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I’ll admit that our initial motivation for visiting Knoebels Amusement Park, located in middle-of-nowhere central Pennsylvania, had nothing to do with the park’s 55-plus rides. For us, it was all about the food. Now, one usually doesn’t associate amusement parks with anything more gourmet than corn dogs and cotton candy, but we had recently seen the park featured on a TV show that lauded Knoebels’ variety and quality of food choices.

A little follow-up on the park’s website and we learned that Knoebels (pronounced Ka-nobels) typically wins awards for having the best food of any amusement park in America, and features an eclectic range of dishes—from broiled New England whitefish to Cuban sandwiches—more reminiscent of a Las Vegas casino buffet than someplace with bumper cars. But after driving three hours from our Baltimore home (it’s about two hours north on routes 83 and 81 and then another hour driving through back roads), we were overwhelmed by the old-fashioned charm of this park, whose history dates back more than 85 years. And quite frankly, we didn’t even eat that much.

Knoebels bills itself as “America’s largest free admission park,” which, unlike many parks, means it doesn’t cost a dime to enter, just anywhere from 75 cents to $2.25 per ride—good news for parents like us who tend not to go on nearly as many rides as our over-anxious kids.

Knoebels merry mixerThe second thing we notice about Knoebels is the trees. This isn’t some concrete jungle with a log flume. Rides at this park—particularly in the kiddie area—are interspersed between stands of towering trees, creating a shady canopy even on the sunniest of days.

The third thing we notice are the retro-looking rides. At one point, I nudge my wife and comment that several of them look like something the Jetsons would have ridden on in the 1960s. Or even the Little Rascals in the ’40s.

And sure enough, they could’ve been.

Knoebels has been around since 1926, when Henry “Ole Hen” Knoebel built a concrete swimming pool on his farm and invited the locals to visit. A steam-powered carousel followed that same year.

Today, the park is still owned by the Knoebel family, and their staff of talented technicians have seemingly been able to keep every ride accumulated over the years in operating shape. 

The Grand Carousel dates to 1912 and is only the second in the park’s history, having operated here since 1942. It’s a stunning machine with 63 hand-carved, hand-painted horses, three chariots and a couple of bellowing, roll-paper organs. Riders can even reach for brass rings.

Knoebel wooden roller coaster, The PhoenixThe park’s wooden roller coaster, The Phoenix, was billed as the “largest roller coaster in the world” when it was built for San Antonio’s Playland Park in 1947. After Playland closed in 1980, staff at Knoebels moved it piece by piece to Pennsylvania and reassembled it in its entirety during the winter of 1985.

Even the shiny Lusse Auto Scooter bumper cars have a history. They date to 1947 and look like little Hudson automobiles riding on black rubber. Not surprisingly, they’ve been called the best such ride in the country. 

Since we have small kids we tend to stick to the kiddie area, comprised of about two dozen very sweet amusements. Our 4-year-old loves the Sky Slide, a two-story, Atomic Age metal rocket ship, with a curling ramp on which she glides down on a mat. She also likes the circa-1960 Kiddie Whip, which zooms around in an oval shape at (relative) breakneck speed. Meanwhile, our 2-year-old just giggles the whole time she’s on the Panther Cars, miniature automobiles that date to the 1950s and cruise along a track.

Knoebels roto jetsWhen it’s finally time to eat, we visit the International Food Court and peruse the penne Alfredo, alligator bites and Spanish rice before settling on a Mexican pizza, topped with pinto beans, cheese, shredded lettuce, black olives and tomatoes.

As we chow down, melted cheese dangling from our chins, we agree that the food is indeed better than typical amusement park fare. But next time we visit Knoebels, we’ll be back for the rides.

Knoebels Amusement Park 391 Knoebels Blvd., Elysburg, Pa., 800-487-4386,

Other kid-friendly amusement parks worth a trip.

>>Storybook Land
Set behind a storybook castle-like façade, this classic Jersey Shore amusement park dates to 1955 and features 15 shade-covered, kiddie-appropriate rides and dozens of life-size re-creations of popular fairy tales from Goldilocks to Cinderella that kids can play on and about. Admission: $21.95 for adults and children over 12 months. Egg Harbor Township, N.J., 609-641-7847,

>>Dutch Wonderland
This Lancaster County amusement park is just over an hour’s drive from Baltimore and boasts live shows, 30 rides (many just for little ones) and Duke’s Lagoon, a multi- level water play area for kids. It’s been a favorite for families since 1963. Admission: $33.99 for ages 3 to 59. Discounts for older visitors; free for kids 2 and under. Lancaster, Pa., 866-FUNatDW,

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