A Taste of Hershey, Pennsylvania

About a year ago, I went on a fun spring break trip with my family. It was a great trip to see them, especially since I thought I would spend the rest of the semester in Arizona; instead, I flew home two weeks later after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Consequently, it took me a while to write this post about Hershey as the rest of 2020 did not go at all as planned and I stopped writing as much on here. It’s weird to reflect on the trip now because it feels like a relic from a different time when we hung out in crowds of strangers without masks, ate in a spacious buffet-style cafeteria, and exchanged phones and cameras to take family photos for people we didn’t know.

Overall, it was a really good trip! It wasn’t a big, exciting vacation to an exotic locale, but it was a great place to spend a few days relaxing and eating chocolate. And, looking back, I’m really grateful for the opportunity we had to take this little trip before everything shut down. Hershey is a fantastic little town (that’s technically not a real town) with beautiful old buildings on its main street, a few massive buildings on the outskirts (Hershey Mansion and Hershey School), and, of course, the main attractions: Chocolate World and Hershey Park!

While this post will mainly be about Hershey, that’s not all central Pennsylvania has to offer! When we visited, we took a day each to visit Lancaster County (Amish country) and Gettysburg National Military Park, which where both excellent additions to make the trip a bit longer. I’ll discuss both later in this post, but if you’re looking for a bit more, I’ve also written a whole post about Gettysburg here.

Yes, Chocolate Avenue is a real street

A Sweet History

So as I mentioned above, “Hershey” is not an actual town. It’s technically a census-designated place located in Derry Township. Though given that it sounds like “Dairy Township” that still seems like a good location for the birthplace of milk chocolate. All right, technically milk chocolate existed before the Hershey Company, but it wasn’t a common thing. So how did Milton Hershey, a farmer’s son from Pennsylvania, create one of the world’s best known candy companies? It’s actually a really great story!

Hershey was interested in candy for a long time before he made it big. He apprenticed with a candy maker in Lancaster before deciding to start his own business. Which failed. So he started a new one. Which also failed. And so did the third attempt. Finally, Hershey established the Lancaster Caramel Company, which succeeded! But the main appeal was, obviously from the name, caramel. At the time, chocolate wasn’t a huge deal for most people. It was bitter and really only popular in Europe. But after seeing a chocolate-making machine at the Colombian Exhibition in 1893, Hershey began to experiment with chocolate at his own company. After selling the Lacaster Caramel Company (for a cool $1 million) in 1900, Hershey focused on chocolate, specifically milk chocolate, which at the time was a Swiss delicacy that most people were unfamiliar with. Hershey developed his own formula for milk chocolate and then set about building a plant to mass-produce the chocolate. By 1905, Hershey’s milk chocolate was a success!

However, the story of Milton Hershey and his chocolate is also a community story. Hershey, a devout Mennonite, felt a sense of responsibility to his employees that has to be commended. He wanted to build a town for his workers, but a real town where they could have good lives and give their children a quality education. In addition to the houses, school, and public transportation, Hershey also introduced Hershey Park, which soon drew visitors from out of town as well. To continue providing jobs in the Great Depression when chocolate didn’t sell quite as well, Hershey organized building projects in town, which resulted in the beautiful 1930s buildings you’ll see today.

Perhaps the largest part of the Hershey legacy – and the part that is recorded on every chocolate bar – is the establishment of the Milton Hershey School. Hershey and his wife Catherine were unable to have children of their own, so they founded a school for orphan boys and eventually endowed the school with the stock of the Hershey Company to continue funding it. Today, the school admits financially needy boys and girls from grades K-12. The Hershey legacy is impressive and marked by a philanthropic spirit that is reflected in the town to this day. For more information, check out the articles on Hershey’s History page here.

To be honest, I found these guys a little creepy.

A Recipe for Fun

Our trip to Hershey started with some long travel for everyone. I flew from Arizona to Pennsylvania, while my family drove several hours from our house – we didn’t know then that we would all do the same trip a couple weeks later when I was unable to get a flight into Charleston and had to again fly to Pennsylvania. But the Hershey trip was much more fun, and no one sprayed me with lysol upon meeting me at the airport.

For the duration of our trip, we stayed in cabins near Hershey Park. Though busy in the summer, the cabins were all but deserted while we were there, so while it was strange and a little apocalyptic to walk down a street of empty cabins, we also had no issues with noise or traffic. The first night, we drove through the not-town of Hershey and saw all the Hershey-kiss streetlights, which, while a bit corny, still ignited the childlike excitement of being somewhere new and different and exciting. As it was already evening, we really just ate dinner and checked into our cabin. Also, that night I tested out the shampoo and conditioner bars that I was planning to use in Jordan… That trip didn’t happen, but this one did convince me of their value since they were easy to store and pack.

Day one of the real trip was Gettysburg, which was my favorite part. After visiting the visitor center and museum, we took the shuttle to visit Dwight D. Eisenhower’s house, where we spent about an hour. We then took our time driving through the park and getting out of the car to explore different parts of it. While there are restaurants and a few other things to see in the town, we headed back to Hershey when we finished here (I’d already bought a $60 book about the Cyclorama at the gift store, so we didn’t need to the temptation to buy more things). While most nights, we ate food at our cabin to save money, since this was the first real day of the trip, we ate out at the Hershey Lodge, which was pretty good…though I wasn’t a fan of the chocolate butter.

The Chocolate World store

Day two was Chocolate World, which was by far the most delicious day of the trip. Every single part of chocolate world involves free samples, but since you’ll probably only want more, there’s also a massive gift shop area for chocolate and chocolate-inspired souvenirs. A lot of the museum is geared towards younger kids, but we still had a lot of fun with all the events (like making our own chocolate bars – highly recommend) and the information was still interesting (like learning about how milk chocolate is made). Also chocolate was a good bribe for doing everything – even the “4D Chocolate Movie” with creepy animated chocolates that was definitely aimed at a young audience. My favorite part though was the trolley ride in which we were driven all around the area with a tour guide who told fun stories, recommended restaurants, and gave out more chocolate! Going back, I personally would skip the movie but everything else was worthwhile and fun even as an adult.

Our last day was less structured but still fun! We visited The Hershey Story Museum in the morning, which, as a museum, I really liked. Having visited a lot of museums and also having studied them in art history, anthropology, and linguistics classes, I have a lot of opinions about museums. While even a year after visiting it, I could probably discuss the format of this museum for quite a while, I’ll limit myself to saying that it was very well-organized and would appeal to kids and adults as there were several interactive portions. I also really enjoyed the section on sugar cane, its production, and how that has changed over the years, though I do have to note that there is an obvious (and understandable) bias in favor of the Hershey Company. For example, while the company aims to have an ethical supply chain, and while it has (from my brief research) done well in meeting labor standards for its sugar production, its standards for cacao have been more lax and have attracted some criticism. Not surprisingly, the museum focuses on the company’s positive effects – which, with the Milton Hershey school have been significant and are undeniably good for the students and local community – but I think it is worth noting that the company is not without its flaws.

Around lunch, we left Hershey for Amish country in Lancaster County. We had a delicious lunch to start our time there and also had fun checking out the numerous shops in the area. The highlight, of course, was taking a ride through the countryside in a horse and buggy. We took our ride with Aaron and Jessica’s Buggy Rides and had an amazing time! Our driver was exceptionally friendly and knowledgeable and answered all our questions. It was also a wonderful day to drive through the farmland, and before we left, we took our time driving down small country roads to look at the scenery. It was a beautiful, peaceful end to the trip, and I’m very glad we took the time to visit the area.

The Trolley Ride is a must when visiting Hershey, not least because there’s free chocolate on board

What to Do

Chocolate World makes it easy to plan your trip, which is nice…though it gets expensive. If you’re planning to spend a full day at Chocolate World though, getting a bundled adventure is your best bet as you will save some money like this instead of buying individual tickets for everything. To check out the bundles, you can go here and also click around to other parts of the website for more information on planning. Currently, trolley rides are suspended, but when there isn’t a pandemic, you have five bundle options.

Basically, there are four main things to do at Chocolate World: The 4D movie, Create Your Own Candy Bar, Hershey’s Unwrapped, and Hershey Trolley Works. The bundles include different combinations of these. As I said above, my favorite part was the trolley, though creating a candy bar was a close second. Hershey’s Unwrapped was fun and interesting, but not especially remarkable. The 4D movie, which is the only part that I didn’t really enjoy is included in all the bundles, so everyone gets to experience that animation (it’s also the cheapest individual ticket). If you choose to do all of these, you can easily spend the better part of a day at Chocolate World with a bit of time in the evening to wander downtown and/or go to a restaurant.

The Hershey Story Museum is also well worth a visit. You’ll get the basics of this information on the trolley ride, but I do really like this museum, so I’d recommend stopping by while you’re downtown. And you should go downtown! The buildings are all beautifully designed, and the streets are iconic with their Hershey Kiss lights and the intersection of Chocolate Avenue and Cocoa Avenue. In the summer, a visit to Hershey Park or Hershey Gardens may also be worth another day in the town, but as we didn’t do either of these, I won’t comment on them here. ZooAmerica is also a year-round option, but we chose to skip that since it would require a separate ticket and would probably need a full day to be enjoyed.

You don’t get this view in summer

When to Go

Like many places, the peak season to visit Hershey is in summer. The amusement park will be open, for one thing, and you’ll see a lot more greenery. If you’re hoping to visit the park, you’ll need to go during that time or maybe late spring/early fall to avoid peak crowds. However, if you’re more interested in the history and could do without the rollercoasters, I would recommend visiting at any time of year. For our trip in early spring, we faced no crowds at all, and I still found the scenery to be very beautiful. Additionally, if you’re looking for a vacation during the colder months, almost all of this is indoors, which is convenient. Really, you can visit Hershey any time of year, and the only consideration to make is about visiting the park.

A healthy lunch

What to Eat

Uh, chocolate, duh! What else? Section done!

No, just kidding. You should probably eat other stuff too. And here are some suggestions!

First, if you’re buying a bundle for activities at Chocolate World, you may as well add on their meal voucher. There were several options at the Chocolate World cafeteria, and I had trouble choosing my lunch. Also, if you’re spending most or all of a day there, this will save time going somewhere else to eat. Chocolate World also has lots of tempting treats like the cookie above that you can choose from for dessert. Their hot chocolates and coffees are also welcome when it’s a bit nippy outside!

Outside of Chocolate World, Hershey has several restaurants, though the Hershey Lodge and Hershey Hotel are probably the best known places to eat for visitors (the hotel is fancier and more expensive than the lodge). The town itself has other restaurants, and while I remember our trolley guide pointing out a couple, we chose to go to the grocery store and cook and eat most of our food at our cabin to save money. However you decide to get food on the trip, you’ll have no shortage of options, and the desserts will be impressive.

This picture is in black and white because it was overcast and the lighting looked better like this – anyway, the street lamps are Hershey kisses because chocolate is important

Where to Stay

A good way to keep your visit all bundled together and to make it easier to plan is by staying at some of the lodging connected with Hershey Park. There are three options: the hotel, the lodge, and the camping resort. Staying at any of these comes with a few perks, including extra park hours. Those at the hotel or lodge get free access to the Hershey Story Museum and Hershey Gardens, while those at the campground get a discount. All three options include discounts for ZooAmerica. You can also eat at the restaurants even if you aren’t staying at the hotel or lodge.

The hotel is your most expensive option as it includes a golf course and spa as well as more stylish options than a traditional hotel room, including Woodside Cottages. Within the Hershey Hotel there are five main dining options, described as follows: “At The Hotel Hershey®, experience history, reinvented, with the fresh flavors of our flagship restaurant at The Circular®Trevi 5 features authentic Italian fare, while Harvest serves genuine American cuisine. Enjoy fresh coffee and chef-prepared food at Chef’s Market, our new all-day cafe or unwind with a signature drink after hours in the Iberian Lounge.” The Hershey Hotel is the place to stay if you’re looking for a full resort experience in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

The Hershey Lodge is a simple hotel that really comes with all the same options as the Hershey Hotel. You can still access the golf course and spa, and you can dine on site. The accommodations are less fancy and are basically what you would get at any normal hotel. Though less expensive than those at the hotel, the lodge also has five restaurants. For the website, “tart your morning with a cafe style breakfast and specialty coffee at Cocoa Beanery®. For lunch or dinner with the family, visit The Bears’ Den or Hershey Grill. Finally, end your day with happy hour at Fire & Grain® or a gourmet dinner at Revelry.” Our nice dinner out while in Hershey was at the Hershey Grill, and I would definitely eat there again.

Finally, there’s the Hersheypark Camping Resort. You have two options here: actual camping or staying in a cabin like we did. The campground is the cheapest option by far and includes two pools in different locations as well as a playground and various spaces for volleyball or horseshoes. While there are no restaurants int he campground, you can eat at the lodge, hotel, or anywhere in town and can also stop by the Country Store for sugary treats to balance any actual groceries purchased in town. I had a great time staying at our cabin, and I don’t think we missed out on any of the more lavish options at the lodge or hotel.

Any one of these is a great pick and comes with the handy discounts to other Hershey attractions. If you’re planning to do a lot in Hershey, one of these is probably your best option, though you can find other places to stay in town as well.

It took me several tries to get a shot of this with all the words lit up

Extra Day-Trips

While you could easily spend a couple days just in Hershey exploring Chocolate World, Hershey Park, and ZooAmerica in addition to the town’s smaller attractions, a couple of day-trips can expand your trip and give it some variation. Since I love history and my sister has a mild fascination with the Amish lifestyle, our day-trips were excellent additions to our time in Hershey, and I’d recommend picking one or both or coming up with your own (ideas here)!

Overlooking Gettysburg

Gettysburg

Gettysburg is one of – if not the – most famous battle of the American Civil War. Between the visitor center’s museum, the battleground itself, and the opportunity to visit Eisenhower’s house, Gettysburg can easily take a full day to explore. You’ll learn a lot about history – both the about the Civil War and about Eisenhower’s life and times. The park is also starkly beautiful, and while it receives most of its visitors in summer, I really loved seeing it in March when we visited. I could go on about Gettysburg for a while, but for now I’ll just say that I loved visiting and it’s become one of my favorite NPS sites.

And hey look, here‘s the link to my Gettysburg post again!

There’s a stark beauty to the farmland in winter

Lancaster Country

This was my first time visiting Amish country, and I really enjoyed it. It’s a definite break from Hershey because there aren’t a lot of attractions or a laundry list of things to do. But that’s what makes it enjoyable. Lancaster County is basically all Amish farmland, so it can be hard to decide where to go. We actually just used the GPS to get to a Lancaster County visitor center then asked for recommendations. Once we decided where we wanted to go for a horse and buggy ride, we let that determine the rest of our day.

We ended up in Bird-in-Hand for lunch at the Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant and Smorgasbord. After enjoying the buffet lunch, we took our buggy ride and browsed the shops at Kitchen Kettle Village. It was a relaxing way to spend the afternoon, and we took our time driving through the farmland before eventually heading back to Hershey. It was a nice day-trip with low stress and a good way to wind down the vacation.

Final Notes

I had an excellent time on our Hershey vacation, and I also really enjoyed thinking back on the trip, which feels like it happened in a different world. I flew back to Tucson on a Wednesday and had dinner with my roommates at one of our favorite restaurants, El Charro. It was on that Wednesday that the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and it was during dinner that we got an email from the university extending spring break and cancelling in-person class for the next two weeks. It’s definitely weird to look back on this trip with the context of the months that would follow, and that’s part of why it took me so long to write this post. That said, I’m immensely grateful for the opportunity we had to take this trip when we did, and it’s one that I recommend and would do again.

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