Monday, July 30, 2012

FTT Off-Topic: When Exceptional Is Simply Not Racing To The Bottom

Mister Twister
This last weekend, I took my wife and kids to Knoebels Amusement Park, a secret jewel in north-central PA that has been around for the better part of a century. Knoebels offers the following utterly unbeatable features for your amusement park consideration.

1) It's free to park. No, seriously.

2) It's free to get in. Again, I'm serious about this.

3) You can bring your own food if you like. And your dog. You also won't get patted down by security. Because, well, why should you? It's an amusement park.

4) The food at the park, provided you haven't brought your own, is good. All you can eat specials exist, there's even some quasi-healthy options, and you can feed a family of four a meal -- a real meal, with drinks and sides -- for something like $20 to $25.

5) They have great rides -- two of the best wooden roller coasters around, two good log flumes, a massive swimming pool with slides, great old-school bumper cars, century-old carousel with brass ring grabs, Italian trapeze, kid rides galore, a reasonable good haunted house and more. You ride them with tickets (the most expensive ride is $2.50, kid rides for a lot less, and you can get the ticket books at  a 20% discount at the local Weis supermarket on the way to the park), and you can frequently get on rides with walk right on minimal waits.

How minimal? Well, I got to the park around 2:30, and left a little after 10. We ate lunch and dinner, and also spent more than a little amount of time shopping at the gift shop, taking kids to bathrooms, ducking raindrops and meeting up with friends. I wound up riding the two wooden coasters a combined ten times (!), along with the bumper cars, kid whipper, log flume, Ferris wheel, new mine cart ride (the lone disappointment of the day), carousel, airplane/kite flyer... in other words, enough to make me wonder if I did some not very small amount of brain injury, really.

I also can't tell you how much the free to park / free to enter makes the place better. People at Knoebels are not, by and large, rude or mean or melting down; instead, there's a mellow vibe and serious joy that just kind of permeates the place. I let my kids more or less do their own thing here, because they've been there so many times, and it just seems as safe as houses. We meet up frequently and carry cell phones, of course, but it's the kind of place where if they want to ride something and I don't, I can hand them tickets and arrange to meet somewhere in half an hour, secure in the knowledge that we'll both be enjoying ourselves in the interim.

I've taken the kids to Disney on both coasts. I've been to Six Flags and some other places. I've seen the best that the modern world has to offer when it comes to park theatrics... and Knoebels, who steadfastly has not changed seemingly anything core to their identity for the past 20+ years? Crushes them all. And not just because those other places are so large and so expensive that you don't dare let your kids out of your sight.

Take the bumper cars. Everyone else has slowed their cars down, buckled the guests in, added all kinds of lighting and foofaraw to the point where, well, the simple joy of slamming friends, family and strangers has been softened to pointlessness. Not Knoebels. You ride this, it's a workout, and some violence will be done. And you'll know that something great has been lost.

Or the signature roller coasters. The best-reviewed is the Phoenix, a there and back again speed machine that doesn't look like much of anything. The first drop also doesn't seem that intense... but the peculiar magic of this beast is the "air time," or amount of time you spend riding the ride without actually being in the seat. Lap bars allow several feet of distance to float along, and the g-forces and drift at the end of the ride is more powerful than the lead up. Every other coaster in the world loses drama about halfway through; the Phoenix builds on it. Just a blast. And the Twister has all kinds of runaway beer truck pull to it as well, and even smaller lines because it's, well, not the Phoenix. I almost prefer it, especially since it's a significantly longer ride.

You see, Knoebels doesn't play the game of line wait entertainment, costumed performers, maximizing the take from every guest or massive marketing tie-ins. Instead, they expect to get your money one trip at a time, from locals going like habit, from campers who make it their yearly ritual, and from those who know about it... telling others. Like, well, this.

Go, go, go. Then tell others. I want to make damn sure this place is around for the next hundred years, too.

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