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Knoebels: “the carnival that came to town and never left”

Inside the unique family-owned park in Pennsylvania, which has been operating for almost 100 years

Knoebels is a family-run amusement park in Pennsylvania that first opened in 1926. Its history goes back a century, to a time when locals used to swim in the natural pool where a creek ran through Henry Knoebel’s sawmill and charcoal business.

Today, the park, which is co-owned by Dick Knoebel with his brothers Richard (Dick), Ronald (Buddy) and their sister Leanna Muscato, is operated by the next generation, Dick’s sons Brian and Rick, Buddy’s son Trevor, and Leanna’s daughter Lauren.

The Knoebels family

Brian Knoebel

Brian Knoebel took the time to speak to blooloop about the park’s traditional appeal. Part of the park’s fourth generation, he never really wanted to work anywhere else, he says:

“Little by little, I fell in love with Knoebels, and never had any intention of going anywhere else to work. It was never forced upon any of us; we were simply offered the option if we wanted to come here and work. My daughter just graduated from university. My heart wants her here, though my brain – and everybody I talk to in the industry – says she needs to go somewhere else for a few years.”

When he was young, he did odd jobs in the park:

“I worked in our ride operations department, games, food and beverage. I picked paper, I mowed grass: a little bit of everything, through the years. My mom passed away in 2009. I graduated high school in 1991. My mom had said, ‘I’m getting too busy, with too many other responsibilities. Your dad is now the president of the company, and we’re expected to go here or go there and represent the company. Why don’t you take over the group sales and catering part of my job?’”

Sharing the knowledge

Brian chose, with his mother’s guidance, to go to college for food and hospitality management, and worked in that sector for several years. However, he says:

“I felt such a draw to be in the park. My dad was going at 200 miles an hour, and I would get a little bit morbid sometimes, and think, ‘somebody needs to learn what this man knows.’”

Knoebels_Kiddie Fire Trucks

Gradually, he moved away from catering and spent an increasing amount of time in the park.

“I worked with our ride mechanics. I learned about all the underground utilities. Knoebels is pretty much a city when you’re walking around, complete with underground data lines, power and storm lines, and water lines. Over time, I did my best to extract all the knowledge from my dad’s brain, and share it with the rest of our team. We’re stronger if everyone knows.”

He adds:

“My dad’s now 83, and when he comes to the park, he reminds every one of us who carries a bigger stick. He’s still the boss.”

The history of Knoebels

Outlining the park’s history, he says:

“Prior to the park, my family were farmers. We sold Christmas trees and had animals. We had sawmills and made charcoal.

“There are streams and creeks in the park. Two streams come together on the company property, forming a natural swimming hole, and in around 1920, people would come with their horse and buggy to the park on a Sunday after church, and swim in the Creek. My great grandfather would feed and stable the horses. Some stories say it was for a nickel; some say a dime, some say a quarter. Then he put up a fence to keep the cows out of the creek.”

old knoebels billboard

“The story goes that my great-grandmother heard some noise coming from the barn one day, and yelled out, ‘What’s all that racket about?’ He said, ‘I’m building picnic tables and park benches for the guests.’ She said, ‘If you do that, we’ll never get outta here.’ Perhaps she had dreams or aspirations of living somewhere else.”

The first rides arrive

The first ride to join the picnic tables and benches was a steam-powered carousel.

“That was in 1926,” Brian Knoebels says. “It was followed by a restaurant and a couple of games of chance, and then a couple more rides. They also built a 900,000-gallon swimming pool. It was Creek water, fed by pipes. It was drained, cleaned and refilled weekly. I believe it was about 1952 that we finally got a filtration system for the pool.”

Knoebels Campround

“And now here we are in 2022. We have 60 rides, 38 delicious food stands, two dozen games, and a 600-site campground, as well as another campground, three miles away, called Lake Glory, and an 18-hole golf course, just half a mile down the road. We are truly a destination.”

Free entertainment

Knoebels is unusual in that it boasts both free parking and free admission.

“We offer free entertainment and a free picnic area as well,” he adds. “People come here because it reminds them of yesteryear. We are a traditional park where grandma and grandpa get more satisfaction out of watching their grandchildren ride the rides than in riding themselves.”

Knoebels_Grand Carousel

“Grandma and grandpa are retired. They are on a fixed income, but they can come and park for free. They can bring their own picnic food. Maybe they want to ride the mile-and-a-half train ride that runs out through the woods, to see the squirrels being fed, or maybe even see a whitetail deer in nature. Maybe they’ll ride the grand carousel, and try to catch the brass ring.

“Mom and Dad, of course, want to ride more of the rides, and the children want to ride them all.”

The carnival that never left

At Knoebels, there are options:

“You could say it’s a la carte. You can buy a wristband preseason and post-season on the weekends. During the height of the season, we don’t offer the pay-one-price model on the weekends. We need to incentivise the weekdays, or everyone would come on the weekends.”

Knoebels_Crystal Pool

“Some parks do dynamic pricing, but we’re a traditional park; we don’t do that. But do have the option to buy a wristband. Otherwise, guests would all come on the weekends, and the lines would be so long that, at the end of the night, they would be angry that they didn’t get to ride as many rides as they wanted. This way, you can buy a book of tickets and just ride what you want.

“People call us the carnival that came into town, and never left.”

The special atmosphere of Knoebels

The fact that the park is family-owned and run, he believes, gives it a special atmosphere.

“People recognise us, and they see us out in the park. We’re not in some ivory tower; we’re all boots on the ground. We all have our own responsibilities. You’ll see us everywhere, from underground to putting plushes in a game to delivering gift shop items, or helping put shingles on a roof. There are eight Knoebel family members that are here for our day-to-day operation. We have a few more who have chosen a different path in life, but they participate and share their opinion, and we listen.”

Knoebels family
Buddy, Dick, Brian, Rick & Trevor Knoebel, and Leanna & Lauren Muscato

“Because we’re so close, sometimes we’re right on top of an issue; it’s right in front of our eyes and we can’t see it, so we need our friends and family to point things out to us.

“My parents taught us that you open up the home. This is your team; your extended family. Our team works a lot of hours. They are very dedicated. My family is very, very blessed to have them. If we see them at a restaurant, we’ll go over and sit with them. We invite them to come and sit at our table and invite them to our backyard.

“We have security here 24 hours a day, seven days a week, patrolling the grounds. Somebody has to work on Easter, and somebody has to work on Christmas, so we make sure that we make them a meal. They’re included. They’re extended family.”

All hands on deck

The Knoebels family don’t have job titles:

“We’re all taught to be the fireman, which doesn’t necessarily mean you go where the fire is. It just means if you need to put wristbands on one day before you have to go operate a ride or a game or a food stand, then that’s what you’re doing. With the size business that we are it’s, it’s all hands on deck. Every minute of every day, you’re doing something.”

Knoebels 1946 playland
Enjoying a day at Knoebels in 1946

“I enjoy coming to work. Every morning when I get up, there’s actually nothing I’d rather do than come to Knoebels. That doesn’t mean that some days by four o’clock there’s no place I’d rather be than home, of course.”

A wide audience

Knoebels appeals to locals but also casts a wider net.

“The fact we have no gate means the locals can come down at night,” Knoebels says. It’s very touching to see them; maybe it’s a date night, and they’re going to grab a bite to eat, or an ice cream cone, and sit together to watch the entertainment that’s on stage that night. The locals are very special.”

Knoebels_Whipper_

He adds:

“We advertise as far as two and a half hours away; for some, that’s a day trip; others will stay for the weekend. We strive to be an economical choice; many of our family meetings are about value, especially with gas prices being so high. Sometimes people will cancel their trip to Disneyworld, and come to Knoebels twice instead because we’re closer, and we’re more economical.”

Nostalgia at Knoebels

Since nostalgia is part of the USP, and the target market encompasses the whole family, selecting the right rides is key.

He says:

“Each is its own short story. My brother Rick was very instrumental in our most recent challenge, which is the Bayern Kurve.”

Knoebels is building the ride from two Bayern Kurves: “We actually purchased two used Schwarzkopf Industries Bayern Kurve rides.”

One came from Fun Spot Park in Angola, Ind., and the other travelled on a carnival circuit:

“Our team is putting these two rides together to make one.”

He adds:

“A funny story: my dad always wanted a drop tower. He shopped for drop towers, and we chose an ARM drop tower. Everybody agreed. Our guests wanted something freefall, from 140 feet. We bought a Zamperla Italian Trapeze, serial number one.”

Knoebels 1994 italian trapeze
The park’s Italian Trapeze, taken in 1994

“In about 1989, 1990, my dad was walking the IAAPA Expo trade show floor, and he sat with his friend Alberto Zamperla. He dropped his shoulders, and his friend said, ‘Dick, I’ve never seen you like this: what’s the matter?’ He said, ‘I want to buy a swing ride, but I don’t want to pay the prices that everybody’s charging.’ And Alberto said, ‘You give me a year and a half, and I will build you one for half a million dollars.’ My dad said, ‘You would do that for me?’ He said, ‘I would do that for you: serial number one.’

“A year and a half later, by a gentleman’s agreement, an Italian Trapeze showed up here at Knoebels, and it’s still running today. It is, quite frankly, one of the most beautiful pieces we have in the park.”

Unique rides

He moves on to describe the genesis of the Flying Turns:

“There was a time when everyone loved a Flying Turns ride, historically, and then, little by little, they disappeared. My dad picked up the phone and called a few people – historians and traditionalists. They said, Dick, it can’t be done. It really can’t be done.” Every single one of those people has since told me, behind my dad’s back, that as soon as he hung up the phone, they knew Dick Knoebel was going to build the Flying Turns.”

Knoebels_Impulse_

He continues:

“Then, another time, we moved a wooden roller coaster, when our fans told us they wanted to go upside down. Then, with my brother, Rick, my cousin, Trevor, and our head ride technician, Jim Martini, I hopped on a plane, and we flew around the country, roller coaster shopping. That was fun. We picked a Zierer custom looping coaster which we named Impulse; it opened in 2015.

“I could talk about the rides for an hour. Each one is unique, and has its own story.”

Knoebels and COVID-19

The pandemic changed everything.

“In 2019, when no one knew this was going to happen, it was full steam ahead. 63 rides were not enough. We needed more. We needed more parking and more campsite. The guests were coming, and we needed to be prepared for them. We had to offer them something unique. Because in the off-season or in the springtime, when they were getting cabin fever, they would pull out their iPad and start to look at summer destinations.

“We had to offer them something new because they rode everything at Knoebels when they were here last year. We don’t want them to go somewhere else: we want them to come back here and make more family memories.”

Knoebels_Petes Fleet

The pandemic put everything on hold. However, he says:

“During that period we came across these two Bayern Kurves. Our hundredth anniversary is coming up in 2026, and we are starting to assemble a team to help.  When we have a Knoebel family meeting, my dad taught me that there may be a lot of brain power in that meeting, but there’s even more brain power out in the park. We’re going to challenge the team members helping us, whether it’s going to be great new rides or fireworks.

“I’m not going to share everything, but it’s probably the one thing we’re looking most forward to over the next couple of years.”

Fun family memories

In conclusion, Knoebels adds:

Knoebels_Grand Carousel_brass ring

“There is a Facebook group, Knoebels Connosieurs, and I learn a lot about our fan base there. It’s interesting to read because sometimes someone will say, ‘Hey, you should put VR on your kiddy coaster,’ or ‘You should put VR on this or that.’ It was a simple conversation that our family had. It was a bullet point: do we want to do this? It was unanimous; nobody even thought about it. That’s not us.

“People want to hear the clickety-clack of a roller coaster. They want to hear the carousel organs. We are one of few parks that still catch the brass ring on the grand carousel. That is Knoebels. It’s not high-tech. It’s always so humbling when we go out as part of our greeter programme to give out park maps, and we see a family for the second time that summer.

“They could have chosen to go to another park, or the seashore, or a baseball game. They didn’t, they came to Knoebels. It solidifies that we’re doing something right. We’re helping make some safe, fond family memories.

“We have no intention of changing – that’s who we are, and that’s who we are going to remain.”

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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