Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Sweetest Place on Earth

So have you ever heard of Derry Church, PA? How about the Lancaster Caramel Company? Unless you are very, very, old (which I am not), there is almost no way you could have. The Lancaster Caramel Company was sold in 1898 for the tidy sum of $1 million dollars (more like $24 million today). The seller took his new found fortune and started a brand new candy enterprise in the town of his birth, Derry Church. But he changed the name of that town, along with the candy business, forever. If you haven't guessed it already, his name was Milton S. Hershey, and the town and chocolate empire bearing his name is still going strong today.

Hershey was born into hardscrabble life in rural Pennsylvania and never received more than a fourth grade education. But as he got older, his father took him on business trips around the country, and it seemed that young Milton had a nose for business. Just the same, his first two attempts to start a candy business (Philadelphia, then New York) failed miserably. But the third time was a charm and his caramel business took off in the late 1890s. Now most folks would have been happy to pocket the $1 million and then set about spending it. But Milton got the chocolate bug, and thank goodness for the rest of us that he did.

You see, it was not always the case that you could just grab a giant bar of chocolate at any supermarket, gas station, vending machine, etc. In Hershey's era, chocolate was for the wealthy - which he now was - and the milk chocolate process was a closely guarded secret of the Swiss. But he set out to change all of that. Through much trial and error, he came up with a new milk chocolate process and set up shop in the town of his birth. He bought 1,200 acres in the middle of prime dairy land, and began simultaneously building a company and a town, both bearing his name. In addition to building what would become the world's largest chocolate company, he also built roads, commercial buildings, housing, theaters, a hotel, a sports arena, libraries, parks, schools (lots of them), and an amusement park.

The amusement park started out as a place for the relaxation of his workers. It opened in 1908 and was more or less like any other town park of its day: pastoral open space, picnic grounds, playground, pool, and a band shell for concerts. But like the man and the chocolate company, it was destined for bigger and better. Today Hershey Park is home to over 60 rides and attractions, eleven world-class roller coasters, a zoo, a water park, live performance venues, and much more. The newest attraction for 2102 is the Skyrush roller-coaster. This thing is 200 feet high folks, has five zero-G hills, and features winged seating. For those of you that don't know what that means (I didn't), the car itself is on the tracks, but the seating extends beyond the edges of the car. So the two outermost seats have no floor below them at all, and you are basically just hanging out in mid air. Thus the name, I suppose. Well the first hill on this thing takes you straight up, and I mean 90 degrees up at the sky. Then it drops you more than straight down. That's right, it goes beyond 90 degrees, and hurls you back towards the ground at 85 degrees, at a speed of about 75 mph. And it's just getting started. I really don't remember much else after that, and I get vertigo just thinking about it. I am pretty sure this is not what Mr. Hershey had in mind for his employees' relaxation, but the genie is out of the bottle now.

Of course there are many other less aggressive rides at Hershey Park and lots of fun to be had by the whole family. If amusement parks just aren't your thing, there is also Hershey Botanical Gardens (with seasonal butterfly house), Zoo America, Hershey Bears minor league ice hockey, a gilded-era theatre, concert venue, outlet shopping, and much more. Plus Lancaster County (aka Amish Country), Gettysburg, and Harrisburg are all short drives away. My timeshare rental at The Suites at Hershey (pun intended I am sure) puts me minutes from the park and downtown Hershey, and a short drive from everything else. It's a 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom spacious unit with a full-sized kitchen and living room, and a washer and dryer in the unit. Plus there are two pools (one indoors and one out) and a clubhouse. RedWeek members give it 4.5 stars, and I have to agree. If you read some of the reviews, you'll see mention of a freight train that comes through at all hours of the day and night. This is a functioning company town, and they really make chocolate here. So box cars of cocoa beans and corn sugar roll through here pretty much non-stop. It didn't bother me in the least, and I doubt it will bother you. But if you are a light sleeper, bring your earplugs.

Well I am off to sample some chocolate at the Wilbur Chocolate Company and Candy Americana Museum in nearby Lititz, PA. Unbelievably, another chocolate maker, Mr. H.O. Wilbur, started up shop in the area back in the 1800s and is still in business today. It's no longer family owned, and there is no Wilbur town, library, amusement park, or any of that. But they are still here making great chocolate, and there is zero chance I will end up vomiting on my own shoes after a visit, which is more than I can say about my Skyrush experience.

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