How does a humble family theme park, located in a small town, in the middle of nowhere, manage to be ranked second in a worldwide annual contest for Best Park? The Knoebels family seems to have found that answer. Just this past year, Knoebels beat out Disney, Universal, Bush Gardens, and many others in Amusement Today’s Golden Ticket Awards. Referred to as an “off-the-beaten-path-gem” by Amusement Today, Knoebels understands what their visitors are looking for in a park.
Knoebels began in 1828 when Henry Hartman Knoebel purchased around 300 acres of land near what is now Elysburg, Northumberland County for the steep price of $931. It was his son (also named Henry) who envisioned the land’s recreational potential. His first customers were “Tally Hos.” Tally Hos were Sunday afternoon hayrides that traveled to a particular destination. Of those who traveled to Knoebel’s farm, visitors liked to sit along the creek bank, roam the countryside, or jump off the covered bridge into the waterhole below. Knoebel decided that he could turn a profit on these travelers, and he began by charging the Tally Ho’s $.25 to feed, brush, and water their horses while the people enjoyed themselves. Gradually Knoebel added picnic tables and food sales to the location, and the makings of Knoebels Amusement Resort were underway. The park remains under the Knoebel family’s control to this day with Henry’s grandson, Dick, the current president.
In 1926, Knoebels Amusement Resort opened under its current name. Construction of a new swimming pool had begun in November, 1925, and was opened to the public on July 4, 1926. The pool offered the same “sparkling stream” water, but it was now filtered. Although some Tally Hos still preferred the creek, the swimming pool soon became immensely popular. It is known today as The Crystal Pool.
The Grand Carousel, Knoebels’ first ride, opened later in 1926. John Gallagher of the Philadelphia Toboggan Company operated the steam-powered machine as a concessioner, capitalizing on the growing popularity of Knoebels farm. To this day, even though the attraction has been modernized, it is still in the same location as it was first built.
Over the years, the park slowly grew larger. It added a miniature train ride called the Nickel Plate in 1946, which was replaced by the Old Smokey, a train that explores the park grounds yet today. Another miniature train, the Pioneer, was installed in 1960. The “Old West”-decorated Pioneer traveled through the woods. The train is very popular with families and gives a great scenic tour of the park, weaving in and out of Knoebels’ many attractions.
One of the focal points of the park is the large covered bridge that connects the park to the campground. The bridge was originally built in 1875, and then bought by Knoebels and relocated to the park’s entrance. In 1964, the Theodore Burr Covered Bridge Society dedicated the large covered bridge as the Lawrence L. Knoebel Memorial Bridge. As patrons visited the park over the years, they left their marks all over the bridge: hearts, initials, and messages cover the space. Visitors stop to read the messages from the patrons of the years past, telling the rich story of the park’s history.
The park’s growth was stunted during the floods in 1972. All but one of Knoebels’ 25 rides was covered in water from Hurricane Agnes. In just nine days after the flood waters receded, the park reopened with 11 rides in operation. The park had strong community backing, and it was with the help of their employees, friends, and neighbors that the park was able to recover so quickly.
With a rebuild ahead of them, the Knoebel family decided to make an exciting comeback. In 1973, they opened the Haunted Mansion. The attraction was well received by guests and is still one of the most popular attractions in the park today. A few years later, the park introduced its first rollercoaster, The Jet Star. The Jet Star was a steel rollercoaster that added a new dimension to the park, and brought a 20% increase in attendance during its first season.
In the following years, Knoebels added more rides, including water slides and bumper boats. However, the biggest addition to the park was the wooden rollercoaster relocated from Texas in 1985, The Phoenix. With its huge dips and drops, the rollercoaster became very popular, winning numerous awards.
As attendance grew, rides continued to be added to meet the demands of the patrons. Rides that could cycle more people through were installed, like the Flume in 1990. Three years later, The Whirlwind replaced the Jet Star, offering thrill seekers loops and corkscrews. In 1994, Knoebels added two high capacity rides: the Ferris wheel and the Italian Trapeze.
After battling more flood damage in 1996, Knoebels quickly made the necessary repairs. The Sklooosh and the International Food Court opened in 1997. The biggest new addition was the Twister, a new wooden rollercoaster that opened in 1999. Although the park has kept up with the times by adding modern rides, it has remained one of the few parks with free admission. Currently Knoebels is the largest free admission park in America. Knoebels’ public relations manager, Joe Muscato considers free admission part of the park’s identity: “Kids, mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles, can come here and enjoy a day together. They can bring a picnic lunch and non-riders can enjoy watching the kids without a high gate fee or parking charge.”
Today’s park offers several rides and attractions for its guests. Visitors can choose to purchase a wristband to have unlimited access to the rides or they can opt to pay per ride. The prices of the rides remain low, ranging from $.75 to $3. Steven Urbanowicz’s book, The Cheapskate’s Guide to Theme Parks: 25 of the Most Popular Theme Parks in the United States comments that Knoebels may be the most inexpensive major theme park in the country.
Knoebels offers many kiddie rides including the popular Sky Slide and Helicopters. The Sky Slide was created from the Stratoship, a space simulation ride, installed in 1957. The patrons lost interest in 1965 and the ride was converted into a rug slide. The Helicopters allowed children to control their own aircraft, which added to the excitement of the ride. Most of these kiddie rides are grouped together in a separate section of the park.
At the top of the list of family favorites at the park is the Grand Carousel. In the early years of the history of the ride, almost every carousel allowed its riders to catch rings; now, Knoebels is one of the very few. Because of this added thrill, riders of all ages can enjoy the ride. Each turn, one lucky visitor will catch the brass ring, earning them a free ride on the carousel. Another family favorite is the Motor Boats. Knoebels prides itself on not having long wait times for rides, but according to Muscato, if there is one ride that has a long wait; it is going to be the Motor Boats.
One of the most popular attractions at the park is The Haunted Mansion. The Darkride and Funhouse Enthusiasts named the Haunted Mansion as the number one ride on the list of Top Ten Favorite Darkrides for the eighth consecutive year. In the 2009 member survey, The Haunted Mansion won by a landslide, gaining more votes than the next three rides combined. Surprisingly, this ride was designed by the park’s management staff, and did not receive help from outside vendors.
For the thrill seekers, the park offers several more intense rides. Visitors can rock out to music and watch the light show as they zoom around in the Cosmotron. On a hot day they can take a plunge on the park’s two water rides. If they are feeling adventurous, they can sail their own ship on The Flyer. But the most admired thrill rides at Knoebels are the two wooden rollercoasters: The Phoenix and The Twister. The Phoenix is known for its airtime because riders feel as if they are going to fly out of their seats. In 2009, Amusement Today ranked it in the top five best wooden rollercoasters in the world. But, it is not just any coaster; it is a rollercoaster with a story.
The Phoenix’s rescue from the abandoned Playland in San Antonio, Texas, is known as a great act of rollercoaster preservation. Built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company in 1947, the coaster was originally named “The Rocket” and upon its opening was labeled “the largest roller coaster in the world.” When the San Antonio park shut down in 1980, the Knoebels staff underwent the extraordinary process of relocating the coaster hundreds of miles north to Elysburg, Pennsylvania. Because no blueprints were available, the staff had to number each individual piece of track before transporting it using over 34 trucks and re-assembling it piece by piece at its new home. Because of the rebirth of the coaster, it was symbolically renamed “The Pheonix” to represent the mythological bird that comes back to life from its own ashes.
Knoebels’ other wooden coaster, The Twister, was modeled after a classic coaster in Denver, Colorado. The Knoebels family wanted to transfer the entire coaster to PA, but it was determined that it was not in good enough shape. They settled for buying the original blueprint of the coaster. The Twister is known for its twisting track and unique drop. Because of the space the coaster was set up in, the track’s big drop is climbed in two segments before riders take the plunge.
The park is also known for their food, winning a golden ticket in Amusement Today’s 2009 awards. This was the 11th consecutive year that Knoebels came away with a first place ribbon in the food category. Muscato believes the secret is allowing food service managers to work largely independently; “Each of them wants to have the best offerings and draw guests to their stands and restaurants.” Hand-dipped ice cream at the Old Mill is a must have for many park visitors. They are known for their gigantic sundaes and wide variety of flavors. There is something for everyone at the International Food Court, serving American, Italian, Mexican and world food. Some visitors consider a visit to The Alamo, a family restaurant inside the park, to be a staple for every visit. The food served in the park is considered reasonably priced and delicious. Another unique aspect to the dining options offered is the free picnic facilities. Knoebels allows its guests to bring their own food in the park, providing enough pavilion room for 10,000 people. They also offer catering for those using the pavilions, in turn, hosting many company picnics and family reunions.
Knoebels Amusement Resort is well known for their campground. With rustic cabins, RV sites, and tent platforms, there is a place for every camper. The campground is organized into different states to make it easier for guests to find their site. Guests are encouraged to book early because campsites are typically sold out during the summer months. Muscato commented, “A good campfire is a great way to end a day at the park.” With the set-up of the park, those staying at the campground have the freedom to go to the park whenever they want to. The campground alone offers its guests many amenities, including a camp store, pool, and playground equipped with a giant sea monster and a battleship. Knoebels also offers a convenient trolley to take the guests to the park, which is directly across the covered bridge.
Knoebels made its humble beginnings with a swimming hole. Today it offers roller coasters, high dives, and a water park for visitors to cool off during the summer.
Walking through the park, some visitors may get a “vintage” vibe. Author of Amusement Parks of Pennsylvania, Jim Futrell, notes that Knoebels uses unwanted rides, games, and equipment from other theme parks across the country. They restored over 50 pieces that are still in the park today. Many visitors come to ride on the classics that cannot be found in today’s sleek and modern parks. This gives the park one more unique quality. Steven Urbanowicz refersto this as “Knoebelizing.”
Knoebels is a family park through and through. The same family that bought the land in 1828 is still running the park, and members of the Knoebel family still actually live on park property. It has been passed down from generation to generation, just as visitors keep the tradition of visiting this park year after year. Joe Muscato says that “the family involvement runs very deep.” He goes on to note that Dick Knoebel is president while brother Ron and sister Leanna are also co-owners of the park. Cousins Page and David are also co-owners, not involved with day-to-day operations.
In 2009, the co-owners of the park, Dick and Barbara Knoebel, were rewarded for all of the hard work. They traveled to Legoland California for the Golden Ticket Awards in September and came back with the award for “Persons of the Year.” Rob Wheary, a writer for McClatchy - Tribune Business News found that this award was a big surprise for the couple. Their sons, Rick and Brian, convinced them to make this trip to California. They did not realize the reason for the trip until they were presented with the award. Because of their modesty, they do not always attend the awards ceremonies; other family and staff often represent the park in their absence.
Bigger, brighter, and more expensive parks are not necessarily better. Sometimes tradition is more valued than modernity. Rachel Ray magazine pitted Knoebels as “David” against Six Flags’ “Goliath.” There was no comparison when it came to price for the visit, food or wait times. The article even published a sidebar featuring Knoebels Grove Campground. This “small Pennsylvania classic,” proved that it could make it in the big time. Dick Knoebel told journalist Mark Hoffman, “At this place you can go to an amusement park, you can go to restaurants, you can go swimming, and you can go camping. It is more than just picnic tables in the woods.” Knoebels’ family style park is a breath of fresh air in the midst of the modern day theme parks.
The Center appreciates Knoebels Amusement Resort’s assistance in illustrating this story.