Okay, here's a pledge: I will do my darnedest to get through this story without a single candy cliche. Nothing will be "sweet"; experiences will not be "morsels" and in any case they won't be "rich," "scrumptious" or "delicious." And if you catch me summing up our departure at the end of a fun-filled but exhausting day as "bittersweet," feel free to strangle me with a Twizzler.
It's going to be tough, though. Hersheypark has got to be America's Biggest Chocolate Metaphor. From the theme park's own slogans ("The Sweetest Place on Earth," "Unwrap the Fun") to the living candy bars patrolling the premises to the fistfuls of Kisses, Krackels and Kit Kats they ply you with at the hotels and restaurants, Hershey expects you not just to eat chocolate but to enter a sort of chocolate universe.
Well, I'm not going to bite. (That doesn't count!) This report from Hershey will be sugar-free. (Close one.) It will not be, if you will, a cocoa puff piece. (Okay, forget it. They win.)
Hersheypark, about two hours from Washington just east of Harrisburg, Pa., is an odd member of the amusement park genus. It's much smaller than that place in Orlando by which all amusement parks are judged. And it's a one-off operation, unlike the many-membered Six Flags chain. There's an almost haphazard feel to the park's several parts, with a theme park, zoo, sports arena and acres of parking all tucked tightly into the company town of Hershey itself, an entertainment complex flanked by mill housing and a massive chocolate factory. In spite of its current corporate parentage (Hershey Co. is a $4 billion concern, after all), Hersheypark retains some of the personal, small-world feel it must have had when Milton S. Hershey opened it as a "pleasure ground" for his factory workers in 1907. With an abundance of kiddie rides, carnival-style games and some posted admonitions against inappropriate dress and line-jumping, it feels at times as if we've been invited into an elaborate, old-fashioned company picnic.
On a hot June morning 98 years later, Mr. Hershey was still very much a presence at the empire that bears his name. Visitors coming through the turnstiles into Founder's Circle are met by a statue of the man who did for chocolate what Henry Ford did for the automobile -- found a way to mass produce it for the hoi polloi. The Cocoa King stands forever near the vintage carousel that he purchased in the 1940s, one of the park's oldest mechanical rides, and within screaming range of one of its latest, the maniacal Storm Runner, a high-tech, stomach-twisting roller coaster that debuted last year.
Many of the guests speeding by the bronze Mr. Hershey carry beach towels, making the spot a good one to assess the three things Hersheypark does best: roller coasters (there are 10 of them), imaginative ways to get wet on a blistering summer day and, surprisingly, food. From tacos, sushi and even a decent Caesar salad, we would find much more to noshing at Hershey than candy bars.
In fact, you've got to be a true chocolate glutton not to max out pretty quickly on the sweet stuff. The lunch bill at the Hershey Lodge came covered in Mr. Goodbar miniatures; check-in included a Hershey Bar for every guest, and the kids' program at the fascinating Hershey Museum featured edible craft projects made from Kisses. Within an hour, I was laden with that day-after-Halloween feeling -- halfway through your plastic pumpkin and one Crunch bar over the line.
Oops! Crunch bar is a Nestle candy, isn't it? Sorry. It feels somehow disloyal to invoke other brands of chocolate around Hershey and, needless to say, there isn't an M&M or Snickers in sight. When a six-foot Hershey bar walked by, surrounded by adoring kids, I asked loudly if we'd be seeing Lady Godiva at all. My wife clapped a hand over my mouth.
It's funny, this idea of coming to visit a line of consumer products and counting them as hosts and pals. They're not even on a cartoon, but the children gladly run up to hug every lumbering Kit Kat bar or walking Kiss. Guests at one of the three Hershey hotels can even pay $14 for the daily Breakfast at the Park, a Pennsylvania Dutch meal of apple pancakes, eggs and sausage that features face time with Hershey "product characters." I wasn't positive I wanted a colossal Milk Dud coming at me before I'd had coffee, but it was a chance to get into the park an hour before the official opening time of 10 a.m. And my kids did love it when the playful Reese's Peanut Butter Cup tried to swap my chocolate chip muffin.
"You," said the woman at a table next to a very large York Peppermint Pattie, "are my absolute favorite."
All over the park, people lined up to take pictures with their preferred confection and bought T-shirts, hats and key chains with those same familiar logos. It seems that certain household brands really do assume pal status in our lives. (But not all. You wouldn't spend $40 to enter Preparation H World, would you? Or send the kid to hug a walking can of Desenex?)
Our morning at Hershey was spent on rides, both carnival style (Tilt-A-Whirl, a swinging pirate ship and a grand Ferris wheel) and theme-park style (a steam railroad, a monorail, the excellent simulated journey through the chocolate-making process and a killer 3-D movie in a cleverly booby-trapped theater). The weekday lines were never more than about 15 minutes, allowing me to bag six of the park's roller coasters. My favorite was the Comet, a classic wooden coaster with a go-forever ride and a racket like a herd of mustangs crossing an old metal bridge. The Storm Runner, with its rocket-sled hydraulic launch, boasted the most intense first four seconds of any coaster I've ever ridden, followed by a rapid-fire succession of rolls and a disappointingly quick finish. At the far end of the park, the Lightning Racer is an insanely complicated nest of swoops built of weathered timber. It looks like something left behind by a flood, but the twin coasters race each other through the tangle with thrilling zippiness.
With temperatures rising, we broke for a couple of sun-free options, the dolphin show at the Aquatheatre and the hourly song-and-dance show at the Music Box. "Nerds: The Musical" is one of those high-energy productions common to theme parks and cruise ships that serve as full-employment programs for peppy young people. This is a slick, lively and air-conditioned revue about campus geeks vs. cool kids. The performers wear headset microphones that make them look as if they're working a drive-through window.
By midday, it was over 90 degrees and we plunged gratefully into Hershey's most innovative attractions: the water rides. In the Pioneer Frontier section, signs tell you the dress code is relaxed and bathing suits permitted (with locker rooms provided for the change).
For the hottest three hours of the day, we stayed happily drenched on Canyon River Rapids, a raft ride that leaves no soaking to chance; Tidal Force, a mega flume that ends in a million-gallon cloud of spray; and the Roller Soaker, a roller coaster that lets you dump water on willing guests below as they return fire with mounted water cannons.
Twilight came and the carnival lights threw a few neon shadows (Hersheypark is surprisingly dark at night). One day felt like just about enough, and we left at closing time with arms full of midway prizes and bellies full of Kisses. But I will say this: We left wanting -- and I'm truly sorry here -- S'more.