Four Generations of Fun
Family is Heart of Knoebel's Work
by Jennifer A. Cline, writer/editor-One College Avenue.
Brian Knoebel has learned a lot from his father.
Talk to him about the family business, and you'll hear loads of his father's quotes, complete with gruff-voiced impersonations of the Marine Corps veteran. But, while presented with humor, they are taken to heart, words of wisdom that help to demonstrate Brian's drive to continue the progress begun by his great-grandfather Henry Knoebel at the turn of the 19th century when he decided to help – and make a little profit from – the weekend picnickers who visited the swimming hole on his farm. For a quarter, Henry stabled and fed their horses.
"There is nothing I would rather do than get up in the morning and go to work."
Next, Henry's wife, Hattie, heard the sounds of nailing coming from Henry's barn. Naturally, she called out to ask what in the world he was doing. When he told her he was building picnic tables and benches, she warned, "If you do that, we'll never get out of here."
"And here we are," Brian said.
In 1924, Henry made the difficult decision to give up his best potato field to build the Crystal Pool at what is now Knoebels Amusement Resort, fed by the same two streams whose intersection made "Old Hen's Swimming Hole." In 1926, he added a carousel and snacks. The park has not stopped growing since, with even more crowds getting to know Knoebels when the park added The Phoenix – a wooden coaster that it rescued from demolition from a park in Texas – in 1985.
"My dad often says that there is an old saying: ’The first generation starts the business, the second generation makes it better, then the third generation ruins it.' He swore that that was not going to happen during his watch," Brian said of his father, Richard "Dick" Knoebel. "I can't top that saying, but am determined that it won't happen during the fourth generation's watch."
Brian is one of five members of the fourth generation. Three are involved with the family business. He received an associate degree in food and hospitality management from Pennsylvania College of Technology in 1993 and is a "fireman" of sorts at the park that is run by his father and his uncle Ron "Buddy" Knoebel, who are its co-managers.
That is, Brian reports wherever he is needed most, be it helping with ticket sales, catering or maintenance.
He's been working across the park since he was a tot.
"Of course I don't remember it, but I'm told my first job was separating the different-color tickets after closing so it would be easier for the staff to count them and figure out how much money the business brought in that day. I'm guessing that was about 1976," said Brian, who turns 38 in May.
He grew up watching Knoebels Grove grow into Knoebels Amusement Resort, playing kickball in the middle of the park and playing hide-and-seek in the Haunted Mansion.
"Over the years, I always found myself doing something different each season," Brian said. "Whether it was operating a ride, working in the games department, mowing grass, parking cars, picking paper, or working in various levels of food preparation, I always tried to learn as much about the business as I could."
In his senior year of high school, he sat down with his parents and decided he would like to attend Penn College for food and hospitality management. After graduation, he worked in both the catering and maintenance departments at Knoebels.
"As the years passed by, I felt I was more needed in our maintenance department, so I began to focus more on that end of the corporation," he said. "That's not to say I don't use my degree. Every day, I have some interaction with our food management department. I am very proud of the degree I have and use the teachings almost daily."
It gives him particular pride that for each year since 1999, Knoebels has won the Golden Ticket Award for the world's best amusement park food. That's due in part to details like funnel cakes made from homemade batter, while many other parks have opted to buy frozen cakes, and central Pennsylvania specialties like the chicken and waffles served in The Alamo restaurant.
In similar fashion, while many amusement parks send their roller coasters' trains and other rides to the manufacturer for winter maintenance, Knoebels chooses to perform the work in-house.
"This way we can thoroughly inspect every weld, every bearing, every square inch, and study the wear and tear that is caused by usage," Brian explained. "It is very rewarding when other amusement parks call us to ask questions pertaining to ride maintenance. … It proves we follow a very strict and detailed safety program."
During the summer, more than 30 daily inspectors report to their respective ride first thing in the morning, seven days a week. As Brian introduces one of those inspectors, Dennis Paczkowski, who is one of three daily inspectors for The Twister, a Knoebels-original wooden roller coaster, Brian explains his responsibility.
"He takes care of every nail, every bolt," he said. "He walks hundreds of miles every summer (on the coaster)."
Brian said most people have no idea the work it takes to maintain a roller coaster.
"The coasters are like a living, breathing animal, and we need to take care of them," he said.
After the summer rush, the park becomes somewhat like a construction site, when employees like Paczkowski may spend their time building a new ride, putting a new roof on one of the park's buildings, or fixing potholes.
"So many people think we pull the doors down in November and move to Florida for the winter," Brian said. "Boy, are they wrong. For many of us, the offseason is the busier season. We are fixing broken water lines, upgrading point-of-sales systems, running fiber-optic lines for more computers, maintaining rides, renovating food stands, roofing, painting, advertising, booking group sales events, working on next year's calendar, the list goes on and on."
The park keeps a staff of between 130 and 140 during the winter, including sign painters, carpenters and more who are behind the scenes of Knoebels' success.
"There are no 40-hour weeks here," Brian said. "The dedication of our staff is second to none. They are what keeps Knoebels running. Everyone we hire seems to be self-motivated and eager to help us grow."
Along with the park, Brian's responsibilities have evolved, and with it his understanding of the park's purpose. "It's easy to say the best part of my job is seeing the smiles on the guests' faces; the awe of the children … as they see a roller coaster for the first time or catch the brass ring on the Merry-Go-Round, and the joy of the parents and grandparents as they watch their families," Knoebel said. "It's easy to get caught up in the business end of things, so I will grab a paper pick and walk through the park from time to time just to remind myself why we do this."
A few years ago, he thought Knoebels' priority was the bottom line, whether it was a profitable season, and he proposed to his father that the park's "Americana" section, which has an early American theme with a display of steam-powered equipment, a blacksmith and a wood carver, would bring a profit if those displays were replaced by rides and games.
Then came more words of wisdom from his father.
"He gave me a job," Brian said. "He told me, ’I want you to come to this area and watch the people. Your generation couldn't care less about steam-powered equipment; I realize that, but my age group remembers working with this. Every day when I got home from school, I had to help my father run the saw mill before I did homework. … I want you to see the grandpas putting their arms around their grandchildren and explaining how these machines work and how they were part of their everyday life. Then, as time will go by and these children lose their grandfathers, they will stop and remember the discussion they had with their grandpa and the time they spent bonding together at Knoebels. Now, put a price tag on that!' Wow, what a life lesson. It made me realize that we are a special place."
Bill Zimmerman, who is one of those who has been working behind the scenes in one of the park's maintenance shops for 23 years, commends the Knoebel family for keeping the park thriving while so many others that once dotted northeastern Pennsylvania have closed.
"He (Brian) has his hands full," Zimmerman said. "Believe you me, he has his hands full. … His father has created a monster of a park."
"He's a good man Friday," Richard Knoebel said, referring to him as "my right hand boy." "He has ambitions of retiring me," he joked.
It means Saturdays off are rare, but Brian keeps it in perspective.
"God has blessed both our business and our family," Brian said. "Of course there are headaches, of course there are bumps in the road, of course I get called in the middle of the night, but there is nothing I would rather do than get up in the morning and go to work." ■