Fun, Food and Fantasy: An Interview With Brian Knoebel
Photo Credit: Knoebels Amusement Resort
Knoebels Amusement Resort opened on July 4th, 1926. Now in the park’s 95th season of operation, park owner Brian Knoebel joins the Nick Feudale Podcast to talk about some of the challenges the park has faced throughout the years, how Knoebels has maintained their atmosphere of a classic amusement park, and more.
Challenges During the COVID-19 Pandemic
One of the most recent challenges Knoebels still manages to overcome is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been many obstacles during the last two seasons for the park, including staffing issues and capacity restrictions. “It’s been a lot of meetings with our team figuring out, ‘can we get open, what if this, what if that?’ It’s been proper chemicals, sterilization. It’s been how do we keep our guests safe, how do we keep our team safe?” Brian Knoebel said.
Despite the amount of changes the amusement park had to implement, Knoebel talks about the display of support from the community. “It’s been wonderful support from the community who understands that we’re short staffed, and we cannot this particular year open every ride and every food stand. We’re doing the best we can, so it’s nice that our fans understand what we’re going through and they actually support us in many ways, whether it’s through social media outlets or just by coming and making some family memories.” Knoebel went on to say the park is blessed to have all of the support.
From a Small Park to a National Attraction
This year, Knoebels Amusement Resort is celebrating its 95th season in operation. In 1926, the park’s attractions included the Crystal Pool, some food stands, the Grand Carousel and minimal crowds (knoebels.com). 95 years later, the park is home to four large roller coasters, over 60 rides, and now brings in massive crowds.
When asked what it means to evolve from a small park to a national attraction, Knoebel says it’s “kinda cool” and discusses the differences from then to now. “So I grew up in the park, and it wasn’t anything major. I used to play kickball in front of our park office, and in an hour-long game of kickball, you only had to stop twice to allow guests to walk by.” Brian then implies it would be impossible to play kickball now when the park is filled with guests. “Well how can we ever play kickball now when the parking lot’s filled, the park is filled. So, what does it mean? It’s kinda cool when we’re putting, giving people hand stamps or wristbands and they’re wearing a Disney World shirt and we tell them, ‘That’s okay to wear a Disney shirt, but when you go to Disney you have to wear a Knoebels shirt.’ And they said, ‘We do!'”
Knoebel says it puts an exclamation point on who the park is when he sees people wearing Knoebels shirts in Disney. “We’re big time now. But yet we remain true to our principles and who we are so, which makes us unique and special.”
Behind The Scenes
Running an amusement park requires hard work from every employee. Some work around the clock to make sure the park is up and running every single day. From maintenance workers to food stand employees, everybody does their part to keep the park alive.
Brian Knoebel discusses the work that goes on behind the scenes. “During the season, we have staff that starts as early as five in the morning. It’s the cooks in the Alamo restaurant, it’s wiping down picnic tables, park benches, it’s picking paper, it’s removing the trash. Then our maintenance staff will come in and they start crawling all over the rides, checking every nut, every bolt. It’s getting the pool up and running, it’s serving breakfast. Then miniature golf opens, our hand stamps open. The park comes alive, it starts at five in the morning. And until we’re done cleaning up and making things like potato cake batter, it’s sometimes midnight before the last person goes home.
Knoebel also discusses the work that goes on during the off-season to prepare for the upcoming season. “It’s underground utility work, it’s putting new shingles on a building, it’s coaster work, it’s disassembling as many as a dozen rides and stripping them down, going over them, checking for welds, performing nondestructive testing before you start reassembling them back in March and time to get open in April.”
Brian says he often compares the park to one big house. “I often say Knoebels is one big house, just like your house at home. The bathroom needs painted, you need the mulch, you might need to re-carpet, Knoebels is one big house. There’s always something to do.”
Throughout the years, Knoebels has always maintained the atmosphere of an old-fashioned amusement park. The free parking, free admission, homemade award-winning food, and vintage rides have helped maintain the park’s classic atmosphere. “We continue to not charge for parking, not charge for admission, and we have no intention of ever changing that.” Knoebel said. Brian also added that those traditions are what make Knoebels a traditional amusement park.
Touching on experiences guests have at Knoebels that are different than any other modern amusement park, Knoebel says, “Grandma and Grandpa get more satisfaction out of watching their grandchildren ride the rides than what they do themselves. They’re retired, they’re on a limited or fixed income. They can come to Knoebels and not spend a nickel! Maybe they want to ride the train.”
Knoebel also talks about how the park is doing what many parks started out doing, but weren’t able to sustain. “Many parks started out like us. Edgewood park in Shamokin, it was a resort destination, it was a trolley park. But eventually you have to pay the bills, and you have to put up a fence because parks can make more money charging people $50 or $75 per person, or charging $25, $50 to park. And we’ve been able to keep doing what we’re doing. Keep the status quo, and people really really appreciate it.
Flying Turns Obstacles
One of the most unique rides at Knoebels Amusement Resort is the Flying Turns roller coaster. The opening of the ride was derailed largely in part to a bad flood which delayed construction. Brian Knoebel discusses more obstacles regarding the Flying Turns. “So, during construction of the Flying Turns, we also got hit by a pretty severe flood. And the whole project got shut down for a few months because we had to put the park back together. And it was everything from some of those underground utility lines that I mentioned earlier that have just been twisted and we had to start over.”
Besides the flood, Knoebel discusses how the ride’s vehicle designs were another challenge during the project. “Two previous designs of the vehicles of the trains that we were tinkering with, and we were finally able to lower the vehicle a little bit. Make it a little bit wider, and make the wheels and the bogies be able to, the wheels spin like that of your car. But they also lower the suspension on them. So now you have to do vertical, well now they also move horizontally. They swing, they pivot horizontally as well. So until we were able to perfect that, and then I think about a thousand runs with weight distribution of sandbags, we were ready to open it up to the public.”
After mechanical and weather setbacks, the Flying Turns was able to open years after the project began. “We don’t like to talk about that. But it was about seven years until from when we first started construction at the site after we removed Whirlwind roller coaster, until that first rider went on on that very first day, seven years.”
Covered Bridge Festival Relocated
Knoebels has been the host of the Covered Bridge Festival every year since 1982. However, the festival will be held at the Bloomsburg Fairgrounds in the foreseeable future. Brian Knoebel explained the move, and gave his input on whether the festival will one day return to the park. “We’re unsure. Maybe, the festival, I love it. It’s very unique and some wonderful food. So I know that my intentions are to go to the Covered Bridge Festival at the Bloomsburg Fairgrounds even if it’s just to say hello, but satisfy my tastebuds maybe as well.
Brian described the festival as being “too big,” which led to the festival’s relocation. “In my own words, the best way I can describe it just, it became too big of an event. And my analogy, so our local school district is Southern Columbia High School. So it’s like trying to host the Super Bowl at Southern Columbia High School. And you don’t have the parking, and you don’t have the water supply. You don’t have enough staff. It’s one lane coming in, one lane going out, and it’s too big.”
Knoebel also discusses the possibility of the festival returning to the park. “So, maybe. If we could figure out a way to shrink it, then by all means my family will sit and discuss the possibility of it returning one day.”
Hallo-Fun Exceeded Expectations
Brian Knoebel discusses how he did not expect Hallo-Fun to turn into what it is today. “What I’ve learned is it’s people trying to hold on to that last little bit of summer, because in October here in central Pennsylvania is beautiful weather. Leaves are changing, and we don’t offer every ride but campers are coming, I’ve heard some fun rumors that there are some camping contests of who wins the most decorated site, prettiest site when they bring their own decorations. When you see families walking around and kids in their Halloween costumes, now I remember this as three or four rides, one maintenance person, the same person that would park the cars, after the cars were parked they would run the Pioneer train. It was minimal and it was fifty people coming to visit. If you had more than 100 people, you were skipping. You were on cloud nine.”
Knoebel discusses how crowded the park is for Hallo-Fun now. “Now, I believe just about every weekend during October our campground is full, our Eagles Roosts park model trailers are full, our cottages are full, area hotels are full, I have no idea. But we’re even mentioned, I even think we’re in the lead on – USA Today has a poll for best Halloween event at an amusement park. And we’re actually leading the nation right now.”
Joy Through the Grove Expansion?
Knoebels’ Halloween festival, Hallo-Fun, started off with just a few rides in operation along with a few guests in the park. Years later, Hallo-Fun expanded into the whole entire park, with almost every ride and almost every food stand in operation. Brian Knoebel discusses the possibility of the park seeing the same expansion with their Christmas light drive through, Joy Through the Grove. “Another maybe. It’s something that we discuss. We tried to do this years ago. We tried to do a Christmas event in the park where the Chalet was open, we moved a couple of kiddie rides in front of the courtyard of the Phoenix. The steakhouse, which we call Phoenix Junction became Mrs. Claus’s kitchen, but we just didn’t get enough visitation from guests, and central Pennsylvania has quite a lot of snow.”
Brian discusses the staff shoveling snow to prevent ice during past Christmas festivals, and says that he enjoys seeing the families experience Joy Through the Grove. “Our full time staff were shoveling snow throughout the day or doing what they could to prevent ice from forming here in the park so, to be determined. Right now, we enjoy when the families do the Joy Through the Grove drive through light experience. Then they go to Nickel Plate which becomes Christmas Village. So you can have an opportunity out there to see Santa Claus a couple of days a week, there is some great food, it’s, I don’t know if I want to say cute, it’s adorable out there. The team does a very nice job of decorating it and welcoming their guests. There’s a train display, Santa’s sleigh is out there for family pictures, a giant Christmas tree, some tastes of Knoebels. We have some food that we have in the summer time here that’s out there so I don’t know if we will move Christmas Village into Knoebels one day but we do talk about it.”
Next June will mark fifty years since the flood of 1972. September 7th will mark the 10th anniversary since the flood of 2011. Every time, Knoebels comes back in seemingly no time. Brian Knoebel says that drive, determination and a dedicated team get Knoebels through those difficult times. “Drive, determination, a dedicated team. I was born in 1973. Apparently there was a rah rah speech from Pete Knoebel a former (park) president, passed away in 1988 I believe. And he said, ‘Well guys, we might as well put it together because nobody’s gonna buy it like this.’ I don’t believe he had any intention of ever selling after Hurricane Agnes hit in June of 1972, but that was his motivational speech.”
Brian talks about how workers from the 1972 flood still work in the park today. He says their attitude is if they came back from 1972, they come back from any other flood. “Some of the people still work here that worked here in ’72, and it still comes up that, ‘Hey. We did it in 1972 with less equipment and less man power, so my generation is challenging this next generation to put the park back together,’ here many years later.”
Knoebel says that while 1972 was the park’s deepest flood, it was not the most destructive flood. “In 1972, which was the deepest flood, but there wasn’t as many items in the park. You didn’t have as many rides. You didn’t have, data didn’t even exist. So now we have conduits with data running all over the park. There’s a lot more food stands, there’s a lot more damage that’s done.”
Brian Knoebel talks about how the community is supportive when the park is hit with a flood. “It rained a lot last night. I had multiple people text me from the community to say, ‘If you need me, call me.’ That’s pretty special, when the community cares about Knoebels as much as my entire family, as much as our staff, people will bring their skid steer down and say, ‘Here. Grease it and fuel it. I don’t want anything for it, put the park back together because I want a cheeseburger in a week.’ Or I want french fries. Or I want a funnel cake. So it’s the love of the park. That’s how it goes back together.”