Knoebels is the retro amusement park Wes Anderson wishes he dreamt up. Aside from the ’50s Futura font plastered over everything from ride signage to pavilion placards, the Elysburg, PA park has a roller coaster of a history rivaling that of “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Submerged by floods, restrained by recessions, and temporarily shut down by WWII (the war broke out just 10 days after the debut of their now-famous Grand Carousel!), Knoebels has been through it all. When my boyfriend suggested we make the 2-and-a-half-hour drive for an outing with his family, I was stoked. Growing up, Knoebels was an annual end-of-summer destination for my family and me. Every August, my mom, dad, and brother would snap a photo with the chipmunk mascot, slide down the log flume and try to convince me to graduate from the 7-foot-high kiddie coaster to one of the old-fashioned wooden versions. This trip was no different (selfie with woodland creature omitted for personal integrity’s sake). Let me give you a little peek into this retro wonderland…
Walking through the park’s entrance as an adult, you feel as though you’ve shrunken right down into an old-fashioned toy chest scattered throughout some sort of magical forest. It’s a little “Alice In Wonderland”-y. Rail-guided antique cars (designed like Ford Model T’s) crank and sputter through towering pines. A massive birthday cake towers atop clusters of picnic tables. Gingerbread men the size of Shaq peek shyly out from a wooded alcove. For eight blissful hours, I felt totally transported from reality into a sugar-coated playland.
We kicked off the visit with a few spins on the ferris wheel to get a panoramic survey of the theme park’s rides and attractions. As the wheel spun up, I quickly realized the worry-free mentality of childhood had long passed me by…
I was clawing into my boyfriend’s shoulders as a montage of possible “Final Destination”-esque scenarios projected in my head. This wheel is HIGH! I quickly started snapping and filming the view, hoping that seeing the drop from my phone’s screen would make it all feel a little less real. I survived. And, with some coaxing from my boyfriend’s mom, I set out to hit up some of my other favorite rides from my childhood.
First up, the sky ride, a literal ski lift transplanted from Vermont that offers passengers a 15-minute glide up the mountain that hugs the park’s edge. Here’s the view from the top:
Ya, totally magical. Now that my fear of heights was thoroughly revived, we set out to jostle my haunted house phobia with the Haunted Mansion. Thankfully, the ride navigates you through the multi-story Victorian home on a neat little cart, so you can make your way through without ever taking your hands off your eyes (which is basically what I did). Should you keep your vision fully unhindered on the excursion, I’m told you’ll be greeted by endearingly retro ghouls, so maybe it’s worth a full peek. Once my voice was exhausted from shrieking, it was on to the log flume, one of my all-time faves.
Though the ride consists of stomach-churning drops, the log flume has never instilled the same paranoia in me as coasters. Maybe it’s because the aquamarine waterways and tree stump canoes just feel more … natural?
The rest of the day was a kaleidoscopic blur of neon arcade lights, whirring rides and Neapolitan ice cream. I was ecstatic. You know that all-too-common feeling when you revisit a childhood relic to find that it isn’t as innocent, as big, as shiny as you remember it? You won’t feel that here.
That was kind of the point when the O.G. Knoebel family built the park. It started simply as a place to provide entertainment for those visiting the Knoebels farm and it has maintained its whimsical vibe ever since. A sign in the on-site Knoebels history museum playfully attributes their 90 years of success to never throwing anything away. I’m sure I’ll be saying the same thing at 90 😉
Ultimately though, to loop things back to a classic Anderson film, I would say Knoebels’ longevity can be credited to its commitment to fully honoring a moment in time, a moment in American culture, without exploiting it. You can feel it from the big band music that still plays while you’re waiting in line to the brass rings at the opulent carousel. Knoebels wasn’t built as a replica of an old-fashioned park. It’s just OLD. And they don’t charge you for that novelty. It is one of the few theme parks in the US that doesn’t charge admission. Yup, it’s totally free to get in. And for that reason I can’t recommend it more. Even if you spend the entire trip Instagramming, psyching yourself out of actually going on any rides (as I mostly did), you’ll leave feeling totally satisfied.
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