smokey. It was a really popular ride and had a long line. It also was an extremely slow-moving line. As we were waiting, I overheard a man behind us trying to describe a ride to the people who were with him. "It was like a porch swing, except it was really big and you stood up in it. And you tried to push it up and over." His party looked at him like he had three heads.
"Yes," I said. "It was called the Swinging Cages. Knoebel's had one and there was also one at my home park."
His eyes lit up. "Really!? I've never met anyone who's heard of that ride. I started to think I was just imagining it." I assured him it was quite real and popular in the 1960s. But parks removed them because of rising insurance costs. I told him to check out the Knoebel's museum, where one of the cages was still on display. He was very excited about that.
After about fifteen minutes, the line hadn't moved. So Andrew gave up on it and instead we walked over to the Grand Carousel, a huge ornate machine over a century old with a mix of Carmel and Looff carvings. It also had a terrific band organ and a working ring game (one of the last in the country). Andrew and Karen stood next to the kids, who sat on jumpers, and we went for a pleasant ride.
We started walking back toward the campground but took a detour to ride the Pioneer Train, also known as the 1 1/2 Mile Train (because that's how long it is). The park was running three (!) trains -- and they were all running full -- so it didn't take long for us to be seated. The train we were in had cars identical to those used on the old Mountain Park Zephyr. The train behind us had the same engine as the Zephyr; our engine was a steam replica. It took us on a pleasant and long trip through the structure of the Twister coaster, through a tunnel, off into a densely wooded area and back. Then we took the kids to the Old Mill ice cream parlor near the perogie stand and gave them a sweet treat.
Andrew and Karen decided to head back to the cabin. It was starting to get dark and there were a few rides I wanted to do while I was a Knoebel's. So I headed off to the nearest one, Knoebel's amazing Haunted House dark ride. Its design was recently taken over by a new member of Knoebel's staff, and I was eager to see what changes were made. Mostly all of the brilliant but simple stunts (like the infamous bus) that had proven effective over the years were intact. There were some new additions that were enjoyable. It was still a fun family ride, if a bit too intense for small fry.
Next I headed over to the Black Diamond Mining Company, another Knoebel's rescue effort. It was the only dark ride ever made by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, and it was rescued from its original park in New Jersey where it was going to be removed. This was a perfect dark ride for small fry. It was fun and exciting, but not too intense. Some sections were downright silly. As Andrew had mentioned, none of it made very much sense. But it was colorful and amusing. I was the only person in line and got the front seat of the incoming train, a rare treat.
I stopped into the museum next door to see if anything had been added. It was still the same, with the extensive history of coal mining, a demented looking T-Rex and some memorabilia from the park's history.
My final stop for the night was one of my all-time favorite rollercoasters, the Phoenix. I walked past the quaint trolley-like ticket booth and over to the ramp leading up to the station. There was a lot of new track work apparent, which was always a good sign. A family in front of me was discussing how this was their favorite ride in the park. Knoebel's was running only one train, but their operation was so efficient it was faster than many parks that run two. In a short time, I was standing in the front seat line, with the lift hill just a few feet from me. The train seemed to be running incredibly fast, flying over the bunny hops on the way back to the station. As I approached the gate, it was obvious that a boy in front of me was by himself. So I asked if I could ride with him and he happily agreed. We sat down, belted ourselves in and were dispatched into the long pitch black tunnel that curved its way around to the lift. The cupola at the top of the ride was aglow with dancing lights as evening settled in. The first drop looked bigger than I remembered it. We blasted down and sped up to the first turnaround. I flew out of my seat. We turned the corner with heavy lateral Gs and then zoomed down the second drop and into the second turnaround. The bottom of the drops were glass smooth, and the tops were loaded with ejector air time. Then we dove into the insane part of the ride with lots of small hills and tight turns, all at high speed. The boy was laughing the whole way. We returned to the station cheering, not wanting it to end. What a phenomenal ride!
But as much as I didn't want it to end, it was time to rest up for the trip home. I took one last walk through the park, which was sparkling with multicolored lights. Then I headed back to the cabin. There were brief rain showers overnight, which helped cool things down a bit and made sleeping a bit more comfortable.
The next morning we got up early and sadly packed. The kids didn't want to leave, and neither did I. We had one final breakfast at the International Plaza. There was a big statue of a crocodile holding a menu outside the Plaza. Ben noticed it and as usual asked, "What that?" I said, "It's an alligator. And look at your shirt -- you have an alligator there too." His shirt had a cartoon alligator quite different from the statue, but he made the connection and pointed to each, trying to say "alligator". It was a lot of fun watching the kids learn.
This was a different kind of vacation for us. It wasn't so much about the park or the rides as it was watching the grandkids enjoy the experience. I'm sure it would be even more fun when the kids are tall enough to ride everything. That day would come soon. Until then, I hope they, like us, created wonderful memories at Knoebel's.
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