Monday, July 20, 2015

from a park you can hear the happy sounds from a carousel

Early on Sunday morning, Mrs. P and I hopped in the car and headed up the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Somewhere along the way, we must have driven through a time portal. That was our conclusion when we pulled into the expansive, grass-covered parking lot of Knoebels.

Does your theme park have a giant cake?
Tucked away in a pastoral wooded area known as "Peggy's Valley" when it first opened its gates in 1926, Knoebels is something of an anachronistic anomaly. It hearkens back to a time when families would pack a wicker picnic basket filled with sandwiches, potato salad and big jug of lemonade for an al fresco meal in a tree-lined grove. When little kids would get excited to ride on a beautifully carved and painted wooden horse to the soundtrack of the calliope, breathlessly churning out an "oompah oompah" rhythm. When older boys and girls would race to grab the coveted first car of the roller coaster, then dare each other to loosen their grip on the safety bar as they "wooshed" down the rickety hills and thrilling curves. Well, that still exists at Knoebels, despite the advancement in amusement ride technology and engineering and the sprawl of modern theme parks.

Does Disney
know about this?
However, Knoebels very existence is a real head-scratcher. Parking at Knoebels is free and there is no admission charge to pass through the entrance. The park still uses paper tickets for rides and each ride is individually priced. The roller coasters and similar thrill rides cost a mere three dollars to ride. A spin through the award-winning* Haunted Mansion will set you back two dollars and the kiddie rides (a lot of 'em and they all looked looked like a whole lotta fun!) are just a buck! From the sounds of squeals and screams, riders seemed to be having the time of their lives.

As we strolled through the oddly-configured walkways, we saw smiles everywhere. Smiling parents. Smiling teens. Smiling children. This is a notable contrast to the anger-filled Dad berating his crying children at the entrance to Disney's Magic Kingdom. ("Do you know how much this goddamn trip is costing me? Stop that goddamn crying RIGHT NOW! You're gonna have a good time if I have to beat one out of you!" Happiest Place on Earth, indeed.)

Penny candy? What year is this?
We saw a couple of free shows — a hokey ventriloquist telling lame jokes, and later, a delightful improv fairy tale, featuring costumed narrators and enthusiastic audience participation. We watched kids ride on kiddie rides that we rode on as children. An arcade attendant set us up with a few free games of Fascination, an old-time arcade game with rubber balls and flashing lights, sort of like Bingo. We won a pair of licorice whips and a plastic dinosaur. I bought a soft pretzel and my wife bought a handful of penny candy from a huge display, the likes of which we had not seen since we were kids. The posted prices for food were so incredibly cheap, I thought they may have been misprints. We were quite content to meander along the winding paths that transverse the self-proclaimed "America's largest free admission amusement park," and I decided that this place was for people who have never heard of Walt Disney World. And, unlike that famous Florida theme park, we spent a grand total of four dollars over the course of our five-hour visit. (We opted not to go on any rides.)

This actually defies explanation.
In these days of bigger and better, theme parks plan and devise ways to outdo their competition. With 3D simulators whose seats vibrate to triple-looping roller coasters to ultra-themed attractions that immerse the rider into the middle of their favorite movie, TV show or comic strip, industry heavyweights like Disney, Universal and Six Flags constantly vie for increased attendance and increased income.

So, is there still room in this world for a place like Knoebels?

Well, the abundant smiles and laughter told me: "yes."

*It has been named a favorite for over 10 years by Dark Ride and Funhouse Enthusiasts. There's an organization for everyone!

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