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Theme Park Insider vacation makeover: D.C., Philly and Hersheypark

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Published: November 24, 2009 at 1:10 PM

Our first Theme Park Insider vacation makeover request comes from a reader in the Seattle, Washington area. She's looking for an 11-day mid-June trip to Washington, D.C., with a side trip through Philadelphia, Gettysburg and Hersheypark in Pennsylvania.

Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.

It's a family of four, with 13-year-old boys, and she's aiming for a budget of $5,000.

So let's put together some specifics, shall we? Here's the format for vacation makeovers: I start with a tentative itinerary, then throw it open to you in the comments to suggest your additions and improvements. Think something I've suggested won't work? Suggest a better plan. Live in the area and got a great tip? Share it in the comments.

Now then, let's get to it:

Anyone planning a trip to D.C. must start by contacting one of their members of Congress. Some tours, such as the White House, must be arranged through a member of Congress, and Congressional staff can make many other reservations for you, saving you time and getting you better access to some sites than you could get on your own.

Which member of Congress to contact? Your choices are your two Senators and your Representative. Ideally, you want to pick the Democrat with the most seniority. Seniority, as well as being a member of the party in power, brings connections and perks in Washington, so you might as well put them to your advantage. You can make contact with your Representative through www.house.gov and your Senators through www.senate.gov. Each one has a staff member assigned to helping constituents who are visiting D.C., so they'll know what to do when you ask.

How to get to D.C.? You want to leave on a Saturday, and I found round-trip airfare between Seattle-Tacoma airport and Reagan National in Washington, D.C. for under $250 (with taxes) on Frontier, with a connection through Denver.

With the extended trip through Pennsylvania on the itinerary, you'll be needing a rental car, but we're not going to get it right away. Washington's got a great, clean, efficient subway system and finding affordable convenient parking in the district is nasty. So we'll going to wait on picking up the car until you're to ready to hit the road to Philly.

But without a car, you'll need to stay at a hotel within easy walking distance of a Metro stop. The Holiday Inn Rosslyn at Key Bridge is located next door to the Rosslyn station on Metro's Orange and Blue lines. And the rate of $158 per night shouldn't break the budget. You can wheel your carry-on bags to the Metro stop at Reagan National and take the Blue line to your hotel.

You are taking carry-ons only, right? Don't worry about packing toiletries. You can pick some up either at the hotel or one of the stores in the area on the evening of your arrival. That's cheaper than paying the bag fees on the airlines. Plus, you won't want to be hauling around more than four bags on the roadtrip leg of this trip, either.

I visited D.C. this summer and my second piece of advice (after the Metro) would be to not plan too much into each day. The temptation is to treat D.C. like a theme park, and pack many attractions into each day. You can't - well, not without feeling cranky, spent and frustrated by the end of the day. Pick one or two destinations each day, and explore those fully. You can't hope to see all of D.C. in a single trip, so don't try. But you can have a complete experience at a few, selected sites.

The next day, take the Blue line one stop to Arlington National Cemetery, where you can walk the grounds, visit many famous grave sites, including the Tomb of the Unknowns, and tour the Arlington House (a.k.a. Custis-Lee Mansion).

On Monday, take the Orange line into the District to visit the National Archives and Ford's Theater. The movie National Treasure made the Archives even more of a must-see, so lines are long. Arrive early (the Archives open at 10 am), or pay $1.50 per person and make advance reservations. We waited 90 minutes to get into the archives last August, so I'd definitely recommend the reservations. You'll need advance reservations for Ford's Theater, too.

Tuesday morning's your time for visiting the White House. Do note that you'll have to leave your purses, backpacks and cameras behind when going to the White House. After visiting the White House, stroll down the Mall and check out whichever Smithsonian museum you most want to see. Wherever you go, however, make sure that you have either lunch at the Mitsitam Native Foods Café at the National Museum of the American Indian. This is the best place to eat in D.C., period.

Wednesday, get your rental car from the Enterprise location near your hotel. I found a midsize car for a weekly rate just under $250 from that locaton. You can save about $20 by going back to the airport to pick up the car from Dollar or Thifty, but I don't think that's worth the cost or hassle of making that extra trip.

With your car now packed, it's time to check out and hit the road to Philly.

Diana Day of BeTwinned.com says that the Reading Terminal Market is a must for Philadelphia visitors. ("Try out a cookie at Famous 4th Street Deli. Lots of people like to get cheesesteaks at Jim's at 4th and South (good steaks, but touristy), but I imagine that the cheesesteaks at the Reading Terminal Market will suffice nicely.") There are several hotels in that area, and it's within eight blocks or so to Independence Hall and the core historic area, so let's make that our hotel destination.

Your options under $200/night are the Hampton Inn, on the far side of the Convention Center (away from the market and historic core) for around $140 a night (plus $20/night parking) or the Hilton Garden Inn for $180/night (plus $25/night parking).

Spend Thursday with a visit to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. (An advance reservation is required for Independence Hall, unless you are Nicolas Cage, of course....)

On Friday, either hang out in the area, or take Diana's suggestion and make the short drive out to Laurel Hill, one of the city's historic cemeteries and gardens. Set along the Schuylkill River, many key folks from Philadelphia's early history are buried there under fabulous and unique tombstones. Diana says that a tour guide is well worth the trouble, and there is also a cell phone tour available.

On Saturday, you'll make the two-hour drive to Gettysburg to visit the historic battlefield and cemetery. You can save a dollar a ticket by buying your park admission and included Cyclorama ticket online. A variety of hotels are in the area for between $100 and $150 for the one night, including a Days Inn and a Courtyard.

Sunday's another travel day, as you drive an hour and a half north to Hershey and Hersheypark.

Hersheypark

It's too early for discounts on tickets and accommodations in the area, so I'd hold off until booking anything until next spring, at the earliest. But right now, the Hershey Lodge is offering a $250 a night rack rate, which will include a one-hour early admission to the park. Hersheypark hasn't set its ticket prices for 2010 yet, but they've run about $50 a person in the past, with discounts available at local groceries and at the hotels.

After you arrive on Sunday, hit up the free Great American Chocolate Tour outside the park. In the evening, Hersheypark's offered free admission during the last two and half hours the park is open to people who hold a ticket for the next day. If that's available in 2010, take advantage to knock off a few popular rides when lines go down at the end of the day.

On Monday, hit the park during early admission and get your rides on the top-rated Lightning Racer and Storm Runner roller coasters, before the rest of the crowd arrives. Since I've not been to Hersheypark before, I'll defer to Theme Park Insider readers for a more detailed tour plan for the park.

Tuesday, it's time to head home. Get up early for the drive back to D.C., where you'll drop you car back at Enterprise, then hop the Metro for the ride back to Reagan National, where you'll board your evening flight back to Seattle.

Airfare, hotels, rental car and admissions will run you about $3,400 for the trip, at today's prices, leaving about $145 a day for food, gas, Metro tickets and souvenirs. You could save $200 by opting for another hotel instead of Hershey Lodge, though you'd lose early admission to Hersheypark. I'd simply hold off on booking the Hershey part of the trip until later, to see what deals develop there.

Other cost saving tips? I recommend splitting all meals while on the road. You'll save money, and calories. Remember, you can't take home doggie bags on vacation, after all. And you can always order more, if anyone's really still hungry.

Readers, it's your turn. Wanna fill in the holes? Got a better idea on places to stay or ways to get there? Let's hear your suggestions for this trip, in the comments.

Want to have your vacation plans made over? E-mail Theme Park Insider editor Robert Niles at themeparkinsider - at - gmail.com with where you want to go, when, a budget and how many people are traveling.

Readers' Opinions

From Will Chilcote on November 24, 2009 at 1:53 PM
Good write up. I lived in DC area for 33 years.

I would add at least 2 days in DC for the museums. The Natural History, Air and Space and American History are all free and awesome. Also, the Air and Space Annex at Dulles airport has some amazing artifacts including the Enterprise Space Shuttle, the only one that is on permanent display anywhere. As to amusement parks, Six Flags America is a small park that is only 20 minutes from DC. Its cheap and worth a day trip during the week (M-F).

If ur going into Virgina, Williamsburg is 3 hours south from DC and the Colonial Williamsburg (recreation with actors of the 1770-1776 era of American History history they change the actual year often) and Busch Gardens are both there. Both parks are worth the trip.

From 68.49.46.174 on November 24, 2009 at 3:04 PM
I live in Arlington, and went to Hershey Park for Easter last year.
A few nice things: Rosslyn Metro is near a walking bridge to Georgetown, which has great window shopping. Teenagers may be interested to see the university, or the steps at M street which were featured in The Exorcist. No metro in this area, so plan to cab or walk back. Rosslyn metro is also close to a CVS and Safeway (grocery store), so you can pick up toiletries, soda or chips for the room.
Also free in DC is Explorer's Hall at National Geographic (17th & M) with great exhibits. A good way to spend a lunch hour. Plenty of cafeteria style places to eat around there, and you can take the red line to Farragut North. The National Zoo is also on the red line. Ironically, The ZOO stop is farther away from the zoo than the Woodly Park stop (one before it) but you have to walk up hill. There is a a McDonald's at this stop, and food is served at the zoo. Kid's meals come with reusable lunch bags, which may come in handy later on the trip.
The Kennedy Center has a free concert every night at 6 p.m., and you can take a shuttle there from the metro stop. Mommy can get a glass of champagne (for a fee) and the view from the terrace is free, but windy!!!
In Arlington, check out Kettler Skating Rink, where the Capitals practice. I think they have $1 skating on Thursday afternoons.
Hershey has Chocolate World, which is free, and a good way to spend about 2 hours on your 1st evening/last morning. Bring cash for the 4D movie, and kiosks like design a cupcake are really new ways to buy food, but hungry teenagers may like this. The cafeteria style restaurant there was inexpensive and good enough for us. There was also a great pizza place right on the main street of town that had NY style pizza and generous portions.
From 24.229.210.137 on November 24, 2009 at 4:34 PM
Live in central PA and have been going to HP for the past 15+ years.
They'll want to hit the big coasters in the morning. Stormrunner, Lightning Racer, Fahrenheit, and Great Bear are the best coasters there. Wildcat is an extremely rough ride, so beware. You'll need aspirin after that ride.
Lines can get quite long on busy summer days. Saturdays and Sunday are the more busy days. Sat especially.
Get to the park about an hour before opening. Parking takes a while depending on the crowd.
The new boardwalk area/wavepool gets really crowded on hot days. The free zoo called ZooAmerica is good. Food is a little pricey at HP. You might want to eat breakfast before you come to save some money. Or wait for a big meal until after you leave the park. There are plenty of restaurants close to HP. Once you come to HP, you come back again. It's very nice clean park. Have Fun! Mark W from York, PA.
From 69.250.27.130 on November 24, 2009 at 5:24 PM
DO NOT GO to Six Flags America. That park is the worst of the Six Flags chain and you didn't come across the country for that. Rides there are frequently broken and the clientele can be less than savory. Check Trip Advisor, I've posted my feelings there too, as have many others. I would highly recommend finding another day to spend at Knoebels (You probably don't need more than one day in Philly...). It's a fantastic family park and while it may not have the most thrill rides but Hershey should have that covered. Knoebels has great food, tons of atmosphere and also a swimming area, which would be fun since your trip is taking place in mid-june. It's a unique park that shouldn't be missed.

Expertise: Born in NEPA, lived in Philly, countless trips to Hershey, Dorney, Knoebels, and (unfortunately) Six Flags America. Long time lurker on the board (I miss Pennies from Kevin). I need to register on here! :)

From James Rao on November 24, 2009 at 6:41 PM
Nicely done, Robert. Well considered and informative.

I'd second the vote for the Air & Space Museum and the Natural History Museum, as well as the National Zoo. All three attractions are absolutely top notch (and free).

I would also argue that the best place to eat (for a reasonable price) is in Union Station at America. Think of this restaurant as a fine dining version of a roadside diner. Their Trio of Classic Roadside Sliders with Velveeta Cheese puts most other mini-burgers to shame. They are delicious, gourmet, and quite reasonable at $8.95 a platter. Plus the restaurant is right in Union Station where you should stop for at least a quick look around.

I haven't been to Hershey since I was about six (a while ago), so I am no help there... sorry.

Anyway, good luck with your trip.

From 24.90.249.214 on November 24, 2009 at 7:50 PM
1 stay at any hershy facilities you will not realy even need that rented car if you do that free shuttle busses that run every 15 to 20 minutes that goes from the facility you are staying at to the park. you can get the bus early to get in a 9 for the sweet start. the only trouble with that is it is not that great. THe only rides open are the scrambler, carousel, recess extreme cup challenge, starship america,the comet, swings and the super dooper looper rollercoaster along with some kiddie rides that are not ment for thirteen yearolds. Second if you stay at the cap ground the cabins are nice cable tv and ac and somewhat cheap. also the good thing is there is a grocery store down the street alomost like walking distance.

2 In D.C you can eaither take the Redline in and get off at vaness station and there is a cheap hotel down the street. or stay out side dc at a campground called cherryhill and there is a metro bus that takes you to the city. THe camp is beutiful 2 pools arcade resturant. beutiful house to rent beutiful cabins.

From Betty Rohrer on November 24, 2009 at 8:06 PM
for the last number of years, Giant { super market} has had discount tickets. can't be used the evening before. if time and car avaible, use the 2 hour free parking night of arrival and see chocolate world. then use whole day to see the park. we used the free 2 hour parking on Saturday to get some pictures for Christmas card and the tour. no cost.
From Deidre Dennis on November 24, 2009 at 8:52 PM
I was the one who submitted this request. You've given me a lot to think about as we also work on our trip.

Our plan is to fly from Seattle to (I think) Harrisburg which is right near Hershey Park. When we visited DC a few years ago, we stayed at a Country Inn and Suites. I've researched and we plan to do that again. There are several in or near Hershey. What we liked about the last one is that there's a pool, hot tub and they serve a continental breakfast each morning. Saves us a little bit of money. Fridge and microwaves in room. That coupled with my husband being a government employee, we're looking at about $88 per night.

We plan to rent a car (in advance through our Costco membership) for the entire time. We'll drive to Gettysburg, Philadelphia and other places we want to go. We are considering staying one night in DC so that we can have two full days to visit some select attractions there. Paying the $1 per person fee to get tickets ahead of time to the National Archives and the Holocaust Museum. Beats the wait outside to hope you get inside. Plan to go to Arlington Cemetery and maybe two of the Smithsonian museums if time allows. Also working on a request to tour the White House.

Since Hershey is the focal point of our trip, and because it's much less expensive, we decided that we'd stay in Hershey and drive to the other places. Thinking about a red-eye Friday and arriving early Saturday. Generally we've always taken red-eyes and it's worked out well.

Taking everything into consideration and can't wait to tell you how it went once we came back. Any and all advice is greatly appreciated.

From Will Chilcote on November 24, 2009 at 9:04 PM
I can't believe I'm doing but, I feel the need to defend my hometown. SFA is not that bad. And its not the worst in the chain. I personally think Magic Mountain is the worst.

Yes, SFA's rides are all clones but so are most of rides in all the Six Flags parks. Superman, Joker's Jinks, Wild One and Batwing are all great rides.

And yes kings dominion (2 hours from DC) and Hersheypark are better. But, if ur in DC. You are missing out if u skip SFA.

To the comment on National Zoo. I personally love it. One of the best in USA. And its free!!!

From Shawn Marie on November 24, 2009 at 9:10 PM
Hersheypark is my home park and we make more than 50 visits a year in all seasons.

First thing is check the Hersheypark website while planning your trip. There is an extensive amount of information there, one of the best park websites I've seen.

Try not to go on a Friday or Saturday during the summer if it can be avoided. Sundays are not nearly as bad. In fact the lowest attendance I've seen at the new water parks in HP are on Sunday mornings. It picks up after 1pm.

Check the dates you are planning to attend to see if the Giant Center or Star Pavilion are hosting concerts. This can greatly affect attendance since you get discounted tickets when you purchase concert tickets to some shows. The good thing though is if someone is playing in the Star Pavilion (just outside the park) you can hang out in front of Chocolate World and hear the concert just as well as if you had bought a ticket. Some folks even bring lawn chairs.

I second the suggestions to hit the coasters early - or hit them late if the park is open late. They do sometimes run late with opening the coasters in the morning so you may run into that. Fahrenheit is the one you want to get out of the way early, lines for this are exceptionally long. Storm Runner would be next and then the Comet. The rest have shorter lines generally and can be ridden with a half hour wait at any time during the day. The Roller Soaker in most people's opinion is worth missing. It is a slow loader, breaks down frequently and is just not up to par.

Hersheypark food can be costly, but they offered meal plans with many options that save you a few bucks this year. You purchase them as you enter the park. They also offer an all you can eat deal on some days as well though these are mostly weekends. Buy the refillable cup, you will save a ton of money - plus water refills are FREE.

The Boardwalk sections of Hersheypark are only open from Memorial Day through Labor Day so that is something to remember as well. You will want to score chairs early in the day so if you have a non-coaster rider have them do this while you ride. HP also has cabanas that can be rented. Many hotels offer this as part of their package and it is great to have a shaded "home base" while touring the park.

Make sure you wear comfortable shoes. The only park that I have spent more time walking in was Epcot at WDW. And there are hills - lots of hills.

Chocolate World, outside of Hersheypark, is a great place to get souvenirs, candy and they also offer the free factory tour. Visiting Chocolate World and the tour is best saved for the mid-afternoon when it is least crowded. The building is air conditioned which also offers a nice break during the summer.

And one last tip, if you want to buy chocolate, do not do it until the end of your trip otherwise it will melt. Seems obvious, but so many people do not do this.

From Robert Niles on November 24, 2009 at 10:39 PM
Great comments, everyone. Thank you so much.

And Deidre's post illustrates that there are so many different ways to order the same attractions, making for very different trips.

Of course, the vacation makeovers aren't simply intended to provide an itinerary for one family, but also to provide ideas for all Theme Park Insider readers. Keep 'em coming, folks!

And also, please submit a makeover request if you'd like to get some fresh ideas for your family vacation.

From 66.194.34.82 on November 25, 2009 at 9:14 AM
The best hotel to stay in Philadelphia is the Raddison Warwich hotel, on 17th and Locust. It is in the heart of Center City Philly, and averages about $95 per night (kayak.com) - It is clean, staff is amazing, and a great walk to independence hall.

The best cheesesteaks are from Tony Lukes. Order a wiz wit (cheese whiz and fried onions) - trust me, that is the authentic way..none of that green pepper nonsense.

From 68.191.145.3 on November 25, 2009 at 10:37 AM
Take your kids to the Ben Franklin Institute in Philly. Its close to the building that Rocky ran up in Rocky.

Its basically a giant science museum for kids and its really cool. I liked it a lot and Im 20. Haha

From 70.118.93.239 on November 25, 2009 at 12:02 PM
As someone who used to live in DC, Ford's Theatre is an utter waste of time. 99% of what is there isn't original and the lecture is quite boring for kids. Not worth a special trip into Chinatown nor the wait. Depending on how old the kids are, I'd put in a vote for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is directly adjacent to the National Mall and the Tidal Basin. I think it's something that everyone should do at least once. A well known secret for anyone visiting the National Mall- if you don't want to pay the ridiculous prices for museum cafe fare, walk or ride the metro one stop to L'Enfant plaza or Chinatown/Gallery Place metro for some more reasonably priced food.
From Anthony Murphy on November 25, 2009 at 12:07 PM
Ben Franklin Institute is much fun!
From 65.174.184.10 on November 25, 2009 at 1:39 PM
Fellow PA resident here, since Hershey Park has been well covered, here's a few more suggestions for your stay since it sounds like you will be kind of "home-based" around the Hershey area. Visit Gettysburg Battlefield. If your family is interested in the subject of ghosts, visit the Farnsworth House in the town of Gettysburg. Do a Gettysburg ghost tour. Visit the Battlefield at night for a possible ghostly encounter; I believe the Battlefield Park is open till 11:00 PM in the summer. Visit the Gettysburg wax museum. Southeast of Hershey is Lancaster, home of the Pennsylvania Dutch. There are lots of tourist attractions in the Lancaster area. Finally, from Hershey, travel north about 70 miles to Elysburg PA, home to Knoebels Grove Amusement Park and the world famous phoenix roller-coaster.
From 173.66.199.131 on November 25, 2009 at 3:23 PM
I have to speak up about the SF in MD also. I live in the DC area and that SF is well known as a pit. It is a dumping ground for hordes of unattended kids and teenagers.
From 24.5.116.54 on November 26, 2009 at 3:16 PM
As a general rule for this type of itinerary between DC and Philly, renting a car is a waste. There are plenty of trains between the two cities, and the attractions of the two cities are easily reached by subway and bus. From DC, Grayline has daytrip bus tours to Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, and Monticello. From Philadelphia, Amtrak connects to Harrisburg where Hershey is located, although admittedly it is about a 10-mile bus ride to the park from the station. Between DC and Philly, don't forget a daytrip to Baltimore's Inner Harbor area too if time permits (for those from Seattle, it has the fine National Aquarium which is superior to Seattle's, and from DC is akin to the distance from your city to Tacoma).
From Charles Reichley on November 27, 2009 at 7:04 PM
I almost always stay at Country Inn and Suites, mostly because my whole family shares a room, and it's one of the chains that has 2 queen bed rooms in almost all their hotels -- and they have hotels near just about every theme park (I was an hour away from Michigan's Adventure though, and have to do a different chain for Dorney Park).

They have a good frequent-stay program you should sign up for, you can earn points pretty quickly, which can then get you discounts on stays.

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