May 26, 2019

copyright Jay Ducharme 2019

For the second day of the Western New York Coaster Club's Coasterfest™, Karen and I headed east toward the "Sweetest Place on Earth", Hersheypark. We were to meet up with the other club members at 8:30. It would take us a little over a half-hour to get to Hershey from our cottage, so we arose early and hunted for a breakfast place. There weren't many to choose from on a Sunday morning; the area had a very strong religious community and a lot of stores were closed. But we found the Route 30 Diner a few miles away. It was a true mid-century throwback, a wonderful art deco slice of Americana complete with chrome trim and red leather upholstery. I ordered home fries and blueberry pancakes and the young waiter said, "You just want one, right?" I knew then I was in for some good cooking. Karen ordered a cheese omelet and home fries. Our meals arrived shortly, and just as I suspected the blueberry pancake spilled over the edges of the large plate. It was probably enough for three people. The home fries portion was generous, and all the food was really tasty. It was a good start to the day.

We traveled along back roads through the bucolic central Pennsylvania farm country and eventually arrived in Hershey, with its unique Kiss streetlights. We navigated the curving hilly roads toward the park entrance. The parking lot was massive, the size of many entire parks. We drove around until we found a spot relatively close to the entrance. Steve Crosby, one of the club members, parked next to us with his signature bright yellow sports car. It was going to be a hot day, so we coated ourselves with sunscreen. There was a threat of rain for later on, but we were hoping it would hold off until much later.

We followed the curving sidewalk to the entrance ... or at least what used to be the entrance. I didn't recognize any of it. The Guest Relations building was gone, and in its place was heavy construction equipment. There was an asphalt road winding it's way over Mill Creek and to the bottom of Founder's Way, the traditional first midway in the park. Either side of the road was bordered by tall wood fencing to hide the ongoing demolition.

And talk about demolition! It was like walking through a wasteland. Mounds of dirt and piles of huge boulders were everywhere. I had hoped to capture the original entrance one last time. For the 2020 season, Hershey announced that the park was getting an entirely new entrance, named Chocolate Town. Gone were the quaint Tudor-style buildings that used to line the entrance. Gone was the waterfall. Gone was one of the oldest structures in the park, the lighthouse.

We weren't sure where to meet up with the rest of the club, since there technically was no longer a Guest Services booth. So we hung out at the makeshift ticket booth. Nearby were a couple of trailers functioning as rest rooms, but Hershey didn't skimp on those; they were appointed with tile floors and elegant fixtures. Gradually, the other club members arrived. We sorted out our entry and meal tickets and followed the road past the security checkpoint and toward the entrance gates. Along the way, there were signs affixed to the fencing giving a history of the park, along with teasers for coming attractions. There were also stunning views of the construction underway, including new concrete retaining walls and what appeared to be footers for the proposed new coaster. The ticket gates were under a temporary canopy, but in about the same location as the original gates. I noticed that the nearby Kosher Mart, which served really good falafels, had unfortunately been replaced by a stroller rental concession.

While it was still early, we all decided to head over to the Comet. Some of the club members had made the trip to Hersheypark the previous evening for a special sneak peek, where they got to ride Lightning Racer (the park's great dueling wood coaster). Martin (the gentleman from the U.K.) was at that event but hadn't made it back to the park yet. But he was supposedly on his way. So we queued up while the crowds were still light. Karen and I of course lined up for the front seat. The park was running two trains, so in just a couple minutes we were seated and on our way. The coaster's lift hill seemed taller than 84 feet, even with the giant Skyrush next door. The first drop plunged us down and across the creek, then up into the first turnaround. From there, the ride stayed lower to the ground, sending us over one hill after another with lots of air time and strong laterals on the turns. The Comet still delivered a great ride and was my favorite coaster in the park.

We paused for a photo in front of the ride and then split up. I wanted to create a new walk-thru of the park. Since the forecast was for rain, I wanted to get it done early. So we said our good-byes, not knowing if we'd happen to meet up later in the day. I went back to the front of the park and made the video, walking the entire park in about a half-hour. Then I rejoined Karen and we took a relaxing ride on the Capitol Blue Monorail for an arial tour of the park. Unlike the Dutch Wonderland Monorail we had ridden the day before, this one was truly a monorail. We glided above Zoo America and cruised past the Hershey headquarters and the chocolate factory. We had great views of the park's many roller coasters, including the intense Storm Runner. Fortunately, the sun was still shining brightly when we returned to the station.

Below us was the queue for the park's newest ride, Reese's Cupfusion. The building didn't look like much from the outside. The only reason I knew that it was a dark ride was from advanced publicity I had read. The queue line was extremely long, but I figured Hershey was an experienced park that knew how to handle big crowds. Surely, they wouldn't install a low-capacity ride! Unfortunately, many people didn't like waiting and were cutting through the lines. In addition, the park had their version of sanctioned line-cutting called Fast Track. If you paid the park extra, they allowed you to go right to the front of the line. And apparently a lot of people paid for it. A steady stream of guests would funnel through the Fast Track queue. That meant the rest of us had to wait even longer. There was nothing to see except for lighted graphics overloaded with text that explained in confusing terms how to play the game that was the ride. There were also a half-dozen large video screens around the inner queue playing a 3D animation in a loop that supposedly set up the plot. A disgruntled mint that ruled over misfit candies was determined to take over the world with its minions. Your job was to shoot them all. That seemed to be the current trend in dark rides: have the guests kill things. So I knew we were in for a loud and chaotic ride.

It took about an hour-and-a-half, but we finally made it inside the building and queued up for our car. The cars were trailered in sets of two. I was surprised that they were on a track and essentially were powered roller coasters. We sat down, lowered the lap bar and grabbed our guns. We were in the back seat of one of the cars, which was fine. The seats were tiered so everyone had a good view. We rolled around a sharp left turn and the cars rolled up a hill and tilted to the right. I expected us to then coast down the hill, but we maintained the same speed throughout. As expected, the walls were filled with colorful cut-out animatronics and video screen with targets on them. We just blasted away at them, not really understanding what the heck was going on. A few minutes later we rolled back into the station. I came in 2nd place out of the four people in our car. I have no idea who won. As we left the ride, a park employee asked how we enjoyed it. I said it was all right, but the wait was too long. "Well," she said with a tone of indignation in her voice, "the ride is five minutes!" I wasn't sure what her argument was. If the ride were a half-hour, then maybe the wait was justified.

I wanted to put away my external battery pack (for the walk-thru), so we walked back out to the car. Standing majestically in the distance was Catherine Hall, one of the campuses for the Milton Hershey School. Proudly written large in the grass below it was "Welcome to Hershey".

We went back into the park and decided to have lunch. Karen had thought about heading to Moe's at the other end of the park, but we settled on the Founder's Kitchen near the entrance, which served black bean veggie burgers. The operation was a bit confusing at first, with cash registers off to the sides of the building. You had to pay first and give them your name, then walk over to the serving counter and wait. It didn't take too long to get our food. Karen got fries with her burger; I got cheese curds. It must have been prime lunch time. When we left the park, hardly anyone was in the Kitchen. But at that point it was difficult to find a place to sit. We opted to sit at a small table with another family. The food was really good. The burger was spicy and the curds were fresh and not at all greasy.

The sky began to darken and it started to sprinkle. We walked over to the Dry Gulch Railroad just before it was about to leave. We took an enjoyable ride around the park. I noticed some of the animatronics had been removed since our last visit.

After that we headed over to Sky View, the ski lift across Mill Creek. The queue moved quickly and we were soon standing at the entrance gate -- and then rain began pouring down. The ride attendants stopped the ride with people still on it, which I thought was odd. I would think they'd want to get everyone off the ride first. Fortunately, we were under the shelter of the station at that point. A supervisor came over and eventually they began unloading the ride. We waited about a half hour. The rain stopped and the sun began to peek out. By that point, the queue had pretty much emptied. Most other rides in the park had shut down. Guests approached the ride asking when it was going to open. The attendant simply shrugged her shoulders, seemingly uninterested. By that point we had waited about 45 minutes. The club members, now with Martin in tow, had gathered at a refreshment stand next door and waved to us. So we got out of the queue line and went over to chat with them. Once we did that, the ride started back up and the queue line filled. By then it was about 3:00, and we were looking at a long ride home the next day. With rain still in the forecast and many rides still not running, we said our farewells to the group and made our way toward the exit. Karen got herself a soft pretzel for the road. Along the way we passed by the beautiful old PTC carousel. It was the last time we'd see it as the focal point of Founder's Way; it was due to be moved to Chocolate Town.

Evidently, we weren't the only ones who thought of leaving the park. A flood of people were exiting the gates. Karen wanted to stop into Chocolate World before we went to the car. It was a mob scene inside. We wandered around looking at all the gifts and candy. And candy. And candy. We headed back to our car. And naturally, at that point the clouds lifted and the sun shone brightly.

Hersheypark has continually evolved, as most major parks have. With a massive expansion such as what they were undertaking, I worry that the park will lose its charm. But they've been around well over a century, so I'll just assume they know a bit more about that than I do. The park has been perenially popular and I'm sure it will continue to be far into the future. We'll just have to make another return trip to find out for ourselves.

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