Milton Hershey was not originally a chocolate man. His specialty was caramels for several years during a time when chocolate was just something some people covered these with. However, when one day he saw some kids take one of these covered varieties, lick the chocolate off and chuck the caramel part away, he realised chocolate could become a big thing in the future and set about selling his caramel business and setting up a chocolate one.
Thats just one of the facts I learnt during my trip to Chocolate Town USA the summer before last. Heres another: Milton Hershey had such a sensitive palate he could taste the difference between factory and farm grown chickens. And yet this was the man who tasted European chocolate, didnt like it, and set about making his own stuff. Crazy.
Hershey, Pennsylvania was the eventual setting for this venture after he tried, and failed, in several other areas of the country. The state is rich in dairy farms which is important if youre making chocolate their way with real, liquid milk rather than the powdered stuff we use. Now the factory in the town produces more chocolate per year than any other, and as a result the town literally smells of chocolate.
And now begins your visitors guide to the place somewhere my guide book only deemed worthy of 4 short sentences.
==== Getting There
Hershey is not a big place, and as such lacks major transportation links, so by car is the best way to arrive. If you dont / wont drive, Harrisburg, the nearest large town, has an airport and Greyhound bus and Amtrak train terminals. From these its about 15 minutes, or a $20 taxi ride into Hershey. Thats if you take a taxi, of course. The alternative is to present yourself at the concierge desk of a posh hotel, tell a few little half-truths and ask about a shuttle bus. If youre lucky, theyll plop you onto a minibus and let you make the journey for free. Not that I *ever* did this, you understand its just a theoretical, hypothetical suggestion.
==== Staying There
The town is well visited all year round, so accommodations are available for all wallets. The poshest place to stay, The Hotel Hershey and Spa, is also the most expensive, and at more than $300 per night (room only!) is somewhat out of my price range. I stayed at the Red Carpet Inn and paid $60 per night, almost $10 of which was hotel and state taxes. Other options include motel and hotel chains Comfort Inn, Days Inn, Best Western individually owned places like the Chocolatetown Motel, and 2 more Hershey options their Lodge and their campsite. From a lot of these places it is possible to walk to the attractions, and places too far away often come complete with free shuttles to the park and factory. These are supposed to be for residents only but never ask for room keys or other ID so if you wanted to jump on one, say to hitch a ride to a posh hotel whose concierge might be fooled into giving you a free ride in to Harrisburg, you easily could.
==== Doing Stuff There
HerhseyPark is a reasonably sized, quite expensive theme park in the center of the town. I didnt go here because time was limited, I didnt feel the need to spend another $40 and I was travelling alone, but friends who have been said it was good if not outstanding. My trip, however, focussed on Chocolate World, a free-to-enter visitors center open from 9am until later every day. Inside there are numerous things to do, some free and some not. Among these, the most popular a 15 min chocolate ride where you sit in cars that move through the history of chocolate, a mocked up chocolate factory and some advertisements for Hershey products fills up very quickly. I was there before they opened and still had to wait 10 minutes to get on but later in the day the queues were well past the 30 45 minute mark. Its a must do though, for 2 reasons its free, and they give out samples at the end. Just try to get there early. The ride itself was interesting, and the staff let you sit comfortably - I was alone, but given the whole front row of a car to myself, even though it could have sat 3 or 4 other guests beside me. The factory part of the tour has working machinery showing how chocolate is mixed and packaged and packed onto conveyor belts and so on, and every single item was in full working order none of those temporarily out of service signs here.
My next stop was the food court where, though it was only 9.30am, all the outlets were open. Theres not an extensive choice, but they offer cakes and cookies and ice cream, and soup and sandwiches and pizza. I had a late breakfast of a chocolate cupcake with vanilla cream icing and chocolate pieces on top, which was rich but nice, and not expensive a slightly over $2.
From there, it was on to the REALLY BIG 3D SHOW which is a mixture of live action and 3D cartoons (those silly oversized glasses required). The story focussed on the history of Hershey, but I can honestly say that not one child seemed bored during its 30 minute duration probably because of the special effects that came with it: when it snowed on screen, snow fell from the auditorium ceiling. We felt wind and rain, and when the large purple spider exploded on screen, we felt its guts splatting us on the face. It was extremely well thought out, and everyone seemed to enjoy it. The entrance fee of $5 for adults (and less for children) included more free chocolate at the end: this time 2 mini KitKats which are made and distributed by Hershey over here, rather than Nestle.
I wanted to see some of the town, not just the chocolate world, while I was there, so I paid $10 for a ride on a trolley bus. These leave every half-hour or so, but are extremely popular so you have to get your ride token as soon as possible. The trip lasted more than the scheduled 45 minutes because we got caught up in traffic, but that was fine by me. We had a singing conductor who told us about the history of the Hershey family and the town as we passed by the school and the family home and the chocolate factory (and the street lights shaped like Hersheys Kisses). There was also another staff member who played various roles (jumping off the bus every 5 minutes and coming back a short while later in a different disguise relating to whatever building we were passing by he was a cook, a mother (!), a school boy and Mr Hersheys father among other things on our trip). In between all this we sand songs (song-sheets were on the seats as we boarded they covered everything from Daisy Daisy to God Bless America) and learnt various facts about all things Hershey. We also got plied with free samples all the way round a Hershey kiss here, a Reeses Peanut Butter cup there. Trolleys are used because Hershey used to be a trolley town many years ago, and though cars and busses are now allowed into the place, they are still a fun way to take a trip. The staff members were extremely good, knowledgeable enough to answer even the more bizarre questions that came their way and didnt seem to mind my response when they asked the question Whats everyones favourite chocolate?- all the other passengers yelled Hershey! while I surreptitiously mouthed Milka!.
Back inside Chocolate World I joined the queue for the free factory-world experience, a new addition to the center. This was billed as your chance to be hands on in a chocolate factory, but was quite disappointing as the actual thing only lasted maybe 2 minutes. After queuing for quarter of an hour, I had my picture taken and was then given a plastic box and told to press a button and catch the Kisses that flew down the spout with my number on. Then we put the lids on the boxes, and placed them on a conveyor belt ..and that was it. From there we were shuttled into a shop where we were given the opportunity to buy our box of kisses (blatantly not since the boxes for sale were at the till point, and sealed in plastic, whereas the ones wed filled had just been sent off in the other direction). This cost $4.99, and a photo pass with you on and your designation as Official Chocolate Tester was $7.99, but you could get them both as a combo offer for $9.99.
The last thing I did inside Chocolate World was look at the shops there are many of these, all selling chocolate related items t-shirts, bags, mugs, jewelry and so on. You can also buy any of the products Hershey currently make or distribute including, strangely, Cadburys Dairy Milk. Prices were reasonable for this kind of place chocolates were at supermarket prices, and t-shirts were around the $15 mark. In fact the only thing I thought expensive here were the photos on the ride they take your picture at the end, and with the 3D show you can choose to pose with the characters. Even the smallest prints they offered were over $10, and the decent sized ones were considerably more.
I left Chocolate World behind to go and see the Hershey Museum across the path. This costs $7 for adults, and traces the history of Hershey the town and Hershey the man (can you see a pattern developing here?) However it also has several hands-on exhibits, a discovery room for kids with toys, games and dressing up clothes, and free Chocolate Chats 3 times daily. I arrived 10 minutes before the 1.15 one (other times are 11.15 and 3.15), so I naturally went along. We sat in a fake chocolate kitchen while our host told us about how chocolate is made, let us smell the ingredients and then handed out free samples of the latest in the Hershey Kiss range the runny caramel filled ones. My favourite bit though was when he told us facts about chocolate in Europe - facts which, after over 20 years of eating the stuff on that continent, Id somehow never heard It wasnt the best museum in the world, but it was interesting to see, and the gift shop (which you dont need to pay to get into the museum to have access to) had some nice items not found in the huge shopping area across the path.
==== Evaluating There
Im glad I went to Hershey, not least because I know I would have regretted it had I not done so. I spent a fair number of hours there, and saw a lot, but had I had more time, I could have done more: gone to the gardens, or the theme park. Toured the school, or the old family home (both a drive, rather than a walk, away from the rest of the stuff). I was shocked by how many people were there at 8.45am, but a few hours later I saw how wise they had been to get up that early as the place was positively heaving. You can go there and not spend any money, but youll see a lot more if you do open start pulling out the dollar bills. However I spent $40 just on entrances for me and (minimal!) present shopping, so if you were taking a family, as everyone seemed to be, it would soon add up. Add lunch and maybe some other attractions, and youll be spending a minimum of around 35 GBP per person.
Chocolate World gets a ton of visitors every day, but remains remarkably clean despite that. The toilets are plentiful and well stocked, there are bins everywhere for disposing of those pesky sweet wrappers from the free samples they dish out, and there are numerous staff members on hand to guide you or direct you or answer your questions. The people at the help desk were great, and the terminals near the entrance contained some useful information.
Some of the information you get is the same on all the attractions - stuff about the town and Milton Hershey himself and so on. This is partly because not everyone will do every ride or visit every attraction, and partly because this place is dedicated to the man, and all down to his hard work, so they kinda have to. You dont have to be the worlds biggest Hershey fan to enjoy a day here. Definitely worth seeing, even if like me, youd prefer a good bar off the Swiss stuff any day.