The Keystone, Timbers, and Vengeance Tour - Part 6

August 24, 2018, 5:04 PM

To read the previous installment from Kennywood, click here.

It is not cheap to complete a two week theme park road trip, and while there are ways to make it less expensive there's always a limit. Likewise, it is challenging to travel to parks that are hundreds of miles apart, and not everyone has the time, energy, or interest to do so for weeks on end. By this point in the trip, the intensity of the itinerary was starting to take its toll, but for three of us the adventure still had another week to go.

Unfortunately, Evan would not be continuing on in the journey. While time had cleared up between the planning stages and the trip itself, changing flights would have been just too expensive. Therefore, after a breakfast at Panera (a nice break from the hotel breakfasts, though also an unexpected extra expense on the trip), we said goodbye to Evan as we departed Pittsburgh for the second two-park day of the trip. Unlike the Kentucky Kingdom and Holiday World day, today would not see us visiting a couple mid-size independent parks with similar rides to those found at the major players. Instead, we'd be visiting the smallest park on the trip, as well as the quirkiest.

The Keystone, Timbers, and Vengeance Tour
Part 6: DelGrosso's Amusement Park & Knoebels Amusement Park

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From Pittsburgh, it is a good 4 hours to get to Knoebels. In our original itinerary, the plan was to leave around 7 A.M. and drive directly to the park, as on a Saturday we were a bit worried about the crowds. This would also allow us the opportunity to make it down to Hersheypark for the sweet preview the night before (all guests get in for the last three hours of the day before their visit). However, with a desire to avoid two really early mornings in a row, we ultimately decided on a later start with an afternoon and evening at Knoebels, giving up the opportunity to visit Hersheypark during the preview period. As such, a lunch stop was needed en route, and what better place to stop than a restaurant with a side of coaster credits.

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Enter DelGrosso's Amusement Park. If you are not a Pennsylvania relative or a credit counter, chances are you've never heard of this park. Originally opened at the turn of the 1900s by the Rinard Brothers, the park was known as Bland's Park after the owner of the land on which it sat.

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The park died out during the Great Depression, and following World War II the DelGrosso family purchased what remained. Over the years, they used profits from their food business (which specializes in pizza and spaghetti sauce) in order to build up the park, eventually making it into a small playground where locals can go to spend the day.

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Our goal for this park was simple: Get in, ride the coasters, eat lunch, and get moving. My expectation was that it would be little more than a permanent carnival, given that all of their rides are just stock model traveling attractions. Surprisingly, however, the park puts a lot of effort into presentation. Guests enter through a well done Italian village, off of which branches a small water park with plenty of faux Italian theming.

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Beyond this, a bridge crosses an old highway to the ride park, which consists of a couple dozen rides set in a wooded picnic grove.

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The place is pay-per-ride, with each attraction costing $2-3.

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All three of us opt to ride the Crazy Mouse, a spinning wild mouse coaster with less theming and less spinning than the Exterminator.

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Douglas and I also ride X-Scream, the park's drop tower that provides a nice view of the area. Lastly, I take a spin on the Wacky Worm in order to collect the credit and provide the opportunity for Joshua and Douglas to collect blackmail photos.

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Rides complete, we head to the park's main restaurant for some food. All three of us get the signature meatball sandwich, made with famous DelGrosso's sauce. The food, though not award winning, is definitely above par for a theme park, and is a very satisfying lunch enjoyed in a quaint little family park.

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But that's about all for DelGrosso's. Our budgeted hour is up, so we grab a few pictures and make our way back to the car, as the main event for the day awaits two hours down the road.

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Despite the already rural setting of DelGrosso's, as we drove onward the roads became more and more rural. However, in the wilds of central Pennsylvania, just outside the town of Elysburg, lies one of the best hidden gems in the entire theme park industry. Most members of the public are familiar with the destination theme parks like Disney and Universal, as well as the corporate regional giants like Cedar Fair and Six Flags. However, only enthusiasts and locals have heard of a place called Knoebels Amusement Park, a mid-sized amusement park so secluded that it is hardly visible even from the parking lot.

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Knoebels is, for lack of a better description, a park that time left behind, still operating the way parks did in the golden age with few modern thrill rides and limited regard for overkill safety features. This is not a park one leaves completely unscathed (mentally if not physically), but that contributes to the overall awesomeness of the place. While I wouldn't say it was the best park on the trip (though definitely in the top tier), our time at Knoebels was probably the most fun I had on the entire tour.

In 2014, I visited Knoebels while on a group tour, and it instantly became one of my favorite parks. Despite spending a full day in a mid-sized pay per ride park, it was impossible to run out of things to do or to get bored. With this trip including Pennsylvania, I knew a return visit to this unique place was well warranted. Furthermore, Joshua and Douglas had never visited such a place, so their shock began as we made our way inside passed a random "do not enter" barrier.

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Yep, no need for a fancy front gate here...just wander in from whatever direction you please. Wander we did, aimlessly strolling the park and admiring the quirkiness of it all. Eventually, our wandering brought us to one of many ticket booths, so we purchased $100 of tickets between the three of us and started out with the park's signature ride.

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In a world dominated by RMC, it is all too easy to forget that the wooden roller coaster is not a modern creation. Here at Knoebels lives the Phoenix, one of the finest examples of the traditional woodie. Dating back to 1948, this coaster was saved after its former home closed, as Knoebels disassembled and rebuilt the ride board by board.

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While only a family coaster by today's standards, the Phoenix is still a legend, providing copious amounts of floater airtime as it coasts along a reasonably lengthy double out-and-back track. At $3 a pop, this is one of the park's more expensive attractions, but it's well worth every penny for a fun romp on a perfectly maintained classic.

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Cameo appearances by Joshua (top, front row) and Douglas (bottom, back row)

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Nearby is the Black Diamond, a roller coaster/dark ride hybrid themed to coal mining. This attraction tells an interesting tale, as ordinary miners at work become victims of a cave in and die a gruesome death before riders plunge to the underworld. With no resolution, the ride comes to an abrupt end, making this the Knoebels equivalent of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Douglas particularly enjoyed this attraction, opting to take more than one ride on it. As for me, I find this an interesting ride, though not among the best at this quirky park.

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For those in need of themed attractions, Knoebels does feature one other dark ride. Simply titled the Haunted Mansion, this is an old-school spook house full of immaculate gags that are sure to catch riders off guard. The ride lasts nearly four minutes, but there is not a single dead spot in here. I lost count of the number of times I jumped at something, but it was more than is typical at a Halloween haunt maze. They don't make rides quite like this anymore due to lack of popularity, so the fact that Knoebels has one that continues to draw a sizable crowd is a huge statement to the quality of the ride.

For those who must have more modern rides, Knoebels does feature a few. New since my last visit is Impulse, a Zierer Tower Speed Coaster that looks halfway between a Gerstlauer Eurofighter and HangTime. After a vertical lift, the ride features a perfectly vertical drop followed by four inversions and a helix. It's not a bad ride and is quite smooth, though the ride is super short and lacks the intensity of Gerstlauer's product. It also feels weirdly out of place at Knoebels, where one would expect an old Schwarzkopf to fill the role of steel looper.

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At this point, the day became a bit fuzzy. I remember taking the Scenic Skyway for the views and riding Skloosh with Douglas in order to cool off, but I forget what else we happened to do (beyond wandering aimlessly). Eventually, we made our way back toward the Phoenix, but instead of opting for a re-ride, we headed next door to the Giant Flume, Knoebels above-average log flume. It was here that the true colors of Knoebels began to show through.

The ride began just like any ordinary log flume...lift out of the station, small drop, then some winding through the woods until we reached the base of the main lift. Here, however, we encountered a log jam. As it turned out, we were the last log to board before the ride went down. An operator came out to inform us of the situation, and we figured, "No big deal. We'll just sit here for a bit and then get moving." Well, in order to restart the ride, Knoebels had to shift everything into manual mode, thus disabling the spacing computer. Therefore, we climbed the lift, rounded the turn on top, and then found ourselves beginning to plunge down the big drop. The log in front of us? They were maybe twenty feet down the spillway. Needless to say, a log with two large adult males and one Joshua-sized male is going to weigh a lot more than one with two teenage girls. We all braced for impact as our log sped down the drop and crashed into the log in front toward the far end of the spillway. It wasn't a painful impact, but it was one you definitely felt. As it turned out, our ride ended with us making a profit, as we not only walked off with our tickets refunded but also a free water bottle (retail price...$2.50) for our trouble.

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To make sure we got all the coasters in before another potential disaster, we decided to head over and brave the queue for Flying Turns. Due to a weight restriction, this coaster typically only seats 3-4 riders per train, and therefore even with three trains running it was around a 45 minute wait.

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The ride itself is interesting...not an overly thrilling ride, but a very unique one that feels more like a waterslide than a roller coaster. It is a design once common among amusement parks, but now Knoebels has the only one in existence as only they are crazy enough to build it themselves from old blueprints.

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This left only one coaster for us to tackle...Twister, the park's largest coaster. Built in-house from the blueprints of Elitch Garden's Mr. Twister, this wooden coaster lives up to its name with plenty of high speed turns and laterals with a few airtime moments thrown in for good measure. Like everything at the park, Knoebels takes good care of this ride, and despite being almost 20 years old it runs better than most woodies half its age.

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It's tough to say which is better between Twister and Phoenix...I personally prefer the latter as it is just an all-around fun ride, but Twister is going to be more appealing for those that like intensity or lateral forces.

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Yes, we are still inside Knoebels. Private houses are scattered around the property.

The headliners complete, we decided it was time for dinner, so after trekking back through the maze of rides we wound up at Cesari's Pizza. While not award winning when compared to pizzerias at large, the pizza here is better than what can be found at most amusement parks, and at less than $6 for a large slice and a birch beer (a regional soda similar to root beer) it's a steal by amusement park standards. Unfortunately, our timing was a bit off and the pizza had been clearly left under heat lamps rather than freshly made, but it was still a decent dinner option in my opinion. Joshua the pizza connoisseur agreed, while Douglas was a bit disappointed with his Sicilian slice.

After dinner, we parted ways as Douglas wanted to re-ride some attractions while I wanted to check out the old-school flats. Chief among these were two legendary Knoebles classics...the Flyer, and the Skooters.

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Flying Scooters have become one of the signature family rides at amusement parks in the United States, but most of the current models are newer designs. Knoebels, on the other hand, still operates a vintage set. Powered by a gasoline engine, this ride spins at twice the speed of Larson's model, and due to the shape of the sails it is ridiculously easy to "snap" the cables. The result turns a mild ride into a wild one as skilled flyers get within touching distance of the nearby trees. The operator doesn't seem to care...he just sits in his chair and watches a clock to ensure proper cycle length (about 2 minutes).

If the Flyer is thrilling, the Skooters are insane. On the surface, it looks like your typical bumper car attraction, but if you take a close look you'll quickly realize it is more like a demolition derby. Old cars with steel bumpers careen around the oval course, smacking into each other hard enough to briefly tip onto two wheels. As expected, pileups are frequent, with the only resolution coming from the grizzled old operator calling out "Turn the wheel...all the way." On a scale of 1-10, this one rates about a 9.5 for injury potential, but it is one of the most fun flat rides in any park in the world. If the queue wasn't overflowing, I would absolutely have ridden more than once...it's just that good.

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Joshua and I also took a spin on a couple slower rides: The Pioneer Train, a 15 minute train ride out into the woods surrounding the park with plenty of views of the local wildlife (primarily squirrels stealing corn from feeders), and Gasoline Alley, a reasonably lengthy antique car ride winding below the far end of the Phoenix.

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Eventually, the time approached for us to meet Douglas at the Fascination parlor and play a few rounds of this old-fashioned carnival game. A combination of roller ball and bingo, this is a game about speed, accuracy, and patience, with a large number of wins needed to obtain one of the more unusual prizes. While this place was packed on my previous visit, this time only around a dozen of the tables were occupied. We all bought $5 of game tokens, enough for about twenty minutes of enjoyment, but I was the only one who achieved a win in that period.

After redeeming the prize tickets on a dessert, I used some of the remaining tickets for re-rides on the Phoenix and the Twister, then we opted to close out the night with a ride on the Grand Carousel. A historic carousel with both a working Wurlitzer organ and an active ring dispenser, this is one of the best carousels in the world. None of us managed to win a free ride by scoring the brass ring, but it was still a perfect way to close out the night.

As we made our way out to the car, Knoebels closed down for the night behind us. One of the last in what was a busy lot, we found our dew-soaked car and departed for Harrisburg, our destination for the night. Within a mile, we were lost in the woods, and it wasn't until nearly an hour later that we reached a familiar interstate. Truly an excellent end to an epic day.

Knoebels Coaster Ranking:

A:

1. Phoenix

B:

2. Twister

C:

3. Impulse
4. Flying Turns

Next Time: A semi-sweet day at the sweetest park in the country

Be sure to check out Douglas's report on these two parks for a take from a less experienced (though more traveled) theme park enthusiast.

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