HERSHEY, Pa. – “The Sweetest Place on Earth” is both a child’s fantasy and a dentist’s nightmare.
The small confectionary community has streets named Chocolate Avenue and Cocoa Road, and street lamps shaped like Hershey’s Kisses. It may be the only place where kids can stuff their mouths with Hershey Bars, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Kit Kats for days on end and grown-ups don’t seem to mind.
That alone makes Hershey – located in central Pennsylvania, 15 miles east of Harrisburg, and 95 miles west of Philadelphia – a sure bet for family vacations. But it’s hardly the only reason.
Downtown Hershey is small, but several attractions await kids of all ages. Most notable are the Hershey Story Museum, packed with imaginative, informative and interactive exhibits, and Hersheypark, a cheery, fun location that boasts some 12 roller coasters and 14 water thrills among its 70 rides.
The celebration of all things Hershey starts with Milton S. Hershey, who reigns large throughout the town he created. The candy magnate was the first to mass-produce chocolate bars – until then reserved for the well-heeled – and make them affordable for the working class. Hershey’s impact is felt from the chocolate factory and amusement park to the ornate movie palace and American Hockey League team that all bare his name.
The best place to learn about Milton Hershey and the chocolate company is the museum, which opened in 2009 in the first new building built on Chocolate Avenue since 1933. The museum’s experience is enhanced by a large and kid-friendly staff, and a fun “Official Apprentice Guide” kids carry around to fill out.
The fun starts with Xploroscope, a zany-looking contraption by the entrance that asks visitors questions before generating an individual “passport” with personalized photo for the explorations ahead. Then it’s onto the second floor, where the numerous displays, historic artifacts and text panels tell the story of Milton Hershey and the company he created.
The future multimillionaire and philanthropist grew up in humble circumstances. With only a fourth-grade education, Hershey learned the confectionary craft as a teenage apprentice, only to fail in his first two attempts to be a chocolatier. He found success starting a caramel company before introducing his first Hershey bar in 1900. The Hershey Chocolate Co. opened in 1905 in dairy country to take advantage of the access to milk, just a scant mile from his birthplace.
Hershey’s innovation was in tweaking the chocolate-making formula of cocoa beans, sugar and milk by roasting the beans at a higher temperature. The sugar and milk were mixed before condensing to create a one-of-a-kind flavor. The milk chocolate bars were then mass-produced economically on a scale unseen before.
Hershey’s story is told with the use of images of workers, Hershey himself and artifacts such as old Hershey boxes, tins, molds and packaging. Hershey’s development of his company town was more enlightened than the one built by industrialist George Pullman decades before. A text panel tells of Pullman’s stingy treatment of workers and overbearing rule. In contrast, a Hershey trust company provided easy-to-get loans so workers could afford to buy their own homes.
The neighborhoods, parks, amusement park and movie palace were other examples of Hershey’s efforts to promote a higher quality of living. Before Hershey’s death in 1945, he donated his $60 million fortune to the Hershey Industrial School orphanage, which he founded in 1909.
A special museum exhibit through May 2015 that’s particularly kid-friendly is “Chocolate Workers Wanted: Experience Factory Life Working for Mr. Hershey 1905-1925.” Children get their worker training cards stamped, try on replicas of original uniforms, weigh Hershey’s Kisses, tap on molds to punch out candy bars, push a metal bathtub on wheels that transported molten chocolate around the factory, and sort items on a conveyor belt.
The “Chocolate Lab,” which requires a separate ticket, offers a 45-minute class during which would-be confectioners mold and dip chocolate to make cookies that can be eaten afterward. There’s also a lecture on the geography, history and science of chocolate, although it may be over the heads of the younger set.
The museum’s Cafe Zooka offers the chance to taste rich, drinking chocolates served in shot glasses from six cocoa-growing countries, including Venezuela, Java, Mexico and Tanzania. What’s not to like about that?
One exhibit, devoted to the history of the H.B. Reese Candy Co., which was acquired in 1963, and the billions of peanut butter cups produced, are depicted in packaging styles through the years.
Hershey acquired two premier artisan chocolate makers, including Scharffen Berger, in recent years to compete in the booming premium chocolate market. Those products, however, maintain a low profile in the Hershey gift shop.
The biggest attraction in Hershey is the 121-acre Hersheypark. It was founded in 1907 by Milton Hershey as a “pleasure ground” for workers, and a prominently placed statue of him is surrounded by a fountain. The amusement park is well-designed, landscaped with plenty of shade trees and offers an intimacy that belies its size.
Just beyond Milton Hershey’s friendly appearance is the classic Philadelphia Tobaggan Carrousel, built in 1909.
There are lots of kiddie rides, and plenty of fast and stomach-churning challenges for the thrill seeker, with roller coasters ranging from the wooden Wild Cat and dueling Lightning Racer to the steel SuperDooperLooper and Storm Runner.
The Boardwalk at Hersheypark features water slides, a “spray ground,” lazy river ride and wave pool.
Also on the premises, near the entrance, is Hershey’s Chocolate World, which provides information on the company’s history to go with a mega-sized gift shop. Adjacent to the park is ZooAmerica, where more than 200 animals are displayed.
Other attractions in Hershey include Hershey Gardens, which offers an array of botanical displays on a 23-acre site. On view are 5,000 rose bushes, a Japanese Garden, a Children’s Garden with chocolate-scented flowers, a Butterfly House home to hundreds of North American butterflies and more.
The lavish Hershey Theater, built in 1833, boasts an atmospheric ceiling and marbled Venetian decor, with the arched ceiling in the foyer patterned after Venice’s St. Mark’s Cathedral. Concerts and community events are held there – we stumbled into a dance competition that allowed a free look inside – and weekly tours are given on Fridays.
Hersheypark Stadium, on the grounds of Hersheypark, is similar to Darien Lake Performing Arts Center, presenting summertime concerts not far from the whoops and hollers of amusement park riders.
There is also something for sports fans in Hershey. The Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League hold court in Giant Stadium, just outside Hersheypark. A few miles away, Hersheypark Arena, is where Wilt Chamberlain famously scored 100 points for the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors in March 1962.
Where to stay:
The Hershey Lodge is a full-service resort with some 665 rooms, three swimming pools, a handful of restaurants and easy shuttle service to Hersheypark.
The more luxurious Hershey Hotel has 276 rooms, 48 cottages and swimming pools, restaurants and shuttle service.
The Hersheypark Camping Resort provides 300 campsites and 37 cabins over 55 acres.
There also are several chain hotels and motels located conveniently in town.