They say that time flies when you’re having fun. And believe me… that’s true. It seems as if our USA journey has just started, but it’s already coming to an end. During the past two weeks, we travelled from California and the Carolinas to Tennessee and Virginia. We experienced some world-class theme parks and lots of thrilling rollercoasters. The last three days of our trip are spent in the Washington DC area, where we will also board a plane back to Brussels soon. But before we return to rainy and chilly Belgium, we’re able to spend Easter in the United States. This holiday is preferably celebrated with tons of chocolate and we are in luck, because we’re currently at the American chocolate capital. Nick, Steven and I spend Easter Sunday in Hershey, a town in Pennsylvania which is especially well-known for Hershey Kisses, Reese’s and other sweet treats. Please don’t expect too much: those famous chocolate bars and Hershey Kisses are rather disgusting. Luckily, the Hershey company makes up for its terrible chocolate by running a huge amusement park with not less than 14 rollercoasters. Hersheypark’s skyline is actually so impressive that I suddenly forget that bad chocolate taste in my mouth. Lots of steel and wooden coasters shine bright in the morning sun and I’m ready for this last (but definitely not least) park of our trip.
Hersheypark is part of a larger complex, including entertainment venues and sports stadiums. That’s why the parking lot is so incredibly huge. I really can’t imagine how many cars you would need to fill every available spot, but I don’t want to know either. Luckily, because of our early arrival time, we can park our rental car very close to the Hersheypark entrance. We don’t need to board a fancy tram to get to the park gates, but that doesn’t mean that it’s quiet. Many people seem to have chosen Easter for their visit to Hersheypark, so the entry plaza is actually very crowded. That’s not surprising, because the weather is just beautiful and they even forcasted one of the region’s hottest Easter Sundays in years: temperatures will reach 30°C (86°F) this afternoon. The only strange thing is that Hersheypark will not be opening any water rides today and water park The Boardwalk will remain closed as well. That’s because Hersheypark is currently celebrating ‘Springtime in the Park’, a relatively new event which is held during two April weekends. It’s some kind of preview before the actual theme park season, which officially starts late May. It seems that ‘Springtime in the Park’ was associated with chilly weather during the last few years, so we consider ourselves lucky with today’s weather conditions. A major downside of ‘Springtime in the Park’ are limited operation hours. The park will close its gates at 6 PM and they will remain locked for the next three weeks.
We like to play it safe: after entering Hersheypark, we immediately decide to spend our hard-earned dollars to a Fast Track. This pass lets us avoid the queue at 10 of the park’s rollercoasters. The system is somewhat cumbersome since you’re tied to fixed times and a specific order of riding those coasters. However, Fast Track does allow us to discover Hersheypark in a rather relaxing way. We don’t need to sprint between the different coaster credits and we can instead start our day with the Arrow mine train which isn’t included in Fast Track. Trailblazer was built 42 years ago and it’s the park’s second oldest rollercoaster. That’s clearly noticeable: despite its beautiful location, Trailblazer offers a ride without any glory. The lay-out is short and it’s filled with uncomfortable transitions.
Trailblazer is everything but legendary and that’s a shame. However, I’m willing to give Hersheypark a second chance to make a great first impression. I am actually pretty sure that the neigbouring Intamin Accelerator will do a better job. Storm Runner’s clear red tracks have been at the park since 2004. Although Hersheypark already offered some pretty good rollercoasters at that time, Storm Runner really put this park on the map. The ride was (and is) particularly well-known for its unusual lay-out. Ever heard of a cobra loop or a flying snake dive? A huge part of the ride’s fame is due to these elements. And despite the fact that this coaster looks rather uncomfortable and short (the ride lasts half a minute), I enjoyed every second of it. Storm Runner is powerful, smooth and the surprising lay-out is a big plus. After conquering all those strange curves, I can only conclude that this has to be one of Intamin’s craziest creations ever. The best news is that we will be able to ride it again this afternoon, thanks to our Fast Track.
Steven and Nick are keen on coaster bingos. At Hersheypark, however, that dream is quickly crushed. The Vekoma boomerang and kiddie coaster Cocoa Cruiser will remain closed for the entire day. The boys mourn about these lost credits, but Hersheypark offers loads of alternative fun on coaster tracks. One of the most prominent coasters at the park is Skyrush, the first ride we visit with our Fast Track. This brightly-coloured Intamin boasts spectacular figures: the ride is more than one kilometer long, it has a top speed of 120 km/h and the first drop plunges downward at an 85 degree angle. That’s why my expectations are on a high level at the moment I close my lap bar. But that lap bar actually screws up the whole experience. Don’t get me wrong: Skyrush could have been a fantastic rollercoaster. It features great g-forces, the smoothness is remarkable and I experience some freaking awesome airtime. Unfortunately, I’m only able to enjoy the very fast lifthill and the incredible first descent, because the pain starts right after this point. As soon as our train reaches the first curve, the lap bar is forcefully pushed against my waist. From that moment on, every pop of airtime and every curve feels like pure torture. Hersheypark and Intamin seem to acknowledge this problem, because the restaints are already loosened a little when the train reaches the final brake run. You can hear a collective sigh of relief at this specific moment, so I’m certainly not the only passenger who suffered because of those painful lap bars.
I really regret the fact that I didn’t like Skyrush better. This coaster is in many ways similar to the awesome Intimidator 305, but the safety restraints eliminate every bit of fun. When we ride Skyrush again just before park closing time, I try to hold my lap bar at its original position. However, heavy positive g-forces make it nearly impossible to do so. That’s why I really can’t enjoy my rides on Skyrush. But believe me: if Intamin and Hersheypark ever succeed in fixing this painful issue, Skyrush will become one of the world’s greatest thrill rides.
Unbelievable but true: I prefer a seventy year old woodie to that modern mega coaster I just wrote about. Comet, a shiny white wooden coaster which opened in 1946, can be found right next to (and underneath) Skyrush. The simple loading platform, the classic trains and those flashing light bulbs create a nostalgic atmosphere. Despite its age, Comet is definitely not an outdated family attraction. In fact, it’s even more thrilling than most other woodies. Drops are surprisingly fast and the negative g-forces are so strong that I constantly seem to be floating between my seat and the lap bar. Those restraints are closed in such a loose way that I experience the most perfect kind of airtime. Yes dear Skyrush, maybe you should take a close look at your neighbour… this is how airtime should actually feel. Until this day I had never heard of Comet, but I will never forget this ride since it’s one of the best woodies we encountered during this trip.
Skyrush and Comet are located at The Hollow, an area which somehow ressembles Blackpool Pleasure Beach or Gröna Lund. If Discovery Channel made a documentary about the optimal use of small areas in amusement parks, then they should definitely talk about this zone. There are lots of different coasters, a log flume and a cable car, all intertwined with each other. It looks little chaotic, but in the best possible way and the atmosphere at The Hollow is actually awesome. One of the area’s most striking elements is Great Bear. This B&M inverted coaster features several weirdly shaped supports and an unconventional lay-out, so I guess it wasn’t that easy to design. The result, however, is marvellous. Great Bear is a prominent ride which causes some stunning views. The actual experience doesn’t dissappoint: it’s a quite intense coaster and the original lay-out makes it fun to ride. I even liked that unusual helix before the first descent, although it seemed rather lame from the ground. Great Bear’s last few meters of track feel powerless, but that can’t change my opinion… what a brilliant ride.
Sooperdooperlooper is currently having some technical issues, so we aren’t discovering any Schwarzkopf nostalgia (yet). That’s why we leave The Hollow for now and we opt for some non-coaster-related fun. Hersheypark actually offers an abundance of slow family attractions and flat rides. We visit a typical American carrousel with flying machines, a rather unimpressive ferris wheel and the so-called Kissing Tower. This panoramic tower offers unbeatable views of Hersheypark and it’s the best way to make some aerial photos. Those photos are mainly filled with coaster tracks and it seems as if Hersheypark doesn’t offer any darkrides. But that’s not true…
Hersheypark has an interactive darkride and it’s called Reese’s Xtreme Cup Challenge. The attraction was built by Sally Corporation, a manufacturer well-known for its quality darkrides. Unfortunately, this one is considerably less interesting than most of its siblings. Two teams (Chocolate Lovers and Peanut Butter Lovers) compete against one another. I like that idea, but the decoration is just way too cheap.
Luckily, Hershey does offer a high-quality darkride. However, the strange thing is that you have to leave Hersheypark to ride it. Next to the amusement park, you’ll find Hershey’s Chocolate World, some kind of huge souvenir shop with a few interactive attractions. Just skip the Chocolate Tasting Experience and the 4D Chocolate Mystery, but please don’t miss the darkride called Hershey’s Chocolate Tour. This is an Omnimover ride which clarifies the production process of chocolate in a cheerful way. The first scene is full of singing cows and I guess that’s a valid reason to adore the Chocolate Tour. But do you know what I like most about this darkride? The fact that you can visit it for free. and you even get a free piece of chocolate at the exit. Terrible Hershey chocolate of course, but hey… it’s free.
Last week, Hersheypark inaugurated its new ride for the 2017 season: Triple Tower. These three S&S towers differ in height and experience, but it’s certainly not the most exciting amusement park novelty of the year. Besides, I’m still not that much into this type of rides, so I have to search my free fall fun at Fahrenheit. This bright Intamin construction is present at the park since 2008 and it gets mixed reviews from coaster enthusiasts. Some people say that it’s similar to Gerstlauer Eurofighters, that the ride is uncomfortable and that its capacity is rather low. That last criticism is true: Fahrenheit’s capacity is considerably lower than most other top attractions at Hersheypark. That’s why the regular queue takes up to 60 minutes today, but we are lucky enough to avoid it with our Fast Track. And honestly, I really like the actual coaster ride. Apart from that horrible vertical lifthill, Fahrenheit is quite impressive. The first drop is amazing, the overall speed is high and it features some intense inversions. I do understand that the vertical lift may remind some people of Eurofighters, but Fahrenheit is much better than that. The world would actually be a better place if those Gerstlauer coasters would be as good as Fahrenheit.
During the past two weeks, we noticed that American theme parks like to dedicate a park area to old-fashioned fun fairs. That may sound cheap, but the versions at Carowinds and Dollywood were actually quite cozy. Hersheypark has a similar zone called Midway America and it’s at least as nice. Midway Mania offers a few classic fun fair rides, but it’s also home to five different rollercoasters. However, some of those coasters aren’t that special. Wild Mouse for example, is solely ridden for our coaster-counter. Admit it: who loves those things anyway? The neighbouring Laff Trakk is another standard wild mouse coaster. This is an indoor version of Maurer’s spinning model (just like Crush’s Coaster at Walt Disney Studios Park) and Hersheypark gave it a circus theme. The decoration is quite elaborate and the blacklights add some fun to this ride. That makes Laff Trakk a fine family coaster, but I would never enter the 60-minute standby queue.
Midway America is the place to be for those who love GCI coasters; this zone features three of them. Wildcat is the least interesting of this trio. The track measures about 1.000 meters, it’s 30 meters tall and trains reach top speeds of 80 km/h. These figures guarantee a fun ride on most GCI woodies and the twisty lay-out seems promising, but Wildcat turns out to be significantly rougher than I expected. I read on Wikipedia that Wildcat got considerably more enjoyable since the addition of new trains, but that’s hard to imagine. Was this ride really that bad in earlier days?!
Luckily, there’s a better wooden coaster within a few steps from Wildcat and it’s called Lightning Racer. This duelling GCI woodie lies in the northern corner of Hersheypark. I don’t know if it’s due to this remote location, but the ride remains a walk-on during the whole day. Knowing that queues for most rides are quite lengthy today, it feels kind of bizarre to enter Lightning Racer’s nearly deserted station. Of course, this quietness doesn’t bother me. Lightning Racer is actually so damn good that I could ride it all day long. I love riding Joris en de Draak at Efteling, but this coaster is even taller, faster and more thrilling than its Dutch brother. It’s a very powerful woodie which keeps an incredible speed during its entire course. And although it’s got that typical woodie roughness, Lightning Racer remains enjoyable throughout the whole ride.
Lightning Racer is without any doubt my favourite Hersheypark attraction. I have a slight preference for the Lightning-train, but the Thunder-side provides great coaster fun as well. Even the staff members add to the experience, because they work incredibly fast. Most parks would reduce capacity if the loading platform was empty, but Hersheypark clearly doesn’t think that way. Lighting Racer’s crew members keep dispatching trains at a high speed and they don’t bother about all those empty seats. What a huge difference with the capacity issues we encountered at Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens Williamsburg…
My heart skips a beat when I look at my personal coaster-count page. My count is at 499 right now and I’m getting very close to a little celebration. However, Hersheypark keeps the suspense. Cocoa Cruiser and Sidewinder are still closed and staff were working on Sooperdooperlooper this morning. Luckily, Murphy doesn’t always have to spoil the fun: during the afternoon, we notice that this classic Schwarzkopf looper is finally open. We show our Fast Track tickets one last time and we get immediate access to the antique coaster train. Despite its strange name and its age (Sooperdooperlooper has been here for 40 years), this coaster turns out to be pretty amazing. The lay-out takes advantage of the hilly scenery and it’s smoother than many modern rollercoasters. That’s why I’m actually quite proud about the fact that Sooperdooperlooper was my 500th coaster credit. Yay!
I already told you that Hersheypark’s operation hours are quite short during ‘Springtime in the Park’. We manage to make a second ride on Comet, Lightning Racer and Skyrush, but that’s it for today. It’s sad that the park isn’t opened until later on this hot Easter Sunday, but on the other hand: we got to ride every top attraction without rushing. And believe me… I’m talking about lots of top attractions. Hersheypark is a huge park with many flat rides and a big selection of great rollercoasters. I really enjoyed this day at the Sweetest Place on Earth and it was the most surprising amusement park of our entire trip. Hersheypark feels very different if you compare it to most American coaster parks: the atmosphere is relaxed, operations are awesome and most staff members seem to enjoy working here. The F&B department deserves to be praised as well. The park offers dozens of stalls with many different specialties. For example: my lunch consisted of a tasty and healthy salad, while I discovered the sugary delight called funnel cake during the afternoon. This is a typical American amusement park snack which contains enough calories for a whole month, but wow… it’s so delicious.
I’m quite sad when we leave Hersheypark because this was the last theme park we visited during our East Coast trip. Although we are still planning a day at Washington DC and an afternoon at the stunningly beautiful Great Falls National Park, the end of our journey suddenly comes very close. Luckily, I couldn’t have imagined a better place to conclude our trip. Hersheypark exceeded all expectations and I discovered a few world-class rollercoasters. I would actually like to take one of the park’s managers back to Belgium. That person could show our Belgian managers how they should run a theme park. In return, we could show that guy how to create a tasty bar of chocolate. That’s what they call a win-win situation, right?