Friday, March 9, 2018

The Hidden Rides and Themed Attractions of...Pennsylvania

Ohio, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania make up the traditional amusement park strongholds of the United States, and it's Pennsylvania which has wound up with the greatest variation and the best preserved attractions. The state is even home to the birth place of what is often seen as the predecessor to all American roller coasters. Trying to parse out the "known" from the "unknown" is more or less a product of someone's background, as the PA parks are about as well known as any nationally.

For those that there's little doubt about their recognition, Hersheypark and Hershey's Chocolate World lead the pack. With greater than 3 million visitors a year, Hershey, PA is home to the king of all factory tour rides, some of the baddest coasters on the planet, monorails, a zoo, and a waterpark. Dorney Park in Allentown isn't that far away; it's a historic facility that doesn't have a whole lot of historic rides thanks to fires and liability insurance costs. It does have Cedar Point's old Demon Drop, the 1924 wood coaster Thunderhawk, Steel Force (Morgan hyper), and a collection of above average flat rides and other attractions. History lives at Kennywood, with an Old Mill, three classic wood coasters, the last operating Noah's Ark funhouse, and tons of other "last of its kind" attractions spanning the last century. Finally, we mention SeaWorld Entertainment's Sesame Place, a water theme park facility that's expanding dry rides in 2018 with a new Gravity Group wood coaster.

From there, there's the slightly less known. Idlewild is Kennywood's sister park, and another historic facility that transitioned from trolley park to fairytale park during the 50s. Home to the Rollo Coaster and the Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood attraction (still running with the same trolleys from when it was Mister Roger's), it's a great family park. Another top end family park is Dutch Wonderland, located on the main strip in Lancaster. It also has a wood coaster (Kingdom Coaster, formerly Sky Princess - CCI's first project) along with a couple boat rides, a monorail, sky ride, and a new suspended coaster that might open in 2018. Maybe. 

Pennsylvania is full of traditional parks that cater to local business outings and smaller populations. Knoebels is the most well known of these; open for eons but only really built out as an amusement park in the 1980s forward, Knoebels Amusement Resort is effectively the brain child of Dick Knoebel and his late wife, who were huge amusement historians and fanatics. They acquired, restored, and rebuilt numerous classic ride types long thought to be lost to time - The Elitch Gardens Twister, the Flying Turns, the Golden Nugget Mine Ride from Wildwood, multiple carousels, a Herschell Looper, and of course the San Antonio Rocket, now known as the Phoenix. Think of it as a theme park where the theme is "the greatest traditional amusement park ever assembled." It might really be that.

Further west are a trio of small parks that used to be a quartet. Lakemont in Altoona closed after the 2016 season to be retooled as a smaller "family entertainment center" that retained its two historic coasters. As of now, it's still not reopened, and it looks like 2019 at earliest will be when the doors are unlocked. Home to the world's oldest roller coaster (Leap-The-Dips, also the last side friction), it would be a tragedy to lose it. Part of it's woes are the proximity to Delgrosso's Amusement Park, a small facility built and run by a local tomato sauce distributor. The pizza and spaghetti here are, as you'd expect, very good. There's also a decent collection of rides and water slides kept in great shape.

Another pairing of "struggle" with "success" is Waldameer Park in Erie and Conneaut Lake. Conneaut Lake has been bouncing in and out of bankruptcy since the mid 1990s, but has found a foothold at present and is dragging itself out slowly. Like the other long gone Pennsylvania/Ohio parks that died before it, there's a 20s era wood coaster full of airtime (Blue Streak), a mix of really old flat rides and kids rides, a nice water front, and a cute hotel that's been heavily renovated. Waldameer Park probably benefited the most from the death of Geauga Lake in Cleveland, drawing lots of people who used to go there to it's expanding offerings. There's a reasonably sized water park there now in addition to the classic rides (Bill Tracy-designed Whacky Shack and Pirates Cove, Comet wood coaster) and newer thrillers (ARM drop tower, Gravity Group's awesome wood coaster Ravine Flyer II).

The American history of the roller coaster goes back to Pennsylvania and a small town now known as Jim Thorpe. The Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway was a tourist railway with extremely steep drops and curves, and became famous throughout the US in the mid-late 19th century as the first and only word in terror. When early coasters were constructed both in the US and throughout the rest of the world, the term "Scenic Railway" was associated with the format, and like the real thing in rural Pennsylvania, there were no underwheels and speed was controlled by brakemen. Many scenic railways even had mountain facades and theming; you can see this still on the scenic railway in Wiener Prater in Austria. While scenic railways are dead in the US, mountain coasters still exist as a sort of throwback to that era. Camelback Ski Resort operates such a ride year round.

Speaking of Camelback, let's talk about water parks. Pennsylvania has a lot of people in it and is far north, which means that indoor water parks are very much viable here. Camelback has one - Camelbeach. And it has a monster indoor water coaster, along with several other slides and attractions. They've also got a substantial outdoor water park too during the summer months. But the largest indoor facility in the state is by far Kalahari. The Pennsylvania location of the water park chain is the largest single roof indoor water park in the country, exceeding 200,000 square feet. There's more slides inside here than most outdoor water parks in the nation, along with a wave pool and two lazy rivers.

There's several outdoor water parks in the state worth noting as well. Kennywood's water park is Sandcastle, which of course is several miles away because Kennywood is totally closed in by urban development. The space it occupies is on the Monongahela River in a tight footprint that leads most slides to face the river itself. Smaller water park facilities are found at WildRiver in Saxton and Carousel Water & Fun Park in the Poconos which cater primarily to kids.

Finally, we get to the oversized family entertainment center portion of the piece: Legoland Discovery Center goes here because it's new. That's really the only reason. Also, it has a unique dark ride for the chain rather than the usual Kingdom Quest rides seen in the US, so that's kinda cool. All the Legoland Discovery Centers have trackless shooting dark rides, but unless you have a kid under 12 years old, you'll need to scour the events section to learn when the next adult night is. Fun Fore All in Cranberry Township on the west side of the state has kiddie rides (including a coaster), a Triotech shooting simulator ride, go-karts, bumper boats, and all the ticket redemption games you can shake a stick at. There's also an independent mini golf place across the street for more hot putting action. And last, but not least; Bushkill. Bushkill is sorta kinda a defunct park that's been whacked by flooding multiple times. But in 2017, they reopened their roller rink. And they're intending to open rides along with it soon enough. Sadly their pretzel dark ride and fun house are long since lost, but any regrowth here would be wonderful.

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