In fact, that is what my wife Kim and I have been doing for the past two months. In June, our first daughter Ella was born, and since then most of our time has been spent at home with her. Those of you with children know that your time is not your own anymore when kids come into the picture. We found that out soon, because before we knew it, the summer was almost gone. Wanting to take at least some form of a vacation before summer was over, we planned a trip eastbound. The trip would begin with some relatives in Maryland and culminate in Hershey, Pennsylvania...the self proclaimed "Sweetest Place on Earth". We took along the little one and Kim's parents came along as well.
After leaving the aunts and cousins in Maryland, we made the drive to Pennsylvania, stopping in the town of Lancaster to shop and take a rest. As we passed by the small Dutch Wonderland amusement park in Lancaster, I started to wonder what this place would be like. This was after all, my first visit to Hershey, and I had heard some good things about it. On Monday we visited the nearby Chocolate World on Monday night, which is a museum of sorts with interactive exhibits and a tour of the town. The museum is free of charge to enter, and includes some attractions that cost money. We took the tour of the town, and were educated on everything Hershey....from the houses of the Hershey family to the factory itself, to the private schools that Mr. Hershey founded, from the five star Hotel Hershey to the botannical gardens. It was entertaining and educational, and the tour guides put on a little show for us in the process. It's a recommended stop if you are in the area. We rode the Chocolate World Tour, which takes you through the chocolate making process in a mock chocolate factory, another nice ride for the family. After that was a visit to the chocolate shop, which offers all products Hershey, from the Hershey kiss, to Reeses cups, to an obscenely large 5 lb Hershey Chocolate Bar.
Which brings me to Hersheypark and the token history lesson. Hersheypark was opened in 1907 by Milton Hershey as a means of entertaining his workers and "providing them with a place to relax". Almost 100 years later, it is a major tourist attraction that draws millions of people a year. In addition to the amusement park, there is Chocolate World, and a neighboring zoo that houses North American wildlife....free of charge to those visiting Hersheypark. Adhering to my tradition, we planned the park visit for Tuesday, August 24th. After all, in late August, parks aren't crowded on Tuesday right???
When we arrived at the park at about noon, I got a quick education about this place. It was packed, and the somewhat narrow walkways around the entrance magnified the effect. Our first ride of the day was the Comet, a classic wooden coaster. The long line seemed like an bad omen, and the fact that it wasn't moving very fast didn't help matters at all. The ride itself was okay, not the best woodie out there, but on par with coasters like Colossus at Magic Mountain and the Racers at Kings Island. It has a wide appeal, therefore explaining the line. I left the ride hoping that the lines wouldn't get any worse.
Right next door was the SooperDooperLooper, an old school Intamin looper in the tradition of Revolution at Magic Mountain. In fact, it bore a very close resemblance to it. This Intamin still had the lap bar restraints, not the over the shoulder nooses that Six Flags put on Revolution. It was pretty much a walk on ride, and it needs a paint job in the worst way, but the ride was surprisingly smooth and fun. Hop on if there isn't a line. After a walk up a hill, we encountered the Great Bear, a B&M inverted coaster. There aren't many bad B&M coasters out there, and this one is no exception. Great ride...a little on the short side when compared to it's peers, but still good. It's not on the scale of Alpengeist at BG Williamsburg or Cedar Point's Raptor, but still a must ride for the thrillseeker. The line for this one wasn't so bad, so there was hope after all.
After riding the Great Bear, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Hersheypark had Nathan's Hot Dog's. Anybody from the northeast and particularly New York City knows what I am talking about. It's simply the best hot dog on Earth. True, hot dogs are pure junk for the body, but Nathan's is irresistable. It brought a welcome break from the blazing sun, so we sat in one of the many shaded areas that Hersheypark has to offer, ate our food, and took a rest. The parents took a spin on the antique cars, a rather amusing sight, and we made our way to ZooAmerica. ZooAmerica is free of charge and presents the North American wildlife. A memorable moment was the witnessing of feeding time for the rattlesnake, who killed a rodent and swallowed it whole before our eyes. After the zoo, we headed to the marine life show. Many amusement parks used to have a marine life show, and as the years have gone by, many have gotten rid of it. Hershey still has their show situated in a small aquatic stadiium, made even smaller by the jam packed crowd that was inside. It was a very entertaining show, something I wish that other parks would bring back. However, the arena was small, and the popularity of the attraction suggests that Hershey should look into building a bigger place for the dolphins and sea lions.
By late afternoon, the crowds were still thick, but the ride lines weren't that long. This side of the park was close to the Hershey factory, so the air was filled with the smell of chocolate. The line for the Wildcat, a GCI (Great Coasters International) wooden twister, was short. This was GCI's first coaster, and also their worst. The twisting structure is somewhat intimidating to some people, and it looks fun, but I was a little disappointed. The ride is tarnished by it's uncomfortable trains, which made for a somewhat rough ride. I had heard that this ride was a little on the mediocre side, and what I heard was right. Thank goodness that Hersheypark gave GCI another chance a few years later with the next ride that I boarded.
Lightning Racer is a Wooden dueling racing coaster. It's another classic style wooden twister coaster, complete with Millennium Flyer trains, a modern day incarnate of the old PTC coaster trains of the 1920's. These articulated trains are thickly padded with a significantly larger amount of room in the car, open air sides, and individual lap bars. The design is old, but the evolution that GCI created is light years ahead of the wooden coaster trains that we are all familiar with today. I apologize for the previous coaster geek moment, but the trains are a big part of why this ride is so good. This coaster was built 4 years after the Wildcat, and this time, GCI built a big winner. This is by far the smoothest wooden coaster that I have ever been on. The design is flawless, and the dueling racing element is much more interesting than the side by side track layout of Colossus or Gemini. In addition, the four train operation makes it a capacity machine, and the lines for it are surprisingly short. That enabled me to ride three times in about 20 minutes. It isn't the biggest or fastest, but it is a flat out good time. It ranks in the top two of my favorite wood coasters, and in the top five of my all time favorite coasters. GCI made a big fan that day...note to self, hope that Cedar Point buys a GCI coaster. It's a can't miss for any amusement/theme park fan.
After I was done slobbering over Lightning Racer, we caught a show called Trash Time, featuring a percussion group that bangs on trash cans, barrels, buckets, and all sorts of metal oddities. The show was full of marching band drum arrangements, but the instruments that they were using made the show entertaining. Everybody was amused by this one. The end of the day was nearing, but there was still one more ride to conquer. The one that I was most looking forward to...Storm Runner.
The newest ride at Hershey, Stormrunner is an Intamin rocket coaster in the style of Knott's Xcelerator and Cedar Point's Top Thrill Dragster. The difference is that Storm Runner has inversions. It features a 0-72 mph launch in 2 seconds and four strange looking inversions. Despite it's smaller size, slower speed, and different elements, Stormrunner does have some similarity to Dragster....
It's infected with the same disease as it's Cedar Point counterpart. Stormrunner has reportedly had some bugs throughout the season with the launch system, and today was a prime example. It had been down for a spell during the course of the day, and when I arrived to get in line, it was down again. Having first hand experience of the woes of Dragster, I feared the worst. The launch system blues had arrived, and I waited outside, hoping to catch a ride. While standing there, I saw the inevitable "problem guests", who were angry because they weren't letting anyone in the queue until the ride was up and running. The security guard demonstrated calm and cool behavior while dealing with a unreasonable person that quite frankly needed to be given the boot. It reminded me of my appreciation for the folks that work at these places, and the thankless jobs that many of them do day in and day out. The blues continued until I saw a promising site. They were testing trains. A cheer erupted from the station house, and the day was saved. My wife and I moved through the line rather quickly, thanks to the innovative double sided load/unload station, in which trains are loaded on both sides, and the connecting track switches sides with each launch. In about 25 minutes, we got to the station house, chose a line for a car and waited our turn. We were next in line when I heard the worst eleven words of the English language.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, Stormrunner has temporarily closed due to technical difficulties."
My smile was immediately turned upside down, and a wave of irony swept over me. From the moment I got in line I had foreseen this exact thing, and what do you know....it happened. Anyone who has experienced a station house full of testy people knows what happened next. Immediately people began complaining and getting angry at the poor ride ops. One rider was particularly upset because she was the victim of the dreaded Kid Swap ride policy on the previous train. Once again, the ride ops gracefully did a good job dealing with them. It was nearing closing time, and I was worried that they would just say "forget it" and close the ride down for the night. Thank God for small miracles, because this breakdown was only a few minutes long, looking to me like a snafu in the control booth. Finally we got strapped in and took off. How was the ride? It was worth waiting for. The launch is tame compared to Dragster's, but it still packs a punch, and it's unique inversions made it a big winner. There wasn't a better way to end the evening.
In addition to all the thrills, Hershey offers a wide array of childrens rides and attractions. Rollersoaker is an interactive family coaster in which patrons on the ground shoot water cannons at the inverted trains, while the trains have their own water to dump on the folks below. The passengers get soaked on this ride, and it was a big draw. They also have an extensive library of flat and water rides. Hershey has a broad appeal, offering something for everyone, and also presents the oppurtunity for the family to stay together at this park. I was however, disappointed by a few things.
The park needs some updating in a few sections. The Comet Hollow section of the park looks to be straight out of the 1970's, and the rides in that section, particularly the coasters and the flume ride, need paint jobs. The area of the park on the main entrance side is overrun with attractions...a good thing until you visit the other side, which is somewhat undeveloped. All of the newer rides are towards that direction, but there are a few large fields, and the portable carnival food stands that were operating by Lightning Racer made me wonder a few times if I was at the county fair. I also wondered why Hershey doesn't pursue the theme route either, because for such a family oriented park, they have hardly any theming at all. Hershey sure pushed their candy products at the park (for the same price that you can get them at the grocery store), but except for that, there was very little evidence that Hershey ran the place. I would think that they could come up with some rides that are based on their products. They have the educational Chocolate World Tour at Chocolate World, but I'm sure that they could come up with something even better to cater to the endless seas of children that were there that day.
Still, I have to give Hershey it's due. It's a well run operation that brings the people to the gates. The park's landscaping got some glowing reviews from our party, and despite the large crowds, we didn't spend an awful amount of time in line. As far as ranking, the park is head and shoulders above the handful of surrounding Six Flags parks, and it beats out nearby Dorney Park and Kennywood in terms of overall guest experience. Hersheypark is definitely a park worth visiting, and when combined with the other attractions in Hershey and the nearby town of Lancaster, it makes for a good family getaway, and is worth its weight in chocolate.