In the backwoods of central Pennsylvania, Knoebels (pronounced Kuh-No-bels) is situated on 300 acres of land in a small valley in the foothills of the mountains just north of Harrisburg. But it's not near any populated areas or big cities, said Joe Muscato, marketing and public relations manager.
"It's very much out in the country," he said. "There is free parking, free admission. It's the kind of place people come to stay a week."
Admission is free, visitors only pay for the rides, ranging from roller coasters to carousels to thrill rides, family rides and kiddie rides. Rides are priced from 75 cents to $3.
The park has two campgrounds, an 18-hole golf course, a water park, train rides and museums. The park's restaurants and food outlets that have been consistently voted the best in the country. It's known as a family owned and operated amusement park, picnic grove and campground and, for 87 years, it has been the nation's largest free amusement park.
Knoebels, usually without the apostrophe, was originally known as "Peggy's Farm." With its creek-fed swimming hole, it was a popular picnic destination in the early 20th century, attracting Sunday travelers and horse-drawn hayride wagons. Farmer Henry Knoebel sold soft drinks, ice cream and snacks to the visitors. The area became known as Knoebels Grove and Knoebel leased plots of land along the creeks for use as summer cottage sites. Some of the original privately-owned cottages, as well as cottages Knoebel built and rented, still exist in the park.
In 1926, Knoebel added a restaurant, a steam-powered Philadelphia Toboggan Company carousel, and a few simple games to his grove, marking the beginning of Knoebels Amusement Park. On July 4, 1926, he opened a large concrete swimming pool on the site of the old swimming hole. The new pool featured a filtration system that provided clean water instead of muddy creek water, and it was named "The Crystal Pool." Since then, the park has developed around the pool, adding 50 rides, assorted games, concession stands and other attractions.
A campground with six sites opened behind the amusement park in 1962, and as of 2004, the campground covered 160 acres with 500 sites. The clean, spacious campgrounds are a large part of Knoebel's appeal for families, said Muscato. Fifty-amp campsites rent for $47 a night or $290 a week. Lake Glory Campsite, a second campground, is conveniently located a few miles from the first site and shuttle service is provided to the amusement park. Primitive sites are $260 a week. Sites with electricity, water and sewer are $290 a week.
There are also cabin rates available at the campsite. Single rates, which sleep up to six people, are $130. Double rates, which sleep up to 16 people, are $229. Campers must provide their own bedding, and bathrooms are located nearby. Other "Eagle Roost" units are available for $229 a night. There's a convenient campers' store, and religious services are provided on weekends.
Eighteen holes of golf, with a cart provided, costs $27 per person on non-holidays. There are evening specials after 2 p.m.
Admission to the Crystal Pool is $7, and you can swim and slide all day for $14. Water slides are only $8.50 after 2 p.m. You can also pay one price for the entire park and pool package. The cost is $36 for visitors under 48 inches tall, $44 if you want to include the wooden roller coasters. The price is reduced after 5 p.m., and there are special bargain nights.
Knoebels Amusement Park has garnered recognition for excellence for years. The park features 60 rides, two wooden roller coasters, two historic carousels and a haunted house dark ride that was featured on the Discovery Channel. The park and its rides have won awards from organizations such as Amusement Today, American Coaster Enthusiasts and The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.
Knoebels won the Amusement Today Golden Ticket Award for best amusement park food for 14 consecutive years from 1998 until 2011, but dropped to second place in 2012, narrowly losing to Dollywood, but in 2013, Knoebels tied for first place with Dollywood. Several full service restaurants and snack facilities serve the park.
The Park, which straddles Northumberland and Columbia counties, is still owned by the Knoebel family. The family also operates a lumberyard next to the park. The family is actively involved in the operation of the amusement park, said Muscato. The fourth generation of the family is "working its way up."
Although Knoebels has consistently improved and enlarged, the family-oriented park has also had its problems. The converging woodland streams that formed the original swimming hole have been the center of many of the problems.
It's not a river that feeds the streams, said Muscato, so there is little that could be done to correct the problems from an engineering standpoint. The two streams are simply allowed to fill during particularly rainy times and often, the streams overrun their banks and go into the park.
That happened on June 22, 1972. The creeks that run through Knoebels, swollen with heavy rains from Hurricane Agnes, rose six feet over their boundaries. The flood destroyed six cottages and many other buildings, including 24 of 25 rides and the park's roller rink. The roller rink building was re-floored and used as a skating rink until the mid-1980s. It was then converted into the "Roaring Creek Saloon," which now contains a concession stand, an arcade, a theater and performances. A new building constructed after the flood became the Haunted Mansion. The Haunted Mansion ride opened in 1973. The ride has been recognized as one of America's best dark rides by organizations such as Dark Ride and Funhouse Enthusiasts and The National Amusement Park Historical Association.
The park again suffered major flooding in 1975, 1996, 2004, 2006, and 2011. Each caused substantial damage, but the 1975 and 1996 floods occurred during the off-season. Although the January 1996 flood left substantial damage, the worst damage occurred after the waters receded and everything froze, making cleanup and repair throughout the amusement park difficult. The September 2004 flood, caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ivan, was only a half-day event and Knoebels staff had the amusement park partially reopened by mid-afternoon.
On June 28, 2006, a flood second only to the Agnes flood struck Knoebels. About 90 percent of the amusement park was under water just prior to the July 4th weekend. As the waters began to recede, Knoebels staff was able to reopen over 60 percent of its attractions within two days and 90 percent within four days. Because over 100 tons of mud had to be dug out of the Crystal Pool, it required 10 days to be operational. The last ride to return to operation was the Kiddie Panther Cars. Repairs took almost three weeks.
Another flood happened on March 11, 2011. The park had minor damage, due to heavy snow followed by a rise in temperature bringing heavy rain and sleet. According to Knoebels Twitter account, the Mini Golf was eight inches under water, it reached the door of the Country Store. They also reported that the flood wasn't nearly as bad as they have had in the past.
On September 7, 2011, Knoebels experienced its most recent flood, caused by Tropical Storm Lee. Water levels neared those of the flood of 1972 and damages exceeded it. The majority of the park reopened the following weekend, having missed only two days of operation.
Despite the problems, the management and staff at Knoebels keeps repairing and coming back, providing clean and affordable entertainment year after year, generation after generation.
"This is a place you can afford to bring the entire family," said Muscato. "If some family members aren't riders, you can enjoy having them there in the park."