We knew we were getting close when the stations on the car radio switched over from rock and Top 40 to country and religious music, and cows and Amish people began to appear on either side of the road. Our destination? The Land of Chocolate. Not Switzerland or Bavaria, but Hershey, Pennsylvania. Within that town, we sought the key attraction, Hersheypark.
We’d be staying in a cabin at the Hersheypark Camping Resort, located—naturally—on Sweet Street. (It’s impossible to navigate the town without traveling on “Chocolate Ave.” or “Old W. Chocolate Ave.” or passing Hershey Kiss-shaped streetlights.)
We honored the cautious (and adorable) five and a half mile per hour speed limit posted within the campground’s confines, a number chosen, I’m sure, for both maximum safety and maximum cuteness. A map of the campground showed the location of our cabin, along with a lonely, ominous section marked “Dead End Employees Only,” which looked and sounded like a place of banishment—or worse—for workers whose careers had not advanced as expected.
It’s a very nice campground, though its placement, bordered by a highway, a freight train line, and a creek that floods in severe weather, gave the impression that the place may have been an afterthought, a salvage project for an otherwise unusable piece of land. In keeping with the safety theme, each train’s locomotive announced its presence with three to fifteen loud blasts of its horn, no matter the hour.
As an experienced traveler, I’ve learned the hard way that it’s always wise to travel with a set of earplugs or, barring that, a bag of cotton balls. Luckily, I was prepared for noise, with cotton balls for the whole family.
I was not prepared, however, for the cabin-shaking, deafening-even-through-cotton-stuffed-ears experience of what sounded like a plane landing out by the fire pit. The highway/train line/creek trifecta was rare enough, but the presence of a Level I Trauma Center five minutes down the road, complete with helicopters flying overhead, made our cabin ground zero for sleeplessness.
Fortunately, it was a light weekend for trauma care, and after a while, we all drifted off to slumber.
The second night brought more excitement when my wife woke me from a dead sleep, saying she’d just seen and heard someone on the porch, fiddling with the door. Probably just someone who arrived at the wrong cabin, realized his mistake, and left, we agreed.
Neither of us went back to sleep, however, and a few minutes later my wife got up to check the door. It was unlocked. As I puzzled over the situation, she checked on the kids and saw that our son was missing. In our sleep-deprived, half-awake daze, this seemed like an unexplainable Houdini act.
Maybe that commotion the night before wasn’t a helicopter, but a harbinger of alien abduction?
It was only after the adrenaline rush that the likely answer became obvious. I went outside, called him on my cell phone, and got the truth: he’d gone for a walk to the bathroom.
Our daytime visit to Hersheypark was somewhat less exciting, mercifully. Labeled on Google Maps as a “Vast chocolate-themed amusement park,” part of its charm is that it’s a smaller and less aggressively polished version of Disneyworld. That includes its costumed characters—without an extensive multimedia presence like the characters at Disney or Universal, the Hershey mascots seem like the tossed-off products of a marketing department lunchtime brainstorming session.
They’re basically candy with arms, legs, and faces, bearing wild and imaginative names like Hershey’s Bar, Hershey’s Kiss, Twizzler, and Milk Dud, among others. I view this as a lost opportunity, as we might, at least, have seen a chocolate-craving feline named Kit Kat, or a good-natured, candy-sucking cowboy named Jolly Rancher.
Walking around the park was surprisingly normal—in other words, surreal, in the age of Covid-19—because after new CDC guidance, fully vaccinated individuals were no longer required to mask themselves. There were roller coasters for thrill-seekers, but with a zoo and lots of milder rides, there was also plenty for kiddies, toddlers, and Hershey’s “youngest guests.” (Please don’t call them “Hershey Squirts.”)
As I get older, I’m less interested in rides and more fascinated by people-watching and local history. After reading about the park’s origin as a picnic area for Hershey employees, I clicked on a website that beckoned with “20 Things You Didn’t Know About Hersheypark.” The first item read, “It is a Theme Park.” OK, so maybe 19 things you didn’t know.
There’s a life-sized statue of Milton Snavely Hershey at the Hersheypark fountain, celebrating a chocolatier and businessman so well-respected that, back in 1905, people named the town after him. His philanthropic efforts aren’t often mentioned alongside the likes of Andrew Carnegie or the Rockefellers, but his legacy lives on through the Milton Hershey School, a free, private boarding school that educates children from low-income families.
With a controlling interest in Hershey Company stock, its endowment is currently valued at $17 billion—far exceeding those of the Carnegie Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation. My wife noted so many Milton S. Hershey quotations around the town — like “One is only happy in proportion as he makes others feel happy” and “If I rest, I’ll rust” — that I now think of him as the Chocolate Buddha.
Amid debates about the existence of full size Krackel bars and the proper pronunciation of Reese’s (it’s Rees-IS, not Rees-EES, people!), we made time for some serious candy consumption. From the free sample at the end of the Chocolate World tour to the newly-introduced Key Lime Kit Kat Milkshake, whose novelty demanded I try one, delicious treats were everywhere.
In summary, the weekend had the flavor of a Mr. Goodbar or maybe an Almond Joy—a little nutty, but overall, pretty sweet.
His book Complex Simplicity collects the first 101 editions of this column, along with essays and material published elsewhere. It is now available at Amazon.com or Lulu.com for $25 (print) or $4.99 (ebook).