Monday, July 09, 2007

Hersheypark: Pure Family Fun

A few years ago, the Curmudgeon's older son was into a computer game called Roller Coaster Tycoon, a Sim City type of game in which you would try to create various successful amusement parks. The Curmudgeon enjoyed this game as well, and we quickly learned that it was the little things--nice walkways, trees, park benches, trash cans, good security--as much as the big roller coasters that gave you a high score.

Walking around Hersheypark--the large amusement park in the chocolate capital of America, Hershey, Pennsylvania--this weekend, we noticed just how important those small touches can be.

It had been two years since we were last at Hershey--we went to Busch Gardens in Williamsburg last summer--but since it was the 100th anniversary of Hersheypark, how could we resist?

In our humble opinion, Hershey is by far the best amusement park in the Washington, D.C. region--better than King's Dominion, Busch Gardens or our lame local Six Flags outpost. Hershey is bigger than any of these others, with more roller coasters, more kiddie rides, more variety and just more fun. (We like the photo above, which shows how three of Hershey's roller coasters, along with its log flume ride, intertwine with each other in a maze of twisted steel, wood and hurtling coaster cars.)

One of the things we noticed, however, is that Hersheypark is clean. There are trash bins just about every 10 yards throughout the park. There are also plenty of spotless benches for sitting, many in the plentiful shade that covers much of the park. There are also lots of bathrooms. There are tons of places to eat (and eat, and eat, and eat, but hey, it's Hershey). And there are considerable diversions from the rides if you're so inclined to part with your money for gee-gaws, knick-knacks and games.

If you have younger children, Hershey is a great place because it has lots of rides suitable for kiddies age 3-7 throughout the park. If you have kids of mixed ages--like most families--you can take a tike on a series of little rides while the older child waits in line at a nearby coaster or water ride. We've found other amusement parks wanting in this respect, either having too few rides for kiddies, or relegating them to some far outpost.

The newest thing at Hershey is a waterpark. Hershey's always had a series of good water rides--we especially like Tidal Force, a ride designed to do one and only one thing: get you soaked in a huge spray of water. It does that exceedingly well. The addition of a waterpark area--called The Boardwalk--helps round out the selections at Hershey. Since its new, and since it was quite hot this weekend, the Boardwalk was pretty crowded. But when we finally made our way there on Sunday morning, it was certainly refreshing.

The features in the water park that our kids--between us and another family we had boys aged 4-12--liked most were (1) a series of enormous buckets that fill with water and tip over periodically, unleashing a torrent of water on the guests arrayed below (we sampled this, once--a bit like getting hit with a fire hose), and (2) a pair of raft rides that end in a circular vortex that must be something like what happens to a bug when you flush it down your toilet. The lines for the raft rides were a bit slow, but having been in a few water parks, we thought these were the niftiest raft rides we've seen yet.

If you're tired and hot, think about taking a respite in Chocolate World, which is essentially an enormous Hershey's gift shop with a gimmicky "chocolate factory" tour. Not worth tearing the kids away from their roller coasters if they're having fun, but a decent way to wind down the day.

Hershey is about a two and half hour drive from Washington, and Gettysburg is on the way if you want the children to take in a bit of history. The park is hilly and can be a challenge for those out of shape--although the Hershey name attracts plenty of oversized people who seem to somehow manage to chug up and down those hills. Parking is plentiful, and even when the park is crowded it's still pretty pleasant.

If you have younger kids, stay overnight at the Hershey Lodge--the staff is incredibly cheerful and tolerant of the screaming youngsters (of course, you may not be so tolerant of everyone else's little rugrats!) There's several pools, free mini-golf, games and lots of other activities at the Lodge. For more upscale, go to the Hershey Hotel, slightly closer to the park. Plenty of restaurants in the area cater to families. Saturdays are the busiest days--Sundays, particularly in the afternoons, are surprisingly uncrowded.

And if you have older teens, check out the concert schedule, as a number of top popular acts make stops at Hershey stadium (along with a fair number of geezer bands for us boomers).

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