They appear out of nowhere, like Dorothy's emerald city, in cornfields and clearings from the eastern cities near Philadelphia to the western coalfields around Pittsburgh. Why our neighbors to the North have more amusement parks than we Marylanders have is anybody's guess.
Most of us around Baltimore are so spoiled by our proximity to that we could find The Comet in our sleep. But if you've had your fill of Hershey and Six Flags and you want to try something less mainstream this summer, Pennsylvania has plenty of smaller and lesser-known parks a few hours farther away, but worth the hike.
The appeal of these parks is not so much what they are as what they are not. Most are Mom-and-Pop operations; only one we visited is a megapark the likes of Six Flags or Hershey. What they lack in rides or razzle-dazzle, they make up for in personality.
When was the last time you saw three live pigs living inside a brick house?
When was the last time you rode a wooden coaster so old and rickety that you worried not only about plunging downhill but hurling off?
Do you even know how to play Fascination?
Summer is all about taking the road less traveled. Here's a guide to four undiscovered parks in case you do.
Knoebels Amusement Park One thing you need to know about Knoebels Amusement Park in Elysburg, Pa., is that you pronounce the K. It's K-Noebels. That's your first clue that things here in the woods northeast of Harrisburg are not the way you expect them to be. For starters, the Knoebels family still owns the place, and much of it has not changed since they opened it in 1926. Take the 1913 Grand Carousel. It's one of the last in the country still allowing riders on the outer stallions to reach for the brass rings hanging outside. Knoebels is one of the last parks with no admission, permitting fairgoers to pay per ride or purchase an all-day pass. If that means it draws a crowd that includes the likes of Jethro, Ellie Mae, Jed and Granny, so be it. Remember the game Fascination? The one where players sit on Naugahyde barstools and play Bingo with a rubber ball and a hole-filled card? The one where the prizes - lamps, pillows, crock-pots - line the walls? You can still play that at Knoebels. You can still eat a buffet of fried fish on Fridays and pasta on Spaghetti Night. You can still camp in the nearby woods, still see summer cottages from the 20s: one shaped like a boat, one meant to resemble a homesteader's wagon. You can still ride through the Haunted Mansion built in the former roller rink after the wooden floors buckled in the 1972 flood. On a summer night, as the sky dims and the sun sets, there's no more magical place to be than high above the ground in an old-fashioned Ferris wheel at that moment the carnival lights come on. Where: Route 487, Elysburg, Pa. Prices: $16.25 to $28.50 for pay-one-price plans. Parking is free. Directions: Interstate 83 North to Harrisburg, Interstate 81 North to Exit #116 (Old Exit #35). Turn left onto 901 to Route 54 West. Turn right onto Route 487. North at light. Expect at least a three-hour drive. For more info: 800-487-4386 or www.knoebels.com. Fun factor: Romantics will love the vintage look and feel of this park. Knoebels has 50 rides, more than most of the smaller parks. Be warned that swimming in Crystal Pool costs extra.
Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom The sign for the roller coaster Steel Force says the first drop is 205 feet. That's not so high, you think. Is it? You begin the ascent, look over the amusement park, note the other rides. This is nice, you think. Isn't it? You scan miles and miles of pavement and spot your minivan in the parking lot. Then it hits you. The only reason you can see your minivan so far away is that you are 205 feet in the air! Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom is just as big as Hershey, and has just as rich a history (in 1884 it was "Dorney's Trout Ponds and Summer Resort"), but the three hours it takes to get to Allentown, Pa., is double the time to Hershey, triple to Six Flags. You have to want great coasters like Steel Force - what Dorney calls "extreme" excitement - to go the extra miles. If stomach dropping is your thing, the Dominator will pitch you up 155 feet within 3 seconds, then drop you down at 40 miles an hour. It's like being tossed in the air when you were a baby - if Superman had been your dad. Talon The Grip of Fear will flip you and spin you with your legs dangling. The Meteor will shoot you into the air on swinging loops, frontward and backward. No area, even the water slides and wave pool, is spared the thrill-seeking mentality that permeates this park. Aquablast will send your raft down a 70-foot-tall slide, just to make sure you don't get bored while you're being refreshed. Where: 3830 Dorney Park Road, Allentown, Pa. Prices: $16 to $35.75; free for children under 3. Parking is $6. Directions: Take Interstate 95 North to Interstate 476 North (becomes PA Turnpike Northeast Extension). Take the Lehigh Valley exit, #33. After the toll, follow Route 22 East for about 1/2 mile to the Route 309 South exit. Follow Route 309 South to Exit #54. Expect at least a three-hour drive. For more info: 610-395-3724 or www.dorneypark.com. Fun factor: Dorney's water park is one of the largest in the country, and it keeps growing. This summer, there will be six new slides and a renovated wave pool.
Dutch Wonderland The best known of Pennsylvania's lesser-known parks is likely to become even better known since it was bought two years ago by the company that owns . The hope is that Hershey will keep Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster, Pa., a 1960s-era "kingdom for kids," aimed at children under 12. If I were to make a wish, if the pink princess who roams the grounds were to grant me such, I'd ask the corporate suits to do three things. One, install more rides like the Sky Princess coaster for the big little kids. A 10-year-old brother can be a dragon to please, and 32 rides is limiting. Two, I'd wish a paint job for the oldest attractions. What good is kitsch if it's covered in dust? The lair around the lagoon is where I'd lay my drop cloth first. My third wish would be that Hershey keep the cheesy castle entrance, leave the cerulean water of the moat alone, and allow the park to remain the tacky jewel it is in a tourist-trap crown. I used to think it exploitative how Lancaster capitalizes on the Amish and Mennonite cultures that shun so much of the secular capitalist society. Then I went to Dutch Wonderland. From the monorail, you can see the Liz Claiborne outlet one minute, a one-room schoolhouse the next. Bossie the fiberglass cow with the rubber teat is a stone's throw from Mama Ilardo's Express Pizza. No one, not even the Mennonites we saw visiting the park, seemed to mind the wooden cutouts of dour farmers and their prim wives. We watched a Mennonite girl splash down Pipeline Plunge water slide. We heard her say, "I declare!" as she stepped from the raft and picked her sopping cotton dress from her calves. Every culture, we realized, must have a word or two that means the same as "cheap thrill." Where: 2249 Route 30 East, Lancaster, Pa. Prices: $20.95 to $24.95; free for children under 2. Parking is free. Directions: Take Interstate 83 North to York. Take Route 30 East to Lancaster. Expect a one-hour-and-a-half drive. For more info: 866-386-2839 or www.dutchwonderland. com. Fun factor: Dutch Wonderland is the perfect balm for all the heartbroken toddlers you've had to lead back through a line at other parks because the teen-ager with the yardstick declared them too short to ride. Two-day packages teamed with a trip to Hershey can sweeten the deal for older siblings.
Idlewild & SoakZone There is only one place on the planet I know of where you will find the slightly bizarre - although some would argue charming - Story Book Forest. This 1956 attraction at Idlewild & SoakZone in Ligonier, Pa., is where three living, breathing, rooting piglets reside in a miniature brick rancher. Here, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, you are likely to find, among the nursery rhyme dioramas, a bored teen-ager in ankle socks sitting outside the Three Bears cottage chewing her fingernails and calling herself Goldilocks. Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother lives here, too. Unless the Wolf got her, she was seen last summer sitting in a rocker handing out restaurant-style packets of crackers. Idlewild opened 125 years ago as "pleasure grounds," a way to lure riders onto a new passenger railroad line. Today the park lies in such a heavily wooded area that it feels more like a state park than a theme park. Go on a muggy day and you'll understand why expansion dollars were spent not on a much-needed third coaster but doubling the size of the water playground and adding "SoakZone" to the name. Despite updates in the 1980s, Idlewild clings to tradition. Where else can you ride the last "Merry-Go-Round" built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, a 1938 "rollo coaster"? Or a 1947 caterpillar, the last of three still speeding around a circular track, but one of only two left still covering cars with the green canopy that makes it look like a worm? Idlewild's slogan is "This much fun NEVER gets old!" The great thing for purists is that it doesn't get modernized, either. Where: Route 30, Ligonier, Pa. Prices: $14.50 to $20.95; free for children under 2. Parking is free. Directions: Take Interstate 70 west to Breezewood. Take Pa Turnpike west to Exit #9 Donegal. Route 711 North. West on Route 30 to Ligonier. Expect at least a three-and-a-half-hour drive. For more info: 724-238-3666 or www.idlewild. com. Fun Factor: Idlewild is the farthest of the lesser-known parks from Baltimore. Consider an overnight. Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater is 30 miles away if you want to add some culture to the trip.