Knoebels a Throwback to Amusement Parks of Yesterday

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Knoebels entrance | Flickr

Knoebels isn’t the biggest amusement park. It doesn’t have the latest rides. It’s not located in a tourist mecca. It isn’t affiliated with a movie studio or business conglomerate. Most of the rides were brought in from other amusement parks.

And that’s all part of the charm.

Furthermore, the price of admission is a whopping zero dollars, as patrons pay individually for each ride (unlimited ride passes are also available). Parking is free, too. You can even bring your (leashed) dog.


That’s why Knoebels remains a must-visit for Philadelphia-area families. What follows is an appreciation of a place my family visited a decade ago.

The park is located in Elysburg, less than three hours from Center City. Depending upon the route you take, you might consider a detour to Centralia, where an underground coal mine fire burning since 1962 has turned the hamlet into a ghost town. It’s an eerie sight to observe smoke filtering out of cracks in the ground — ground that might be rather warm to the touch.

Before we talk about Knoebels today, a little history.

Knoebels didn’t become an amusement park until 1926, but the story dates to 1828, according to knoebels.com. That’s when the Rev. Henry Hartman Knoebel bought land known as “Peggy’s Farm.” For years, the land was farmed and also housed several sawmills. The Knoebel family actually moved to the property in 1880.

At some point, the idea developed for an amusement park, and Knoebels Amusement Resort debuted on the same day as the nation’s sesquicentennial of July 4, 1926. Folks in Philly surely didn’t notice, as the City of Brotherly Love was hosting the Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition.

Meantime, in Northumberland and Columbia counties (the park straddles both), all Knoebels had was a merry-go-round, the Crystal Pool and a handful of food stands.

Over the years, the park expanded, adding a grand carousel (1941), bandshell (1947), a petting zoo (1954), a campground (1963), a haunted house (1972) and assorted rides through the years.

Today, Knoebels is a full-fledged attraction with about 60 rides. Some prominent features include:

  • Six rollercoasters, including two of the wooden variety in the Phoenix and the Twister. Wooden coasters have their own unique charms and thrills that make up for the lack of 360-degree loops and 90-degree drops found on modern rides.
  • The Crystal Pool, a large concrete swimming pool on the site of a one-time swimming hole. The 900,000-gallon pool uses filtered stream water and features diving boards, four water slides, a kiddie play area and a climbing net.
  • Two carousels, including the Grand Carousel, which dates to 1913 and still has brass rings
  • Two miniature railways
  • Classic midway games, such as the Cat Rack (bet you didn’t know this target game had a name) and the Electronic Shooting Gallery
  • All sorts of rides you might remember from your childhood that are disappearing from other amusement parks
  • A golf course
  • A variety of accommodations, including campgrounds, cabins, cottages and a bed-and-breakfast

All these may sound like standard amusement park attractions — and they are — but there’s a difference.

While there are plenty of opportunities to buy souvenirs and other things that can make an affordable vacation pricey, there’s not the overwhelming marketing to deal with. Unlike Disney, each ride doesn’t dump you afterward into a souvenir shop with branded merchandise tied to the ride.

And while the food certainly isn’t gourmet, it’s a cut above the usual amusement park fare. The prices are reasonable, too — a half-pound hamburger with potato chips and pickles is going to run you a lot more at Universal Studios or Busch Gardens than the $8.50 it costs at Knoebels.

Sure, there are a couple unusual quirks.

For example, Central Pennsylvania apparently is Marlboro County and, a decade ago, smoking was common throughout the park, but today it’s confined to nine designated smoking areas.

What makes Knoebels unique is the entire environment. It’s hard to describe, but a quaint feeling pervades the air. Everyone seems a little less rushed and a bit more friendly. The value in that is priceless.

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