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November 7, 2001

Phunfest 2001

A special review of the fun found at this fall's enthusiast event the Phoenix Phaul Phunfest at Knoebels Amusement Resort.

By Alex Bove

Elysburg, PA -- The October drive through the mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania is stunning; the trees explode with red, orange, and yellow leaves, plus some in-between shades that won't be around in November. In a small valley almost exactly halfway between Harrisburg and Wilkes-Barre lies Knoebels Amusement Resort, a traditional family park that has been entertaining locals, and the occasional not-so-local crowds, for 75 years. The park is humble a grass and dirt parking lot (no parking fee), no front gate, a lazy, meandering layout but its staff is excellent, its food is fairground-gourmet, and its rides are among the best of their kind anywhere in the world.

Knoebels ends its season with the Covered Bridge Festival and Phoenix Phall Phunfest. The festival is a gigantic arts and crafts show, swap meet, and showcase of all things rural. The Phunfest is the park's annual Halloween event where coaster maniacs are invited to ride (costumes are optional) anything the operators decide to keep open including, of course, the legendary Phoenix and its not-so-legendary younger sibling, the Twister.

This year's Phunfest was as enjoyable as ever. The best costumes were collaborative: one group of guys came as the ghosts of famous coaster designers (John Allen, Herb Schmeck, etc.); a chain gang, clad in classic jailbird stripes, called themselves the "coaster cons" (yuk, yuk); and a final bunch of enthusiasts strapped cardboard "desks" to their stomachs and pretended to be students in a coaster-riding class.

A coaster swap meet convened in the shadow of the Phoenix and featured representatives of ACE and Coaster Zombies, merchants selling everything from books and posters to copies of Roller Coaster Tycoon, and even individual enthusiasts like John Hunt, the famed roller coaster model guru.

Around every corner was Knoebels' great country food. How many parks offer pumpkin funnel cakes, or freshly made caramel apples, still gooey and warm, or hot apple cider made right on the spot? They also make onion rings the size of saucers, and they'll make a potato just about any way you could imagine (french fries, potato cakes, tater tots, etc.).

Above all, though, Knoebels stands out because of its unique collection of rides and because of the way it operates them. I've never had a longer ride on the pirate ship or bumper cars, and the only other park that compares to Knoebels in efficiency (getting riders on and off of rides quickly, filling up trains, managing lines, etc.) is Cedar Point. None of that would matter, of course, if the park's rides weren't so exceptional. But they are wonderful rides. I'll cover a few highlights:

Bumper Cars - a sign outside of Knoebels bumper cars says they're the best in the world, and though I haven't ridden all of the competition I must admit these are the best ones I've ever tried. The cars are like old Buicks, heavy, durable, difficult to steer. When they smash into each other they pack a punch I didn't see a car that wasn't dented in several places but the ride isn't brutal; it's just an incredible amount of fun.

Grand Carousel - this is the real deal, a classic carousel with hand-carved wooden horses (none of that newfangled fiberglass stuff). Make sure you get an outside horse so you can try your hand at snagging the metal rings on every pass.

Haunted Mansion - an old-fashioned dark ride with some very cheesy special effects and some very effective ones. The mirror-filled floating skull room is particularly impressive.

Downdraft - Knoebels installed this flat ride this season, and I've never seen anything like it. The cars are very similar to scrambler cars, and the ride's main thrill (as is the scrambler's) is its lateral g-forces. Cars are attached to long arms that begin the ride packed together, spinning riders in a tight circle at high speed. Once the ride reaches its maximum speed, the arms extend out and up from the center column (while still spinning) and then drop back to the ground. So the ride combines heavy lateral g's with ever-so-slight negative g's. I'd like to see more of these in other parks.

Phoenix - Herb Schmeck's magnum opus is the best woody I've ever ridden. Even more amazing than the amount of airtime this ride delivers is its variety of negative g's. The coaster is a double out-and-back famous for its low-lying bunny hops, but it even provides air going into its turnarounds. In fact, the most powerful out-of-your-seat jolt on the ride comes at the beginning of the third turnaround. I defy anyone to stay seated at that point of the ride (I had trouble staying in the train). My favorite moment is still the bunny hop before the second turnaround, which offers sustained, floaty airtime, but the ride also features a double-up, double-down and a run home that rivals Magnum XL-200's, though on a smaller scale. Throw in a tunnel and a respectable first drop and you get a coaster that begs you to ride it over and over again.

Twister - the reincarnation of Elich Gardens' famous Mr. Twister, Knoebels' Twister is a merciless assault on the senses. Right out of the station the coaster slams riders with powerful lateral g's, and it never relents. The lift hill is split into two sections, with a tight 180-degree turn between them. After a nice first drop (it's outstanding in the back seat), it heads for the turnaround in anticipation of the main attraction: a double-helix that wraps around the loading station and greets would-be riders as they enter the queue. After its second major drop, Twister roars into the helix, which delivers crushing positive and lateral g's. The ride doesn't slow down as it winds through the structure and banks into a tunnel before hitting a final dip and providing a minor burst of airtime as it hops into the breaks. Twister is absolutely terrifying, but its anarchy is controlled just well enough to convince riders to jump right back into the queue after exiting. It's brashness is a perfect contrast to the absolute elegance of Phoenix.

Knoebels is a great park to visit any time, but at the Phunfest all the elements combine to ensure a fantastic day. I'm never as satisfied with an amusement park experience as when I'm leaving Knoebels at about 10 o'clock on the first Saturday in October.