DOWN-HOME FUN

Knoebels Amusement Resort is big on family and easy on the wallet

JENNIFER GISH STAFF WRITER
Section: Unwind,  Page: UW5

Date: Sunday, July 18, 2010

You'd forgotten the feeling until you slid down into the steel bumper cars, fastening the safety strap against your waist. You'd forgotten the pure joy of amusement parks -- too consumed in adulthood by $5 sodas and admission prices for your family of four that add up to a car payment -- until your bumper car collided with your spouse's so hard it sent both of you rippling from the hit and then from laughter.


Knoebels Amusement Resort, dropped in the rural hills of Central Pennsylvania like nature's secret playland, has helped generations remember that feeling. Toddlers ride beside their mothers in the kiddie cars, just as the mothers tucked in next to grandma decades ago. Children polish their math skills as they dig through a pocket stuffed with ride tickets, calculating how many they need for the Phoenix, the wooden coaster that has earned Knoebels repeat national and international nods from coaster lovers.


And no one stands in admission lines baking under the summer sun, because there are none. The Elysburg, Pa., park bills itself as "America's largest free-admission amusement resort," welcoming you to stroll on in from its free parking lot, taking shade under a winding canopy of trees wrapped around the rides or beneath the covered bridge that crosses a snaking creek.


Visitors who think they've outgrown coasters can hand a $1.25 worth of tickets for a low-key ride on the Pioneer Train, which click-clacks its way through the woods and lingers at the end of the loop where squirrels dine at feeders.


Those who never outgrow the need for thrills can count out $2.25 in tickets for a ride on the Phoenix, with a series of bunny hills at the end that leaves riders sitting on a pillow of air.


The park may be so family-focused because it's founded on family, beginning with the purchase of some rural land by the Rev. Henry Hartman Knoebel in 1828. He started offering Sunday hayrides, later adding a picnic area and selling refreshments. By 1926, a large swimming pool opened and was joined by a steam-powered carousel, a restaurant and a few games.


The park has remained in the Knoebels family since, maintaining its tradition of being reasonably priced entertainment that keeps up with the times while making you feel like you've stepped into something more quaint than the average amusement park.


While Hersheypark in Hershey, Pa., and Kennywood, just outside Pittsburgh, might often come to mind when it comes to Pennsylvania's most noted large-scale parks, Knoebels has been featured on the Food Network, Discovery Channel and BBC because it's a contender of a different kind.


You're never greeted by characters you know from television. You don't feel your sneakers sizzle on asphalt paths. And although the list of attractions is impressive -- 55 rides -- you won't find yourself standing in line half the day just to take a turn on a few of them. Besides, how many other parks give you a chance to teach your kids about the significance of capturing the brass ring on an antique carousel, pipe organ music blaring from its core?


And thrill-seekers can still get their big-park kicks. The Phoenix, originally built for Playland Park in San Antonio, Texas, in 1947, was relocated to and opened at Knoebels in 1985. The wooden coaster, providing a 72-foot drop and speeds of 45 miles per hour, has been the park's premier coaster since, earning a consistent No. 4 best wooden coaster in the world rating by Amusement Today, a trade magazine.


It's joined by the Twister, a wooden coaster with an 89-foot drop and speeds of 51 miles per hour. Another wooden thrill ride, the Flying Turns, is still under construction.


Two other rides that tend to garner national attention are the Haunted Mansion, and old-school dark house ride that offers a good scare, and the steel Classic Lusse Motor Skooter bumper cars, which collide with such a thud passengers wonder if they'll be left stranded on their side like a helpless, upended turtle.


Continuing with that down-home feel, the park menus offer a mix of pizza, burgers and the usual amusement park treats. But it also cooks up old-fashioned dishes like liver and onions and chicken and waffles in The Alamo, its full-service restaurant. And like any good Pennsylvania entertainment scene worth its powdered sugar, Knoebels serves up that twisty fried dough called funnel cakes.


The food, reasonably priced for a large park, has been repeatedly recognized by the amusement park industry. If you've decided to throw all your money into full-day ride passes instead (an alternative to counting out tickets), the park welcomes you to bring in your own refreshments.


Knoebels is a resort rather than a park because of all the peripheral attractions. There's not a full-blown waterpark that you'd see in places like Great Escape, but there is an expansive swimming pool with large twisting slides spilling a constant flow of children and adults into the cool, clear water. Knoebels also has several large-scale water rides.


If you want to make a weekend or even a week of your stay, the park is surrounded by affordable cottages for rent, or you can park your camper, put up a tent or rent a cabin in Knoebels' campground, which offers sites with electric hookups.


There's also a secondary campground owned by Knoebels, called Lake Glory, just minutes away that provides free shuttle service to and from the park.


Also just minutes away is the Knoebels Three Ponds Golf Course, an 18-hole regulation course for those who'd rather work on their swing than be swung around in circles on the Italian Trapeze ride. Special rates are available for those who stay in the cottages or campground.


But then, again, why golf when you can play like you're a kid again? No self-respecting 9-year-old operating under the influence of cotton candy would let you leave without at least a half-dozen rides on the bumper cars. And you wouldn't want to miss a chance to show them how it's done.


Jennifer Gish can be reached at 454-5089 or jgish@timesunion.com.


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The park is open daily through Labor Day and on weekends throughout September.


All-day ride passes available Monday through Friday:


Guests taller than 48 inches: $30.50 for basic rides or $38 for basic rides and wooden coasters


Guests shorter than 48 inches: $20 for basic rides or $25 for basic rides and wooden coasters


Books of tickets can also be bought for the rides every day, and they never expire.


Admission to the Crystal Pool is $6 ($4 for children 11 and younger); and $13 to swim and slide all day ($11 for children 11 and younger).


Other notable features: The park contains a mini-golf course (extra fee), an extensive selection of kiddie rides, live entertainment and games, an arcade, a carousel museum, a ski-lift ride that takes visitors up a mountain that borders the park, and both blacksmith and wood-carving demonstration areas.


For more information, visit http://www.knoebels.com or call (800) 487-4386.





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