Pennsylvania's Picnic Groves and Trolley Parks (PAGE 8 OF 8)
by Phil Gould
: Added February 2013

Opening for business for the first time in 1926 the park is operated by the Knoebel (pronounced kun-no-bel) family. It has an almost unique setting in the middle of the countryside close to the small town of Elysburg. The amusement park has free entry and is home to many historic attractions some of which have been rescued from now defunct parks across America. It is still winning plaudits and awards from amusement park fans from around the world. 

It is difficult to know how to start describing Knoebels using words alone. Like Idlewild the amusement park is constructed in heavily wooded countryside. But unlike the former it appears to be in the middle of nowhere. I drove along many double track roads before starting to see signs for Knoebels - thank god for SatNav! Turning off the main road I headed into what seemed like a wood. After driving around a couple of bends I spotted a chair lift going across the road and an unusual looking Helter Skelter next to the Whip. But just like the park near Ligonier most of Knoebels delights are well hidden from view as you approach. A couple of creeks weave their way through the park so there are a  number of footbridges - both open and covered - which you have to cross to make your way around the place. There is so much of historic interest at this park but I will try to cover everything.

When you first walk into the park the Midway is dominated by the Giant Ferris Wheel and is home to a number of modern rides. The entrance sign is after this collection, I walked under the sign and saw the Grand Carousel. Dating back to 1913 it was built by the Kramer Carousel Works in Brooklyn. It has 63 horses, including 27 jumpers, and three chariots. Riders sitting on the outside row of horses can try and grab a brass ring as they gallop past. This is one of the few carousels left where you can still do this. It was purchased from Riverview Park, Rahway, New Jersey in 1941. But it did not open for business until three years later because of the Second World War.

Not far away on the edge of Kiddie Land is the second carousel. Built by Stein & Goldstein in 1910. It has been through a number of owners and parks, including a member of the Knoebel family who travelled with carnivals. The ride was restored and installed on its present site in 1976. Kiddie Land is a treasure trove of historic rides. Toy soldiers guard the entrances to this part of the park. Rides manufactured by Allan Herschell include the fire trucks, sky fighter and helicopters. There are self propelled hand carts panther cars and a kiddie whip built out over the creek.

The Sky Slide is an unusual looking helter skelter. This is because it started life as the Rocket Ship ride in 1957. This self built attraction was a very primitive form of simulator that drew on peoples' then fascination with space travel. But the novelty soon wore off so in 1964 they up ended the rocket and built a circular slide around it. Walking back towards the main midway I passed three more historic adult rides. The Skooters, or Dodgems, are in a purpose built building. Arriving in 1947 the track has been enlarged and the cars updated although the Lusse Skooters have a fantastic retro look. Still a very popular ride too. Not far away is the Satelitte or Roll o Plane. Similar to the Dive Bomber this ride also tilts so it spins on a horizontal plane as well as a vertical one. Manufactured by Lee Eyerly I understand that some of the rides imported into the UK had the capacity to operate like this but UK showmen decided not to use the mechanism. I took a ride and after all these years this ride still has the capacity to make me feel queasy. The final vintage ride in this section of the park is the Whipper. A full size W F Mangels built Whip which was purchased from Croop's Glen in 1950 - a nearby park that had gone out of business.           

Moving back onto the main midway I spotted the Pioneer Train. This gasoline powered narrow gauge train, opened in 1960, takes guests on a one and half mile journey underneath the Twister roller coaster and out into the woods. Speaking of which the next ride I decided to try out was the Twister. While this only opened for business in 1999 it is largely based on the 1964 John Allen designed Mister Twister that operated at the original Elitch Gardens in Denver, Colorado. They had intended to relocate the original ride but found it was not in a suitable condition but they did get their hands on the plans. The 102 ft tall ride features a 90ft drop with a curved loading station and double up lift hill. The name comes from the ride's twisted layout. It was pretty wild and pretty rough. So as I valued my spine I decided not to take a second ride. Walking across the midway to the other side of the park I walked by a collection of rare rides. Starting with the Flyer or Flying Skooters installed in 1971, a restored Allan Herschell Looper flat ride (I think there is only one of these still operating in the UK). Then I came to another Herschell creation the Roto Jets. Installed in 1965 these used to be a common sight in the UK. This example has been kept in immaculate condition by Knoebels. Also in this area was the Cosmotron or a caterpillar, minus a canvas cover, but enclosed inside a domed building. This ride was acquired from West View Park in Pittsburgh in 1978. Next in line was the Lifting Paratrooper which dates back to 1970. Behind this was a Tea Cups ride. I'm not sure of the year this opened but it looks very similar to the ride that is at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.

From these rides it was a short walk past some food outlets when I came to a remote corner and one of the park's premier attractions The Haunted Mansion. This fantastic dark ride was designed and built by park staff using track and tricks from other ghost trains in now defunct parks. The cars take three minutes to travel around the entire ride which is packed full of gags. American enthusiasts say this is the ghost train by which all others are judged.                          

Another dark ride that has only recently opened for business, although it isn't of recent origin, is Black Diamond. The dark ride/roller coaster hybrid opened for business at Knoebels in October 2011. It originally started life as The Golden Nugget Mine Ride at Hunt's Pier in Wildwood, New Jersey. Designed by John Allen and constructed by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company the three storey attraction took riders on a tour of the desert mine when it opened in July 1960. In December 2008 Morey's Piers announced they were going to demolish the ride. Knoebels heard about this and bought the trains and track. Now in a purpose built building at the back of the park the ride really reminded me of the defunct Goldmine at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Another roller coaster that has risen from the ashes at Knoebels is Phoenix.  Designed by Herbert Schmeck and built by the Philapephia Toboggan Company  from 1947 to 1980 this roller coaster operated as The Rocket in Playland Park, San Antionio. It was purchased in 1984 and as there was no blueprint each piece of timber was numbered and catalogued before being transported to Knoebels. The 78ft high double out and back ride opened for business in PA in June 1985. It was the first large scale wooden coaster to open at the park. Was it worth all the effort? It certainly was as it gives a smooth, fast ride with plenty of airtime. In fact once you drop down the first drop you will find it hard to stay in your seat. Really great fun.

Before I finish my tour of Knoebels I should mention the other coaster on site. It is standing but not operating at present. The Flying Turns is a wooden bobsled roller coaster based on a similar ride designed by John Bartlett and John Miller that once operated at Riverview Park in Chicago. Construction work began on the ride in January 2006. The track was completed 15 months later and test runs with the trains started taking place. But they hit a snag with the trains and are still trying to sort this out. Let's hope they do get this ride to operate as it will be a great addition to the park's lineup. Although it is out of the way Knoebels is well worth a visit (I have been twice in two years). It has a unique setting and many rides that you just can't ride at many other places. There is also a museum looking at the park's history and a carousel horse museum. I can only admire the Knoebel family for their foresight and determination in maintaining this truly exceptional traditional amusement park. It provided a fitting finish to this part of my tour. Next time I will stop off at the traditional parks of New York State.                                                


The entrance to Knoebels. Picture: Phil Gould

The fire trucks with Kiddieland behind. Picture: Phil Gould

The retro Lusse Skooters on the Dodgem track. Picture: Phil Gould

The Flyer, a flying skooters ride installed in 1971. Picture: Phil Gould

The Phoenix. Picture: Phil Gould

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More on Pennsylvania's amusement parks
Lakewood Park by the Guinan family
Conneaut Lake Park by Michael E Costello
Kennywood by David P Hahner Jnr
Idlewild by Jeffrey S Croushore
Dorney Park by Wally Ely and Bob Ott
Amusement Parks of Pennsylvania by Jim Futrell

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