Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved going to amusement parks. Like many kids, I enjoyed the spectacle of it all: the colors, the flashing lights, the food, and the fun. As a teenager, I got more daring with my ride choices, frequenting ones that whipped thrill-seekers like me around at dizzying speeds. I had my limits, though: roller coasters were still mostly off limits, as were free-falling rides.

I continued going to amusement parks as an adult. Later, when my soon-to-be wife, Sandra, and I went to Disney World, our favorite ride was an indoor roller coaster. Maybe I was getting less fearful as I got older. Maybe I just wanted to impress her. My kids have followed in my footsteps— and, in my son Jeff’s case, even beyond them. His first ever amusement park ride was a roller coaster. He was five years old. Of course, he went on with his mother, while our one-year-old daughter, Laura, and I watched from below. These are the sorts of memories that flooded my mind as I drove to our latest amusement park adventure: Knoebels Amusement Resort, a family-owned park and campgrounds located in a small central Pennsylvania town called Elysburg, which is about a seventy-mile trek north of Harrisburg, the state capital.

Over the years, we’d heard a lot about Knoebels, and what we’d repeatedly heard were rave reviews. Our friends told us stories about how it’s unlike any other amusement park. Now that we were pulling onto Knoebels Road, we were about to find out for ourselves.

I immediately noticed how much ground there is, even before we got near the park. It made sense because, when John Salter first purchased the land all the way back in 1775, it included 292 acres. In 1828, the Reverend Henry Hartman Knoebel brought it into his family when he bought the plot for $931, and the reverend’s grandson, Henry, led it in the direction of amusements—which we would soon be enjoying.

As we followed the line of traffic, the expanse of the parking area unfolded before us. Sandra let out a “Wow” when she saw the number of vehicles; there had to have been thousands. We were led to a grassy area to park—without paying, as it turns out; Knoebels doesn’t charge for parking. Laura said, “I know I’m going to like this already,” and we got out to start our adventure.

After walking for a few minutes, we entered the park area—which was easy because there’s no admission charge, so there is no waiting in long lines at ticket booths or going through turnstiles—and were immediately greeted by pavilions with several covered bench areas for birthday parties. This immediately gave the park the feel of a local attraction.

As it was around one o’clock, we decided to eat first. We quickly found an eatery called Alamo Front Counter. There we stood in a short line, and my wife and son decided on burgers and my daughter a chicken sandwich. While we were waiting to order, a friendly face at the next counter (the ice cream counter, it turned out) yelled out, “Is anyone only ordering a pickle on a stick?” was waiting to hear: her primary reason for wanting to go here wasn’t the rides or the games . . .it was to eat a pickle on a stick. So I darted into the next line and bought one, and Laura was in pickle paradise.

As my family devoured their food, I went to a nearby ticket booth to buy ride tickets. I got thirty dollars’ worth of tickets, and then I took in our surroundings. It was almost a perfect day, around 75 degrees and sunny with a blue sky, and it somehow seemed sunnier here with the tree-lined mountains surrounding the park. In addition to the Ferris wheel, we were seated near a blue-and-yellow roller coaster that featured what looked to be a 90-degree drop (immediately prompting a “no” on my mental checklist), a kids balloon themed ride, and a sky ride taking patrons on a slow trek up the mountain slope to observe the entire park. Also noteworthy were the dogs—several people had their pooch pals with them in the park—as well as the sheer amount of trees inside the park, which I figured would provide ample shade on this warm day.

My family quickly finished their food, which meant it was time for rides.

We walked through an entry to the next section adorned by a wooden Knoebels sign and saw the Grand Carousel. Our first ride came with a legacy: handcrafted in 1913, Knoebels purchased this carousel a mere ten days before the start of World War II. History notwithstanding, Laura loves carousels, so she and I got in line for the ride. We soon handed over our tickets and chose horses; her selection turned out to be a good one, since brass rings are dropped down a chute at one point in the ride, so if you’re on the outside, you can try to grab them for fun every time you pass by.

After the carousel, we made a watery pit stop. We passed by the park’s large swimming pool and its four water slides, as well as one of the park’s two log flumes, Sklooosh. The kids and I ran to the latter’s observation deck to get soaked by the ride’s tidal wave. As it turns out, though, water hasn’t always been Knoebels’s friend. Tropical Storm Agnes flooded the park in 1972 by causing its creeks to rise six feet above their banks. The park also dealt with flooding in 1975, 1977, 1996, 2004, and 2011, rebuilding and recovering each time. Perhaps the biggest challenge was in 2006, when 90 percent of the park was submerged in upwards of ten feet of water after heavy rains. Remarkably, within three days (and over 11,000 man hours) the park reopened on a limited basis. As you wander through the park today, you can see signs marking the various water levels of the floods—and reminding you of the park’s resilience.

After our water adventure, Jeff wanted to try the nearby PowerSurge ride. As he and I made our way to the front of the line, we took note of a prominent sign that warned us that the park wasn’t responsible for any personal items that fell from the ride. I knew this one would be fun.

And fun it certainly was. We each strapped ourselves into a tight over-the-shoulder harness, and off we went. This particular ride spins you and whips you every which way: one second, you’re looking straight up at the blue sky and the next your entire body is facing straight down while falling from fifty feet in the air. Within a minute, Jeff managed to say, “I’m never going on this again,” and I smiled.

Next on the agenda was a swing ride with Laura (which resulted in her shouting, “This is awesome!”), and then my wife and daughter made a moment by going on a family roller coaster, Kosmo’s Kurves, together. Though reportedly terrified the entire time, Laura was happy to have tried it.

We then split up, as the girls went to shop at the Christmas Cottage (which includes, I later found out, a North Pole in front made out of real ice) and played games while Jeff and I got in line for the Flying Turns wooden roller coaster. This was the only long line of the day, and we entered at the “45 minutes from this point” marker. There are signs thoughtfully placed throughout the line to keep guests occupied, including revealing the history of this coaster. As it turns out, the ride is legendary: opened in 2014, it’s a rebuilt classic coaster from the 1920s. But one sign in particular immediately caught my eye: the one declaring that everyone would be weighed (as there was a 400-pound maximum per car) and that everyone had to hand over anything that could fly off, such as hats and glasses.

The ride was exactly as billed: the world’s only wooden bobsled roller coaster. It starts off like a typical wooden roller coaster, with the slow, ominous, uphill clanking of the gears over the wood planks. But then it whips you into a bobsled area, where you’re literally off the tracks—there’s nothing but the winding curves and your car. You then repeat this experience a second, more prolonged time before the ride ends. As one of the signs aptly says, it makes you feel like you’re flying.

With that adventure over, it was time to eat again (or, in my case, eat for the first time). We walked to the far end of the park, past several games and shops, to the International Food Court, which offers a host of food options. My family got in the American food line, where Jeff ordered another burger and Laura opted for chicken nuggets. Sandra, not very hungry, got some fries and gave in to the temptation of strawberry shortcake. Her succinct review of the dessert? “This is so good!”

That’s one thing that certainly stood out about Knoebels: the food is much better than usual amusement park fare. For example, I had a difficult choice in the Mexican food line. Tacos, an enchilada, or a burrito? I opted for the shredded beef burrito and was quite happy with my decision. The veggies were fresh and the meat delicious and ample, all packed in a fresh tortilla. Sandra eyed the burrito enviously, so I let her have a bite. When we returned to this same spot later for dinner, she got a burrito, plus another strawberry shortcake for the family to share. The dishes were that good.

Something else stood out at this food court, though—Knoebels employees write messages on the food trays. Ours said, “There are 2 things you’ll always find at the food court. Smiling faces and amazing food.” As I was bussing the tray, I quickly concluded that this was 100 percent accurate. I can’t say enough about the food being amazing. But the staff is also incredibly nice, and even the fellow customers, caught up in the ambience, are super friendly as well, with at least a handful starting up mini conversations with me while waiting in lines. That cheerfulness was a microcosm of the overall experience.

We then began the (mostly) nonride portion of our trip, and these unique offerings certainly help to set apart Knoebels from other amusement parks. Across from the food court is the dual Anthracite Mining Museum/Knoebels History Museum, which offered us a lot of opportunity for learning. Before we entered the museum, we gazed at the panning river and deliberated whether to pan for some raw materials. For time’s sake, we passed and instead entered the museum. One actually starts by going through the gift shop, which boasts a plethora of mining-related items to buy, including real rocks and gemstones, gemstone-themed jewelry (one of which Laura bought), kids’ mining hats, and other toys.

With an amethyst necklace in tow, we went into the mining museum. It features a collection of various antique mining tools and artifacts, as well as black-and-white photos and life-size exhibits, all of which served their purpose when Sandra commented to me about what life must have been like for the miners doing that job.

This led us to the back of the building, which houses the Knoebels Museum. Want to learn more about the centuries-old Knoebels story? You’ll find it here in a massive wall-length timeline, from that first land exchange in 1775 to the resort’s opening in 1926 to the various rides and attractions that have opened since then. You’ll also be entertained, as we were, by the exhibits of old fashioned carnival games, rides, and even a jukebox from Knoebels’ past, and smile at the endless array of antique photos throughout the museum.

After Laura went on a nearby ride, we then entered another museum, the Carousel Museum, which features over fifty antique carousel figures and other memorabilia dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. If you’re a fan of carousels, this is a must-stop.

Afterwards, the girls played a few nearby games (for as little as a quarter each), and we found our way toward the Americana section of the park, which features handcraftsmanship and wares of yesteryear, including a recreated wood shingle mill from the 1800s. You can watch artisans ply their trade; if you’d like a custom-made wood sign or perhaps handcrafted iron, you can observe them being made. Visit the Lost Logger to purchase an incredible handcrafted wood product, such as a wood basket, wood pumpkin, wood snowman, or life-size wood animal. (I wasn’t sure how I’d get the wood bear home, so I passed.) As impressed as I was by the skills I witnessed, I was equally impressed by the section of 220-year-old
oak displayed prominently on a mining car in the middle of the area.

To end our visit, we made our way to the Pioneer Train to tour the grounds. To get there, we crossed yet another bucolic bridge, passed the bumper cars (whose sign said were voted Best in America by USA Weekend), and got in one final logflume dousing. The train is a popular ride,so the line was long (and included some more chitchat with strangers); however, we were quickly aboard. Along the mile- and-a-half ride around the park, we went under the popular Twister wooden roller coaster, through the resort’s wooded areas, and past its various campgrounds. And, of course, when another train passed by, everyone waved to us, and we waved back. It’s that kind of place.

It’s family friendly. Kid friendly. Budget friendly. Even pet friendly. It’s just amazingly, unassumingly friendly. The Knoebels family has gone to great lengths to create a genuinely pleasant, nostalgia- inducing amusement park experience—with really fun rides, games, and attractions to boot.

As we walked back to our vehicle and commenced our two-hour-plus drive, we realized we wanted more. We hadn’t golfed at the miniature golf course, played laser tag, gone to either of the arcades (a miracle in itself), experienced the 4-D theater or haunted house, spent time in the pool, or seen the bald eagle exhibit; as far as rides, among the ones we didn’t go on were the two pirate ships, the Scenic Skyway chairlift ride above the park, and other roller coasters.

This was all right, though, because we were already planning next year’s visit to this hidden gem tucked away in the mountains of central Pennsylvania.

For more info, visit knoebels.com.