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A Sweet Family Vacation At Hersheypark

By Lisa Tucker McElroy

On the first day of our family vacation to Hersheypark, we’re standing on the ground looking up in awe.  Zoe, my eight-year-old daughter, gulps when she sees the cars start up the hill, then says, “Mom, you love roller coasters, so you’re going to ride that, right?” 

Right.  I do love roller coasters, and I’m totally psyched to be at Hersheypark this weekend as the park debuts the newest of its eleven roller coasters, the Fahrenheit.  The weather’s perfect, the ride is running, and you can hear the screams from the first riders as the coast climbs the initial 121-foot incline, then zooms down the 97 degree decline – the steepest in the United States.
It’s going to take me most of the day to get up my courage for this one.  And I’m thinking I’ll be in the single riders’ line; my husband is turning green, and the kids are headed for rides set firmly on the ground.

They’ve got a lot of choices.  The Coal Cracker – a hydroflume boat that ends with a big splash – gets us all really wet, but keeps us laughing all day.  The Dry Gulch Railroad (a mini train modeled on a 19th century steam train) tours us around the park when we’re ready to rest.  And, like at most theme parks, there are carousel and bumper car rides; there’s even a Hershey version of spinning teacups called Dizzy Drums that makes us more than dizzy.  That’s only a start – the park is huge, full of rides and activities for all ages and interests.  Even better, the lines aren’t bad at all, even on this warm holiday weekend at the beginning of the season.  Maybe this is one reason why Hersheypark ranks among the top 20 parks in the United States -  and that on that list, it’s the only "independent" park, meaning that it’s not a Disney or Universal or Six Flags or Busch or Cedar Faire property.

After a day of rides, rides, rides, and a few carnival games and street shows thrown in, we take a park shuttle back to the Hershey Lodge, the casual, family-friendly hotel onsite.  Our room is spacious, clean, and modern; the beds are comfortable.  Our only issue is that the Lodge can be confusing to get around; for example, the different parking areas are marked on the outsides of the buildings but not the insides, making it hard to find your car in the maze of identical hallways.  Still, there’s lots to do at the Lodge, including a kids’ check-in desk where the kids can sample chocolate treats and play “Guess How Many Hershey’s Kisses in the Giant Kiss Jar” while the adults do the real checking in.  And staying at a Hersheypark property provides us with perks like the “Sweet Start Advantage” (or early access to certain rides and attractions), complimentary park shuttles, and best ticket prices.

The Hershey Spa

On our second morning at Hershey, my husband and girls are itching to get to the park as soon as it opens, but I’m going to indulge in some mom time.  As soon as I enter the Hershey Spa, I know that this two hours is going to be my favorite part of the weekend (Fahrenheit notwithstanding).  It’s hard to choose from the dozens of chocolate-based treatments, but I finally settle on a chocolate fondue wrap (complete with Vichy shower rinse afterwards, and it smells so good!) and a chocolate pedicure with one of the Spa Ritual chocolate colored polishes developed just for Hershey.  Over the course of the morning, I kick back in the relaxation room, where I chat with – count them! – five brides who are getting married at Hershey that weekend and are here for their pre-wedding pampering.   

Golf in Hershey

After the spa, I meet up with my crew back at the Lodge, and we’re off to Hershey’s Spring Creek Golf Course.  A pretty little nine-holer, it’s used regularly by the students at the school Milton Hershey established to help disadvantaged kids.  We’ve got our golf bags stocked well with Hershey’s Kisses for me, Reeses for the kids, and Kit Kats for my husband.  The chocolate fuels a pretty good game, although I’m still thinking about just how I’m going to get up the guts for the Fahrenheit before we leave Hershey.  The kids actually beat me on a couple of holes where I ten-putt.  Oh, well, I’ll put them to shame when I ride the new coaster in the very front row.

And now, it’s time.  We head back to the park and tell the kids that we can ride one last ride before we head home to Philadelphia.  They lead me over to Fahrenheit and say that they’ll have even more fun watching me ride one last ride.  Even in the heat of the day, I feel myself breaking out in a cold sweat.
We approach the end of the line, where the attendant checks to make sure I’m tall enough against a height chart made up of Hershey’s candies.  It’s true, I’m short, but not short enough.  All systems are go.  I’m going to ride.  I join the line.

“See you in a couple of hours!”  the attendant says.  What???!!!!  Turns out, Fahrenheit is so popular with park guests that the wait for the ride in mid-afternoon will be too long to fit our travel schedule.  I’m wildly disappointed – or so I tell my little ones, as my husband takes my hand, gives it a squeeze, and gives me a knowing smile.

I may have missed it this trip.  Next time, though (and no doubt there will be a next time), it’ll be me you hear screaming from 121 feet up, hands high in the air, big smile on my face.

If You Go:

  1. Pick the best time to visit.  The regular season for the park is Memorial Day through Labor Day. All dry and water attractions are open every day during that time. It’s open on weekends in September and in May and certain times during other months, but it’s closed in January, February and March (days and hours are always posted on www.hersheypark.com).  Saturdays are the busiest, and the weeks leading up to July 4th are less busy than the months of July and August. Weekdays before school gets out are less busy than once summer vacation starts.
  2. Plan to spend the weekend.  It will definitely take you at least two days to experience all that Hershey has to offer, more if you golf.  The Hersheypark admission gets you into the "regular" park, the water-play area (The Boardwalk at Hersheypark) and ZooAmerica.  What’s more, with the price of gas being what it is, it’s probably just as cheap to stay at Hershey as it is to drive back and forth twice to Philadelphia or New York. 
  3. Include the whole family.  Hersheypark is a very family-friendly park, and it's ideal for any age child. There are more than 65 rides and attractions, more than 20 of which are designed especially for young children. But there are also much more thrill-oriented rides which tend to really appeal to the ‘tweens and teens. Something unique about Hersheypark is that it intersperses the mild rides with the wild ones, allowing families to travel through the park as a unit instead of having to "divide and conquer" the entire theme park.
  4. Hit some rides early.The longest lines are at the major rides — Fahrenheit, Storm Runner, Great Bear and water rides on hot days — so head to those areas first thing, if possible.
  5. Wear comfortable shoes.  The park is massive, and you’ll want to explore every corner.  We’re talking a lot of walking – all the better to burn off all of the great chocolate you’ll be eating! 
  6. Take bathing suits and water shoes.  My kids loved the water park portion of Hersheypark, and they just threw on a cover-up to run around the rest of the park.
  7. Don’t miss Chocolate World.  This attraction next to the main park offers a trolley ride, a 3-D movie, a chocolate making tour, and a chocolate “factory” where your kids can help box Hershey’s Kisses or decorate chocolate cupcakes.
  8. Make spa and golf reservations. These popular options tend to book up fast, so book your favored times at the same time you book your hotel room.
  9. Suspend all anti-sugar rules.  You’ll get Hershey’s Kisses on check-in and on your pillow at night; vendors hand out samples of Hershey’s treats all around the park.
  10. Enjoy the non-chocolate food options, too. Chocolate may be your first choice for in-park dining, but it’s far from the only one.   The Park offers everything from healthy soups, sandwiches, fruits, and salads to the more typical theme park fare of hot dogs and chicken strips.  Restaurants are scattered throughout the park; we especially liked the Pioneer Frontier food court in the middle of the park (near – guess what? - Fahrenheit) that offered some of everything.
  11. Bring dress up duds for one spectacular dinner.  At the end of a long day on the coasters, be sure to check out the Circular Dining Room at the Hershey Hotel.  Try the Lancaster County organic duck and the cocoa dusted scallops with cocoa balsamic sauce; don’t miss the signature chocolate cream pie for dessert - it’s worth the calories.  A kids’ menu is available if your kids won’t do duck and scallops.
  12. Plan to eat a few meals outside of the park.  To save just a bit of money, we ate at one national chain (there are several just outside the park) and at the charming Soda Jerk, a diner in nearby Hummelstown.

Lisa Tucker McElroy is an attorney, writer, law professor, and mom. Lisa is the author of nine children's books, and she regularly publishes articles and essays about travel, marriage, parenting and family in national magazines such as Parenting, Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, FamilyFun, Cooking with Paula Deen, and Golf Vacations. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two travel-loving daughters.

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