Elysburg, Pennsylvania – Saturday, October 15th, 2011
The more I think about it, the more I think Knoebels might be the best amusement park in the world. The entire critical framework I’ve developed over the past couple of years for evaluating parks and attractions, Knoebels fits more perfectly than anywhere else I’ve been the world over. The entire pricing structure, from the free parking and admission with options to pay per ride or get an unlimited wristband, is completely egalitarian and never devalues the sense of a dollar with overly clever marketing gimmicks. The food is homespun, eclectic, fairly priced, and most of all delicious. Employees mix efficiency with friendliness while never coming off as robots programmed by an overzealous human resources department. The smorgasbord of attractions to choose from is frankly mindboggling, and the park is home to some of the best working examples of nearly every classic ride genre, be it carousels, bumper cars, dark rides, miniature railroads, flying scooters, and, yes, even their roller coasters. Many people don’t consciously realize it, but the Phoenix is actually a haiku disguised as a wooden roller coaster, while the more roughly hewn Twister, with its simple but effectual progressions between deep drops and drawn-out helices, is actually a scratchy blues recording. The natural setting is breathtaking, and the park never tries to mask the landscape or community beyond the property line in an attempt to create an ‘escape from reality’.
That last point is the most important thing about Knoebels: it exudes a special kind of authenticity unmatched anywhere else in the amusement industry. This isn’t a “mosquito frozen in amber inside a time capsule” type of nostalgic authenticity, because they somehow manage to continuously change with the times and make their product fresh and exciting for the next generation. Nor is it the “anthropological petting zoo that privileged white tourists like myself travel halfway around the world to gawk at” type of cultural authenticity, because there’s nothing and no one here that would feel out of place in my hometown. And it certainly isn’t the “duplicated with perfect accuracy to simulate a vaguely unspecific historical time and place” type of pseudo-authenticity that passes for edutainment at most theme parks these days. Rather, it allows for a personal authenticity at the human level. It’s the kind of place that makes no deceptions about what it is are and why they do what they do, and so you too have the freedom to come as you are and enjoy this place of leisure however you wish. No imposing façades, no self-serious backstories to memorize, no blowhard marketing promises, and therefore no bad faith. That’s the special kind of authenticity Knoebels has.
Which makes it kind of weird that I’m writing all of this, because I’m still not entirely certain that Knoebels is one of my personal favorite amusement parks. Knoebels is one of those places that is often described as having an ineffable character that communicates directly at the level of the human soul and can’t be objectively measured or quantified for those who haven’t gone there personally. Yet, in a move that’s typical Jeremy, I’ve managed to find a way to objectively measure and quantify the distinct charm that is “Knoebels”, and am now in a process of trying to convince myself that my analysis is accurate and that I actually feel more love and warmth towards the place than I necessarily feel like I do.
The problem, I suspect, is myself. The first time I visited Knoebels was relatively recent in my coaster riding career (2008), and this last-minute autumn excursion to eastern Pennsylvania for their Hallo-Fun Nights event marks only the second time I’ve ever visited their property. I’ve simply not had enough of an opportunity to create a unique, personal bond with the place. My experiences at Knoebels so far mimic exactly what the travel guides and enthusiast praise promise, which isn’t a bad thing, just that I’m still lacking those never-to-be-repeated-in-a-lifetime memories that make a certain place, time, feeling, or smell stand out amid the murky underworld of unconscious desire. With time and enough additional visits, Knoebels will grow into the all-time favorite park I believe it has the potential to be for me. But until that day arrives, I obviously should revise some of my claims about the absence of bad faith at Knoebels, since it’s clear I can’t even be totally honest about my own feelings for the park.
The main impetus for trekking over 500 miles from home for a weekend excursion was, of course, to see the pretty autumn colors in eastern Pennsylvania. Well, there was that reason, but there was also a new roller coaster at Knoebels that, as good fortune would have it, officially debuted only the previous weekend. Since Knoebels construct all of their major attractions using their own in-house team of carpenters and designers, those waiting for the grand debut of their newest attractions require a combination of patience and a flexible schedule. The Phoenix opened in June ‘85, the Twister opened in July ‘99, Kozmo’s Kurves in August ‘09, and now the Black Diamond in October ‘11. At this rate, we can probably expect the Flying Turns to open sometime in December, although of which year is far less certain. If asked during my last visit in 2008, I never would have believed that the next time I’d visit Knoebels three years later there would be two new roller coasters operating on the property, neither of which would be the Flying Turns.
The Black Diamond sits in the far back right corner of the park, not far from the Phoenix and immediately across from the International Food Court. Currently it is not included on any unlimited ride wristbands; tickets are $2.50 each. I’m not sure if this is permanent like for the Haunted Mansion or if it will one day become included after the new ride rush has settled down, but it makes sense for now as a way to curb demand and ease congestion in the slow-moving lines, as well as to help the park’s short term return-on-investment for charitably saving the historic attraction. Each pair of mine carts seats a maximum of eight people, and they weren’t dispatching cars with overwhelming frequency (perhaps due to limitation of the safety blocking technology), meaning we were looking at a queue time of about a half hour. As long as the Phoenix was under a five minute wait for free and we’d be paying $5.00 per additional ride, Black Diamond would have to be a onetime only affair on this visit, so I apologize if I’m unable to go into as much detail as I would have liked.
I’m not sure exactly how much physical material the Black Diamond reuses of the old Golden Nugget (as it used to be known at Dinosaur Beach in Wildwood, New Jersey), but Knoebels seem to have done a good job balancing the preservation of historical technologies of this dark ride roller coaster hybrid that anchor its lineage back to Wildwood, while simultaneously updating other aspects of the attraction to make it feel like it’s always belonged at Knoebels. It still utilizes the steel girder track construction, a ruler and drafting compass designed layout, and seatbelt-only rolling stock, which retains that crudely efficient feeling that’s missing from modern CAD based amusement rides and which we’ve come to expect as a hallmark of a good Knoebels attraction. If it wasn’t built by hand then it probably wasn’t built with love, that seems to be their mantra. Meanwhile, the old gold rush western theme is out, replaced with a customized Pennsylvania coal miner setting. It’s firmly rooted in the local heritage (heck, the coal mining museum is directly next door) and if you look closely throughout the ride you’ll notice a few winks and nods to local places and events. There’s a couple decent sized drops (or, more appropriately, downhill ramps) and the layout is surprisingly longer than I was expecting from the queue. I’m still not entirely sure if I’m comfortable calling it a roller coaster instead of a dark ride, because despite the presence of several chain lift hills it seems to be in about the same category as the Pretzel dark rides found at places such as Conneaut Lake Park. Not that nomenclature even matters so long as it’s a fun ride that demonstrates mastery of the craft.
If there’s one thing about the Black Diamond I would like to see some modifications made to, it would be the exterior of the building. The boxy, black sheet metal enclosure just looks too unwelcoming and industrial for Knoebels. Looking at pictures of the original Golden Nugget, the attraction used to be an indoor/outdoor design and had a more textured, three-dimensional façade over the front. Although I like that it’s now totally enclosed from the perspective of the rider, from the perspective of a spectator I’m left a little cold. An earthier texture, some false windows and trimming, or even a nice mural by a local artist would be a more than welcomed addition. At the time I was willing to assume that these details simply didn’t have time to be added yet if they wanted to have it ready for Phall Phoenix Phunfest, but after searching for a few photos from 2012 it appears they haven’t done anything more with it over the winter, either.
The second new coaster since my previous visit, Kozmo’s Kurves, was not part of Hallo-Fun Weekends and so I didn’t get a chance to ride it. Them’s the breaks, I guess. In fact, the entire front half of the park opposite the creek was closed off except for the carousel. What was odd was that, even with this huge chunk of attractions missing from the lineup, the park experience still felt complete and like it wasn’t missing anything important for a satisfying day. Maybe it’s because most of the more elaborate adult attractions are found in the back half of the park, but it still goes to show how there’s never a lack of choice in Knoebels’ ride collection. Most of the rides that we had to choose from we had already done in 2008, but we still had more than enough to occupy ourselves with all the way up to the 10:00pm closing time. However, one ride we hadn’t done previously that I wanted to be sure to try this time was the one-and-a-half mile long Pioneer Train. The layout takes us through the superstructure of the Twister and briefly through the park, before turning out towards the woods and leading us far away from civilization. They had some Halloween props set up along the course, though they weren’t very impressive in the daylight. They were intended for an enhanced night ride experience, and although we planned on riding it again in the dark after our first mostly empty afternoon excursion, the train somehow accumulated a nearly two hour wait once the evening ticket people started to arrive. I’m certain our daytime ride allowed for much better pictures anyway, so enjoy this brief slideshow:
As can probably be guessed from the name, the Knoebels’ Hallo-Fun Nights event is geared more towards kids and families than it is for thrill seekers. There are no haunted walk-through mazes, just a simple straw maze for kids. The miniature railroad and antique cars supposedly both have some additional scares present after dark, but the lines for these became incredibly long once the evening crowds arrived so I have nothing to report on here. The biggest appeal of Knoebels during the Halloween season is just to enjoy the coasters and wandering the park with the colorful, brisk autumn atmosphere. Seriously, I wasn’t joking when I mentioned earlier in this report the primary reason for driving 500 miles to eastern Pennsylvania. If my only interest was in riding the Black Diamond, it would have made more sense to wait for the following summer when I could also sample new roller coasters at nearby Hersheypark and Dorney Park. But since the natural surroundings are such an important aspect of the Knoebels experience, I vowed I would not pass up an opportunity to visit the park during a different season when given the chance, even if it meant making Sky Rush a lower priority destination the following summer.
Much of the time spent was refamiliarizing my acquaintances with the Phoenix and Twister. I think an argument could be easily made that the Phoenix is the perfect wooden roller coaster. Every element is in consonance with each other, with not a single moment during the ride missing or redundant for a sense of harmonic completion when it arrives back at the station. From the mind cleansing tunnel, and then the main layout which has a balanced alteration between drops, curves, and airtime hops which slowly progresses from a higher concentration of the former to the latter, I am quite literally serious when I say that I think the Phoenix is best understood as a form of poetry. It also has the best rolling stock of any modern wooden roller coaster I can think of, the perfect combination of lightweight build, ergonomic seating, and easy accessibility for fast dispatch times. The track condition is actually quite poor (the warped track along the first drop is easily visible to the naked eye from the front row), but otherwise you’d barely notice it because the cars glide so comfortable along the track they skip over these bumps as if they were never there.
Yet for all the praise I heap on the Phoenix, I must confess a dark secret: part of me still likes the Twister a little bit more. The Phoenix is a haiku about airtime, and unfortunately I enjoy haikus more than I enjoy airtime. Twister is an aesthetic mess compared to the clean organization of the Phoenix, but the experience is also a lot meatier, with much stronger dynamic contrasts and variation in the layout. Like the Phoenix, it has a slow but purposeful opening act to help us leave the world of ordinary propositional language behind and to enter the tactile, intuitive domain of the roller coaster experience (in this case, a sequence of three S-bend turnarounds between two chain lifts). Then there’s a progression of suicidal drops, a huge double helix sustaining lateral forces, and a cluttered finale of arbitrary hills and turns shredding through the superstructure, finishing with a brief tunnel as some sort of ad hoc coda. It’s imperfect, but so are the blues or jazz, and I swear there’s something about the character of this ride that creates a similarly downbeat, melancholy mood. Perhaps it’s the helictical centerpiece, a veritable road to nowhere that forces a choice to either fight the force or let go with it. Plus, with the dense support structure casting all sorts of weird shadows by the few yellowed lights surrounding it, the Twister is a really cool visceral experience late at night.
At the end of my visit, I was seriously considering switching allegiances from team Kennywood to team Knoebels for voting in the 2012 Golden Ticket Awards. Although I’m still undecided as I write this, I should note that a huge influx of crowds during the evening hours, and the fact that the staff never bothered to transfer on the second train on either coaster despite the wait times flirting with a half hour, left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth that a slice of pizza margherita and cup of hot chocolate were unable to completely remedy. Nevertheless, I have every desire to return to Knoebels at the immediate next opportunity, with or without the Flying Turns. Maybe after a third visit I’ll finally stop equivocating and declare my unconditional love for the Pennsylvanian park.