A year ago none of us would have predicted what 2020 would have in store for us, but as we approach August I think many of us have tried to adapt and learn from the experience. In a normal year, the out of office messages would be littering the digital landscape as millions take some time off for their annual vacations. Even though this isn’t a normal year, it doesn’t mean that summer has to be cancelled – far from it. Those trips may look different, but they’re still possible and they still be fun, as I was recently reminded while on a weekend getaway to Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Travel for me is now mostly regional and drivable, usually shorter than normal with a lot of precautions taken to ensure not only my own safety, but that of others as well. Living in the DC metro region, there are many great options for a fun getaway including a spot I have visited before and was excited to revisit, the Sweetest Place on Earth.
For whatever reason, I love corporate histories and when they intersect with the travel experience, my interest is always piqued. In 1903, Milton Hershey began construction of what would become the world’s largest chocolate manufacturing plant in the rural Pennsylvania farmlands where he grew up. The facility was completed in 1905 and didn’t only provide to the American public their very first taste of milk chocolate, Hershey also created a brand new model community surrounding the plant. Raised in the Mennonite faith, Hershey had a strong sense of moral responsibility and it was this that in part prompted him to create a model town for his employees that included comfortable homes, public transportation, schools, recreation and more. The town saw an explosion in growth during the Great Depression when Hershey initiated a building campaign to help provide much needed jobs. The results are still evident today as one drives around Hershey which has very much evolved into a lovely town to explore, independent of the theme park or even other regional attractions.
Where to stay
The Hotel Hershey is a classic hotel; built in the 1930s it echoes the era of Gatsby and incredible wealth. The Hotel has kept these exacting standards over the years and today the property is just as luxurious as it was when it first opened. The Hotel itself is an attraction in its own right so be sure to spend some exploring both the beautiful interiors as well as the immaculately sculptured gardens. They’re also famous for their spa and based on my own experience, I can say without exaggeration that it really is one of the best I’ve been to. Their most popular treatment is the cocoa massage, using essential oils for a relaxing and fragrant experience. But it’s the overall feeling of grandeur that is at the heart of the Hotel Hershey’s greatness. The staff makes everyone feel important, even if only for a weekend and that is a rarity in today’s travel world. If you have some extra time, be sure to stop by the nearby Hershey Gardens, a beautiful botanical garden practically adjacent to the hotel property.
Most of us go to theme parks for the rides, and at Hersheypark there’s no shortage of ways to spend the day. This massive, 121-acre park has scores of rides and attractions including the 15 roller coasters that I think are at the heart of the experience. I remember growing up in Pennsylvania as a kid and watching the commercials for Hershey’s still-famous SooperDooperLooper – the first coaster of its kind on the East Coast. They’ve kept up that spirit of innovation throughout the years, including their latest expansion – Hershey’s Chocolatetown. This $150 million expansion includes some great additions and innovations including their latest rollercoaster, Candymonium. It’s the tallest, faster and longest coaster in the park and features the most airtime of any of their coasters.
One aspect of visiting any theme park that is important to me personally is that it doesn’t feel like a concrete jungle. I’m no fan of hot, treeless parks and instead have always preferred larger, more bucolic theme parks. Hersheypark certainly falls into this category and thanks in large part to its size, offers those quiet moments and relaxing views I always look for in a park.
What to do outside of the park
While the park is a lot of fun, the entire town has a lot to offer whether at the official visitor’s center or just around town. Next to Hersheypark is popular Hershey’s Chocolate World Attraction. The official visitor’s center of The Hershey Company, this is a destination in its own right. The complex features a huge store and a lot of different activities for both adults and children. While I enjoyed the 10-minute simulated factory tour, what I really loved was the opportunity to make my own chocolate bar. For an additional fee (it’s also included in some hotel packages, so check those out) you can go through the process of designing your own chocolate bar, from conception to packaging. Visitors can choose the type of chocolate to be used as well as the add-on ingredients, everything from pretzel bits to toffee chips. The best part though is following your personal chocolate bar as it’s made, watching it at every step of the way.
In downtown Hershey is an experience that I think should be near the top of every visitor’s to-do list, the chocolate flight at the Hershey Story Museum. Located in downtown Hershey, the Hershey Story is a museum dedicated to sharing the history of Milton Hershey and his legacy over time. The Museum’s cafe also offers something a little unusual – a chocolate flight. For an additional fee, guests are presented with a variety of melted chocolate drinks made from cocoa in places as diverse as Java and Tanzania. The drinks are meant to show guests the differences that regions provide in taste, as well as the taste differences between varying cocoa percentages. Some were bitter while a few were downright delicious. I had a great time experimenting with the chocolates and learning more about them in the process.
These are not normal times and what a hotel or theme park does to safeguard the health and safety of guests is more important than ever. At The Hotel Hershey, all guests are required to wear face masks and social distancing markers have been placed in the public areas. There are also plenty of hand sanitizer stations and activities and dining have reduced capacity to allow for proper distancing. The Hotel Hershey was the fourth hotel I’ve patronized since the end of quarantine and in all honesty, they’ve done the best job I’ve seen so far. Mask compliance by guests was 100%, at least when I was there, and employees are taking the new safety regulations very seriously. I never saw strangers enter into an elevator together and everyone kept their distance. I was extremely impressed and encouraged by everything I experienced during my time at the hotel.
Naturally, theme parks like Hersheypark have had a lot of work to do in order to reopen and balance safety with fun. I admit that I was nervous before going to Hersheypark. While it’s true I have traveled a couple of times in the last few weeks, I have purposefully avoided mass gatherings and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Thankfully, throughout my time in Hersheypark I felt very comfortable and safe. Some of the new measures in place include:
- Face covering requirement
- Temperature screenings
- Social distancing throughout the park, including in ride queues
- New ride cleaning protocols and distancing between parties
- Increased sanitation throughout the park with 300 individual sanitization stations
- Guest reservations system to limit the number of guests in the park
- Enhanced team member training
So, how did it all work in practice? Pretty well, all in all. Based on what I saw and experienced on that one day, almost everyone I saw was wearing a mask, however not everyone was wearing it properly. It would have been nice to see more staff members circulating throughout the park to encourage guests to wear their masks properly. I also brought my own sanitizers to wipe down rides, more for my own peace of mind than anything else. Throughout the day I stayed away from other guests and when I left I felt very comfortable with how things went. It’s also important to note that not many people were there at all. I’m not sure if it’s a factor of the reservations system or the intense heat, but those crowds I feared were largely nonexistent.
2020 is a bizarre year and the summer months have been no exception. This is normally the time when we hit the road to go on vacation and enjoy some time away from home. This year though that’s more important than ever but fear not, because it is still very much possible. By being smart in how you travel and where you go, you can absolutely still have a fun and safe getaway. For me, spots like Hershey are ideal and I’m so thankful I decided to make the short drive up there to enjoy some much needed rest and relaxation.