I recently took a rare vacation day and went with some friends to a nearby amusement park in Pennsylvania.
The park is called "Knoebels Amusement Resort" (pronounced with a hard "K", and written without the apostrophe). It's billed as the largest free parking/free admission amusement park in the country.
Stepping on to the Knoebels complex is like taking a step back in time. It's a family-run operation, and has been since 1926. What started as a public swimming hole has evolved into what I consider to be the coolest amusement park I've ever seen. Cedar Point may have more coasters, Six Flags may have a bigger marketing budget, and nearby Darien Lake may have more flash, but nothing compares to Knoebels. Those other parks are like the flashy busty blonde that struts by and gets your attention, but Knoebels is the chubby chick that wins your heart.
For starters, let me repeat: Parking is free. The day we were there, hundreds (perhaps thousands) of cars lined the grassy parking "lot", and none of them paid a cent to do so. Even a reasonable 3 bucks a carload would have netted them thousands of dollars, but they've never charged and probably never will.
Same for admission. What's it cost to get in the park and wander all day? Nothing. Nada. Zip. You don't have to spend a cent if you don't want to. Guests are encouraged to bring their own food. There are huge picnic areas for groups of all sizes, barbeque pits and picnic tables. All free.
The park itself is a mishmash of rides of both new and old vintage. There's a nationally-rated rollercoaster that was relocated to the park in 1985, and is widely credited with being responsible for "saving" vintage coasters across the country. Dubbed "The Phoneix", it's a double out and back coaster that gives great airtime, and a fantastic ride.
"The Twister" is another woodie, designed by the Knoebels staff, and provides a jaw-crunching two-and-a-half minute ride that no one should miss.
There are kiddie rides. Thrill rides. Vintage rides. A vintage spook house "dark ride" that's consistently rated as one of the best in the nation. And the best bumper cars I've ever ridden.
And here's the kicker: The prices are dirt-cheap. I'm talking less-than-county-fair-prices cheap. Check out this price list if you don't believe me. You can wander the park for the day, get your fill of rides, and spend less than 20 bucks total. I bought a $38 wristband, and I'm not even sure that with a full day of riding that I came out on the positive side of that transaction. No matter—I had a ball.
And the food. OMG, the food. You expect to get ripped off at the food court when you go to a place like this, but seriously, check out this menu. The prices are more than reasonable, they're downright frugal. I found myself looking at pricing and thinking there must have been a misprint. I don't know how they do it.
Ultimately, the appeal of Knoebels is in its old-school charm. You feel like you've been transported to another era. The staff is universally friendly, the old-school rides are warm and inviting, and the new thrill rides almost seem out of place, although they're necessary to draw a diverse crowd in an era of folks seeking bigger and better thrills. But none of that old-school charm has been sacrificed. You'll find a "shooting gallery". Games of chance. An arcade. There's a vintage carousel, and even a carousel museum, with dozens of examples of carousel horses and animals that are truly works of art.
Knoebels understands their place in the amusement park pantheon very well. They don't try to be something they're not. The park mascot is a homegrown chipmunk, and the only corporate sponsorship I saw in the entire park was the log flume ride, sponsored by Pepsi.
And in a remarkable bit of honoring the past while simultaneously looking to the future, the latest "under construction" ride is a re-creation of a classic "Flying Turns" rollercoaster, the likes of which hasn't been seen since the last one was torn down in the 1970's. This will be the ride that truly puts Knoebels over the top for coaster enthusiasts worldwide. It's the perfect addition to the park.
Full disclosure: I met the Knoebel family several years back while on a client shoot. I found them to be wonderful people, laser-beam focused on running a park where everyone feels comfortable and has a good time. It shows in the atmosphere of the place, and if this blog post sounds like a commercial, all I can say is this: to fully understand, you have to go there.
I'm going to try and get back once more before the season is over. And if you're ever in the area (really, it's in the bowels of PA, so no one really ever IS in the area), be sure to pay a visit. You won't regret it for a moment.
Ride the Phoenix (this video excludes the exit from the station and the tunnel before the lift, but it's from the POV of the front car, so it's awesome):