By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
Thrill rides have a way of revealing exactly what you're made of.
I discovered this as I sat next to my teenage son on a big rubber ring atop a five-story structure at Hersheypark, about a half-hour south of Harrisburg, Pa. We were about to embark on the Whirlwind water slide at the park's new Boardwalk section, which would send us shooting down a tunnel to a sudden, sheer free fall through space, slosh us up and down the high banks of the funnel that we'd land in, and finally dump us with an inglorious splat into a pool.
As we waited for the lifeguard to shove us down the dark chute, an undeniable and perhaps -- as one of my boys judiciously termed it -- pathetic truth hit me: Deep down I was made of nothing more solid than the water swirling beneath us.
Heights scare me. Precipitous plunges terrify me. Cold water just really annoys me. These three ingredients being core Boardwalk elements, I was skeptical about the whole place at first. But moms and dads aren't the target audience here. The target audience -- recently represented by my three children, Zeke, 13; Asa, 10; and Annabel, 5 -- gave the water park can't-bear-to-leave-it rave reviews. And by the second day of our visit, even I was won over.
That is, once I learned how to work the whole thing: how to handle the lines, the lockers, the sharpshooting kids behind the water cannons . . . and the rides.
Hersheypark's latest attraction opened in May to mark the popular destination's 100th anniversary. Even after a century, a sense of small-town decorum pervades the place. Swimsuits, for instance, are permitted only in the Boardwalk area. And because of its proximity to Amish country, you'll find Amish and Mennonite families in old-fashioned attire taking in the sights alongside the pierced-navel set in string bikinis.
Over the years the park has acquired assorted water slides and other rides that get you wet, but the $21 million ocean-themed Boardwalk is wholly designed for drenching. It boasts the largest water-play structure in the world: the East Coast Waterworks, a 40-foot-tall tangle of slides, tunnels, ropes, bridges and hundreds of "interactive water toys." (Among them are the cannons, with which kids can nail any passing adult. If you're stuck in line for one of the Waterworks slides, you're target practice.)
On hot, sunny days like the ones we spent there, Waterworks will cool you down fast. It's topped by a huge bucket that regularly fills and dumps thousands of gallons onto the hordes below that throng for the icy deluge. Yes, even people related to me did this. Over and over and over. This candy-colored structure is touted as the centerpiece of the Boardwalk, but its something-for-everybody appeal has its drawbacks: It closed down during our trip for nearly an hour when, according to a lifeguard, a child didn't make it to the bathroom in time.
The Boardwalk is billed as a tribute to Ocean City, Rehoboth, Atlantic City and Coney Island. Recorded sounds of shrieking gulls, foghorns and planes punctuate the light rock soundtrack loop. Some of the features have shoreline details. Sandcastle Cove, for instance, is a low-key water-play area for toddlers, and the Bayside Pier is a mini-beach with a gentle wave machine, a big hit with both Annabel and Asa.
There's more-aggressive wave action at the Waverider, where just waiting in line offers high entertainment value, as we watched the folks ahead of us fly into the cascading water jets on their boogie boards and wipe out. It's like trying to bodysurf a bunch of open fire hydrants, and you have to ride them just right or you'll careen to the edge or get blown back against the padded rear wall at the top of the structure. But when you hit that sweet spot in the middle and your board bears you up like a tea tray . . . dude, it's, like, totally sick.
Other rides have more to do with classic roller-coaster values (speed, altitude, sheer drops and more speed) than with sand and surf. The Coastline Plunge complex houses four water slides on steroids, including the Whirlwind, which I white-knuckled with my eyes shut tight, listening to Zeke exclaim, "Whoa. WHOA-OA-OA. [Chuckle, chuckle.] Wow, wasn't that great, Mom?" Squeaked I, eyes still scrunched, "Is -- is it over?"
The twisty Riptide, which was the only one of the four slides Annabel was big enough to go on, and the shorter, faster Surge feature dark tunnels with startling turns and brief, surprising plunges. Annabel had wild eyes and an excited smile as I lifted her off our raft once we'd splashed down in the exit pool, but one Riptide ride was enough for her.
Among the slides, Asa's and my favorite was the Vortex, which spits you into something like a giant toilet bowl, where you're whipped around and around in thrilling, squeal-out-loud revolutions before being corkscrewed down a spout into the pool.
After the frenetic scene at the Boardwalk, where the water gets even colder as the sun dips, the rest of the park, with its trees and relative quiet, felt like an oasis. Also, you may find, as we did when we took a breather from the gazillionth Beach Boys tune, that the rides in the rest of the park -- the Ferris wheel, the various roller coasters -- have shorter lines. But my husband and I agreed: What Hersheypark really needs is a geezer-coaster. No drops, no nausea, just a bit of speed and some easy-on-the-ticker thrills. We settled for the monorail.
Our drive home flew by with unending chatter about the rides. Velocity and fear levels were minutely dissected. As was my I'm-gonna-die reaction to the Whirlwind. So here's where I stand: Next time, I think I'll try the Whirlwind again. Eyes open. Maybe.
· Admission to Hersheypark (800-437-7439, http://www.hersheypa.com), including the Boardwalk, is $45.95 for adults, $26.95 for children. The park, which is open daily through Sept. 3, then weekends through Sept. 29, is about a two-hour drive north of the Capital Beltway.