Disney and Universal theme parks. Many might agree they are the gold (and silvery) standards for excellence in theme park entertainment. Many diehard fans are fortunate enough to live within striking distance of these entertainment meccas. But for most of us (myself included) we don’t live within a reasonable drive, and therefore need to fill our theme park thirst with other more local offerings.
Living in Southern New England, our closest options are Six Flags New England near Springfield MA, and Canobie Lake Park in Southern New Hampshire. They’re good enough for thrills, but far from the storytelling I’ve grown so fond of at Disney and Universal. This summer we ventured a bit further, making a six-hour automobile pilgrimage to Hersheypark. I had been to Hersheypark once as a small child. My memories of it still glowed, but they were also a bit cloudy. I wanted to refresh my own childhood memories, while making new ones for my family.
Located – unsurprisingly – in Hershey, Pennsylvania ( near Harrisburg), Hersheypark is one of those foundation destinations around which an entire local economy grows. Thousands in the area have Milton Hershey’s chocolate empire to thank for their wellbeing. Job positions are plentiful in the theme park, candy manufacturing, and hotel and conference center sectors. And of course the requisite off-property fill-in service industry offerings are present in droves throughout the area. Hershey houses the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center – a modern hospital campus affiliated with Penn State University. The region even hosts the professional affiliate hockey team called the Hershey Bears (more on that theme later).
Let’s explore what Hersheypark has to offer, where it shines, and where it comes up short.
The Hersheypark “campus” includes three official resort locations – The Hotel Hershey, Hershey Lodge, and Hersheypark Camping Resort. Of course, there are also many other local accommodations, ranging from chain hotels to mom and pop places. We stayed at Hershey Lodge, and I’ll give some thoughts on our stay here.
The largest of Hersheypark’s resorts, Hershey Lodge boasts well over 600 rooms and offers 100,000 square feet of function space. They do weddings, conferences, fundraisers, magic shows, and whatever else your chocolate coins can afford. It’s located on the corner of University Drive and – you guessed it – West Chocolate Avenue.
We stayed at the Lodge for two nights – Sunday night and Monday night – checking out Tuesday morning. The grounds outside the Lodge are pretty – a combination of wide open spaces looking out to the surrounding Appalachian Mountains, and well trimmed gardens closer to the building. The building itself includes a primary tower structure (I think it was six stories tall) and several shorter wings, each of which stood between two and three stories.
The Lodge lobby decor includes hardwoods and stone accents, including a beautiful four-sided stone faced fireplace. It features rustic tones, and plenty of Hershey hints – hidden Kisses, historical photography and artwork celebrating the legendary chocolatier, and even a bronze statue of the man himself – Milton Hershey.
We were sugared up right from check-in, when we were given a complimentary box-o-candy. Check-in was efficient, and we got to our room in no time.
Our room was nice enough, though maybe a little tired. The Lodge was built in 1967, and based on the look and condition of our room, it is starting to show its age. The TV was on and operating upon our arrival, and we were not able to turn it off without assistance from the front desk, who took care of the issue while we were away. Also, the room safe wasn’t working properly. We would have needed to remain in the room in order to chaperone someone for troubleshooting the safe, so we decided not to bother. The bathroom was small, awkwardly laid out, and did not have a vent to remove excess shower steam. None of these are major issues, but like I said, the Lodge is starting to show its age, and could use a little TLC.
Staying at the lodge cost upwards of $400/night, but the price included several perks, which did seem to make the price worthwhile:
- Park tickets for all four in our family (close to $200 perk per day)
- Use of Hershey Water Works indoor pool and mini water park. The water park was available for guests of both the Lodge and the Hotel Hershey (as was the outdoor pool at the Hotel Hershey, which we did not visit).
- Free shuttle service to the park (saved hassle and $20 for parking)
- Free youth buffet with purchase of adult buffet at Hershey Grill ($17 apiece)
- “Sweet Start” early entrance to Hersheypark each day of our stay (limited areas and attractions – more on that later)
On the Menu at the Lodge
Hershey Lodge offers a handful of excellent dining and lounge options. We partook in a couple of the locations, and we were happy we did.
We enjoyed a surprisingly good dinner one of our nights at the Bear’s Den pub – a sports bar and grill styled after a hockey rink celebrating the Hershey Bears hockey team. The pub was adorable, with lots of cute features and plenty of flat screen TVs (at the time of our visit, most were playing either the Olympics or the Little League World Series.)
There was even a small arcade room, which occupied our kids long enough for my wife and I to enjoy a quick drink at the bar. The service was quick and friendly. The food was good, and the prices were very reasonable. This turned out to be the sneaky best meal of our trip.
A close runner-up for favorite meal of the trip goes to the breakfast buffet at the Hershey Grill. It’s hard to go wrong with a breakfast buffet, and all of the standard fare was served by attentive staff – helping to avoid too many hands in the food. We enjoyed this buffet both mornings of our trip. We left breakfast full, and therefore didn’t have to eat as much of the junky food offered at the park.
Here are the nuts and bolts of this review. I can sum up our overall park experience as this – understaffed, mistargeted, and underwhelming. Those words may seem harsh, so let me explain.
Hershey’s Chocolate World
We had some time to spare after our mid-afternoon check in at the Lodge, so we decided to visit Chocolate World – an area located outside the admission gates of Hersheypark, which offers an array of chocolate-based attractions, a gigantic gift store, several counter service snack places, and a fairly new spotlight restaurant – The Chocolatier.
Going in, I figured Chocolate World would be something like a miniature version of Universal City Walk – themed to chocolate. Having now done the experience, Chocolate world overall felt more like a shopping mall food court than anything approaching City Walk. It was all indoors, with Hershey merchandise everywhere, an ice cream counter, pretzel stand, and a couple attractions.
Chocolate World Attractions
Chocolate World Offered several attractions; a free chocolate tour, and paid experiences including a 4D movie experience, chocolate tasting, and a make-your-own candy bar experience. We did the chocolate tour and the 4D movie. The chocolate tasting was sold out, and we opted not to do the make-your-own chocolate bar, since we had several post-Hershey stops still to do on our vacation, and we didn’t think the make-your-own-bar would survive the trip.
4D Chocolate Movie
This is just what it sounds like. The Hersheypark website bills this experience as “stunning digital animation and special effects*, you become part of the show by interacting with the Hershey’s Characters to help solve the mystery!”
The show aims to combine animation and special effects with audience interaction technology (think Magic Kingdom’s Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor) to help solve the mystery. But one thing was missing – imagination (I probably should have guessed from the uninspired name).
The “mystery” we helped solve was to figure out how these little yellow robots were getting into the Hershey factory and stealing chocolate. Along the way, we met the villain – a sour-grapes-type fellow who was resentful of the Hershey candy characters because he performed poorly at a baseball game as a kid. That may not be the exact story, but it was something along those lines. Not very memorable, and it ended in something of a group discussion to mend broken fences. It was boring at best. At a price of only $7-$8 per ticket, it wasn’t a bank breaker. But it was the very first attraction we did, and it didn’t give me high hopes for a fun, exciting visit.
The chocolate tour was much better than the 4D movie. I feel like I remembered having an experience like this as a kid. This tour was a cute dark ride (one of only two in all of Hersheypark) highlighting the chocolate making process. It’s always fun to see thousands of Hershey Kisses marching along the swifty conveyor belt, en route to the wrapping and packaging center.
Most of the visuals on this tour were screen-based (I’m a dark ride snob, so the screens did not impress me). I did enjoy the chocolatey aroma throughout the tour! The Hersheypark website lists this tour at 30 minutes in length. No way. It was 12 minutes max (maybe 20 if you include the queue, which featured some fun facts and cute props).
Spotlight on the new and purportedly amazing Chocolatier restaurant. This restaurant was billed as the dining highlight of Hersheypark. Sorry, but no. Here’s why.
The Chocolatier does not take reservations or call ahead seating. Fair enough, not every place does, and this was not in itself an issue. We put in our name, busied ourselves for two hours in Chocolate World while waiting for a table, then proceeded to the restaurant when we got the text to return.
When we arrived inside, we expected a bustling, energized atmosphere with excited guests and aromatic chocolate overtones. Instead, we saw a restaurant one-third full, with a smell of slightly aged fryolator grease. We accepted the first available seating, which was on the roof deck. Nice view and cute location. But if the restaurant interior was only a third full, then the outdoor patio couldn’t have been more than a quarter full, giving our dinner location the feeling of a desolate outpost. We quickly realized why the restaurant was so thinly seated – they seemed to be extremely short staffed. This wasn’t the only place where we experienced a short staff situation.
I’ll throw a bone here and offer an excuse that the staffing issue may be partly due to COVID. Regardless, the one server tasked with taking care of every table on the deck was way short on bandwidth. His return trips were few and far between, so we made haste with the menu and tried to be as ready as we could for when he did come by.
How was the food? Well, the ferris wheel-style family appetizer was a lot of fun, and the apps were decent. The mozzarella sticks and chicken wings were excellent, but the buffalo chicken dip and pretzel bites were so-so. That was the best part of the meal. Everything else (and I mean everything) was either overcooked or lacking in flavor. Pulled pork with chocolate bbq sauce – dry and on slightly state bread. Bacon cheeseburger – looked awesome, taste blah. Grilled chicken caesar salad and grilled chicken alfredo pasta – let’s just say the chicken was cooked at least twice.
The dessert craft shakes? Surely Hershey – the king of chocolate and candy – will hit a grand slam on those. Nope! The combinations of chocolate and peanut butter proved tasteless and uninspired. To be honest, we’ve been underwhelmed with other craft shake places too. It seems as if the emphasis on presentation has forgotten how to focus on the flavor.
We went into the Chocolatier thinking it would rival Toothsome in Universal Orlando as a fun restaurant with a sweet theme. This restaurant was anything but inspiring, and the high price tag was the most regrettable expense of our trip. Super bummer.
As I mentioned above, guests of Hersheypark resorts receive a perk called Sweet Start. This is an advantage during their park days, whereby guests can enter the park at 10:00, while general admission guests have to wait until 11:00. We were super excited about this perk, and I tried doing a quick bit of research on what exactly would be open early for us to enjoy. The Hersheypark website is loudly silent on exactly what is open early. Details were very thin on third party sites as well.
As it turns out, there aren’t many details, because there isn’t much to speak of. Sweet Start allows guests into a very small portion of Hersheypark, made up of the subregions Chocolatetown and Founder’s Way. This area includes three roller coasters, a carousel, a few kiddie rides and carnival games, and Reese’s Cupfusion – the park’s only dark ride (other than the chocolate tour in Chocolate World). In a recurring theme, Reese’s Cupfusion opened late both days, reportedly due to understaffing issues (this was actually stated by an attendant at the attraction). Overall, eighty percent of the park remained closed during Sweet Start.
Thrills, Lines, and Kiddie Rides
Generally speaking, guests at Hersheypark can expect to experience three different types of attractions:
- Heart-racing thrill rides
- Tiny kiddie rides
- Water park attractions
There are very few exceptions to this rule. And aside from the water park attractions, the others are shuffled in together, making it hard to target an area to visit to satisfy a specific guest thirst.
One other quick note here before I dive into our park experience. The park maps need a lot of work! Instead of an overhead viewpoint, the map in the phone app was illustrated in a bird’s-eye view. It looked down upon the park at an angle which confused the direction of things, as well as the winding paths that connected the various sub-regions. The map was not intuitive at all, and we found ourselves frustrated several times as a result.
The assortment of high thrill roller coasters makes Hersheypark shine. There are a couple classics we rode, including Comet, Lightning Racer, and Wildcat. These are the classic wooden coasters that shake you up, give you a throbbing headache, and send you looking for ibuprofen. These aren’t my thing, but my kids rode them, and reported to me that they realized why I wouldn’t ride. Sooperdooperlooper is one of those gap-bridging coasters. It has the feel of an early iteration of the modern coaster. This was a sweet ride. The big modern coasters include the Great Bear, Skyrush (which was closed during our visit), Fahrenheit, Storm Runner, Sidewinder, Trailblazer, and the newest coaster – Candymonium (my favorite).
There was also one indoor coaster – Laff Track. We were excited to experience this ride on one of our hot park days, but the slow moving line wore us out, and the ride stopped operating while we were on, leaving us stuck at the end of the ride for ten minutes before we were able to move on. Plus, it was almost as hot inside the building as it was outside (which was in the upper 80s).
The lines for these coasters were always among the longest in the park, but for good reason. Most of these coasters were excellent fun. The only major coaster I was not able to ride was Fahrenheit, due to consistently long posted wait times. I’m just not willing to wait over an hour for any ride. And since most wait times at Hersheypark took longer than the posted time, I had very little confidence in getting through the line in a timely manner.
Hershey Triple Tower
Every decent amusement park has a good drop tower ride, and Hershey Triple Tower didn’t disappoint. As the name suggests, this attraction has three towers of different heights for guests to choose from. Hershey tower is the highest, Kisses tower is the shortest, and the Reese’s tower is in the middle. We rode the Hershey tower twice. It was an amazing thrill, and actually quite frightening. The randomized nature of the ups and downs made our experience different each time.
One minor comment here – the queue lines for these tower attractions snake back and forth in the blinding sun. A bit of shade in this area would be easy to install, and would make the experience of waiting in line much more palatable.
Our kids are 11 and 15, so we are no longer in the market for kiddie rides, though we did partake in the Skyrockets Tram. This is one of those buckets-in-the-air-suspended-from-a-cable type of rides, similar to a ski lift. This was a cute trip, though it was only operating at half capacity, filling every other bucket instead of every bucket. Because of this, the relatively short line to board moved very slowly, resulting in a sneaky long wait time. This smelled of staffing issues, though I can’t say for sure.
The same situation was true for the ferris wheel, where the attraction was only loading one bucket out of every four. The short line for the attraction creeped ahead at a snail’s pace. We gave up on the ride after wasting twenty minutes of our day in that line. Ugh!
This attraction is one of precious few that the whole family can enjoy together. Aside from the understaffing issue, which resulted in a frustratingly long wait time, this attraction was fun. It is a relatively new target shooting ride. It’s going for the Disney Toy Story Mania effect, but it only achieved Buff Lightyear Spaceranger Spin quality (if you know, you know).
All in all, this was a fun ride. But damn, Hersheypark, for the very few indoor attractions you have, could you spare a few bucks to bring the air conditioning? Thanks in advance!
The Boardwalk Water Park
All water rides at Hersheypark reside within the Boardwalk area, with the exception of a single older flume ride closer to the park’s entrance. As is the case with many regional amusement parks, this water area is located completely within Hersheypark, and admission into the water park is included with a Hersheypark ticket. I am decidedly not a fan of water parks within amusement/theme parks. I find it to be a contradictory experience, where guests find themselves in a limbo, trying to sort out what to do – amusement park rides or water attractions? For us, we brought a whole family bag with swimsuits and towels, then found ourselves struggling to lug them around before and after our water park visit.
The water attractions looked fun. I say “looked” because we were not able to experience many of them. The weather on the day we visited the water park was muggy and well into the 80s. All water attractions had significant wait times. We spent some time in the wave pool (which had an entrance that was curiously difficult to find) and the lazy river (which had a surprisingly long line to enter). Our kids rode the flume ride and enjoyed that.
We were 20 minutes into waiting for a water slide with an estimated wait time of 45 minutes when thunder clapped, causing the park to temporarily close all water rides. I obviously cannot hold Hersheypark responsible for the weather, but I can certainly expect a better performance by the lifeguards and ride operators when this harsh weather hits.
When the call came down for the rides to cease, the operator who was standing guard at the midpoint of our line awkwardly took a call. He then giggled to a coworker that they had to shut things down, and raced off to who-knows-where, leaving those of us in line to wonder what was happening. We were able to flag down another worker who had a bit more composure, enough to tell us that the water rides were being temporarily evacuated due to weather. At that point, it was mid-afternoon, we were planning to head out of town later in the afternoon anyway, so we decided to pack it in and head for the exit.
Carnival Games (Warning – This is Not a Happily-Ever-After Moment)
Deep in the heart of the Founder’s Way section of Hersheypark, there live many carnival games. You know – the ones where you whack moles with a mallet, toss rings onto bottles, and try to grab stuffed animals out of a bin using underpowered claws. Our 11-year old son is a sucker for games like these. I think he likes the thrill of the challenge more than the prize itself.
So it was no surprise that, on our way out of Hersheypark, he wanted to try his hand at a few games. Ten bucks in, and still without a prize, he took his last five dollars and put it into that dreaded claw machine. This afforded him three tries to clutch a giant panda bear. First try – nothing. Second try – nada. Third try – the claw clutched. The claw lifted. The claw carried…then dropped the prize right before carrying it to the promised land. Ouch, this was a tough loss to swallow!
Hey, it happens, right? Tell that to the two Hersheypark staff members who were watching our son try to win his prize. Upon seeing this close call result in failure, both staff members burst into laughter. They then quickly turned and cackled their way around the corner of another carnival game, unable to control their laughter, not wanting to be in our presence while they had a good laugh.
Our family, and another family watching us play, all looked at the staff members while they scurried away. Then we all looked at each other – my son included – with disbelief and aggravation. How could these staff members – whose overarching job function is to make guests happy – behave in such a way as to completely upset and disappoint guests who had just spent so much money on two days at the park?
We walked away disgusted. My family wanted to visit the Chocolatetown store on the way out. I no longer had any desire to purchase anything Hershey related, so I told them to go ahead, and I went back to speak with the staff members who upset my son. I won’t get bogged down in too many details, and I won’t shame the staff members by sharing their names publicly, but suffice to say, the staff members showed very little – if any – understanding of what they had done. One didn’t speak at all. He simply stared at me. The other – who seemed to be possibly a level up in seniority based on his more polished appearance and behavior – fed me a canned response along the lines of “let us know if there’s anything we can do better.” He said this through a thinly veiled smirk. There was zero remorse in his behavior. I continued to make my point about their childish behavior, and they continued to look at me, and occasionally at each other, smirking all the while, waiting for me to stop talking to them.
Dissatisfied with their lack of understanding, I reported their behavior to guest services, who were much more sympathetic to my issue. They took down all of my information and my account of the experience, and reported it to their performance tracking system.
A few days later, I received an email and a follow-up phone call from Ashton Pollard, a manager in guest services. Ashton very graciously spent some time with me discussing the situation. He apologized many times, and offered me the prize which we had not won, but I respectfully declined. We don’t need another stuffed animal in the house, and my intention was to help Hershey management understand the negative impact their staff members had on their guests. Ashton informed me that he had spoken with both staff members (whose names I had provided) and made them well aware of their responsibility in guest relations. He also told me that both members acknowledged their behavior and regretted the way they acted.
At this point, all I can do is take Ashton at his word, and take solace in the promise that the next guest will have a better experience here than we did. Our visit to Hersheypark was very much a mixed experience. There is so much the park and associated resorts can offer, but the overall staffing and operations were, in our experience, severely lacking. As we arrive at the end of summer 2021, here’s hoping that this diamond in the Appalachians can sharpen and shine itself back up in preparation for 2022.
I hope you appreciated this honest account of our experience at Hersheypark. I hope to return sometime next year and report a much better experience. If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share it with friends using one of the buttons below, or by copying/pasting the URL for this post.
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