This year for the first time ever, my husband and I ventured out on vacation with our 4 kids – with NO GRANDPARENTS to help. And guess what, it was FUN!!
We decided to start small with a 4 day / 3 night road trip through Central Pennsylvania, focusing on Hershey Park. The kids have been begging to go back to Hershey ever since our parents financed a big family vacation there back in 2016 (Enzo’s favorite shirt is STILL his Sooper Dooper Looper tie dye!).
DAY 1: Harrisburg / Lancaster
We drove out through Harrisburg, attempting to buy Hershey Park tickets through a Giant supermarket, as we’d learned they held the best deals on park tickets. Unfortunately by mid August pickings were slim; since we wanted 2-day passes, we decided the best option was to buy them at the gate. So instead, we bought a TON of groceries for the park. (I refuse to pay park rates for food. Thankfully we still use a stroller and could pack all the sandwiches and snacks in.)
My kids are not the worst road-trippers, and since we make bi-annual trips down south to the beach, we have a pretty solid car routine. So once we arrived in Hershey (actually Annville where we stayed overnight), we dumped our things and headed right back out to Lancaster. It was time to teach our kids about some Amish values.
Since dinner on an Amish farm for a family of 6 was a bit out of our budget, we decided to take one of Aaron and Jessica’s buggy rides… but we upgraded our experience to the hour-long Amish Farm Tour, which was TOTALLY WORTH IT. The kids were enchanted with the chickens and puppies and mules on the farm and they dug into the homemade root beer. It was the perfect break before heading back on the buggy.
Days 2 & 3: Hershey
Hershey Park was a LOT bigger than I remembered, and I was super relieved we’d opted for 2 days there instead of 1. Even with 2 days we barely touched the water park, skipped over half the coasters, and completely missed the ZooAmerica part of the park. And we were there for two days from park open to sunset!
A challenge for us was managing the different heights of our kids. Hershey Park measures kids’ heights using a candy-themed height labeling system. My oldest two were at the Hershey level but my 5 yr old as a Reeses was left out quite a bit. He couldn’t even ride the bumper cars. This coaster-loving kid was not super happy about this distinction! Our almost-2 yr old was very limited in the rides he could ride on, and many of them did not allow for adults to accompany him. Luckily our older kids were very happy to be his partner.
(And for the record, I CANNOT WAIT for my kids to reach the Twizzler level- because the Great Bear ride is pretty much the best coaster I have ever ridden- maybe even better than Cedar Point’s Raptor!)
Some random thoughts on Hershey trip planning…
- Stroller parking and maneuvering is easy at Hershey, so if there’s ANY chance you’ll need a stroller at some point, I would bring it. You can always dump your food and bags on there in the mean time.
- I recommend getting there before the park opens and waiting for the rides to start. We found that even then, there was quite a crowd to enter. We chose to do the free tour ride at Chocolate World (or as my husband calls it, the Hershey propaganda ride) as soon as the park opened and the line was NONEXISTENT. Perfect time to go- definitely don’t wait until the end of the day!
- Hershey has an app that allows you to track ride wait times. I found the map in the app difficult to follow and preferred to use a paper map, but it was nice to have the estimated wait times for rides. HOWEVER there were several times the estimated wait times were WAY off from the actual wait- both too long or too short. I would not rely on this as gospel but just gentle guidance.
- You may find discounts on park tickets by purchasing online- or in the app. In our case, the app discount was only for 1 day passes. Employees mentioned that there are almost never discounts for 2-day passes, although it’s possible.
- Skip the new Reeses Cupfusion ride. Seriously. This ride is like playing a video game while you move (Think Disney’s Toy Story Mania but not 3D), but for us the line was ALMOST THREE HOURS. Though my kids loved it, the insane wait killed any enjoyment I could have had. In line kids were melting down left and right: hanging on parents, falling asleep, begging for food, basically in full blown whine mode. Hershey had employees walking around selling lemonade, but I didn’t have money with me and it was a big fat TEASE for my poor kids. Seriously, three hours, people. That’s pure torture. That said, my daughter did say it was her favorite ride. Maybe keep a close eye on the line? Or if money is no object, buy a fasttrack pass! Luckily the remaining rides had very reasonable wait times.
If you stay at a Hershey resort, you get really great rates on park tickets, early access to the park, and a free shuttle right to the front of Chocolate World. I can’t speak to that experience this year, though, because we stayed off-resort.
This was our first time staying at an Airbnb as a family. I had used the airbnb system while traveling in Morocco and loved the convenient and immersive feel of it so when researching our options, we tossed it into the mix. Ultimately we chose to stay at an airbnb for three reasons: 1. we planned late and hotels were pretty booked up; 2. we wanted enough space to spread out and accommodate poor sleepers; and 3. the KITCHEN. We cooked meals instead of purchasing in the park, which saved us a TON of $$. We stayed in a gentleman’s second home (He lived down the street.) for 3 nights, booked through the airbnb website.
Airbnbs are not for everyone. My husband said that though he loved having all the room to spread out, he felt like he was intruding in someone else’s space. He is also a very private person himself, so this was not surprising. Personally, I LOVED IT. It was fascinating to me, like seeing inside of somebody’s skin. All the knick knacks and photographs and smells. It was like a puzzle. I wanted to know everything about the people who used to live there.
The kids on the other hand didn’t think twice about the space and started running around as kids do. They’re pretty easy to please.
Anyway I will forever remember this home as being the first place baby Jude linked the bathroom to the sensation of pooping. He kept standing next to the potty to do his usual contortions. (Clearly we have a long way to go before training haha)
State College Indian Echo Caverns
We’d planned to drive through Penn State on our way home to drag our kids down memory lane (We are!) while filling them with creamery ice cream, but we decided to call an audible and reroute. At a recommendation from my new friend, my line-mate from the 3 hour Reeses Cupfusion wait, we headed to Indian Echo Caverns. And it was a surprising HIT!
There are a variety of kid-friendly activities at the caverns… farm animals to pet, a pretty big playground area, gem mining, a souvenir shop, and of course the actual cave tour! My kids were fascinated with the formations in the cave and pretended to be explorers. It was my 8-yr old’s favorite part of our stop. My daughter preferred the gem mining, my 5 year old the playground, and my youngest was entranced with the animals. The best part of this stop was the abundance of picnic tables which allowed for us to scarf down all of our remaining perishables from the week. It was a very relaxing end to a busy week.
SOOOO I’m happy to share advice and suggestions to anyone planning a trip to the Hershey area! I’d call our first official family vacation a success, and we will definitely be returning. If you are planning your own trip and would like suggestions, please reach out!
Of course you can enjoy some more pictures from the trip to Lancaster, Hershey Park, and Indian Echo Caverns in the gallery below…
Take me back to Hershey!!
My friend Jenn insisted once that I need to come with her for all her family vacations, just to take pictures. Guess what, people… GAME ON. That sounds like SO. MUCH. FUN! When I lived in southern California in 2004-7, I used to photograph families vacationing there all the time. I live in Pittsburgh now. Not a popular vacation destination, but Pittsburghers travel, too… and you know there are some pretty amazing locations around here to take your family to! I can join you on your camping adventure, up to Cedar Point or Idlewild or Hershey Park or Kennywood or Sandcastle. Or we could head up to Erie or to Penn State or Ohiopyle or Seven Springs or the Poconos or Deep Creek or… you get the picture. (I’m a pretty big fan of the beach, too.)
I’m guessing you’ll find it’s a lot more affordable than you think… contact me and I’ll get you a custom quote.