September 3rd, 2013

krazy koati

Can really get you bad

We got up early, feeling excited, even though we'd been getting up early (for us) all week and had been exhausting ourselves running around amusement parks and lugging suitcases around hotels which didn't have elevators (anywhere convenient, anyway) and which kept putting us on the third floor. Our hotel the previous night just had two floors, but made up for it by having two completely separate buildings and putting us in the more distant one. No matter. We were getting to Knoebels, and at the opening.

Knoebels is a legendary family-run amusement park in northeastern Pennsylvania, one that bunny_hugger has longed to get to for years now, as stories of its general weirdness and quirkiness and astounding home charm reached her. I picked these up second-hand, from her enthusiasm. It turned out that it's not just close to I-80 but that it's so close I could've probably diverted to it for a visit when I finally moved out to be with bunny_hugger, although she would have (rightly) killed me for going to her top aspirational park without her.

Four roller coasters in the park summarize what the park's personality is like, though. One is a dark ride, the Black Diamond, a roller coaster inside a closed building with all sorts of props and scenes and haunted-house features that jolt and surprise and scare you. It used to be the Golden Nugget ride, in Wildwood, New Jersey, at Hunt's Pier. The Hunt family eventually sold out, and the pier closed down (though its current owners, Morey's Piers, use it for operations). Rather than let the ride --- originally opened in 1960, and one of the remaining dark rides by master dark ride maker Bill Tracy --- be demolished, Knoebels bought it, and moved it to Pennsylvania, and reworked the themes so it would be area-appropriate. That's the sort of park Knoebels is.

Or consider the Phoenix, a wooden roller coaster that Knoebels bought in 1984. It had been built as The Rocket in San Antonio's Playland Park in 1947, and was standing abandoned after Playland closed in 1980. Knoebels measured each board (no blueprints were known to have survived), and disassembled it, and moved what could be salvaged to Pennsylvania to restore and rebuild the ride, opening it in 1985 as The Phoenix. This was the first moving of a big wooden roller coaster in pretty near forever, and surely it inspired such other impossible things as Boyer moving the Skyliner wooden coaster to its park. Every roller coaster survey ranks it as among the ten best in the world, and it routinely comes in the top three for wooden roller coasters. And that's the sort of park Knoebels is.

Or consider the Twister. This is a new ride, built from the blueprints of the Mister Twister roller coaster at the defunct Elitch Gardens amusement park. (Moving it wasn't possible because of problems with the available space.) The new ride is roughly a mirror reflection of the old, if my readings about it are correct; and to mark the spirit of the ride this was inspired by, they have a ``golden bolt'' brought from the original Mister Twister, as well as one of the transfer track lock arms, used to make it possible to switch or add trains, from the original ride, put up in prominent spots with signs explaining their context. This is all surely very comforting to people who remember fondly the old roller coaster, and the old Elitch Gardens amusement park, which can't be very much of their attendance base because Elitch Gardens was in Denver. Who builds the best possible reproduction of an amusement park from two thousand miles away? Knoebels does.

Probably the roller coaster that most defines what Knoebels is like, though, is one we couldn't ride because it's not open yet: the Flying Turns. This is an attempt to build a new wooden bobsled roller coaster. These were moderately popular in the 1920s, but went out of service because they were fairly low-capacity and couldn't run worth anything in even light rains. There was a little flurry of new bobsled coasters with fiberglass or metal tracks in the 80s, but only a few of them are still operating. They can offer a great ride since there literally isn't a track, just the trough to go sliding in, but Flying Turns looks to be the first wooden bobsled built since 1941, if the Roller Coaster Database is complete. But that's Knoebels: resurrecting an extinct type of roller coaster, that they have to build from scratch themselves because nobody knows how to even build this, and incidentally producing a wealth of information about amusement park history because the details of how they were built and run has been mostly unrecorded.

But that doesn't finish explaining what kind of park they are. They started building the Flying Turns in 2006, and had the track basically finished in 2007. Since then they have been trying to get cars which run properly on the track --- not too slow, not so fast as to be dangerous, not so trying on the structure as to be un-maintainable, not so ... problematic. (This has required some rebuilding of the track, too.) The history of the ride since 2007 has been one of Knoebels stating that they're deep in tests, but are very optimistic, and hope the ride is going to open soon. They're a park which will build a careful replica of a kind of roller coaster mostly recognizable today as an odd line in the Beach Boys' ``Amusement Parks USA'' (though Knoebels is trying to imitate that of Riverview Park in Chicago rather than Cleveland's Euclid Beach; they even have on display a trough structural support salvaged from Riverview Parks's Flying Turns), which they constructed to such levels of historical authenticity that there's no living soul who knows how to make the thing work, and they've spent seven years and counting trying to figure out how to do it anyway and have not given up yet.

Did I mention they not only have an antique carousel --- they have two, it turns out, one of which took us both by surprise what with its existing --- but one with a brass ring dispenser, that is in actual working operation? Have you ever ridden a carousel and had the chance to grab for a brass ring? That's what we had to look forward to.

So you see why we've so wanted to get to a park that just does this sort of thing. And yet we might not have actually made it, on the grounds that it's so very far to drive and not quite near the central New Jersey or Brooklyn enclaves of our families, except that one of our wedding presents was a book of tickets to the park. Oh, yeah, for the park you can buy a wristband for unlimited riding, but you can also buy books of tickets --- marked in their monetary value, 25 or 50 cents or a dollar --- and go on the rides a la carte. It also means there's not a base admission price to just go in and walk around; it's like being able to wander around the piers, only, it's deep in the wooded forest.

Since we had the books of tickets, it'd be disrespectful of the gift not to use them, and the desire to use them this season (we just couldn't make it in 2012) inspired this whole Pennsylvania Parks Tour.

So this was, we expected, the centerpiece of our trip, the core inspiration of the trip, even a moment of our wedding touching us a year later. And driving to the park for its opening moment ... was ... a lot of traffic. And construction. Was anybody moving forward at all?

Trivia: At the outbreak of World War II in Europe, Germany had no home production of cotton, rubber, tin, platinum, bauxite, mercury, or mica, and had insufficient supplies of iron ore, copper, antimony, manganese, nickel, sulphur, wool, and petroleum. Source: History of the Second World War, B H Liddell Hart.

Currently Reading: War With The Newts, Karel Čapek. Translated by Ewald Osers.