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Dorney just isn't the same old park
If Alfundo the Clown is gone, what charm can be left in Dorney Park? Alfundo was the colorful centerpiece of the South Whitehall Township amusement grounds for more than 25 years.
Alfundo (which stands for Allentown's Fun is Dorney Park) was named in a promotional contest in the 1950s. The smiling face was mounted on the loading deck of the ThunderHawk roller coaster and the bumping cars.
But who said the clown is gone? Alfundo has been preserved by park officials, who understand the attachment of sentimental patrons.
Perched about 40 feet high on steel columns, Alfundo now beams down on the area that will become another entrance to Dorney, close to the newest section that will open this summer - Thrills Unlimited.
Drive west on the Dorneyville Bypass, look up and to the right, and you will see the clown's welcoming, unchanging grin.
But the changing face of Dorney Park over the past 20 years has been unsettling to many customers.
Dorney is celebrating its 105th year. With the addition of Wildwater Kingdom, one of the largest water parks in the nation, and completion of Thrills Unlimited, the park has been transformed.
Although some are bothered by the transformation of quaint, old- fashioned Dorney Park to a modern, regional facility, there are others - some even in their 70s and 80s - who like the changes and consider them improvements.
Participating recently in a retrospective interview were Jean Zwarych, 58; her father, Robert I. Shellhammer, 88; Frank Knauss, 47, and his father, Benjamin Franklin Knauss, 87.
"The changes don't bother me at all," said Frank Knauss, who lives in Bungalo Park, east of where the park's racetrack used to be. "After all the publicity given the new Hercules roller coaster, I find that it's quieter than the vehicular traffic around here."
He added, "Many people don't like change, but I accept it. What makes the park unique is that the old and the new are there, side by side. I'm a member of the Saarbruecken Exchange Society, and I have been host to Germans who visited the Lehigh Valley. When I take them to Dorney Park, they point that out to me - the old blended with the new. They like that; it reminds them of Germany's amusement parks."
Solomon Dorney started it all by developing a fishing pond and picnic grove along Cedar Creek in 1884 on a former dairy farm owned by Tilghman Helfrich. About 1900, it was sold to the Allentown- Kutztown Traction Co., which operated a trolley company between the two municipalities. It was known as the Dorney Line.
Dorney Park had a long and colorful history when it was taken over by entrepreneur Harris Weinstein in 1986. Joining corporate officers like Craig Cope, Robert Plarr and Mike Crowther, Weinstein, who made a fortune in garment manufacturing, brought creative financing techniques to an economically ailing corporation. Today, he is board chairman and the prime mover of all new projects.
"The big day at Dorney Park was 'Children's Day' in July. The Morning Call contained strips of tickets for free rides and one for a free hot dog," said Jean Zwarych, who lived only two minutes' walk from the park at 3739 Dorney Park Road. "There was always a big drawing that day and the big prize was a bicycle. The park used to be jammed."
There also was "Promotion Day," which was literally a promotion. The students would bring their report cards to Dorney Park, where officials would reward them with numerous free rides for an "A" and other treats for a "B." Even a "C" might be worth one circuit on the fabulous carousel with its huge music box and handcarved wooden horses and swans. For years the merry-go-round was operated by Steve Plarr.
One enticement of old Dorney Park was that there was no general admission charge. But many rides and attractions required the purchase of a ticket. And the company also made a profit on food and souvenir sales.
Zwarych's maiden name was Shellhammer and there were six Shellhammer children who made Dorney a part of their lives. Four generations of the family worked there. Jean's late brother Robert was the lone lifeguard at the swimming pool that had concrete walls but a sandy bottom. In comparison, Wildwater Kingdom employs 130 lifeguards for its gigantic pool, artificial rivers and water slides. Another brother, Corky, operated the former shooting gallery.
"Three of us worked at the pony ride for nothing. We would feed the nine ponies for Harvey Ziegenfuss in the morning and walk them around the ring with the children riding them. We were with the ponies all day and we smelled like them when we got home," Zwarych recalled. Her sister Marie, now living in Salmon River, Idaho, used to be the checkroom girl at the once popular roller skating rink.
"We kids also worked the picnics, which were a big thing in those days. There were seven groves and the biggest was the Silver and Blue, which is still here at the top of the hill. Mack Trucks used to throw a picnic there for its workers and the park catered it," Zwarych said. "There were deer and peacocks (in Zoorama) where the Hercules roller coaster is now, and the kids could reach in and pet the deer."
Steve Plarr used to let the Shellhammer children keep the carousel area clean.
"There was a space where people dropped money and things. He would let us crawl underneath for coins. And we found skunks under there, too," Zwarych remembered with a laugh. Seated next to her was her father, who had operated the ThunderHawk roller coaster and had parked cars at the former Castle Garden when Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and other music-world celebrities brought their big bands in for dance dates.
"On Children's Day I used to ride on the outside of the roller coaster to keep the kids from sticking their arms out. I did that until the insurance company found out and I had to stop it," said Shellhammer, who later worked at the Atlantic Refining Co. fuel depot in Allentown.
Incredulous spectators thought it was daring of Shellhammer to cling to a train as the coaster made its near-freefall plunge and zipped around the curves. "But I enjoyed it all. The Plarr family treated me very well," Shellhammer said. The roller coaster was so close to the Shellhammer home that Jean could look out of her bedroom window and watch employee Howard Knecht "walk it every morning." Highly safety-minded, the Plarr and Ott families, who owned and operated the park over many decades, had the coaster tracks and wooden ties examined daily.
Frank Knauss, assistant plant engineer at Cedarbrook, the Lehigh County home, was still in a stroller when his parents first wheeled him the three blocks to Dorney Park. Several years later, he entered Dorney Park with his sister Barbara as though it were another world; so close and yet so exotic.
"It was a real thrill for a kid, like going on a mini-vacation. I remember feeding the ducks in the pond, riding the carousel and spending hours in the Penny Arcade. The arcade was real cheap. You'd put a penny in a machine and get a card of Hopalong Cassidy or Gene Autry. I always took the free Zephyr train ride," said Knauss, who is a railroad buff and has model train sets.
Knauss lamented that the "Grande Carrousel," housed in a wooden rotunda, was destroyed by fire in September 1983. The attraction had become one of the best-known fixtures in Lehigh County. "I was a firefighter with the Cetronia Fire Company at the time, and I was the third man to arrive at the fire scene," said Knauss, who is now fire prevention officer with the volunteer company.
The carousel, a Philadelphia toboggan-type ride similar to the nationally famous Dentzel carousel, was installed at Dorney Park in 1915.
"It was a handmade custom ride and was irreplaceable," said Harry Schmerling, the park's public relations director. Also destroyed in the 1983 fire were the Bucket O'Blood, Skee-Ball alleys, Flying Bob, a novelty shop and an open-air theater.
When the merry-go-round was leveled, Knauss regarded it as a personal loss. It had been a tender part of his boyhood.
"I recall reaching for the brass ring (good for a free ride) and Grandma (Wil Tracey) Plarr sitting in the booth selling tickets. I loved the sound of the organ. The only thing that came close to it was the sound of the barrel organs that I heard in Holland, and I bought recordings of those," Knauss said.
Knauss recalls the airplane ride now called The Rockets, Bumping Cars and the Water Skooters in the river (Cedar Creek) that were guided by underwater tracks. They are among the few old rides remaining in the original Dorney Park, which is now essentially occupied by Kiddieland. Dorney Park Road used to be a public road cutting through the middle of the facility. Following a fatal accident, a petition drive and heated controversy, the South Whitehall commissioners decided to close the road, which is now the park's northwest midway.
The Sky Ride, a "medium-old feature," provides aerial views of the old section filled with many new attractions. The once-popular Mill Chute, with its short boat ride, has been redesigned into Journey to the Center of the Earth. More than a dozen old rides have disappeared.
Benjamin Franklin Knauss, who wears bifocal eyeglasses invented by his illustrious namesake, is best known as the owner of Knauss' Cheese Shop on Hamilton Street that he operated from 1929 to 1969. He recalls that his parents brought him to the site of future Dorney Park in a horse and buggy in the early 1900s.
"It was called The Fishwire then. It was just a fish hatchery and they had chicken wire stretched around it. There was also a picnic grove. It was at the end of the trolley line," he said. After the carousel was installed, Knauss, as a teen-ager, worked five summers at the park.
"I worked for Chester Betz, who had the hotel, arcade and restaurant. I worked seven days a week and got $20 a week for working noon to midnight. The area was open but you paid for the rides. We catered the Hess Brothers picnic for their employees. Hess's gave them everything they wanted."
Knauss, his son Frank, Zwarych and Shellhammer, agreed that every generation has its pleasures, its time in history and cannot expect people- oriented things, including amusement parks, to be frozen like the contents of a time capsule. Zwarych, who brings grandson Andrew Derr of Ormrod to Dorney Park, commented, "I think the park is beautiful, even though I can hardly believe all of the changes. I accept them because nothing in life stays the same. Time moves on."
An Allentown woman who is not as receptive, said, "The changes upset me a little. I remember going to Dorney Park in the evenings, walking in, getting an ice cream and just sitting there enjoying the smells and sounds. Can't do that now. I also remember taking the kids to Dorney during Allentown Fair week, packing a picnic lunch and spending the whole day there because rides were cheaper and there was more to do."
She added, "Now, to take kids to Dorney Park, it's expensive. Everyone pays an entrance fee even if they don't go on any of the rides. Glad my kids are grown up. I guess that I liked the hometown touch."
But despite the general admission money they need for a much higher overhead - Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdown this summer has 3,000 employees - park officials insist that the hometown touch is still there.
Says Crowther, a vice president who has spent 19 years with the organization, "Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom has grown tremendously over the past five years, and our markets have expanded way beyond the local area. But the old Dorney Park is really still here. We are still a family-oriented park. Most of our rides are designed for the family to enjoy together. We have picnic groves all over the place. The family tradition continues."
And remember - Alfundo is there, looking down, watching you.