Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ideas for the Holiday Season - 2011

I will usually only post about activities I've experienced first hand but there are so many great things to do in the Harrisburg area around the holidays and my family can't possibly do them all AND let you know about them in time for you to do them too so here are a few untested (and some tested) ideas for you:

Christmas Magic - A walk-thru Christmas light display in the York area. (Closed Dec. 24, 25 ) They also have five enclosed heated pavillions with train displays, refreshments and music.

Santa's Paradise Express at Strasburg Railroad, - A 45-minute heated train ride with Santa and music

Dutch Winter Wonderland at Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster and Candylane at Hersheypark in Hershey. (Note: Candylane is not untested - we have been there every Christmas since my 8 year old was a baby.)

You can buy a combined pass for Winter Wonderland and Candylane and save a bit of money if you want to do both parks. Look for discount coupons for Candylane at Giant, McDonalds, CVS. I have not found any coupons for Dutch Winter Wonderland (they may exist).

Sweetlights - a drive thru light display in Hershey. Look for discount coupons at Giant, McDonalds, CVS.

National Christmas Center Family Attraction and Museum, open weekends March and April then daily through the New Year. Features Christmas exhibits, a gift shop and a café.

Several activities at Fort Hunter : (we finally got there in 2011)
"Kids Only" Holiday Shop, Saturdays and Sundays, 12:30-4:30 pm
You need to give the kids the money to shop

"Festival of Trees" Annual Tree Display, Saturdays and Sundays,12:30-4:30 pm

Toy Train Exhibit,Saturdays and Sundays, 12:30-4:30 pm

Christmas at Fort Hunter
This is at the mansion so it's regular admission price for the mansion.

Little Buffalo Christmas Trail, December 17th-December 23rd
A free evening quarter-mile walk through the woods with Santa and Christmas lights.

Little Elves Workshop at The Hershey Story

Koziar's Christmas Village - Bernville, PA
Indoor and outdoor displays. Open evenings. About an hour from Harrisburg.

Santa's Wonderland at Bass Pro at the Harrisburg Mall - a chance to visit with Santa and get a free 4x6 photo taken with him. They also have craft activities.

Ice Cream Social with Santa at the Turkey Hill Ice Cream Experience - Hershey, PA December 17th and 18th. This Ice Cream Social includes an individual chat with Santa, a special gift bag (including one free ticket to the Turkey Hill Experience), an ice cream sundae, and a personal photo with Santa. Admission is $9.95.

If you have any feedback on these suggestions or if you have suggestions of your own, please add them in the comment section.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Christmas at Fort Hunter - Harrisburg, PA

Website: Fort Hunter
Season: Thanksgiving to Christmas
Cost: Mostly free but see website for details
Expected Length of Visit: 1-3 hours
Recommended Ages: All ages

We finally visited Christmas at Fort Hunter in 2011.  We visited the day Mrs. Claus and one of Santa's reindeer were there, which is probably the best day to take kids to this event.

Their regular Christmas activities are the toy train exhibit, a Kid's Shop (where the kids can buy gifts alone), the Festival of Trees and there is a mansion tour. The mansion tour is open during the week but the rest of these activities are weekends only. There is only a fee for the mansion tour and of course, if your child is shopping in the kid's shop, they will need money.

There are other events scheduled throughout the season too - plant and craft sales, concerts, Victorian teas, cooking demonstrations that you'll need to check the website for dates and fees since they change every year.

Our outing was nice.  There was a bit of a crowd, not too crazy, and it took a while to get to the reindeer.  You have to bring your own camera.  They don't take any pictures - they just provide the photo ops.  There was a gentleman at the reindeer who offered to take pictures with your camera if you wanted everyone in the shot.

While we had to wait quite a while to see the reindeer, we practically walked right up to Mrs. Claus.  Then we waited again to view the toy train exhibit.  We decided to skip the Kids Only Holiday Shop.  My son already did that at school, with less expensive options but the sample prices outside didn't look so bad.  I believe everything is under $10 in there.

The train display impressed the boys.  It's not the Choo Choo Barn, but it had a similar wow factor.  It was hard to see the details in the middle of the wide display, but I'm sure taller folks could see a lot more.  I think the boys could have spent a lot more time looking at it but there was quite a line so we had to keep moving. It's probably not so busy on weekends when Mrs. Claus and the reindeer aren't there.

I completely forgot about the Festival of Trees this visit. The boys played at the playground for a while and we went home.  We spent  at total of $1(on a raffle ticket to win a train).  There are opportunities to make donations. They lost my donation when they were out of reindeer food.  We got there pretty early - the boys were disappointed.

They also sell chocolate bars, chocolate lollipops, hot cocoa, water and possibly other refreshments.

It was very enjoyable for a low-cost event.

Please add your comments regarding this activity or let me know if you have any questions about it that I might be able to answer.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Knoebel's Amusement Park - Elysburg, PA

Website: Knoebel's Amusement Resort
Season: April-September
Cost: No admission. Pay by Ride or they run one-price days often (but you don't need to choose that option). See details here.  Note that some rides, mainly the Haunted Mansion, may not be included in the one-price option.
Estimated Length of Stay: You can spend as much or as little time as you want since you aren't paying one large admission. We usually a few trips here every year and spend several hours there.
Recommended Ages: All ages

Knoebel's Amusement Park is another one of my favorite activities. It is a bit of a drive (a bit over an hour away for us) but it is such a good deal. Free parking, no admission, reasonable ticket prices, more than reasonable food prices.

It's the perfect amusement park for anyone who is not able or willing to ride many of the park rides. You pay one price at Hersheypark whether you get on any rides or not. At Knoebel's, you only pay if you ride so parents of small children and grandparents who want to tag along don't get stuck paying just to walk around the park and watch the little ones ride. And if the kids aren't in the mood to ride that day, no loss.

You can purchase books of tickets or pay by the ride. If you buy too many tickets, you can save them for your next visit. If you do happen to be someone who can ride a lot of rides in one day, they do often run a pay-one-price-ride-all-day admission fee but I've found that you have to ride a lot of rides to make it worth it. Check their website for discount days and other special pricing.  I did buy the boys an all-day pass the first day they were open after the 2011 flood. They discounted the price but almost every ride was open.  There were no lines that day since some roads leading to Knoebel's were still closed. It was a great day and the boys got their money's worth. I used tickets we had leftover from previous visits.

They have a lot of great rides too. They may not have the monstrous attractions that Hersheypark has but they have plenty of good stuff. They have some great coasters - The Twister and Phoenix are great. Since having kids, I haven't had a chance to ride these but I remember them fondly from visits before I had kids. The Haunted Mansion is another favorite. My son came out shell-shocked last year after his first trip through the Haunted Mansion but recently he's been talking about going back in there again. The Carousel is great too. You can still grab the brass ring there.

There are plenty of rides for kids of course. My sons love the go-karts.

Bring your swimsuits if you're into getting wet since they have some nice water rides and a big pool with slides, fountains and sprinklers. We typical stay dry on our visits. (There are additional fees for the pool and slides.)

There are other activities to keep you busy - miniature golf, a mining museum, an Eagle habitat, loads of games, a 4D theater, and an arcade or two.

The food is excellent and not as outrageously priced as some other amusement parks. We love the sit-down restaurant, The Alamo, where you can get a nice full dinner in an air-conditioned restaurant for about what you'd pay for a burger and fries in other parks. They do not discourage bringing your own food into the park. In fact, there are pavilions around the park that you can use for a picnic. Check their policy but I believe well-behaved dogs are welcome.

They also have camping and a golf course so you can even make this a multi-day outing.

Please add your comments regarding this activity or let me know if you have any questions about it that I might be able to answer.

Lake Tobias Wildlife Park -Halifax, PA

Website: Lake Tobias Wildlife Park
Cost:see rates hereExpected Length of Visit: From a couple of hour up to several hours.
Recommended Ages: All ages

Lake Tobias Wildlife Park is literally just a few minutes from our house so this is our fall-back activity when nothing else is going on. It's a relatively cheap outing, especially without the safari tour. And it just so happens that we love it.

Their admission is quite a bit lower than most other animal parks and small zoos but they offer a lot for the money. They have a nice array of animals. I find their animals a bit more interesting than those at Zoo America since they aren't limited at Lake Tobias to animals native to North America. You won't find elephants or giraffes at Lake Tobias but there are zebras, capybaras (my favorite), kangaroos and other animals you don't see everyday.

The exhibits are very nice. They recently added some new ones and got rid of the last of the old-style depressing cages.

Besides the typical animal exhibits you will see here, you will often find zoo workers carrying or walking an animal through the park and you can usually pet them or get a nice picture with them.

They also have a petting zoo, a reptile show and a safari tour. We finally took the safari tour after many years of passing it up and now we try to do that at least once a year. It's a lot of fun. You really get up close to the animals. I can't believe we passed it up all of those years.

They added a new reptile building in 2011. Attending the reptile show is a much more pleasant experience than it used to be - no more crowding into that small building.

Parking is free but most of the parking is a small trek away from the animals. They do have handicap parking available in the main area.

There are pavillions for picnics. You can reserve these for large affairs. There are several play structures on the property to amuse the kiddies. You can fish on site for a fee but you don't need a fishing license. I don't see any fishing info on the website unless I'm missing it but it's possible. You can get your fishing pass at the snackbar where you purchase the safari tickets. Call Lake Tobias for a price on those. I really can't remember but I'm sure it was $10 or under for an all-day pass. There may be other options too.

You can bring your own food into Lake Tobias but the food is very good there and the prices are reasonable. Unfortunately, the service can be extremely slow. The kitchen is small and the food is made to order so the line backs up around lunchtime. There's a food cart on the premise as well which doesn't usually take quite as long but the options are different and I've never tried anything from the cart. There's a play structure not too far from the snackbar so you can kill some time there while waiting for your food to be prepared. The gift shop is also in that area.

If you prefer to eat while coming or going from Lake Tobias, there is a McDonald's and also a Subway in Halifax on Route 225, 5 minutes south of Lake Tobias and if you came in from the north using Route 209, there are a McDonald's and Burger King in front of the Wal-Mart on 209 in Elizabethville, about 10 minutes north of Lake Tobias.

I wouldn't rate this as an all-day activity. It's not that large and the safari ride only takes about 45 minutes, tops. We usually spend only a couple of hours there since we live so close and visit so often but if you take your time and keep a leisurely pace, you could spend several hours there.

One of my only complaints about Lake Tobias (besides the slow food service) is that it's very difficult to push the average stroller over the gravel surface that covers most of the park.

Please add your comments regarding this activity or let me know if you have any questions about it that I might be able to answer.

Cherry Crest Farms, Lancaster County, PA

Website: Cherry Crest Farms
Season: May-September, maze opens in July NOT OPEN ON SUNDAYS
Cost: See all admission rates here.
Approximate Length of Visit: You can definitely make a day of this. They even have flashlight maze in the evening sometimes.
Recommended ages: All ages but there's more to do for younger kids.

I think Cherry Crest Farm is my absolute favorite out of all of our family fun activities. We have never missed a year since we discovered it. There is so much to do there, especially for younger kids. It can get crowded but not unbearably so. It's nice anytime it isn't raining but it's especially nice when it's a nice fall day. The service and facilities are top-notch. I can't recommend this place enough.

The maze is great for adults and older children but even young children enjoy it. There are play structures located within the maze to entertain them. There's a snack bar within the maze and candy machines pop up along the way. Honestly, we haven't had much luck with the actual maze and had to cheat our way out every time (and between the members of our group we had a PhD, Master's degree and Bachelor's degree). It was still a lot of fun.

That's only a small part of Cherry Crest Farm. There are so many activities for kids beyond the maze. They have a smaller maze, two bouncers (big pillow-like bouncers, not bounce houses), sandboxes, play structures, slides, pumpkin slinging, mining for gold, games, animals, a wagon ride, a small train, pedal cars. That's just part of it. There is more than I can list here. There are activities in the courtyard and activities in the barnyard.

My son had a great time playing on the obstacle course. He had been obsessed with the window cleaners at his school so he just kept going down the rope over and over.

There are animals and a farm education area where he got to hold a baby chick and milk a 'cow'.

The food is excellent. They have roasted corn that is out of this world. It is some of the best sweet corn I ever tasted and I'm usually there in October. The pork barbecue is also really good as are the french fries and, well, everything else. The freshly made Kettlecorn is something we never pass up. Food prices get higher every year but they add more choices every year and you're allowed to bring your own food, if you'd like.

In the past my worst complaints about Cherry Crest were the poor baby changing option and the long lines for the restroom but in 2009 they added a nice baby changing room (and also a nursing station) and added another restroom building. They added even more facilities later.

That is the best thing about Cherry Crest - it gets better every year. They add something new and keep up what they already have. In 2009, they also added a new play structure with slides and small climbing walls, another tent with picnic tables, some games and probably a few other things I missed. In 2011 the added quite a bit - new food stands, new restrooms, new games.

Take note that they aren't open on Sundays. Cherry Crest is a full day for us but it can be combined with Strasburg Railroad.

Please add your comments regarding this activity or let me know if you have any questions about it that I might be able to answer.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Candylane at Hersheypark - Hershey, PA

Website: Candylane
Season: mid-November - December
Costs: see rates here. You can usually save $2 off each admission with coupons from Giant, CVS, McDonald's. Parking in not included. It was $8 in 2011.

Expected Length of Stay: depends on your stamina
Recommended Ages: Geared more towards younger kids but there is something for everyone
We've been going to Candylane since my older son's first Christmas, 8 years ago. It was free admission at that time. It became our tradition and that wasn't going to end even when they started charging admission a few years ago.

You would think the admission would have thinned out the crowds but it hasn't really. Heck, even we've gone twice some years since they started charging. We've had varying experiences at Candylane - cold, warm, crowded, not crowded, long line for Santa, no line for Santa. Generally speaking the earlier in the season and the earlier in the day you go, the less crowded it is. I suggest starting early. It will be less crowded, the ride lines will be shorter, you can visit the zoo and see Santa without waiting in a long line. It gets dark early in the evening that time of year so you'll still be able to enjoy the lights and the atmosphere but you'll have a better shot of getting your money's worth if you start early.

I can remember, the first year or two, waiting in line for what seemed like an eternity, in a hellishly hot room, to get my son's picture taken with Santa. The past few years, we've walked right up. I'm not sure why that is. Candylane always has a very nice looking Santa but the pictures aren't cheap. You get less for more than you did a few years ago. I got a package with a 5x7, 2 4x6s and I think 4 wallets, plus another package that just had an 8x10 (which used to be included with the other package, then they stopped the 8x10 all together before bringing it back as a separate purchase) and that ran me about $50. Yes, I know. It's tradition, what can I say? I think the first year, I paid in the upper $30s for about the same pictures.

Our first year, they were giving out nice little stuffed toys as favors to the children who saw Santa but the favors have become less impressive each year, usually just a small piece of candy now. Those better gifts were usually sponsored by an outside company so it's not really surprising that no one wanted to foot the bill for those anymore.

Most of the rides open for Candylane are for smaller children but there are several that the older kids will like. All of the kiddie rides are open, plus the Kissing Tower, the antique and race cars, the pirate ship, the Claw, the Monorail, the Skyride and few other things. (See complete list here.) None of the coasters are running. The lines can be long. My favorites are the small train and the monorail since you get the best view of the lights in the park.

Zoo America is open (and included with admission) until 4:30pm. There's a music show. Santa's reindeer are on display. There are plenty of shops and refreshments available. The game room and games are open, with many holiday themed prizes.

I have to admit that some years I've been happy to get out of there - it can be cold and crowded. Other years, we've had great weather and light crowds. I'm going to keep up the tradition until the boys outgrow it (and maybe even after that!)

Please add your comments regarding this activity or let me know if you have any questions about it that I might be able to answer.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Harrisburg Holiday Parade - Harrisburg, PA

Website: Harrisburg Holiday Parade
Season: Annual event in November (week before Thanksgiving)
Costs: Free
Expected Length of Stay: 2 + hours (get there early to get a good spot)
Recommended Ages: All ages

I never paid much attention to this parade but this year I decided we would go. I think it was the warm November weather that made the difference.

We only lasted through the first hour. It's an excellent parade but the boys just weren't up to 2+ hours of parade yet. The older one was sort of overwhelmed by the crowd and the younger one hates to sit still.

The crowds weren't too bad but people still managed to annoy me. We found a spot and 15-20 minutes later two people show up with big chairs expecting us to move over since they said they were there but they had to go back to their car. Um, no. I may not go to many big parades but I believe parade viewing rules follow the general rule of 'move your meat, lose your seat'. I wasn't budging. We were only taking up one prime viewing spot as it was (the stroller - a small one). If we moved at all, the kids would lose their view completely and as I said, we were there for 15-20 minutes.

Then a drunk woman (at 10:30AM!!) showed up. She wasn't really all that obnoxious but her mouth didn't stop moving once she showed up. Yap yap yap.

I can tell you that the first hour had plenty - balloons, floats, excellent marching bands, military, motorcycles, local celebrities, classic cars, candy and other treats for the kids. I can only imagine that the second hour was even better.

I hope we have warm weather again next November.

Please add your comments regarding this activity or let me know if you have any questions about it that I might be able to answer.