The Old Mill at Kennywood

The Old Mill at Kennywood (Kennywood)

Reporting from Dorney Park in Allentown, Pa.--

The campgrounds, picnic groves and trolley parks that proliferated in Pennsylvania and Ohio in the late 19th century have survived through lean times and changing tastes to become some of the oldest operating amusement parks in the U.S.

Photos: Vintage rides and attractions at America's oldest amusement parks

Like many of the oldest theme parks on my trip across America's Coaster Belt, Dorney Park blends modern amusements with classic attractions.

Among the oldest coasters on our tour is the wooden 1923 Thunderhawk. Twin rows of walnut trees running beneath Thunderhawk mark the location where passengers once arrived at Dorney Park by rail more than a century ago.

Nearby, the 1934 Zephyr train takes riders along the picturesque Cedar Creek, a natural waterway that runs through the park.

The 1920 Whip from Coney Island, N.Y., remains the oldest attraction at the park and my favorite ride at Dorney.

Located at the entrance to the park, the 1921 Dentzel carousel with a Wurlitzer organ and hand-carved giraffes, lions, tigers and deer was moved to Dorney Park from Cedar Point in 1995.

On my trip across America's Coaster Belt, I'm visiting many of the oldest amusement parks in the country: Cedar Point (1870), Idlewild (1878), Dorney Park (1884), Lakemont Park (1894), Kennywood (1898), Hersheypark (1907) and Knoebels (1926).

Many of the parks were created before the turn of the 20th century as weekend getaways accessible only by wagon, streetcar or steamboat. With the addition of carousels, Ferris wheels, water rides and roller coasters, the summer retreats eventually evolved into the first American amusement parks.

The golden age of amusement parks peaked in the 1920s before a precipitous decline wiped out many of the early parks during the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II.

A look back at the early days of the 10 oldest operating amusement parks in Pennsylvania and Ohio:

Cedar Point
Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, started in 1870 as a beer garden with guests arriving by steamboat. Its first roller coaster, the Switchback Railway, debuted in 1892. By 1902, the park had added a figure-eight toboggan coaster. A midway with rides, games and fortunetellers soon followed. By the late 1920s, Cedar Point had a shoot-the-chutes water ride, fun houses and a Cyclone coaster.

Idlewild Park
Idlewild Park in Ligonier, Pa., was founded in 1878 as a campground along a railroad line, with fishing, boating, picnicking and dancing. Before the turn of the 20th century, Idlewild had added a steam carousel in the center of the park. Today, the Olde Idlewild area celebrates the park's traditional amusement rides, including the 1920s merry-go-round, the 1938 wooden Rollo Coaster, the 1939 Whip and the 1947 canopy-covered Caterpillar.

Dorney Park
Dorney Park in Allentown, Pa., traces its history to 1884, when the former trout hatchery was transformed into a summer resort with a scenic railway, Ferris wheel and circle swing. At the turn of the century, the park was purchased by a trolley line, which added a carousel (1901), whip ride (1920) and the "yellow coaster" (1923). The classic Mill Chute dark ride, also known as the Tunnel of Love, opened in 1927.