Greetings, fly guys and fly girls! If you ever considered going on a hot air balloon ride, but don’t know what you’re getting into, then you’ve come to the right spot. Last summer, my daughter and I took flight in a hot air balloon, compliments of my friends at the US Hot Air Balloon Team. Boy, let me tell me you, the experience was something else! And as a certified balloonatic (OK, not really), I figure that gives me enough credibility (this is probably wrong, too) to debunk myths and spit hot truths about hot air balloon rides.
YOU CAN’T GO ON A HOT AIR BALLOON RIDE ANYTIME OF THE DAY
Ever notice that you’ve never looked up in sky during lunchtime in the summer, and seen a hot air balloon floating by? Me neither, but there is a reason for that. A hot air balloon ride is very susceptible to weather, and can only fly in the most stable of conditions. For scientific and technical reasons beyond my pay grade, this happens to be before dawn or occasionally at dusk.
For J and I, this meant taking a 45 minute long Uber ride at 4:30AM from our hotel to the heart of Amish country in Pennsylvania, Bird In Hand. We had to arrive by 5:30AM, at the US Hot Air Balloon Team’s headquarters. If you’ve ever wanted to wake roosters up, instead of vice versa, I highly recommend taking early morning hot air balloon rides. Also, to give you an idea of the high volatility/subjectivity of ballooning, ours was a shared flight, with two long-time friends, and an older couple. This was the older couple’s sixth attempt at trying to take a hot air balloon ride, as every other time that they tried, it ended up being cancelled because of the weather. Talk about your hardcore balloonatics!
Unlike an airplane, hot air balloons do not need an airport to depart from. After we arrived at the headquarters, we were then transported via white van to the launch point, which was just an open field. The van’s driver and navigator also doubled as set up and take down crew. Most interesting, though, is that the van was a chase vehicle. While in the air, the van followed the balloon around, until it landed. Watching this lonely white vehicle on the empty roads from high in the sky, kind of made me feel like a journalist in a chopper following OJ Simpson’s Bronco. Kind of.
up, up, and…..in?
At the launch point, the crew setup the hot air balloon, which was much larger in person (like, small building-sized) and inflate it. I then realized that the basket, which was also larger in person (the size of a small car, and about chest level high) didn’t have a door. So how the heck do you get in it, you ask?
The answer is….not delicately.
The older couple weren’t especially agile, for lack of a better term, especially the wife. They thought that the basket would be on its side, and that they would get in, sit on the bottom, and wait for the inflated balloon to pull it upright.
This wasn’t the case, though.
The crew are there to assist, but for the most part, you’re on your own, to enter the basket. In the couple’s case, the crew gently helped lift the wife up, and over, the edge of it. In the husband’s case, he climbed in on his own, with some struggle. When it came to J’s case, I gave her a boost and dropped her in, since the basket was too high for her to climb on her own. In my case, I tried to clear the edge by leaping over it, like how this guy jumped over the wrestling ropes. Spoiler alert: my leap was U-G-L-Y, and I ain’t got no alibi:
THE SOUND OF SILENCE
Once you’re in, there is nowhere to go but up. For real, when in flight, the experience of hot air balloon rides is as breathtaking as you probably imagine it to be. Our US Hot Air Balloon ride was over miles of farmland in Amish country. Picturesque views of the Pennsylvania landscape stretched as far as the eye could see. The world seems so different when you’re gliding through the sky, thousands of feet in the air. Surprisingly, it was very quiet. Besides the chit chat of those on board, the only sound was the hissing of the burners. At one point, we could hear dogs barking below!
BE PREPARED FOR A CRASH LANDING
Unlike planes, hot air balloons don’t just land on a runway. In our case, the pilots pointed out a spot in an open field that looked land-able, called down to the chase vehicle to see if it was OK or not, and after receiving affirmation, started the descent. They actually missed the spot, then had to re-ascend, and get the chase vehicle to confirm another location.
Unlike planes, hot air balloons don’t have wheels, to roll into a gentle landing. They literally just crash into the ground. Now depending on how skilled your pilot is, the crash landing varies in gentleness. In our case, it knocked me off of my feet (word to Stevie Wonder!), because I didn’t have time to brace myself, and J went tumbling into the side of the basket.
This was considered a good landing.
So….crash, and dash?
Once on the ground, you don’t just leave the balloon, and take off in the chase vehicle. Everything needs to be packed up, too. One of the dudes in the crew was jacked (re: very muscular), and he had the job of doing most of the heavy lifting (fun fact: a deflated hot air balloon still weighs a lot). I tried to help where I could, as well, though. We happened to be in an Amish family’s farm, so they all came out, too see what all the commotion was. I’m sure the scene was quite the culture shock to them! Once the van was loaded up, we headed back to the headquarters, where we celebrated our save travels with the traditional balloonist champagne toast. J had orange juice, by the way, so stop wagging your fingers, people.
ARE HOT AIR BALLOONS RIDES SAFE?
Aww, the proverbial elephant in the room, err, post. Are hot air balloons safe?
The answer is….I think so? I mean, it is a pretty outdated mode of transportation. When you’re planning a trip on Google Maps, a balloon is never an option for the fastest way there. It’s all for pleasure and enjoyment now, based on skills and techniques developed over centuries of balloon aviation.
Whereas, for example, people a long time ago stopped riding those bikes with the giant wheels, because of how dangerous they were, ballooning remains a popular past time today. If they weren’t suitable, they wouldn’t still be a “thing”, right? The accident rates online seem to support hot air balloons as being fairly safe, too.
J couldn’t peak over the edge unless I lifted her up, so there was no concern of the basket rocking, if that’s what you’re thinking (or at least that’s what I was thinking, after watching that episode of Family Matters recently, where Steve Urkel and Carl go up in a hot air balloon, and that’s what happens to Carl). The basket’s floor was sturdy, too. So, to me, as someone who is pretty cautious, somewhat afraid of heights, and flying with a child, I didn’t feel like we were in any real danger….except during the landing, as mentioned.
All in all, hot air balloon rides, while not for everyone, are a really cool experience. I’d recommend them anyone looking to book a flight with their kids, if they’re up for it.
Until the next one, you balloonatics, peace!
Disclaimer: we received a complimentary flight from US Hot Air Balloon Team while on a press trip in Hershey, PA. All opinions expressed are mine, as always.
Even though Detroit has a rich music history, there’s a case to be made that the city’s theme song should be “Bad Reputation” by Joan Jett. Indeed, to outsiders like me, Detroit has a perception for being dangerous, unsafe and having a struggling economy. So, with that in mind, I figured a perfect road trip for my family would be to spend 24 hours in Detroit!
Reading that out loud makes it sound like a terrible idea. Anyway, there are actually plenty of things to do in Detroit with kids, that are safe and fun. During our brief time there, we scratched the surface of Motown’s sights and sounds like a DJ playing a vinyl record on a turntable. While that probably doesn’t make me qualified to give you and your family a guide of things to do if you’re spending 24 hours in Detroit, it’s too late now. To quote Marvin Gaye, let’s get it on!
WHAT BECOMES OF THE BROKENHEARTED LIONS FAN?
Detroit is a serious sports town, with professional teams represented across all four of the North American Big Four leagues. For the family of sports fans, you could base a short road trip to Detroit around attending a Tigers, Lions, Pistons or Red Wings game. This is actually what we did, as we were fortunate enough to check out an NFL game for free, courtesy of my friends at the Detroit Lions!
Now, almost every sporting event that we have been to over the last 10 years has been with a kid who was still in diapers, thus requiring us to bring a diaper bag. To our chagrin, the NFL ain’t about that. They have a strict clear bag policy and diaper bags are prohibited. Attempts to find an approved bag beforehand, last minute, were futile, so we Macgyvered a solution:
Our diaper bag for the day.
I tried to get clever with it, once we got inside the stadium. I stopped by a merchandise stand, and asked if they could give me a plastic bag. They, not surprisingly, said no, unless I bought something. I promptly purchased an official Detroit Lions clear bag, which I will probably never use again, but made for a nice souvenir.
Of the five people in my family, only B and I would consider ourselves true football fans. As such, the off-field stuff would need to be as on point as the on-field product, to entertain my clan. While we didn’t partake in any tailgating, we did arrive at Ford Field early, to check out the pre-game festivities. To the Lions’ credit, they did a pretty good job of getting even neutral bystanders like us to buy into the #onepride spirit. Games were set up, with chances to win Lions swag. A drumline roamed the stadium, playing some hyped-up jams. A live band rocked out near one of the gates, which had people dancing in the streets.
Coincidentally, Martha Reeves, who sang “Dancing In The Streets” with the Vandellas, was even in attendance.
Ford Field doesn’t wow you with anything, but everything about the stadium is OK, if that makes sense. As we wandered around Ford Field, I noticed that the concourses were very wide and spacious. I didn’t worry much about losing my kids in a crowd, as they were always within site. Guest services was helpful in this regard too, as they provided us wristbands which K and I wrote our contact information and the kids’ names on, for them to wear. Food and drink options were plentiful. The washrooms weren’t disgusting. Our complimentary seats were in the 100 level. Great sight lines, and comfortable enough.
I’ve been to football games before where drunk and belligerent fools made the experience less than family-friendly. Luckily, this wasn’t the case at our Lions game. The crowd was very lively and rawkus, but I didn’t see anyone being too out of control. Well, besides little KJ, I mean. He developed cranky toddleritis, so we had to leave before the game ended. This was for the good, as the Lions ended up losing in last-second, heartbreaking fashion. Beyond that, it was a solid afternoon of pigskin action, and I wouldn’t find checking out a Lions game again, in the future!
knocks me off my feet (to sleep)
Now, a good chunk of our 24 hours in Detroit was obviously dedicated to the Lions game. However, we still needed a place to rest our heads. If sports are the purpose of your trip, like ours, Ford Field, Comerica Park (where the Detroit Tigers play) and Little Caesars Arena (home of the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Pistons) are located downtown. As such, it makes sense to try to stay downtown.
When looking into hotels, I found ones located in downtown Detroit to be a bit on the pricier side. For the most part, parking was an extra cost, too. The rates were not insignificant at that ($30 and up), especially if in and out privileges weren’t included. If you just plan on taking public transportation/taxis/Ubers around, this isn’t a big deal, of course. For us, it was potentially a costly issue.
We ended up staying at a Holiday Inn Express in Allen Park, Michigan, which is a 15 minute drive in the southwest direction from downtown Detroit. The room was about half the price of similarly rated rooms near Ford Field, plus free parking. This seemed to be typical of most hotels located outside of downtown, either in surrounding neighbourhoods or bordering cities. Speaking of that….
WHAT’S GOIN’ ON (in detroit)?
Look, man, there’s no way to sugarcoat it. Detroit is known for being a violent, unsafe city. When looking up hotels, I did do location research, too, to see what the crime vibe was like. I’m not trying to perpetuate any stereotypes. I’m just saying, in my case, a van with Canadian license plates, not in Canada, just screams tourist. This can be a petty criminal’s dream in any city with unreputable areas. It’s a good idea to be cognisant of these areas.
stop! in the name of the love of sightseeing!
When driving through, and walking around, downtown Detroit, the efforts to revitalize this neighbourhood were noticeable. Contemporary looking buildings are numerous, and beautiful artwork dots the streets. While the weather was too rainy for them on our visit, the Detroit Riverfront and Campus Meritus Park looked like fun places to take the family for some outdoor quality time. There were many theatres and concert venues downtown, too, which I guess is to be expected from a city with a rich music history like Motown.
Once you start to venture outside of downtown, things in the city start to look more….gritty, for lack of a better term. Some of the more popular tourist spots are sprinkled all over the town, which allows you to see the grittiness up close. If you only have 24 hours in Detroit, hitting up at least one of the tourist attractions really is a must, though.
For example, music lovers will appreciate a trip to Hitsville, USA, to check out the Motown Museum. For hardcore and casual art enthusiasts, the Detroit Institute Of the Arts and its huge collection is what’s up. In our case, my friends at Visit Detroit hooked us up with complimentary tickets to The Henry Ford, so we had the pleasure of checking that place out.
The Henry Ford is the brainchild of, you guessed it, Henry Ford. It’s located in Dearborn, Michigan and is a huge indoor/outdoor museum complex, with the overriding theme of it being a tribute to Americana. The campus is home to the Henry Ford Museum Of Innovation, Greenfield Village, the Ford Rouge Factory and a giant 4K screen. We focused our attention on the artifacts, exhibits and memorabilia of the Henry Ford Museum. There were lots of hands on activities, and things to climb on/in, which was great, in term of keeping B, J and KJ engaged. The amount of cool, eye-opening stuff to be seen was impressive.
The Kennedy Presidential Limousine.
Paper Planes weren’t M.IA. in this exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum.
I do wish that we explored Greenfield Village (which features, among many highlights, one of Thomas Edison’s lab), but weather and timing did not permit this. Regardless, The Henry Ford was awesome. Just be sure to budget a fair chunk of your 24 hours in Detroit there accordingly, if you go.
One other comment. On the way back to Canada, my kids really got a kick out of the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel. The whole ‘being underwater to cross the border’ aspect was pretty neat (though not recommended for any claustrophobes).
TAKEOUT, OR SIGN, SEALED, DELIVERED?
If you’re like me, your knowledge of Detroit cuisine consists of Little Caesars Pizza and Eminen’s mom’s spaghetti. You probably aren’t like me, however. Anyhoo, Detroit’s food scene is quite dynamic. On the one hand, the rejuvenated downtown core is littered with trendy, hip restaurants. On the other hand, Motor City is still a blue collar town, and the dining options tend to reflect this.
One thing that my family and I were confused about was why there were so many Coney Island restaurants, as we had never heard of them before. Turns out that these are a Detroit staple, and the Coney dog is one of the city’s signature foods. Detroiters love these pseudo-gourmet hot dogs the same way that my fellow Hamiltonians love Tim Horton’s coffee, apparently. Alas, I was not able to convince my family to indulge in one of these Detroit delicacies, as tasty as the sounded.
you heard it through the grapevine
Note: this is not a grapevine.
When it comes to visiting Motown, the city isn’t nearly as bad as its reputation. Not once did I feel like myself or my family where in any imminent danger during our 24 hours in Detroit. Just take the usual precautions that you would, when going to any major city, and you should be alright. I got the impression that it is slowly improving, one neighbourhood at a time. It’s truly a proud, unique place, and while living there may be a different story, I enjoyed our brief time in town.
Believe it or not, I’m Canadian…but I hate the winter. Some people love dealing with that cold, numbing feeling of the wind chill hitting your face. I’m not one of them. Escaping potential frostbite to go somewhere warm and sunny isn’t really in the cards, either. Luckily, however, there are places not far from me (or anyone else in the Greater Toronto Area) to temporarily get away for some summer-like fun. Places like Splash Lagoon in Erie, PA!
What is Splash Lagoon in erie pa?
Splash Lagoon is an indoor, Polynesian-themed waterpark, located in Erie, PA. At 80,000 square feet, it’s one of the biggest indoor waterparks in the USA. It’s full of aquatic activities (and more) for people of all ages, set to a tropical theme/design.
Erie, Pennsylvania is located about two hours southwest from the Niagara Falls border (or the comparable indoor waterpark to Splash Lagoon in Niagara, Great Wolf Lodge). This worked out to a three hour drive for us. When travelling with three small kids, this is about as good as it gets, time-wise, for a road trip. It’s almost doable in one drive, without having to stop for bathroom breaks. Also, you can schedule it so that you can hit the road after a meal at home, negating the need to stop for food along the way. Just throw on The Irishman for them to watch, and by the time that it’s almost over, you’ll be there (note: that was joke. I do not advise showing The Irishman to little children).
staying there – SPLASH LAGOON ERIE PA
I mentioned Great Wolf Lodge earlier, because that is more of the go-to waterpark destination, for families in my region. My family has stayed at Great Wolf Lodge several times before. I will say that Splash Lagoon is different, but in a good way.
The experience at Great Wolf Lodge is pretty immersive. Everything at the resort, from the hotel rooms on-site, to the waterpark, to the decor, to the games and restaurants, all have the same kind of nature-y, rustic theme. The thing is, though, that you really pay for the immersiveness, as an overnight visit can be quite pricey. You also can’t easily obtain day passes only, to visit the park. If you want to get your swim on, you gotta get your sleep on there, too.
Splash Lagoon, on the other hand, is its own standalone place. However, it has three hotels connected to it: Holiday Inn Express, Comfort Inn and Hawthorn Inn & Suites. These have stay and play package deals which include passes to Splash Lagoon. The good thing about these, of course, is that you can stroll from your hotel room to Splash Lagoon in just your Speedo, without having to set foot outside in the frosty winter elements (note: that was a joke. I do not condone unwanted Speedo strolls. Think of the kids, people). If these don’t float your boat, a few of the nearby hotels also offer overnight package deals, and include a shuttle service Splash Lagoon, too. Then, if none of these are appealing for whatever reason, you are able to just buy day passes to Splash Lagoon, and stay somewhere else .
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Erie PA, which is the closest hotel, proximity-wise, to Splash Lagoon. Our stay was complimentary, but the rates online for a stay package were more affordably priced than Great Wolf Lodge. Our room was suitably clean and tidy. Breakfast was included, too. With a family of five, anytime that you have one less meal to worry about is always nice.
One more thing. The Peace Bridge Duty Free store, near the Canadian border, also promotes Splash Lagoon overnight deals, that seemed to be very reasonable, so keep an eye out there, too, when booking a stay.
playing there (water)
Alright, now let’s get to the wet and wild stuff! Over two days, my family experienced almost every attraction. Instead of a typical Splash Lagoon review, though, I’ll break them down for you, by age appeal and appropriateness. And yes, Splash Lagoon does have life jackets on-site, don’t worry.
For KJ Sized kids (re: babies and little kids)
Monkey Shines Island
This play area is in a shallow pool, with seven small slides scattered around it, which have a 48″ maximum height requirement. KJ could go down these by himself, but I still had to hang out at the bottom, to catch him. Some parents took their kids down them on their laps, as an option. There’s also a tipping bucket in this area, and “showers”, as KJ called them.
Adventure Bay is a big pool with basketball nets and balls, along with lily pads to jump on (which were off limits when we were there). While more suited for all ages, little kids can still have fun here, in life jackets, with parents nearby, I think. B and J both commented that the water was colder in Adventure Bay than other areas of the park. Hoops-loving B could have stayed there the whole time, regardless, challenging random kids to one on one games, like he was at the aquatic version of Rucker Park.
Wild Water Waves Pool
Billed as “the largest indoor wave pool in the Eastern United States”, Wild Water Waves Pool was a hit with my fam. Again, while more suited for all ages, KJ did enjoy bobbing up and down on the waves, some of which got pretty big!
Underwater selfies in a wave pool are hard!
The Frog Pond
The Frog Pond is an area with a whirlpool for the family to relax in, and leapfrog fountains for little kids to splash around on. It’s kind of tucked away in a corner, behind the Tree Tops Ropes Course. Not gonna lie, because we didn’t try the ropes course, I didn’t notice the Frog Pond, so we never went in it. #planningfail
The Lava Pool
This is a small pool, with “lava” for kids to play in. Again, not gonna lie, I assumed that it was a hot tub, and didn’t stop to go in. J checked it out, though, with K, and reported back, in her words “the water was not deep, and it was hot, and there were benches nearby, and it was relaxing.”
For B and J SIZED kids (re: big kids)
Tiki Tree House
This is located in the middle of Splash Lagoon, and is a featured attraction. It’s four stories high, with activities like water cannons, and a giant tipping bucket. I’m not sure why, but the Tiki Tree House didn’t seem as functional as it probably normally is, during our stay. If fully operational, it appears to be a blast, but I can’t vouch for it, based on our experience.
The Lazy River
This is just as it sounds. Grab a tube, alone or with your kid, and lazily float around the river. It’s a decent size, so you can do a few laps without taking up too much time. Minimal congestion, too, which is sometimes an issue with these things.
WARNING: if you have a mischievous daughter like mine, she will probably steer you towards the waterfall, where you will get splashed worse than a basketball net after a Steph Curry versus Klay Thompson three point contest. I suggest singing the chorus to TLC’s ‘Wateralls’ to alleviate any potential soaking (note: that was a joke. You should obviously sing TLC’s Creep, instead).
Thumbs up to TLC song references outta nowhere!
This is a big, curvy water slide that actually goes outside for part of it. It’s for single or double riders with a tube, with a minimum 36″ height requirement. Children 36″-42″ tall, like J, had to slide with an adult, though.
Python Plunge is similar in thrillness to the Big Kahuna. It has the same restrictions and tube requirement, too (though this one is a lot of fun with two riders).
This is a single person body slide, minimum 36″ height requirement. It feels like you’re going pretty fast, and it’s another slide that takes you outside for part of it. The lineup for this water slide was a bit confusing. It’s located beside the Big Kahuna, and I noticed a lot of people standing in the line for that because they didn’t realize that the line for Shark Attack was separate. In B and I’s case, we made that mistake initially before noticing, once we got to the top, that there weren’t actually any people in line for Shark Attack, so we went right on.
This was J’s personal favorite. From the top of the Tiki Tree House, the whole water slide is in complete darkness. Single riders only, no tube, minimum height requirement of 36″.
Maui Wowie is a bit of a quickie single rider slide, no tube. It shoots you down and around the sharp, sudden turns pretty fast. 36″ height requirement.
B’s fav because, in part, of the toilet bowl effect of going round and round before being flushed out into a pool below. For single or double riders with a tube, with a minimum 36″ height requirement. Children 36″-42″ tall gotta ride with a grownup.
This is like the Cyclone, if the Cyclone was on Red Bull energy drinks. A bit more extreme, as it’s for tubeless single riders, which means you go faster, and end up in a deep pool. For people 48″ and up, who are strong enough swimmers to swim out of the deep pool at the end.
for DA GROWNUPS
There’s a bar upstairs called Island Oasis Bar.
Stay thirsty, my friends.
extra playing there at splash lagoon
All of the above attractions are included in your day pass admission. If you want to spend a few more bucks, Splash Lagoon in Erie PA has some other fun ways to take your money. The aforementioned Tree Tops Ropes Course, for example, costs $7 per person. It’s three stories high, of various climbing challenges, for kids and adults (36″ and taller). $7 will also get you a spin on the Aqua Tumbler, a giant inflatable ball that loops you around and shoots water at you while you’re in it.
Upstairs from the park is an arcade. It has a decent selection of games, with the usual selection of prizes to be won when winning tokens at said games. One unique feature, though, was the Hologate Virtual Reality game, which cost $8/person, and looked pretty interesting.
If you’re like my family, you can expect to spend $20 at the arcade, for the joy of watching your kids win about $1 worth of tokens, which they will then argue about because they want to each cash it in for a different toy. B played one of those claw pickup games, and somehow ended up winning so much candy that even Milton Hershey would have been like “dang, homey”.
Spoiler: We did not win 100 tickets on this spin.
During our trip, The FlowRider, a wave simulation ride similar to ones seen at other theme parks, was not operational.
Outside food is a no go at Splash Lagoon. However, there is a restaurant on site called Laguna Grill. It serves the expected theme park foods like burgers, pizza and chicken fingers. One kind of odd thing was the ice cream stand. It’s nearby to the Laguna Grill, but to order a cone, you have to place the order at Laguna Grill, and then go to the stand to get your order. However, there was never anyone working at the stand, so you had to wait for someone who wasn’t busy at the grill to come over to scoop your order. K and the kids actually waited a half hour for an order that we placed (it was really good ice cream, admittedly, and almost worth the wait).
Hooch and Blotto’s Sports Bar& Grill is also connected to Splash Lagoon, and it’s a great place to go for a change of pace of the waterpark. While we didn’t partake in any food, the menu was pretty tasty looking. There was nice selection of craft beers featured, which I may have had one or two of. We did hit hit up the lanes there one night, to play some bowling. No shoe rentals required, and small balls with bumpers in the lanes available, so it was very kid-friendly. At the end, though, you might leave the prohibition-themed restaurant with the same thing on your mind as B did: what’s with all the moustaches?
Beyond these options, there are several restaurants a couple of minute’s drive away. Because, as I have noted before on here, we are kind of suckers for chains that aren’t near us, we went to Applebee’s one evening. It was delicious. Come to Hamilton, Ontario, Applebee’s. Sheesh.
Who goes to Applebee’s with their family and takes a picture of his oversized drink? This guy.
this, that and there
Some closing points about Splash Lagoon in Erie PA. Staying at the Holiday Inn Express did allow us to walk back and forth to the waterpark and our room swim-ready. However, I did duck my head into the change room on hand, and it looked really clean. The closeness also meant that we could just leave our stuff in the room. Otherwise, a locker might have been needed, which are available on the premise, for various prices. As an option, there was lots of tables and seating around, which people would claim by leaving their stuff on.
Towels, unfortunately, are not available, unless you want to buy them at the Surf Shop store upstairs, so you gotta bring your own.
Parking is free.
In terms of staff, everyone that I encountered was friendly, and helpful. There were plenty of lifeguards on hand, too, at every attraction.
getting out AND ABOUT there in erie pa
I mentioned above about doing other stuff as a change of pace to Splash Lagoon. In terms of things to do in Erie,PA, it is a nice little city, with some cool options to keep you and your family busy, if you want to take a break from the water.
I loves me a good children’s museum (yes, even more so than my kids sometimes), so I, uh I mean we, really liked The expERIEnce Children’s Museum. Located about 10 minutes away from Splash Lagoon, it’s three stories high, along with an outside play space. Each floor focused on a different play-inspiring theme: creativity, explore, and imagination. I do think that it’s a bit more suited for smaller kids. B’s ten years old, and was more into goofing around with his brother and sister than most of the exhibits. However, J and KJ both had lots of fun, especially on the imagination floor being doctors, grocery store clerks, and firefighters. The expERIEnce Children’s Musuem is definitely a nice place for kids to safely run around and blow off some steam, while learning a thing or two, in the process.
Surprisingly, this wasn’t taken at Splash Lagoon.
If you want to blow off some steam, in the offline retail variety, Erie is also home to the MIllcreek Mall. It’s one of the largest mall complexes in the USA. Even with the Canadian dollar being where it’s at, there were some good deals to be had there. Also, there’s no sales tax on clothes in Pennsylvania, to boot.
For the sports fan, Erie, Pennsylvania is also home to teams like the NBA G League’s Erie Bayhawks and the OHL’s Erie Otters. Neither were in town during our stay, unfortunately.
While we didn’t do a heck of lot of sightseeing and exploring in Erie, PA, what we did see and do was very worthwhile. Splash Lagoon, in particular, was the obvious highlight. When it comes to affordable road trip destinations where you can pretend to get away to somewhere tropical for a day or two, put Splash Lagoon at the top of your list.
Until the next one, peace!
Disclosure: though our accommodations and experiences during our stay were covered by Visit Erie, all opinions expressed are my own, as always.
They say that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Now, I haven’t planned anything with a mouse lately (or ever), but I have with my family, and, to paraphrase Lizzo:
why plans great til they gotta be great?
For example, we recently got to spend 24 hours in Chicago. Having never been to The Windy City before, I had a rough itinerary in mind for us, to maximize our time. I then envisioned coming back and telling y’all about our adventures. Luxurious shopping sprees along the Magnificent Mile. Family photos in front of iconic Chicago landmarks like the Bean and the Michael Jordan statue. Self indulgent visits to the locations of my favorite rapper’s childhood home (Kanye West) and the house where my favorite TV show is filmed in (Shameless). Scenes recreated throughout Chi-Town with the kids from my favorite 80s movie (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Potentially, it would be an epic Chicago day tour.
Believe it or not, our 24 hours in Chicago did not go as I thought that it would. At all. Here’s how it went down, to the best of my recollection:
9:00AM – Stopped by the Milwaukee Public Market to grab some breakfast, as part of the final stop on our Milwaukee trip. Planned to then make the almost two hour drive to Chicago afterwards. Arrived at the market, and realized that most of the vendors did not open up shop until 10:00AM. Sat outside the market in our van until then.
10:00AM – Stopped by the Milwaukee Public Market to grab some breakfast as part of the final stop on our Milwaukee trip. It had started to rain heavily while we were waiting outside. We got our food to go, and then headed to Chicago in some occasionally torrential downpours, surrounded by dangerously driving transport trucks. It’s a white knuckle drive.
11:00AM – Realized that the forecast in Chicago calls for rain all day. Realized that we’ll have to call an audible on most of the potential destinations on my agenda. Touring around in the rain with three small, soggy kids is a recipe for a sucktacular trip.
11:50AM – Arrived at our first destination, Water Tower Place, to go the American Girl Store, a giant doll store that J had been excited about visiting for months. Upon arrival, discovered that affordable parking in downtown Chicago is harder to find than Steve Bartman’s whereabouts. Some of the parking signage is harder to decipher than the Bulls’ old triangle offense. Proceeded to drive around aimlessly, looking for a reasonable, understandable parking spot.
12:20PM – Finally find a meter parking spot about two blocks away from Water Tower Place. Walked to the American Girl Store.
12:20AM – Kidding. It only felt like I spent 12 hours at the American Girl Store. We were actually there for an hour, with J loving every minute. If you’ve ever wanted to take your doll to a hair salon, or get your kid the same outfit as their doll, then this is the place for you, by the way.
1:20PM – The rain kiboshed the shopping spree along the Magnificent Mile. Well, the rain, and the price tags at some of the high end shops. Instead, we walked through Water Tower Place and went to Macy’s. It had eight floors in it, and clearance sections galore, perfect for Canadians like us looking to ball out on a budget. Unfortunately, it’s also perfect for toddlers like KJ to run around the store like Walter Payton, and to play hide and seek by himself in the clothing racks.
KJ still made time to pose with J in front of this giant Lego statue, though.
2:10PM – Back to the car, to make our way to an actual iconic Chicago landmark – the Skydeck at Willis Tower (courtesy of tickets from my good friends at the Skydeck. Thanks again, guys!). It’s about a 12 minute drive, to get there from where we were.
2:50PM – Finally find a parking spot after some difficulties, same reasons as before. We are basically closer to Water Tower Place than Willis Tower. We are at a confusingly worded meter, as well. From it, I conclude that we have until 4:00pm to park there, before Oprah Winfrey would come to take our car away, and give it to a member of a studio audience. My conclusion is most likely not even close to being correct. Regardless, we gotta book it to, and through, the Skydeck.
3:00-3:40PM – the Skydeck was not busy, so we were in, up (a 90 second elevator ride!) and enjoying the 1300 plus feet lookout in short fashion. It really was amazing up there. Spectacular views of the city. Tried to take some pics for da ‘Gram, none of which end up making the cut. For example, here’s a family shot of us on the Skydeck Ledge glass floor. If I look scared, it’s because I was scared. If our family looks short-handed, it’s because B didn’t want to come on the Ledge, for the picture. If KJ looks like he’s so hungry that he had to eat his shirt, it’s because he probably was.
Tried to get the kids to pose like Ferris, Sloane and Cam did in Ferris Buehller. Realized that they hadn’t seen the movie, and didn’t know what I was talking about. Settled for this shot:
In the spirit of the Toronto Raptors’ championship and “We The North”, here is “He The North”, as in I’m way up in sky, rocking a Raps’ hat:
I’m sorry, peeps, I’m really not very creative.
3:45PM – Time to rush back to the car. At one point, instead of running, KJ dropped and starting doing push ups.
3:54PM – Noticed KJ crossing a bridge, with some of Chicago’s majestic skyscrapers in the background, would make for a cute pic. Say cheese, little man!
Thanks, white van, for the photobomb.
3:59PM – No sign of Oprah, so our car is safe. With rain pouring down, we decided to go to our hotel, The Willows Hotel, located near the Wrigleyville area of the city. On the way, a rain-drenched Wrigley Field field was not in the cards, so I did the next best thing – walked around the stadium and took some mediocre pictures!
The rain is temporary, but the stupid look on my face will last forever.
5:00PM – Arrived at The Willows Hotel. It’s a lovely, smaller, boutique hotel, with an old, old school (think 19th century) feel. B will make repeated comments about how he can’t believe the TVs are so new in such a classic building.
6:00PM – The hotel is in a nice, quiet neighbourhood, so we decided to go for a walk. We end up in a clearance section at a T.J. Maxx, because we are apparently all about discounted stuff from department stores which aren’t in Canada. I have this convo with KJ there:
KJ – I miss you!
Me – You can’t miss me. You’re right beside me.
*KJ runs away, runs back*
KJ – I miss you!
I should also mention that, throughout these 24 hours in Chicago, B had been complaining about a headache. The poor kid kept freaking himself out, and escalating his symptoms via incorrect self-diagnosis. It started off in the morning as the slightest of headaches. Later, it increased to it hurting only when he shook his head violently, as if he was headbanging (note: B had never headbanged before in his life). By the time that we are in T.J. Maxx, he is essentially sulking around the place, thinking that he needs a brain transplant.
6:30PM – K had looked up restaurants in the area, so we start to head out to decent sounding one.
6:32PM – K looked up reviews of said restaurant, and read that the owner was allegedly openly racist. We walk to a different dining establishment (in the rain, of course).
8:00PM – After dinner, we walk to get dessert/breakfast, from Stan’s Donuts.
What? They were really good. That’s all.
8:25PM – Back to the hotel. Yes, I realize that this seems early to call it a night for someone who wanted to maximize their 24 hours in Chicago. However, we were tired. Plus B had ‘inceptioned’ me, by planting seeds of doubt in my head about the crime rate in the city (“Hey dad, are we going to get shot in Chicago?“). Tapping out and enjoying the safety of our comfy hotel seemed like a good call.
6:00AM-7:00AM – Pack up, get some continental breakfast to go with our donuts, and check out of the hotel, so we can make the 8ish hour long drive home.
7:00AM – 7:30AM – We followed the Waze App, to guide us. The route that we take is very scenic, along the outskirts of the city. Between the skyline and architecture, it’s beautiful looking, in the distance.
7:30AM – We get led to the “Chicago Skyway”, which is a toll road. We pay $5 US to use it.
7:38AM – Waze leads us off of the Skyway, and onto another road. Huh? That’s it?! I immediately want my $5 US back.
We continued our way out of Chi-Town, until it was nothing but a recent memory. 24 hours in Chicago, done just like that.
Hopefully, a return trip will be in order, in the future, and hopefully, things will go as planned, too.
But, you know what they say about the best laid plans, right?
Look, I get it. Milwaukee, Wisconsin doesn’t exactly scream family vacation destination. It’s a mid-sized Midwest city known for beer, bratwurst and cheese. How sexy is that? However, I read quite a bit about how internationally-born NBA Superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo loved it there. If the Greek Freak, a man who’s been all over the world, and could basically play anywhere that he wanted, chose freakin’ Milwaukee, then there must be more than meets the eye. For my family, I thought that it would make for, at the very least, an interesting road trip. Turns out, there’s actually lots of fun things to do in Milwaukee with kids, and it’s one of the coolest cities that I’ve been to.
things to do in milwaukee with kids: GETTING THERE
Now, truth be told, it was a long drive, for us. It involved going through one province, and four states, plus a different time zone. Including stops, each way took a good 11 hours. To keep the kids not at each other’s throats entertained, we pretty much brought more DVDs than an old Blockbuster Video store with us, for them to watch in the van, along with other devices and toys. As Milwaukee is situated on the coast of Lake Michigan, our drive consisted of going around the lake, to get there. A ferry called The Lake Express does depart from Muskegon, Michigan, and goes to Milwaukee. We looked into this, and while appealing, because it would have shaved hours off of the driving, it was fairly expensive, so we passed.
FUN THINGS TO DO IN MILWAUKEE with kids
Milwaukee is a big sports town. I couldn’t walk very far without seeing someone decked out in Bucks, Brewers or Green Bay Packers apparel. The aforementioned Giannis, in particular, seems to get a lot of love. While it wasn’t basketball season, we did scope out the not-brand-new-but-still-has-that-new-arena-smell Fiserv Forum, where the Bucks play.
Our visit happened during the summer, so we were able to watch a Brewers game, at Miller Park. The stadium is awesome, and is a great place to catch nine innings.
Beyond that, though, the Brewers do a nice job with the extra stuff. In case you or the little ones get bored, there are a couple of play areas in the park, for them to blow off some steam. One of them even has a mini version of the famous Bernie Brewer slide. On Sundays (when we went), you can play catch in the outfield of the Field of Dreams-esque Helfaer Field, located beside Miller Park, before then game. This is a really popular fun thing to do in Milwaukee with kids. Then after the game, children can unleash their inner Christian Yelich, and run the bases on Miller Park’s field!
When it comes to things to do in the Milwaukee Brewers’ stadium with kids, history features prominently. There’s a Walk of Fame and a Wall of Honor commemorating legendary Brewers figures. For you Bud Selig fans, he’s a main attraction at Miller Park, complete with a statue, retired number, and a section dedicated to him called the Bud Selig Experience.
I’m more of a Hank Aaron fan myself.
Zoos are always a hit with our family, and the Milwaukee County Zoo was no exception. It houses over 3100 (!!) creatures of the land, sea and sky, sprawled across 190 acres. Coming up with a game plan seemed daunting, but once we got going, it wasn’t bad at all. It was easy to navigate and not very strenuous to walk (re: so no complaints about tired legs from B, J or KJ). The Milwaukee County Zoo also has some attractions like a carousel, Sky Safari, rope courses and a zip line on site, too (all for an added cost). In addition, numerous opportunities exist to see some of the animals up close, throughout the zoo.
I will admit to trying to cheat things a bit. We thought that if we took the Safari Train, then we could lap the park and see everything quickly. Word of advice – don’t do this. The train is a leisurely ride around the perimeter of the zoo, so you don’t get many glimpses of most of the crowd pleasing animals.
Hey guys, if you squint, you can kind of see a monkey in the distance!
Another really fun thing to do in Milwaukee with kids is to go to Betty Brinn Children’s Museum. This museum is home to numerous exhibits, some of which are seasonal, but all of which are interactively hands-on with learning elements. KJ and J really enjoyed the Home Town exhibit, because of all the pretend, make believe, role playing aspects to it.
KJ and J, puttin’ in dat work.
B spent a lot of time in the Big League Fun exhibit, putting his baseball abilities and knowledge to the test.
According to this simulation, B hit one home run 618 feet. The longest home run in MLB history, allegedly, was a 575 footer hit by Babe Ruth. Clearly, my nine year old son is better than Babe Ruth.
We barely scratched the surface of the other exhibits on hand (once my kids find stuff that they like, they tend to really like it), which was a shame, as they were all dope. Whereas my kiddos gravitated towards the ones mentioned, yours might like Science CITY more, for example.
Betty Brinn Children’s Museum was such a blast that I didn’t even realize how educational and skill-developing it was. I was too busy acting like a big kid with my kids. It even had an outdoor area, with amazing #views of Milwaukee’s waterfront, for you selfie-loving Instaparents.
Not far from Betty Brinn Children’s Museum is Discovery World. Focused mainly on technology and aquatic stuff, visiting here is another really fun thing to do in Milwaukee with kids. It’s a large, multi-level center, full of stations, labs and experiences, which appeal to the inner scientist and engineer of all ages. Not only that, but it has an aquarium, as well, with a robust collection of interesting underwater animals to check out.
Due to the size and number of activities to do, it was hard to try everything; we were even there for a few hours! Our visit also happened to coincide with a tournament and some other event happening nearby, so finding parking was quite a challenge. Apparently, it can be even worse during bigger events, like Summerfest. However, Discovery World is the only place where my family “touched lightning”, lied on a bed of nails, gawked at a poisonous dart frog, and walked on a replica schooner while humming “I’m On a Boat” by the Lonely Island (Fine. The last one was all me). How cool is that?
Y’all thought I was joking about the bed of nails.
Discovery World is located on Milwaukee’s lakefront. I was surprised at how beautiful this area is. It looked like a great location to hang out, or go for a ride along the shoreline, or, as we noticed on the day that we were there anyway, get married and have the reception on a cruise ship. Unrelated, but who knew that Milwaukee had such nice beaches?!
things to do in milwaukee with kids : dining There
Make no mistake about it, Milwaukee is a beer lover’s dream. It’s not just a city of MGD drinkers, however. Milwaukee’s micro and craft beer scene is thriving. I’m sure this isn’t even remotely true, so don’t hold me to it as fact, but when exploring the town, it feels like there is a brewery on every corner, each with their own unique offerings. Many of the breweries offer tours, too, with samplings. These obviously aren’t necessarily child friendly, though, so we didn’t partake in one while in search of fun things to do in Milwaukee with kids. Regardless, whatever your taste is, you definitely won’t be hard-pressed to find good, satisfying suds anywhere during your travels
Walk Off Tripel beer, by MKE Brewing Co.
A city dubbed “The Beer Capital Of The World” having lots of beer in it is hardly a surprise. Conversely, Milwaukee’s culinary scene was pleasantly surprising. Brats are a Wisconsin staple, and the sheer number of people grilling them up as they tailgated before and after the Brewers game that we went to was impressive. Cheese curds are another staple, and I had no idea that there were so many different ways to make them. Beyond these, the cuisine in the city stretches way beyond traditional Midwest fares. Cool, trendy-looking restaurants to fill your belly are aplenty throughout the city.
For example, we went to Glass + Griddle one evening. It’s a large, open beer hall environment, with a bright, contemporary interior design. Picnic tables are one of the seating options on the premise which, if you’re with a large party, is actually kind of perfect. The bar was huge. As Glass + Griddle is located directly beside MKE Brewing Co., their beers are featured prominently (but not exclusively).
The food offered is more or less what you find at a gastropub. There was no kiddie menu, so, in terms of families, I’d probably recommended it as a place to go to while on the way to, or back from, somewhere, to grab a quick bite. We just picked a bunch of scrumptious apps and chowed down on those…..including, of course, cheese curds!
One of the most fun things to do in Milwauakee with kids is to go eat is SafeHouse. I think that I’d describe it as a spy-themed speakeasy. The secret entrance is located in an alley, and once you find it, you need to know the password to get in (don’t worry, you can still enter, but no spoilers how here). Once inside, the restaurant takes the espionage theme very seriously.
The staff are all “agents”, as well as you. If you want someone to call you Austin Powers with a straight face, then this is your spot. Spy memorabilia and decor fill the walls; the menu is contains spy references, too. You can even partake in a scavenger hunt, where you’re encouraged to walk around and find all of the hidden surprises scattered throughout the building. Stopping by the magic bar is encouraged, because, well, magicians rule, and the one at SafeHouse is really entertaining. The food was alright, but, as one of Milwaukee’s hot spots, SafeHouse is the type of place where you go to soak in the unique experience.
A covert photo-op mission completed.
Another unique, diverse food destination that we checked out was the Milwaukee Public Market. This is an indoor food market located downtown, which houses many local vendors who offer a wide range of freshly-produced products. We went during breakfast, so we didn’t get to divulge in some of the tasty looking lunch/dinner options. However, I’ll vouch for the smoothies from On The Bus, the big cookies from C. Adam’s Bakery, the coffee from Anodyne Coffee Roasting Co. and the breakfast tacos from Margerita Paradise as all being outstanding.
Milwaukee does has lots of more traditional restaurants. Our favorite was Blue’s Egg. From what I’m told, this is a very popular breakfast/brunch joint. Resultingly, the wait time to get in sometimes can be long. However, we experienced no delay, when we went. The food is American-style, with their own twist on things. The portion sizes were generous, and delicious. The stuffed hash browns came highly recommended, and for good reason! Not only that, but the service, no joke, was the best that I’ve ever had at a restaurant. Above and beyond what you’d normally expect. Blue’s Egg exceeded the hype, for sure.
Stuffed hash browns FTW!
BEING THERE, SEEING THERE
During our trip, we stayed at The Hyatt Place Milwaukee Downtown. It’s very contemporary, and our room was bright, clean and comfortable. As a basketball fan, the subtle hoop themes in the lobby is especially cool.
You can tell that downtown is experiencing a resurgence. Many buildings and areas are new, or have undergone changes to be more fresh and hip. The best example of this is Fiserv Forum, which I mentioned earlier. It’s the central point of Deer District, a revitalised neighbourhood that is one of the city’s best sports and entertainment destinations. It also happens to be a short stroll away from our hotel.
Giannis the Greek Freak, larger than life!
Marquette University is also located near downtown. Pockets of neighbourhoods have a youthful buzz about them, if that makes sense. Harley Davidson’s headquarters are in Milwaukee (there is even a Harley Davidson Museum, in town). Coincidentally or not, I did notice all kinds of different folks cruising along on Harleys. Alternatively, it appeared that the electric scooter trend has taken the town by storm. Lots of people were zipping around on them. In terms of things to do in Milwaukee with kids, it is probably safer to walk, when sightseeing.
Travelling around downtown Milwaukee wasn’t too bad, in terms of accessibility. Lots of stuff was withing walking distance, or a short drive (or scooter ride) away. Even getting over to Miller Park can be simplified. Several of the restaurants in the Deer District offered a shuttle bus service to games. If you go and pre-drink, you can take the bus to the game, and it will pick you up afterwards (for the price of a tip to the driver). We took advantage of this service at The Mecca Sports Bar And Grill. The best part is that the driver acted as a de facto tour guide along the way. She gave us the lowdown on some landmarks, as well as the head’s up on which parts of the city to avoid after dark.
THE WRAP UP
Don’t sleep on Milwaukee, my dudes. It’s not just another stereotypical, industrial, Midwestern city. Milwaukee is culturally diverse, artsy, random and eclectic, with a really chill vibe about it. Milwaukee is full of fun things to do with kids, as well. It’s an unexpectedly vibrant place to check out with the family, full of stuff for you and them to enjoy.
Note: We were hosted by Visit Milwaukee for this trip. Many of the destinations discussed were complimentary in nature to us. All opinions expressed are my own, as always.
On our last visit to Hershey and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, we had a nice time checking out a few of the things to do near Hershey PA. Afterwards, we realized that there was a lot more around the Sweetest Place On Earth which we didn’t get to experience. There were so many more things to do near Hershey PA, in fact, that we just had to make the fifteen hour round trip drive (don’t worry, with bickering small kids, it felt like twenty hours. Wait, what?) and go back again this summer!
Now, before we can talk about things to do near Hershey, PA, I need to mention THE attraction to do in Hershey – Hersheypark. I won’t go too deep here (note: you can check out this piece, where I discuss it extensively), but in terms of family fun, you really can’t go wrong with a visit to this park. If you aren’t into amusement parks, though, you can still have a memorable time in the area.
For example, Lake Tobias Wildlife Park is situated about 35 miles outside of Hershey. The park is home to animals, birds and reptiles from all over the world. There are zoo exhibits, a petting zoo, fishing, a reptile /exotics building, and my kids’ favorite, a safari tour!
The tour is pretty wild. It has a Jurassic Park-vibe to it, as we got into a roofless “cruiser”, and then headed off into the yonder. As we drove through the open woodlands, we saw scores (500 approx., according to the website) of animals roaming about freely, some of whom weren’t shy about coming up, or in, to our cruiser!
You can easily spend half a day at Lake Tobias Wildlife Park, without the kids being bored. Concessions are available throughout the park, but you’re allowed to bring your own food, too.
Just don’t give your food away in the petting zoo.
Another fun thing to do near Hershey in the summer is hit up everything that Adventure Sports In Hershey has to offer. Located four miles south of Hershey, this entertainment park features stuff like bumper boats, go-karts, batting cages, an escape room and an arcade. While not ideal for little kids (since they are too small/not age appropriate to go on most of the attractions), it was still a fun way to spend a few hours, with the family. For example, B and J were both too short to ride the go-karts on their own, so they had to roll with an adult. This meant that I had to get behind the wheel, to predictably mediocre results.
It’s not as if little two year old KJ was bored, by the way. He loved pretending to play games in the arcade, and flexed some serious short game skills on Adventure Sports in Hershey’s beautiful mini-golf course!
Get them chips with the dip, young fella!
Adventure Sports in Hershey is also home to a Turkey Hill ice cream parlour. Along those lines, another fun thing to do near Hershey, PA with the family is to learn more about Turkey Hill and their offerings. Located about 20 miles outside of Hershey, The Turkey Hill Experience is not an ice cream and tea factory like we thought, but a way cooler indoor attraction! It’s full of interactive exhibits and stations (re: so lots of opportunity for kids to play and run around) all centred on how Turkey Hill’s ice cream and tea is made. Yes, there are sampling stations around, to try them out.
Not a real sampling station.
As an add-on option, you can also take part in one of their Taste Labs, where you follow the steps that Turkey Hill uses, to create (and eat!) your own ice cream, and in Tea Discovery, where you learn about (and drink!) tea.
I’ll admit to not being familiar with Turkey Hill and their products before (around us, anyway, they aren’t readily seen in stores). This place is basically a big advertisement for them, which is pretty clever, and effective, in terms of brand awareness, and goodwill.
Coincidentally, they have an exhibit where you can make your own big Turkey Hill advertisement.
Now, on our last trip to Hershey/Harrisburg, we went to the lowest of the lows, on our Echo Caverns cave adventure. As such, it would only make sense to experience the highest of the highs this time around, which is what J and I did, when we went on a hot air balloon ride!
The United States Hot Air Balloon Team are a premier ballooning company, with multiple locations. Our ride took place in Lancaster, PA, about 33 miles outside of Hershey, and smack dab in Amish country. Fun fact #1 – hot air balloon rides are VERY weather dependent, and for safety reasons, can only take place either super early in the morning, or early in the evening. Fun fact #2 – we chose the morning flight, and were there so early, that even the roosters next door weren’t awake.
I’ll tell you what, man. When you say to people that you’re going on a hot air balloon ride, they think you’re crazy, or awesome. I’ll own up to being in the former category. Heights aren’t exactly my jam. However, the staff, and pilots at the United States Hot Air Balloon Team are pros, and their calm attitudes made me feel better. Plus, once you’re up there, it’s such a breathtaking, serene experience that you can’t help but soak it all in and appreciate it.
I know some people might question bringing a little child on a hot air balloon ride. The United States Hot Air Balloon Team did assure me that they take children on flights ‘all of the time’. As well, the basket that we were in was almost as tall as J. She had to sit down, and look out of peep holes, to see out, as opposed to trying to look over the edge. Again, I’m slightly acrophobic, and I tend to be more overprotective, when it comes to J. I at no point felt that we were in any imminent danger while we were on our hour long hot air balloon ride, for what it’s worth.
The face of someone who is totally not scared to be 2000+ feet in the sky.
Zip lining, on the other hand, now that was a scary rush!
Roundtop Mountain Resort is a ski hill that is open year round, and offers a summer activities area called Roundtop Mountain Adventures. Located in Lewisberry, near Hershey PA, among the many fun things to do here is zip lining. K, B and yours truly took a whirl down the 700′ long “Dual Zip Lines”. J was too small for these. Luckily, Roundtop Mountain Adventures has “Tree House Zips”. These are 100′ long lines, and more little kid appropriate (ages five and up). I think she went on this six times, so, suffice to say, it was a hit!
We received “Adventure Package” passes for the day. These give you unlimited access to all of the attractions in Roundtop Mountain Adventures. I’d recommend this as the way to go, if you and your family do make the trip. It’s enough to easily fill up most of a day. Besides zip lining, the kids enjoyed the 600′ downhill super water slides .and the OGO balls. I was digging their bumper boats, as it was an opportunity to smash into B and J, and squirt them in the face with water (but I say that as a loving dad)!
If ya don’t know what an OGO ball is, now ya know.
Little KJ is too small for that stuff. He did enjoy the Woods Playground, which is full of things to climb, ride and play on. It’s surprisingly challenging in some parts. I did have to navigate my way high up at one point, to rescue J, when she got lost. Conversely, when I got lost in the nearby Cedar Maze, no one came to rescue me.
We gotta stop entrusting KJ with maps, to find the way.
Speaking of matters which needed to be saved, my sorry attempt at throwing out the best first pitch ever clearly needed a lot of assistance. Regardless, the rest of the Harrisburg Senators minor baseball game that we checked out was cool. FNB Field where they play is uniquely located on an island (City Island). The stadium is also family friendly. For an added price, there’s a speed pitch cage, along with a kids’ zone section, with many inflatables and activities in it.
I’ve mentioned before on here that the closest place to watch professional baseball for us is at the Rogers Centre, the complex where the Toronto Blue Jays play. It’s OK, but it just doesn’t beat the atmosphere and intimate experience of seeing a game in a ‘real’ ballpark. The Harrisburg Senators also do a nice job with in-game entertainment to keep the vibe upbeat, and run numerous promotions during the season.
Besides yours truly throwing out the first pitch, the other headliner (OK, OK, ONLY headliner) for our game was the Human Cannonball. They also had a cheap craft beer special before the first pitch. I was flattered when the server asked to see my ID when I ordered, but then confused me, when she wasn’t sure whether my Canadian driver’s license was acceptable or not (it was, so don’t worry, my fellow Canucks).
it’s hard to talk about Hershey without mentioning the industry upon which the city is built – chocolate! My family of choco-maniacs did have plenty of opportunities to indulge. For instance, we made a return visit to Hershey Chocolate World. We’ve done the Chocolate Making Tour before. Since little KJ is old enough to appreciate it more now, we rode that again. I still can’t believe that it’s free. It’s a neat, well-done ride (with a tasty sample at the end, to boot)!
We hadn’t watched the 4D Chocolate Movie before, and wow, that show was trippy, yo! An animated chocolate bar interacted live with us, between the action. We “helped” solve the mystery of the movie. The bar even used people in the audience’s names, while talking on screen! I have ever experienced digital animation like this before. My easily amused brain is very impressed.
Yes, I realize that this looks like a 90s kid band album cover.
As of this writing, the newest attraction at Hershey Chocolate World is Hershey’s Unwrapped: A Chocolate Tasting Journey. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was a really lively, engaging theatrical performance. My kids were engaged throughout, and followed the chocolate sensory instructions dutifully. They don’t even follow instructions at home dutifully. This attraction also comes with a souvenir kit, as a bonus.
The 4D Chocolate Movie and Hershey’s Unwrapped are both about 30 minutes long. On their own, the pricing is a tad on the high side. I’d suggest bundling them up with one of the packages available, with other attractions. Make an outing out of going to Hershey Chocolate World, as opposed to going specifically for these only.
Don’t forget to check out the store there, too, for all of your hilariously oversized candy needs.
Not far from Hershey Chocolate World is The Hershey Story Museum. This place is a very popular thing to do in or near Hershey PA. The feeling that I got from visiting the city is that it is very proud of its history. The Hershey Story Museum showcases this in the Museum Experience. Her,e you see how Milton Hershey went from a failed entrepreneur to chocolate kingpin and beyond. My kids in particular liked the new, interactive kiosks. They personalised a wooden coin at admissions, and used that at these kiosks to activate a little story about Mr. Hershey. Be sure not to miss the final one, too (no spoilers here).
The highlight of the museum was the Chocolate Lab. This is a hands on workshop where you learn about the chocolate making process. You also get to partake in some pouring and decorating. Our lab consisted of making customized “beach bars”. KJ was too young for this experience. K stayed behind with him, while I rolled up my sleeves with B and J. Don’t worry, we shared the finished results.
I called my beach bar the Tropic Like Its Hot.
Final note. For accommodations, we were hosted at the newest hotel in Hershey, Tru by Hilton Hershey Chocolate Avenue. Located about five minutes away from Hersheypark, it’s very bright, casual, modern, and reasonably priced. TVs and foosball tables liven up the lobby. For the buffet breakfast, there isn’t a designated area. You just grab a seat and hang out. In terms of rooms, this hotel is big on efficiency. There’s lots of storage space (ie. racks), but the rooms are smallish. It isn’t a huge deal, but the rooms are a bit cramped for the five people. For other sized families, I can see this as not being a problem, however. Again, if you’re out enjoying all of the fun things to do near Hershey PA, this hotel is fine.
There you have it. Hopefully, this will help you enjoy the Hershey and Harrisburg PA area as much as we did. Until the next one, peace!
Note: My family was hosted by Visit Hershey and Harrisburg as part of a press trip, which included passes to many of the places mentioned. Opinions expressed are my own, as always.
My good friends at Visit Harrisburg and Hershey generously invited us to explore the area recently, as part of their incentivised Media Days program. If you’re thinking of doing a road trip this summer with your family, making the drive deep into the heart of Pennsylvania is definitely worth considering!
For us, it was about a seven hour ride with stops, because, well, kids. It’s a nice drive, though, as it’s pretty scenic. Since it was kind of on the way to the hotel, and because we wanted to walk around after being in our van for so long, the first place we checked out was the Indian Echo Caverns at Echo Dell.
This is a limestone cave, located in Hummelstown, which also has a playground and petting zoo on site. Upon descending down a long flight of stairs (which feels longer when you ascend them afterwards, especially if carrying a one year kid, like I was), we were given a guided tour into the caverns. The tour took about 45 minutes, and I was amazed at the various formations. It was really cool (no, for real, the temperature inside was 52 degrees), and our guide was entertainingly knowledgeable. He also unintentionally took our best/worst family photo ever:
I asked him how the picture looked, and he said good. I shouldn’t have taken his word for it.
We next made our way over to the hotel, The Central Hotel And Conference Center, in Harrisburg. For our purposes, this is a perfect place to stay, as it is in a central location to any place that we want to visit. Hershey, for example is about 14 miles from Harrisburg, so only about 20 minutes away from the hotel. I also understand that since Hershey is more of a known tourist destination, actually staying at one of the official Hershey lodging options is a bit expensive. If you don’t mind the short drive, I’d recommend staying in Harrisburg instead, and saving a few bucks.
B and J reacting to our welcome package at the hotel.
After dinner, it was time to satisfy our sweet teeth, as we headed over to Chocolatetown USA, to visit Hershey’s Chocolate World. This place had all kinds of delicious, fun things to do, and also a store with the huge selection of Hershey’s goodies. Parking is free for up to three hours, which is plenty of time to enjoy a bunch of the attractions. We all did the Trolley Works tour, where we rode a trolley though Hershey and learned about the history of the city, while also sampling some chocolates. K and the kids then went on the chocolate making tour (note: this is free, plus you get a chocolate sample at the end). I went to unleash my inner Milton Hershey by creating my own candy bar!
Despite being tasty, The Daddy Realness bar will not be hitting store shelves any time soon.
The next day was spent at Hersheypark. For the uninitiated, this place is a Hershey’s themed family park, which has an amusement park, a water park and a zoo in it. Our plan was to hit up the water stuff in the morning, and then do the dry stuff in the afternoon, as we figured (correctly, as it turned out) most people would do the opposite, so the lines wouldn’t be as long. We tried to jam as many rides in as possible, but the place had over 70 of them. We barely made a dent. The selection was great, though, I gotta admit. They ranged from ones that KJ (a Hershey’s miniature, according to the height guide) could go on and enjoy, to ones the thrilliest seeker would like. Fahrenheit in particular, had me looking up at it, shaking my head in disbelief.
Yeah. Heck no.
Another nice aspect of the amusement park was the layout. I’ve been to parks that had a ‘kiddie section’, with the ‘adult’ rides at a separate spot. At Hersheypark, though, everything is mixed. So in theory, the parents could go lineup for a ride, while the kids went on a different one nearby. My kids are too young to do this, admittedly, but it’s a good thought.
One other thing to mention. You should keep an eye out for the various Hershey characters throughout the park. J was lucky enough to be picked to play in the travelling Character Game Show, where she won a prize!
East Coast Waterworks was easily the favorite attraction, among my fam. It’s a kid friendly water play area, with lots of slides, tunnels and toys. We spent at least an hour there. I’ve noticed that I’m more of a chicken nowadays, when it comes to thrill-seeking, so my favorite ride by far was the lazy river. All in all, it was jammed-pack, exhausting day at Hersheypark, and we didn’t even make it over to the zoo!
The following day started with a visit to Hershey Gardens. In addition to the 23 acre botanical part, it also houses a butterfly atrium. Walking through the atrium was quite an experience. I’ve never seen so many butterflies before! There were dozens and dozens of different kinds, from all over the world, freely flying about. I will say that they kept the temperature hot in there, which had me feeling like Nelly in 2002.
Sad attempt at a selfie with a butterfly.
Afterwards, we made our way outside, specifically, to the Children’s Gardens. We followed the pathways while going past various gardens, many of which were interactive in nature. It unfortunately started to rain, so we didn’t check out the rest of the grounds. I’m not exactly a flower enthusiast, but I’ll vouch for the beauty of the Gardens as being something everyone can appreciate.
Afterwards, it was time to go on a boat ride. Since Harrisburg actually lies on the Susquehanna River, we took the bridge to City Island, to take a cruise on The Pride Of The Susquehanna. The Pride is one of only six authentic paddle wheel riverboats in the USA (so paddles only for steering and propulsion). Besides driving like a throwback, the interior is decorated as such, too, giving it an old-timey vibe.
The sightseeing tour that we went on was about 45 minutes long. I’d like to say that we relaxed and enjoyed the views while listening to the recording explaining the history of the river and Harrisburg. But, you know, kids. B and J were more excited about being on a boat than The Lonely Island ever was (note: T-Pain was not on the Pride). They ran around like maniacs, getting excited about the littlest things (“HEY DADDY! LOOK! THERE’S A BATHROOM!). You were also able to buy some snacks on board, if that floats your boat (this fact really floated B and J’s boat).
After docking, it was time to hit up downtown Harrisburg. To be honest, it wasn’t quite what I expected. There were definitely some nice old buildings, like the Pennsylvania State Capitol, and a bunch of cool looking restaurants. Like most major cities, though, I get the feeling that you probably don’t want to be in certain streets when it’s dark. That’s not to say stay away from downtown, obviously; I’m just saying it feels a bit uncomfortable in certain spots during the day, but totally safe for the most part.
One of those safe places is the Whitaker Center. I loves me a good science center, and the Whitaker fit the bill. Three floors of over 200 hundred hand-on, interactive exhibits? Yes please! Kidsplace, in particular, was a favorite of KJ’s.
B and J really liked building cars and paper planes in the Move It! section. K and I had fun trying our hands at making stop-motion animated movies in the Backstage Studio. While my attempts predictably sucked, K apparently is Walt Disney’s grandchild or something, as she made a couple of mini masterpieces. The Whitaker Center also has a cinema with a huge 38’x70′ screen, if you want to catch a flick, as well as an intimate performance theater.
There’s also plenty of cheesy tourist photo opportunities, don’t worry.
Not far from the Whitaker is the State Museum of Pennsylvania, so we headed there next. This museum is very comprehensive, in terms of covering different periods in Pennsylvania history. It was hard to soak in as much as I would have liked (because, you know, kids), but it was still a worthwhile visit.
KJ loved the baby/toddler Curious Connection area. It’s the type of place where I saw a tunnel, so I was like, yo, I wonder where that goes. The next thing I know, I was on my hands and knees crawling through it like I was Andy in The Shawshank Redemption, and I ended up in a playhouse. Just a fun environment to put your little one down in, to let them explore. The rest of us liked the third floor the most, with the various animal and dinosaur exhibits.
Plus, there’s a huge statue of William Penn there.
Our last stop on our trip was my personal favorite. I was hoping to catch a Harrisburg Senators minor league baseball game, but alas, they were out of town. However, we got the next best thing – a private tour of their stadium, FNB Field! The team’s general manager, Randy Whitaker, generously took some time out of his day to show us around. FNB Field is located on City Island. It is unique from the other stadiums, because how many stadiums are even on an island?! Besides this, the coolest part is their Life Sized Bobblehead Hall of Fame. It features numerous Harrisburg Senator legends.
All in all, it was a great trip! Hershey on it’s own was awesome, but besides the Sweetest Place On Earth, our experience in Harrisburg was positive overall, too.