Take a Family Trip to Chocolate Town USA


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Photo courtesy of Janice Lewine

When most people hear the word "Hershey," they immediately think of that heavenly confection: chocolate. So it seems only natural for many chocolate-loving families to head to Hershey, Pennsylvania, affectionately known as "Chocolate Town USA."

Nestled in central Pennsylvania's beautiful, rolling hills is Hershey's crown jewel:  Hersheypark, a family amusement park offering more than tantalizing sweets. Hersheypark boasts 11 wooden and steel roller coasters, dozens of rides and attractions, live entertainment, a year-round zoo housing more than 200 North American animals and the Boardwalk, a water park reminiscent of a seashore and its promenade.

As a native Pennsylvanian, I have fond memories of visiting Hersheypark as a teen and spending an entire day riding every roller coaster twice, including the first looping steel coaster on the East Coast, the sooperdooperLooper. I remember ascending the Kissing Tower, which climbs and rotates hundreds of feet in the air, providing a panoramic view of the town of Hershey through windows shaped like Hershey's Kisses; plunging down the Coal Cracker, a water flume ride; and gobbling up all the scrumptious Pennsylvania Dutch funnel cake my stomach could hold.

Time has changed a few things at Hersheypark, including the addition of some faster, wilder rides geared toward the thrill-seeking set. Yet with all its alterations, Hersheypark remains one of the most enjoyable amusement parks in the country, while still offering families terrific value.

Attractions for all ages

There's enough to keep everyone occupied, including 29 family rides, roller coasters ranging from mild to wild, and plenty of drenching water rides. Hersheypark also boasts an enormous Ferris wheel that lights up the sky at night and offers a spectacular view of the park. Classic family rides, such as the carousel, Scrambler, Tilt-A-Whirl, Wave Swinger, Pirate Ship, race and antique cars, and many beloved arcade games are scattered throughout the park's 110 acres.

Families with young children won't find a shortage of kiddie rides, either. There are 27 in all. Be sure to take a ride on the Whip. Located in the back of the park, this rip-roaring ride offers a simple design that takes riders through sharp turns and sudden twists. Check out the two large black-and-white photographs on the back wall showing 1950s teenagers dressed in suits, poodle skirts and high heels riding the Whip and the park's first Ferris wheel. How times have changed!

History and hands-on chocolate fun

Hershey's Chocolate World, just outside the park's main entrance, is the ultimate place to learn how chocolate is made. It also tells the story of Milton Hershey, founder of the Hershey Chocolate Company. Chocolate World offers several attractions that make a visit worthwhile. Most, including Hershey's Really Big 3D Show and the Chocolate Works Machine, charge a fee. But the Great American Chocolate Tour is free. During this 10-minute ride, guests can see, feel, smell and hear the delicious transformation from cocoa bean to milk chocolate in mouthwatering detail. (And your fifth sense gets treated, too, with a free chocolate sample at the end.)

Be sure to check out the Create Your Own Candy Bar attraction in Chocolate World. Billed as an authentic and interactive chocolate factory experience, Create Your Own Candy Bar offers guest confectioners the choice of a chocolate base (white, milk or dark) followed by up to three ingredients, such as pretzels, nuts, raspberry bits or cookie bits, and a sprinkle candy topping.

My kids eagerly waited in line for their assigned time to enter the factory, then immediately went to work using the different computers to formulate their concoctions. They watched intently as the machines poured their chocolate, dropped in their ingredients and quickly cooled each bar before placing it in a tin with a personally designed wrapper. The entire experience lasts about 45 minutes, costs $14.95 per person, and is a lot of fun. A word of advice: These chocolate bars are much thicker than your average-sized candy bar and eating just a few bites can overload your taste buds and possibly fill you up. Take along an insulated lunchbox with a frozen ice pack or two inside to store your uneaten chocolate and prevent it from melting in warm temperatures.

Planning your visit

Hersheypark is open daily May through September. On select weekend nights in October, the park is open for Hersheypark in the Dark, which takes spooky to a new level with "roller ghosters," frightfully fun attractions and trick-or-treating. From mid-November through December, experience the park's magical Christmas in Hershey event featuring holiday-themed rides, festive entertainment, twinkling lights and steaming mugs of hot chocolate. Visitors also can drive through a winter wonderland of nearly 600 illuminated, animated displays at Hershey Sweet Lights, located just minutes from the park.

Hersheypark is at 100 W. Hersheypark Dr., Hershey, Pennsylvania. For details on ticket prices, hours, attractions and nearby lodging, visit hersheypark.com or call 1-800-437-7439.

Experience more of Hershey's story

While in Hershey, don't miss The Hershey Story at The Museum on Chocolate Avenue, which features exhibits that explore the legacy of Milton Hershey, culinary classes and hands-on activities, and celebrates all things chocolate. The Hershey Story is at 63 W. Chocolate Ave. in Hershey. The museum offers free shuttle service from Hershey's Chocolate World. For more information, visit hersheystory.org

Hershey Trolley Works takes guests on an enchanting, old-fashioned trolley ride through downtown Hershey, where the inspirational story of Milton Hershey unfolds. Taste the chocolate that made him famous and see the chocolate factory, Hershey's mansion, Hershey's Kiss-inspired streetlights, and more. Tours are offered in different formats throughout the year and trolleys depart daily from Chocolate World. Visit hersheytrolleyworks.com for details.

Hershey Gardens features 23 acres of botanical beauty, including a children's garden and seasonal butterfly house. For information on hours and ticket prices, visit hersheygardens.org

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313 S.E. Maynard Rd.
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