High Rollers

Pennsylvania’s Amusement Parks Boast New and Classic Thrills

By April Bartel | Posted on 07.11.15 – Destinations, Travel

July is the apex of summer, despite the calendar. It’s full of seething sun and languid days, when the backyard grill trumps the kitchen oven. We think of fireworks, picnics, swimming and ball games. School? Perish the thought! Even hard-working adults get distracted when sunshine spills through office windows. By common convention or cosmic design, July whispers, “Fun?” and we are bound to reply.

Amusement parks top summer’s “to do” list. Fredericktonians have Adventure Park USA, “Maryland’s Largest Family Fun Center,” in our backyard. The park unveiled its second roller coaster this past Memorial Day, the Wild West Express. Instead of tickets, visitors purchase a Fun Pass for $1, which can be loaded and reloaded indefinitely with credits and used for rides, mini golf, laser tag, go-karts, arcade games and more. The park is open all year, rain or shine.

But to our north, Pennsylvania offers a wide array of amusing options. The Pennsylvania Amusement Park Association lists 17 “parks,” many within a daytrip drive from Frederick. The roster includes a few water parks, go-kart tracks, and golf courses, but, for generations of summer thrill seekers, the state’s classic amusement parks speak to the kid in all of us.

Pennsylvania’s oldest park is Idlewild & SoakZone in Ligonier, part of the Laurel Highlands region. Idlewild started as a simple picnic ground along the Ligonier Valley Rail Road in 1878. It has grown significantly, garnering industry awards such as “Best Kid’s Park” and “Best Park for Families,” but retains its original state-park-like atmosphere with plentiful shade trees, picnic groves, ample benches, lakes and the Loyalhanna Creek meandering through its midsection.

Repeat visitors to Idlewild wax nostalgic, noting its blend of traditional and modern elements. There are 17 major rides, including The Whip, Wild Mouse coaster, Paratrooper, Ferris wheel, Tilt-a-Whirl and more. Commercialized in the 1930s, its carousel, pavilions, wooden “Rollo Coaster” and Story Book Forest evoke ages past. The SoakZone was established this millennium, including wave pool, lazy river and water slides. There’s a strong focus on entertaining younger kids here, as a way to let families enjoy their time together.

Daily admission is $41.99 for adults, but parking is free. The Idlewild Season Pass unlocks $10 off full-price admission at sister parks Kennywood, Sandcastle or Dutch Wonderland, or buy-one-get-one-free entry to nearby Fort Ligonier. Admittance to the nearby Ligonier Valley Railroad Museum is $5.

Kennywood is a Pittsburgh-area icon. Founded in 1898 by the Monongahela Street Railway Company to increase ridership, it is now a top draw for visitors and locals alike. The park covers nearly 150 acres with state-of-the-art looping steel coasters and thrill rides, as well as classics and kiddie rides—31 major attractions in all. Aero 360 dangles riders to and fro and crescendos with a head-over-heels arch, while the Black Widow swings guests, 40 at a time, 146 feet over the Lost Kennywood section.

Joseph Faber, 15, of Sharon, Pa., says his favorite ride is Phantom’s Revenge because it is the biggest and fastest coaster in the park. Intertwined with Thunderbolt, its second drop looms at 230 feet, reaching speeds of 85 mph. Joseph’s sister, Kristen, 14, likes Kennywood’s old wooden rides. The Jack Rabbit, Racer, and Thunderbolt were added in the 1920s. “You always fly up in your seat,” she says.

Tickets are $41.99 for adults. For an additional fee, visitors can upgrade to a “VIP Tour,” giving them access to shorter lines at select rides. Kennywood Fanatics get their own club this year, too, with special promotions, discounts and savings on select merchandise. These hard-core fans already have calendars marked for the park’s “Italian Day” on July 12, “Summerfest” the last week of the month and “First Responder Day” on Aug. 30.

The Hersheypark mobile app lets guests create a customized map, including information about daily shows, wait times and essentials like food and restroom locations.

Hersheypark, near Harrisburg, is part of an entertainment collection that includes: Stadium/concert venue, botanical garden, multiple resorts and eateries, a golf course, deluxe spa, chocolate factory, tours, flagship outlet, zoo, and more, along with the 110‐acre theme park, boasting 70-plus rides and other attractions. Hersheypark introduced its 13th roller coaster, Laff Trakk, this spring. The indoor, spinning coaster hurdles riders through 70 seconds of dark, over steel-track curves and camelback hills with plenty of air-time. The Hersheypark mobile app lets guests create a customized map, including information about daily shows, wait times and essentials like food and restroom locations. The app has a “find my car” feature, too.

A few food options have changed for 2015, but guests are happiest with the meal voucher update. The streamlined system goes from website to home printer to food vendor, with no extra stop at Hospitality Services. That leaves more time for other attractions, like chocolate-tasting classes and trolley tours, for a separate fee. The $61.95 ticket price also includes access to ZooAmerica and The Boardwalk water area. Bonus: Daily ticket holders can enter the park 2 1/2 hours before closing on the night before, for free. Season pass holders get free parking and early admission.

In Elysburg, just off Interstate 80, Knoebels is billed as “America’s largest free-admission amusement park,” with free parking to boot. Visitors can pay for rides individually or purchase an all-day pass ($38 basic, $46 with coasters). Tami Walter of Voorhees, N.J., appreciates the flexibility, especially when bringing older relatives. “It’s nice because the kids can ride and the adults can enjoy watching, without buying pricey tickets for everybody,” she says. Her children like the family rides, which includes a brass-ring carousel, built in 1913, as well as bumper cars, skyway and motor boats.

Knoebels debuted Impulse this spring, its first major steel coaster added in the last decade. The Impulse has four upside down twists and a 90-degree free-fall, strung along nearly 2,000 feet of track. It rivals thrills with the Black Diamond dark coaster and Flying Turns, a modern version of a freewheeling “bobsled” ride. Perennially popular, the Haunted Mansion adds suspense and surprise all season long. Knoebels’ extra attractions showcase bits of Americana such as carousel memorabilia, mining history, steam-powered tools and a bald eagle habitat—all free.

If you are lucky enough to join the masses at an amusement park this summer, the web is a great resource for last minute deals and change notices. Check out the weather forecast, too. And remember, secure your hat, stay seated until the ride stops completely and save lunch for after the roller coasters.