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My Childhood Memories Don’t Include Mickey Mouse Ears, And I Have No Regrets

My childhood had all the magic it could have ever needed, no Disney required.

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Disney, Disney, Disney. Whether it’s executives announcing their “not-at-all secret gay agenda,” debates over whether to call those activists “groomers,” or Gov. Ron DeSantis swinging back at the woke corporation, Disney keeps dominating the news cycle in one form or another.

Soon it will dominate the season too. Summer is right around the corner, and with it many long-awaited vacations to a Disney park. As I’ve been following the Disney news and anticipating my own summer getaways, I’ve also been reminiscing on my childhood vacations.

Like my colleague Joy Pullmann’s recent excursion to Dollywood, my family’s annual theme park trips were equally devoid of Mickey Mouse ears and in-your-face Disney commercialism. Yet those vacations absolutely rocked, and someday I hope to take my kids to the same spot. You should too.

A Childhood to Remember

My mother is from Pennsylvania, so our vacations were always more of a chance for our family of four to visit extended family on the East Coast than to travel to a touristy spot. Every year over the Fourth of July, however, the Pennsylvania trip wasn’t to my Granny and PopPop’s house.

It was to the campground at Knoebels Amusement Resort for a holiday weekend o’ fun with our best family friends; my aunt, uncle, and cousins; and other friends from the Quaker State for a grand total of four neighboring campsites, 18 people, and more s’mores than we’d care to admit.

Our travel was always by minivan, caravanning with our Wisconsin friends, which always made the experience even more fun. We’d stash walkie-talkies in each car so we could kill 16 hours of windshield time with sporadic banter because none of us kids had cell phones. With tents and rain flys strapped to the roof, fluffy headphones on hand to block out my parents’ “old-people music,” and an excessive stockpile of Pringles and Twizzlers, we were set.

Knoebels actually opened on a different July Fourth nearly 100 years ago with nothing more than a pool, a merry-go-round, and several food stands on some old farmland. It accumulated more rides over the years, with the Grand Carousel purchased just 10 days before the start of World War II. And since the ’60s, when the campground was started with just nine sites, it has grown to more than 600.

Much of the park’s history remains, in the form of rough wooden roller coasters, weathered signage tacked to tree trunks, and a kitschy mascot. The aesthetic was reminiscent of “The Sandlot” rather than a princess blockbuster derivative.

Those who require fairy dust and castle grandeur to pique their interest might wrinkle their noses, but as far as I’m concerned, the quirks of the Pennsylvania park are assets, not weaknesses. The real magic isn’t in bringing life to the characters from someone else’s imagination; it’s in bringing yourself more to life, as it were, by stimulating your own.

Rather Amusing

Knoebels accomplishes this masterfully through so many of its attractions. On its Antique Cars ride, children can get behind the wheel of a full-sized Model T and drive along a winding woodsy trail. It’s not fast. It’s not flashy. But as a child, I loved chauffeuring my parents around and pretending I had my drivers’ license.

My brother loved the handcarts until he outgrew them, which devastated the little guy. Here’s how Knoebels describes that ride:

This kid-powered ride has been a popular choice for generations! … Kids sit with their legs outstretched and use a hand crank to propel the cart along a set of miniature train tracks. The faster they crank the wheel, the faster they go!

It’s literally an upper-arm workout for children. There’s nothing propelling them but their own baby biceps — and they still love it!

And while carousels likely round out the list of rides Disney-goers never waste their time on, Knoebels’ Grand Carousel is a fan favorite. It’s one of the biggest carousels in the world and one of only a few that still has a ring dispenser, which hangs from a wall within reach of the outside-horse riders and dispenses steel rings one at a time — plus one brass ring each ride. The lucky winner who snatches it is rewarded with the cost of the ride in free tickets, plus their name announced over the loudspeaker.

Now if you figure out how to game the system (or if you have an older boy cousin who figures it out and teaches you), you can dangle almost all the way off the horse for maximized wingspan, reach an extra arm’s length ahead of your horse and behind, and use all your fingers to hook a handful of rings in rapid succession. This little maneuver added a ridiculously competitive layer — never before seen on a merry-go-round, as you can imagine — to the otherwise humdrum enterprise, resulting in plenty of gut-busting laughs and the occasional jammed finger, plus an unappreciated exercise in hand-eye coordination and balance.

Knoebels’ roller coasters will take your breath away like not much else can. People born and raised on metal coasters that twist and turn with buttery smoothness and plush-covered bars securing them snugly inside can’t possibly grasp the thrill that’s possible on their rickety wooden counterparts. In fact, the first time I ever tried a steel coaster, I was bored.

Never so on the Phoenix, which has won national awards as the best wooden coaster. Its lap bar locks a good 4-10 inches above the legs of the rider, meaning every hill tosses passengers into a near-standing position before they’re finally caught by the safety mechanism. The result is pure adrenaline and masochistic whiplash.

Besides its free admission (great for non-thrill-seeking grandparents) and remarkably low day-pass rate of only $27 for kids under 48 inches and $40 for everyone else, one of the park’s best features is the fact that lines are almost nonexistent. This is especially true first thing in the morning and as the sun is setting, to the point that if you can wriggle off a ride and hustle back past the ticket lady quickly enough, you might catch the very next cycle.

The Art of Appreciation

As children, we tuck away more meaningful memories than the sensation of thrill we derive from rapid spinning and mechanical plummeting. When you remove paid actors in fairytale attire from that equation, you’re left with only mental snapshots of family time well spent — and those require no greedy branding to supplement them.

A park ranger hollering at our dads for stacking three campfire rings into a veritable burn barrel. Dropping a quarter into the geyser machine to ambush unsuspecting Log Flume riders. Sprinting and shrieking through a torrential downpour. Trying on all the wacky hats from the hat stand to find the funniest fit. Sleeping outside under the stars. Watching my brother ride the StratosFear 100 times. Studying my dad’s technique to develop the best Bumper Car strategy — and then using it against him on the Bumper Boats. These are the memories I cherish.

“Now I can’t claim to be an expert on parenting, but I do think keeping your children’s expectations low is a key to success,” The Federalist Books Editor Mark Hemingway wrote in an old column about Lakeside Amusement Park near Denver. “Maybe my kids have no idea what they’re missing because they’ve so far been denied the pilgrimage to Orlando or Anaheim. As amusement parks go, Disneyland is impossible to top. But I see the looks on their faces every year at Lakeside as proof that the happiest place on earth can be wherever you want it to be.”

Like training kids’ tastes with off-brand groceries so they aren’t picky snobs (another of my parents’ tactics), experiences like Lakeside and Knoebels cultivate in children an appreciation for nonconventional and non-commercialized entertainment. Eliminating the overstimulating bells and whistles minimizes the unsatisfaction that occurs when a person encounters something so indulgent and over-the-top it desensitizes them to grandeur. How does one top the best of the best once they’ve seen it?

I still have never seen Disney. But I wouldn’t trade our Knoebels memories for anything. My childhood had all the magic it could have ever needed, no Mickey Mouse required.