Four miles from the park, a sprawling cornfield was bordered by a roadside billboard.
“Welcome to Hershey: The Sweetest Place on Earth.”
A smiling chocolate bar greeted us with a wave as if each row of corn that followed was sown in fields of cocoa. The advertisement campaign of my childhood featured a radio jingle using the same lyrics,
“Great day in Hershey, the Sweetest Place on Earth.”
My siblings and I adjusted the next lyric for each trip.
“___th time in Hershey for the summer, yeah!”
For the first ten trips, the syllables fit the lyric easily. Each trip after became increasingly more challenging.
“Se-ven-teenth time in Hershey for the summer, yeah!”
The billboard changed with the seasons. Sometimes it featured the classic chocolate bar character, other times the Hershey Kiss. They wore costumes when October came and scarves and hats for the cold months that followed. Tulips lined the sign when the fields thawed, and summer skies returned soon after.
I grew up in south-central Pennsylvania, just outside of Harrisburg, but more importantly, only a 20-minute drive from Hersheypark. The sprawling amusement park was my family’s vacation destination. Annual beach trips were too expensive for our family of five, but we could afford season passes to the park during the reasonable prices of the 2000’s. A soundtrack of sugar puns floated through my amusement park summers. “This Kiss” by Faith Hill, “I Want Candy” by Bow Wow Wow, “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies. My older brother Nate, sister Veronica, and I measured our growth by which candy-themed height category we reached that season. The Miniatures and Kisses meant only to kiddie rides. The Twizzlers and Jolly Ranchers granted access to the wildest coasters.
Though the park is in “Chocolate Town, USA,” popcorn is the fragrance I remember above all. The Tudor village entrance way was dotted with souvenir tourist grabs wrapped in an exterior of German authenticity. A “Chocolate Haus”, a “Kris Kringle Market.” There was never a need for us to go inside except to escape unexpected rain. The Kettle Corn stand was the only exception. The salty sweet scent was trance-inducing, and we visited it religiously. We’d bring our glow in the dark discount refill bucket every time, a practical way to satisfy sweet tooths.
My parents had our park trips down to a science. Our routine began before we left the house. Nate walked, but they’d pack a stroller to allow Veronica to stand on the back and me to sit strapped in. When I grew from a Kiss to a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, we upgraded to bringing our wagon. Nate, five years older than I, started riding coasters with my dad. Veronica, a year and a half older, soon joined them, as I sat and sipped the water we snuck into the park. We didn’t need to buy lunches every time we went. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches packed into Ziploc, folded into beach towels, and rolled into backpacks sufficed. We had souvenir cups from previous summers to refill with soda at a discounted rate, usually taking turns between Sierra Mist or Brisk Lemon Iced Tea. Once inside, we’d start at the back of the park and work our way forward. The Music Express was the absolute furthest point from the entrance and remained my favorite ride for many years. A bubblegum bite of Las Vegas, it featured a bright pink glimmering canopy with blinking lights and pulsing music. A thrill based on centrifugal force, we’d become the poster children of squealing with glee as we squished into one another. We were comfortable there.
For many years, my dad was a full-time sports broadcaster. When my siblings and I were born, he began working full time for the state and continued his sportscasting part time. His schedule working for the Department of Environmental Protection allowed us to spend days at home then head to Hershey from dinner time until closing. When he was laid off from the state in the recession of 2008, our days at the park grew longer.
There were plenty of ways to enjoy the park for minimal payment. Most days, we only needed to pay for gas to drive. We stayed hydrated by sipping on free cups of ice water. When walking the bridges over the Spring Creek that wanders through the park, we never spent quarters to feed the ducks and geese. We could gather at least a palm full of dried corn by jiggling the handle of the dispenser, picking between the wooden slats of the bridge floor, or reaching our arms through the guard railing and sweeping our hands along concrete extension that caught unsuccessful corn tosses. We never needed to buy the photo snapshots from the rides. We could simply ride again and again, perfecting our poses each time or trying to be more outrageous than the last. The best ride to strike a pose on was the Coal Cracker, a boat ride that snapped your photo on a hill moments before splashing into the water. One time after checking our photo, my parents stopped and looked at it for a moment longer than usual. There was sheer joy and enthusiasm on all our faces, and you could see each of us clearly. A rare, perfect shot. My dad had his arm around me, and it looked like I would’ve flown out of the boat if he hadn’t held me so tightly. They decided to buy that one.
My dad’s sportscasting affords him a hobby of statistics. One summer, he kept track of how often we were at the park, how many of us went each time, and for how long. When September came around and the park closed for the fall, at least one person from our family had been present at the park 24 days that summer. At the time, season passes were 120 dollars per person. With the long days we spent there, the total number of hours we spent at the park collectively was well over 130. Ultimately, he calculated that by purchasing season passes compared with the amount of time we spent there, we only paid 88 cents an hour in total value.
Driving to Hershey was a multi-step process of traditions. We lifted our feet as we drove over the train tracks leading into town to give the Hershey Bears hockey team good luck. We sang our version of the Hersheypark song, calculating the quick math to use the proper number in the lyrics. We counted how many groundhogs we saw each time we passed a specific grassy field after getting off the highway exit. My groundhog record was set one evening where just my dad and I went to the park together. We counted 19, a total I thought for sure Nate and Veronica would never believe. We did stretch the rules slightly, seeing a group of groundhogs in the field opposite our usual counting territory that pushed us from 15 to 19. Once inside the park, we saw one resting on a grassy hill outside the entrance gates. My dad smiled at me and said we’d let it count too.
Spending enough time at the park allowed us to see it for what it is, not spending each trip in the sugared lull of tourism. It felt like home in the practical sense that we knew how best to function there. We knew at what point a line was not worth waiting in. We knew it was best to start our day at the waterpark, then return to the car to drop off our wet towels and eat lunch before going back inside for the regular rides. If it rained so hard that all the rides closed, we could head home instead of crowding under dripping shop awnings with the rest of the patrons. We would just come back another day. We knew as it approached the closing hour each night, as long as you made it through the entrance gate before the train ride whistle blew, they still had to let you ride.
We kept a mental list of approved activities for when we (or most likely, our parents) needed a break: riding seated rides like the Monorail, Ferris wheel, and train, or watching the dance show in the Music Box Theater. The shows lost their entertainment value after the first time or two, but it didn’t matter. It was 30 minutes we could sit in the air conditioning and snack on secret granola bars. As we waited in the station to board each ride, we could recite the pre-ride safety speeches along with the voice-recorded tracks. We knew the top speed boasted by each coaster, we nailed each inflection and using our best character voice to remind the crowds to “enjoy the rest of your day at Hersheypark,” adding the pause after “day” for dramatic effect.
Some rides, we’d claim as our own. For instance, the Sooper Dooper Looper was my coaster. My sister and I pretended it was a spaceship, pressing control panel buttons and switches we imagined in the bolts and bars of the seatback in front of us, yelling commands over the thundering clank of the conveyor belt crawling up the first hill. Built in 1977, it was the first vertical loop rollercoaster on the East Coast. Decades later, it may not be as thrilling compared to the high-rise coasters that tower around it, but I rarely had to wait in line, so I often rode multiple times in a row. On the Carousel, I always rode the same horse. One day, there were not enough jumping horses available for us all to ride one that rises and falls, so I took a standing one instead, a stationary horse from the outermost ring. Its body was a soft gray with a mane and tail of deep charcoal. It donned tack and a saddle in stunning shades of bright orange and red and had flowers tied along its neck. I decided I liked riding the stationary horses better; you could lean outside and truly feel the speed of the spin. Each time after that, I realized the stationary horses were the last ones the riders chose, so I intentionally picked the gray and orange horse first. I liked caring for the less-popular things.
We knew there were some rides that weren’t worth riding at all. The Sidewinder was too rough, knocking your head between neck and shoulder padding that was not soft enough. The Wild Cat was the park’s original rollercoaster, wooden, rickety, and living up to its wild name. My mom said it gave her a headache every time, so I never had a desire to ride it. Each trip already gave me my share of childhood blisters, sunburn, bee stings, and macadam brush burns. There were rides I cried on every time like the Canyon River Rapids. I almost drowned in the wave pool once when a large and especially hairy man accidentally stepped on my foot, trapping me beneath the rolling water. I was occasionally forgotten and left behind on rides.
If I got separated from my family, I was nervous, but not scared. I always knew I could go to first aid headquarters and wait until they found me there. I only ever needed to go once, not because I was lost, but because my sister scraped her knee beyond what the Band-Aids we had could help. She slipped on a food court ramp after it had rained. They cleaned her up with an extra-long bandage, and my parents spent the afternoon signing sheets upon sheets of paperwork explaining how the injury happened, what the park needed to fix, and promising they would not sue Hershey. I learned to see things differently. First aid became the place of paperwork. The ramp to the french fry stand became the place where knees get busted.
When my siblings and I reached an age where our parents didn’t need to accompany us on the rides, we would run off and ride things on our own, coming back to check in every once in a while. I’d go to the park with friends who also had season passes, and we’d spend the day mostly by ourselves. It only posed a problem when my friends were much shorter than me. Long-legged and knobby-kneed, height requirements were a non-issue for me compared to my peers who stood just as the cusp. All children knew the dread of seeing an employee size you up through skeptical eyes, grab the measuring stick, and pull you from the crowd to test your height. If the measuring stick passed over your head without touching, you were not allowed to ride and were sent on a lonely, humiliating walk back to the entrance. After waiting ages for the front of a coaster line, being sent away because you were too short just felt cruel.
My friend Hannah liked to gamble anyway. A petite girl with a tall personality, she once decided she had enough of being expelled from the rides. She wore a pair of black high-heeled wedges to the park for the day. When my friends and I measured her at the park entrance, she wasn’t quite close enough to be a Twizzler, but still, she persisted. We sat and waited as she carefully folded a stack of paper park, stuffing them in her shoes to give her the extra quarter-inch she needed to pass. Once standing, she tottered through the park, arms outstretched, leaning on us for help down the hills. When she hobbled to the front of the coaster lines, the employees gave her knowing looks, but she was finally allowed to ride. I think they were impressed by her innovation.
The Reese’s Xtreme Cup Challenge was the best ride for when the summer sun wore us down. A laser-shooting competition game, it was indoor and seated, offering brief relief from the humidity and heat. Rather than wait for our whole party to be seated in the same car, we knew it was best to get in the shorter, single rider line. There were almost always enough empty seats from odd-numbered parties for all of us to still ride together anyways, even if it meant sitting with a stranger for the four-minute game. The ride had a sports theme featuring two fictitious sportscasters, Kip Callahan and Sonny Polaski, who offered commentary about the points battle as you went. Their sportscoat-clad animatronics appeared multiple times throughout the ride to remind you of your score. I tried to decide which one resembled my dad more: Kip, who had his brunette hair, or Sonny who had the proper mustache. Eventually, the Kip and Sonny animatronics started to show their age—not in their ever-gleaming perma-smiles, but their wigs. We’d finish the ride and be greeted by what appeared to be Kip and Sonny after a moderate-intensity windstorm or an otherwise rough night.
After leaving the ride once, Veronica and I were laughing. Her smile hung open making a bright blue wad of Trident gum dance on her tongue. The fresh, mint scent and late summer desperation must have made her breath particularly appealing, as I watched a yellowjacket fly directly into her mouth. A chill ran through my body as she closed her mouth for a paralyzing moment. Before I could say a word, it escaped her jaws unscathed. She hadn’t even noticed. The entire interaction must have been less than two seconds, but the moment extended infinitely as I processed the magnitude of what almost happened, the potential pain of what could have been the most miserable moment of her young life.
Nick Pantalone sang in the high school chamber singers with my brother, a junior when Nate was a freshman. He had a beautiful tenor voice and was a standout comedic performer in the school musicals. He wanted to design and manage his own amusement park someday, a dream he dedicated himself to from a young age. He built a full miniature amusement park in his basement using K’NEX toys, the colorful plastic pieces covering nearly the whole floor. He had an Excel spreadsheet with a complete budget for how much it would cost to construct his park in real life, each ride listed with its designated price. He even had a map that marked the exact spot in West Virginia where he would build it one day. Nick started by working at Hersheypark as soon as he turned 14 and planned to rise through the ranks. It didn’t matter if he was hauling trash or sweeping floors. He went to work each day like he was living the dream, as if the park was his alone.
In 2010, Nick was nearly hit by a bus in the high school parking lot. The bus made an illegal turn and, not seeing him walking, pinned him between the bus and a chain-link fence where the school was undergoing construction. He walked away with nothing more than scratches, but his parents insisted on taking him to the family doctor to be sure he was alright. When the doctor checked out his internal organs, feeling for his liver and spleen, he noticed abnormal growths. Soon after, Nick was diagnosed with Desmoplastic Round Cell Tumors, an extremely rare and aggressive form of cancer. It was in stage four, and they had no idea. His five-year survival rate was 15%.
Nick kept participating in concerts and musical performances throughout his treatment. My brother was his understudy for the musical that year, learning his dance solo in case Nick was too weak to perform. He never was. Nick would simply walk offstage, remove his costume hat, and nudge Nate, saying,
“Well, there goes more of my hair,” picking out the translucent blonde strands.
He might not have been able to jump as high or sing as loud, but Nick never stopped.
Floodwaters swept across Pennsylvania in the fall of 2011. Spring Creek, which ordinarily meandered lazily through Hersheypark, became swollen and dangerous. Flash floods swallowed macadam and ride mechanics. Brake systems needed to be gutted and fences rebuilt. I thought of the Sooper Dooper Looper sinking into the water that ran right next to its track. I realized how close I was to losing my favorite rides, surely thinking they’d die by rust or wood rot. The rides were fine after some maintenance and restoration, but the same could not be said for ZooAmerica, the North American wildlife zoo connected to the park. Staff needed to evacuate hundreds of animals in increasingly more dire weather conditions. An American bison named Ryan drowned in the sweeping creek water. His bison counterpart, Esther, was also trapped. With the water continuing to rise, there was no way for staff to save her. Esther faced certain death. She was euthanized by gunshot.
I no longer saw groundhogs off the highway exit on the way into the park. I always looked for them, but never again saw more than I could count on one hand. My mom told me they most likely all died in the floods. They probably drowned in their underground tunnels.
I once had a nightmare about the floodwaters. I was riding the Coal Cracker, but instead of going down the usual hill, my boat veered off course and sent me down a roaring waterfall. I crashed into a concrete staircase spilling with water and fell into the raging Spring Creek. Soon, I was awake, damp with sweat instead of rain, but I never saw the creek the same way again.
As we grew older, we crafted modifications for the rides to satisfy our increasing want for an adrenaline rush. The pre-ride safety speeches were deemed irrelevant. If we heard them at all, they were just a reminder of what rules could be broken. On the Trailblazer, we ignored the command to keep our arms and legs in the vehicle at all times. At a section of the track that spirals downward, the car runs close enough to the ground to grab blades of grass when they became overgrown each July. We’d count to see who held the most green tufts in their fingers or who just had paper cuts as we came to a stop in the station. We could go limp while riding the Great Bear, ignoring the command to hold tight to the silver bars on our chest. Relying solely on the restraints to secure us, the track flipped around with our stomachs parallel to the ground, arms and legs dangling. The rollercoaster called Fahrenheit begins with a 90-degree climb uphill, perfectly straight. If you rode in the front row at night, you can’t see anything in front of you but the swallowing black sky. It feels like climbing into oblivion. The Lightning Racer also starts with a steep hill. An older, wooden coaster, the lap bar restraints were much more lenient. We’d lean over the front of the car to make the hill’s effects even steeper, feeling like we’re plunging towards death before the hill bucks up at the last second.
His senior year, Nick was valedictorian of his class, but his body was still failing him. Instead of going to his dream school in Florida to study theme park management, he attended school close to home, planning to transfer one day. Staying home, however, kept him in the community. He attended every Chamber Singers concert and cheered for the cast of each spring musical on the stage he once performed on. Staying home also meant he was able to spend more time at Hersheypark, managing the rides he loved. He soon became the youngest ride supervisor in the park’s history. He would go get chemotherapy at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, then go to work at Hersheypark in the same afternoon.
Nick’s favorite ride was the Wild Cat, both to ride and to operate. He loved the character of the rickety wood beams. He made boarding and unloading guests just as much fun as the ride. He always added his own flare to the pre-ride safety speech.
“Be like a lion, not like a cow. Hold on tight and say meow!”
He’d say his most popular line right before launching the car.
“Alright, riders, ready for some fun? It’s Wild Cat time in three, two, one!”
Every day was a performance. If he hadn’t been so pale in the summer sunshine, no one would have known he was sick.
My family stopped getting season passes when I was in middle school, but we still found ways to go. Hershey introduced a new coaster called Skyrush in 2012. With a mesmerizing promise to thrill-seekers, it began with a 200-foot hill, plunging you back to earth at 75mph. The most daring component were the minimal restraints. A lap bar and seatbelt were all that tethered you to your chair, allowing your torso the freedom to feel like you were truly flying. My first time on the ride, I was nervous, but electrified while waiting in line. Peaking over the crest of the hill, I took a deep breath and as we fell, I genuinely screamed. The downforce was too intense, and I felt my blood pooling in my extremities, like my life was draining to my feet. My vision began creeping in at the edges. I thought I was going to black out until the ride suddenly shot back upwards into another hill. As my blood was forced back into my brain, I gasped, and my eyes filled with sparks of light. When the ride was over, the car stopped outside the station while waiting for the next car to take off. The lap bar, pressed further into my legs by the downforce, was excruciating. Our car sat for over a minute, full of passengers writhing in varying degrees of discomfort and pain. Hershey soon fixed the ride to partially release the restraint while waiting to return to the station, but I always braced myself.
In 2013, Nick’s health steeply declined. One day at home, he collapsed and couldn’t breathe. At the hospital, the doctors discovered the tumors had spread to his lungs. He was moved to the hospital where he would live for the remainder of his life. Nick couldn’t go see the spring musical that year. Nate, in his senior year, and a small group of other students who knew Nick decided to bring their performance to him. They visited him at the hospital and performed a short, modified version of the musical. Everyone laughed, and Nick loved it.
It soon became clear that Nick would not get any better, and it was time to start making arrangements. His supervisors at the park heard the news and had an idea. Nick would be given one last performance, one to permanently dedicate his presence at the park. They brought various sound equipment and gathered in his hospital room. Nick leaned forward on a chair to stay upright while his father held the script for him to read. A technician held a microphone to capture his voice.
“Keep your head firmly against the backrest. You will be reaching speeds of approximately 58 miles per hour.”
“And the winner is… Lightning! As you return to the station, wait until your car reaches a complete stop. Then, unbuckle your seat belt and raise the lap bar.”
“Alright, riders, ready for some fun? It’s Wild Cat time in three, two, one!”
His voice was scratchy and breathing labored, but his charm still rang clear. He recorded the lines again and again, wanting to get it absolutely right, loving every minute of it. It was his final performance, and it was perfect. He was proud.
Nick passed away a few weeks later in March of 2013. His voice recordings were added to the safety speeches for the Wild Mouse, the Great Bear, the Lightning Racer, and of course, the Wild Cat where they remain to this day. At Christmastime in 2013, I got to see the memorial the park staff created for him. Nick’s memorial, a rock monument placed outside the entrance to the Wild Cat.
“Alright, riders, ready for some fun? It’s Wild Cat time in three, two, one!”
Watching over its riders with care
Our friend and co worker that left us much too soon.
I starting riding the Wild Cat whenever I went to the park from that point on. It no longer felt too rough.
Though we were no longer Hersheypark regulars, we would still visit during the summer with my 4-H exchange club. One summer, we hosted visitors from Texas, another, Kansas. My freshman year of high school, we exchanged with Colorado. We ate turkey legs and watched the cowboy dance show. The teens hung around afterwards to catch the performers leaving and to see if they could get one of the cowboy’s phone numbers. I suggested we see ZooAmerica, but frankly, they saw more wildlife in their backyards at home, so we didn’t go see the bobcats and new bison. We did make sure to ride every coaster though, telling stories to stay entertained in the long lines. When we got to the Wild Cat, I told them about Nick’s voice. For a quiet minute, everyone listened.
In high school, I started to know people who worked in the park. Friends I knew from community theatre with led the game shows, danced in the stage performances, or sang on the historical trolley ride through town. I told my friends they could buy the khaki shorts they needed for their uniforms from me at my first job at Old Navy. My friend Megan, another who has been petite all her life, was employed to wear the Hershey Kiss mascot costume. The candy mascot characters were updated, and now, gendered. The kiss is unmistakably feminine, with luscious lips and eyelashes. There is a Reese’s Cup with a spunky pixie haircut, the sassy soccer mom persona of the candy crew. Their welcome greeting felt commercial.
My sister drove past the updated “Welcome to Hershey” billboard every day on her commute to Penn State Harrisburg. The distinctly male Hershey bar waved Veronica on her way to class. The “Sweetest Place on Earth” sign became her queue to hit the air recirculation button to avoid the stench of a nearby wastewater treatment plant wafting through the car vents.
My high school boyfriend asked what I would like to do for a fun date. I said we should go to ZooAmerica. I hadn’t been there in years. He said he didn’t know why I wanted to go to a zoo that featured animals I could see anywhere else in North America, and he was right. We went to the park for the day though. We spent quarters to feed the ducks and gave them our leftover popcorn. He insisted we catch the last train ride before the park closed for the night. He promised it meant we would see something cool. We boarded alone, the train to ourselves.
“Just you two, huh?” said the conductor, walking over to our seat. “You’re right on time for the last ride.”
We nodded. The conductor told us the train was going to pause in the middle of the ride to signal to patrons that the park was closed. Halfway along the track, the train slowed on a bridge high above the walking paths and rides. The engine hissed to a stop and the sound was replaced by crickets and faint music.
“This is my favorite part,” my boyfriend said, taking my hand. The whistle blew louder and clearer than I had ever heard it, three long blasts. It echoed off the valley we sat above, the sound folding in on itself and fading out. For a moment, the lively park sat quiet. “Not a lot of people get to see that,” he said, the hum of crickets returning to the air. He kissed me quick, and the train came back to life.
Each December, the park reopened with limited hours for Hersheypark Christmas Candylane. Though only a few rides were operating in the cold weather, the park became a lightshow worth seeing. During my senior year of high school, the Chamber Singers were invited to sing Christmas carols for guests. After the concert, we were free to roam the park for a few hours. It was bitter cold, nearly too cold to ride anything. The rushing air stinging our face was almost too much to tolerate. After riding the Claw, my friends laughed at my smile. My facial muscles were flash frozen, and I was unable to fully open my lips over my teeth. They said my wind-chapped cheeks and stunted smile made me look like a sad clown.
We mostly spent our time walking around taking photos of the lights and posing with mascot characters. We came upon a York Peppermint Pattie penguin and a chocolate bar Christmas moose, surely portrayed by teens our age inside. They trailed us for a little while, dancing to hold our attention. I soon realized the moose was flirting with me—as certainly as one can be sure a silent Christmas moose mascot is flirting with them. He kept trying to make me laugh, Milly-rocking and hittin’ dem folk. We took a group photo, the moose with his arm around me. He blew me a kiss with his brown fur glove as we walked away.
When we approached the Wild Cat, I showed Nick’s memorial stone to my friends who never knew him.
“He was in the Chamber Singers too,” I said. “He’s a little piece of our history.”
Most coasters were closed due to the freezing temperatures, so the Wild Mouse was the only open ride that night that featured his voice. We listened, his warm greeting thawing us.
I don’t visit the park very often anymore. It feels too much like forcing conversation with a friend you’ve grown distant from, visiting old memories because you have nothing new to say. My visits to Hershey mainly consist of visiting my friends who work as musical performers on the historical trolley tour when they get me free tickets. They can use the company on days when no tourists sign up to ride. I sit in the front seat for their performances, singing along to “You Are My Sunshine” and pretending to laugh at the jokes I’d learned while helping them rehearse their scripts. My friend Laura only worked there one season before she discovered she gets extremely motion sick standing on a moving trolley and singing at the same time. My friend Erin has worked there since she was 16, and her boss relies on her dedication and willingness to pick up shifts. She fears she’ll never be able to quit.
In the fall of 2019, Hersheypark needed some modern updates to bring them into the new decade. They demolished the old entranceway. The Tudor village was no longer practical, the small-scale charm of it not able to withstand the ever-growing crowds. The rolling hills were leveled to build a new town where the village once stood: Chocolatetown. The once-kitschy tourist shops became industrial, dual-story commercial businesses with chocolate tasting tours and seated fine dining. The brick gates and clock tower were knocked down and replaced with wide, steel frames to funnel patrons through at more efficient speeds. In my head, I could not fathom the degree of change. Comparing what the news articles said to my own memories, it sounded as if they created space where there simply wasn’t any. Somehow, the tall hills at the entranceway no longer existed. Trying to remove a mountain from my memory, all I could picture was a blurry jumble of brick and steel.
I finally returned to the park in the summer of 2021 when my cousins from out of state came to town to visit for a week. I hadn’t been there in years, and in the days counting down, I told my sister I did not know how to mentally prepare myself. I did not know exactly what I was preparing for anyway. I still remembered how to pack a bag and sneak snacks in. My favorite rides were all still there. I just knew it wouldn’t be the same.
When we approached the park entrance and walked through the new steel gate, I waited for something to happen. There was a large, new fountain directly inside that sprayed water to look like a giant Hershey kiss—the iconic Kisses Fountain, it was called. I looked around at the Chocolatetown businesses surrounding us, a Starbucks right across from a store that sold designer sunglasses. It was not some deeply moving, emotional moment. It was not devastating nor did it feel like arriving home after many years. It just did not feel like we were there yet, but we were, and it was time to keep walking.
I heard organ music and realized the carousel had been moved immediately inside the front gates. The kettle corn stand was gone. As we walked further in, I saw that the old-timey photo station I always wanted to go to was no longer there. The photo station, where you’d dress up in the saloon costumes and pose with friends, slinging pistols and jugs of booze, was turned into a drink stand that sold actual alcohol. White Claws, craft brews, and whatnot. Stranger still, I was now of age to buy real alcohol there. I struggled to get myself oriented.
It was a long day. After visiting the water park, we went back to the car to eat our packed lunch. It was raining, but this time, we couldn’t just leave. We would not plan to come back tomorrow, so we had to make the most of today, and it was a tiring day. When the rain lightened up, everyone prepared to go back into the park, crossing our fingers that there would still be coasters open. I sat in the car for a few minutes longer while everyone went back inside. My cousin had forgotten to get his hand stamped for re-entry as we left, so he needed to go talk to Guest Services. I would catch up with everyone else eventually.
There is something to be said about mourning small loses. Life teaches you to let go of the little things, a lesson we have no choice but to learn, but when it is all placed before you, it is hard to realize how many you have dropped along the way. The ache sits in your chest. I sat with the feeling for a little while and let myself tear up. I was still damp anyway.
Orange streaks of hair dye dripped down my neck, the color loosened by the chlorine from the wave pool and sent running by the rain. I decided it was time to catch up with everyone else. I dried my eyes and braided my soaked hair out of my face. I zipped up my bright orange rain jacket and pulled up the hood. I walked in fast, long strides through the rain, a streak of orange practically glowing against the gray, cloud-covered sky as I reentered the park gates.
My family hadn’t gone far. I caught up with them as they were getting on the carousel. I hopped in line just as they were boarding and weaved my way through the empty queue to meet them. As they got their seats situated, I waved them down so they knew I had made it, but I did not grab a prancing horse with the rest of my family. No, I knew it is more fun to ride the stationary ones. They let you lean to the outside and truly feel the speed of the spin while the park swirls around you.
I walked to the other side of the carousel and found my horse. My gray one with the orange tack still with flowers tied along its neck. The lights above me glimmered red and yellow, casting an orange glow against everything, rain-soaked macadam, steel-beamed gates, clouded skies. I placed my feet in the stirrups, a bright orange jacket draped on a wild, gray steed as the carousel slowed into motion. The organ sang, and as we picked up momentum, everything blurred together. I gripped the cold metal bar listened to my family laughing. From somewhere, the air smelled like popcorn.