Little-known park offers much-liked amusements

August 22, 1993|By Dianna Marder | Dianna Marder,Knight-Ridder News Service

Elysburg, Pa. -- Grab the car keys. Pack the kids. Here's fun you can afford.

It's Knoebels Grove, an amusement park that draws nearly a million folks each season. Yet, you may never have heard of it.

That's not really so surprising, since the place is just about smack-dab in the middle of nowhere (actually, the middle of Pennsylvania is more like it, about 160 miles northwest of Philadelphia).

It's an unlikely location for an amusement park -- one with a roller coaster that enthusiasts have ranked fifth-best in the nation -- sandwiched as it is between the East Branch of the Susquehanna River on the north and the fringe of the anthracite coal region on the south.

Still, this rural setting is a large part of Knoebels Grove's appeal to its clientele -- largely middle-class families, with more than a few farm boys and locals thrown in for good measure.

And they don't call this place a grove for nothing. Unlike most modern amusement parks that were built on cleared land, Knoebels (pronounced kuh-NO-bulz) gives the impression that nary an old oak was downed to make room for the rides.

But part of the park's appeal is what it doesn't have: There are no fees for parking, generally no long waits for the most popular rides, no piped-in Muzak, no billboard with a long list of Don'ts to spoil your good time, and few, if any, unruly teen-agers.

Like many others, I had never heard of Knoebels Grove -- until first my dentist and then a couple of colleagues told me about the place. After their rave reviews, I grabbed the car keys, packed the children (my daughter and her friend) and headed for fun we could afford on a recent weekend.

Now I've strolled Walt Disney World's Main Street U.S.A., so I know the feeling of fake -- surrounded by enough restored cuteness to make you feel sick to your stomach without the aid of a looping roller coaster. But this place is for real.

There's a stream (not a man-made waterway) that cuts through the park, sweetening the air and necessitating a series of covered wooden bridges. There are ancient oaks and elms and gravel paths and good food and reasonable rides -- you can even bring your dog.

On opening day, July 4, 1926, Knoebels was just a swimming pool, a carousel and a restaurant. Today, there's a giant crystal pool with filtered mountain-stream water as well as four water slides, and I'll bet you could safely tell your children to wander off and meet up with you later.

Sally, my 13-year-old daughter, has been to Disney World five times, Busch Gardens once, Canada, the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. Julia, also 13, is not a roller-coaster enthusiast. She has, however, been to "almost all the islands in the Caribbean."

If the weather had been better, we might have camped here overnight amid the tall pines. There are tent sites with platforms to cushion your body from the rocks, RV sites with all the right hookups, hot showers, tile baths, a camp store and, with the right planning, you can rent a log cabin or -- get this, Wild West fans -- a tepee that sleeps six.

Inexpensive motels

We chose the pedestrian route, checking into one of the many inexpensive ($40, children sleep free) motels off Interstate 80, a scant 13 miles from Knoebels. Then we embarked with near-seriousness to answer the question: Are we too jaded, too sophisticated (at 40-plus, am I too old?) to have fun here?

Knoebels recently instituted an all-ride, all-day ticket (max is $16.75) during the week. On weekends, it's pay-as-you-go, which was a bargain for us. We spent a total of about $17 and, in five hours, went on 10 rides apiece. We were satiated.

On the advice of my advisers among the Knoebels cognoscenti, we started our visit with a ride on one of the park's three mini-railroads. We selected the Pioneer Railway (60 cents), a train pulled by an 1865 diesel engine. It's a ride to nowhere, because instead of riding through the park, the train meanders at a walloping 8 mph through the nearby woods. The 1.5-mile path loops around a small clearing, where ears of hog corn have been stuck on strips of wood to attract deer, and passes a black ash bearing a sign proclaiming it the Black Ash Champion for 1990. "Still is the tallest and the widest, far as we know," the conductor says.

After the ride, we are tempted to eat. The Oasis is serving meatloaf, barbecued chicken, or roast pork with potato or stuffing, two vegetables, plus roll and butter for $5.25. But our stomachs face other challenges first: the 16-car Ferris wheel, the Hi-Speed Thrill Coaster, the Whirlwind (new this year -- the park's only upside-down event -- "the only one of its kind in the U.S.A.; subjects rider to forces three times as great as the Earth's gravitational pull"). And the park's prize: the Phoenix, a giant rTC vintage wooden roller coaster.

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