HERSHEY, Pa. -- Sea gulls in the middle of Amish country? You bet.
Hersheypark, which turned 100 this season, opened up its new water park, The Boardwalk at Hersheypark, on May 26, and the birds aren't the only ones flocking to the beach-themed oasis.
A recent trip to the 4 ½-acre, $21 million addition - the largest investment in the park's history - reveals a place as packed as a sandy South Jersey beach.
The water park features five new attractions. Combined with three existing water rides - The Roller Soaker, Tidal Force and Canyon River Rapids - Hesheypark's version of "seashore" now totals 8 ½ acres. Because it is a section of Hersheypark, there is no separate entrance or admission fee for the Boardwalk.
A large archway with faux sea gulls perched on it marks the gateway to the water park and separates it from the adjacent dry-ride section called Pioneer Frontier. A stamped concrete floor, made to look like a real boardwalk, enables visitors to walk and walk without ever getting any splinters.
Surf boards, sand dunes and tall beach grass help bring the beach-effect to landlocked Hershey. Surf-rock and Jimmy Buffet, plus periodic sounds of screeching sea gulls, high-pitched bicycle bells and crashing ocean waves piped through speakers round out the shore impression.
Hersheypark claims the surf scene harkens back to four of the Northeast's most famous shorepoints: Ocean City, Md.; Atlantic City, N.J.; Coney Island, N.Y., and Rehoboth Beach, Del., but the only things indicating it are four upside-down lifeguard boats, each bearing the name of one of the shorepoints on it.
The Boardwalk also pays tribute to Hersheypark's founder, Milton Hershey. When Hershey founded the park in 1907, it featured a large pool he referred to as "The seashore at your door."
The water park's showpiece is a 71-foot-high water play structure called East Coast Waterworks. It's topped with a biplane piloted by a Hershey's Kiss and the plane pulls a banner that reads, "The seashore at your door."
Hersheypark claims its new East Coast Waterworks is the world's largest water play structure.
The brightly colored water jungle-gym features 600 water toys, including spinning balls that shoot streams of water, suspended buckets that, when filled, dump water onto the heads of unsuspecting guests, and a giant umbrella with water flowing from its spokes.
There are also 225 feet of rope bridges, two crawl tunnels and seven slides on the structure. Access is via a zero-depth entry pool, so your piggies get wet gradually, as if you are walking into the ocean.
I expected the lines for it to be long on a warm, sunny Friday afternoon in early July, but the wait for East Coast Waterworks exceeded even my wildest expectations. The line circled nearly halfway around the giant water structure, and there were even more lines to wait in once you get into the structure.
I had to make a choice. Only groups of three or four at a time were getting in. I didn't think I'd have enough time to continue waiting and try out all of the other attractions. I decided to move on, but checked back later in the day. Lines were no shorter. My advice: Hit this attraction very early (the park opens at 10 a.m.) or very late (it closes at 10 p.m.) to avoid the hordes.
Another new Boardwalk feature is Coastline Plunge - a structure consisting of four super slides: Riptide, Surge, Vortex and Whirlwind.
Inflatable, hot-pink, single-rider tubes and blue double-rider tubes shaped like figure-eights can be used on Vortex and Riptide. The more popular of the two is Vortex, which dropped me down a straight shoot into a large, round basin where I swirled around and around in circles, as if in a giant toilet bowl, until I was "flushed" out through another small shoot into a pool.
But don't underestimate Riptide, either. The green, serpentine slide is fast fun. After twisting and turning through a mostly dark tunnel - there were intermittent flashes of bright, blue sky in sections where the tunnel opens up - the tube splashed violently into the pool, sending me, my sunglasses and my flip-flops flying in different directions.
The day I visited, the line for Riptide was significantly shorter (at one point it was virtually non-existent, while Vortex had a roughly 30-45 minute wait). An insider tip: If you want to ride Riptide, you can bypass those waiting in the same combo-line to ride Vortex. Many guests aren't aware of this. Just ask those ahead of you about which slide they're in line for and go around them if they're waiting for Vortex. I moved up quickly for Riptide.
Lime green "Whirlywheel" tubes that seat two riders are used for Surge and Whirlwind. Surge, a winding blue slide, is second-rate to Whirlwind - one of the most exciting rides in the water park. The shorter line for it is testimony to the fact.
Whirlwind looks like a giant yellow-and-blue funnel tilted on its side. After waiting for roughly 30 minutes, my tube plummeted quickly and unexpectedly down a dark, steep tunnel. Before my belly could recover, I was soaring up a steep, watery wall. I coasted back down, then soared up the opposite bank, practically getting vertical. This continued until I was funneled through the needle-nose corridor, which deposited me into a splash pool. Wet and wild, it was worth the wait!
Thrill seekers also will enjoy Waverider, a new two-person attraction where guests compete against one another to ride a boogie board atop a current of water that simulates an ocean wave.
Getting through the line took close to an hour because only two guests ride at a time. Also, body bling cannot be exposed. Before queuing up, visit the first aid stand to cover up your piercings with adhesive bandages.
Although many guests of varying ages and body types make taking on Waverider look easy, it is tricky and can be painful. This beast is not for the faint of heart - or those prone to muscle aches. After asking the ride attendant for tips, I bent down to nearly a kneeling position and sprang - though, gingerly - from the side of the attraction into the gush of water. Within seconds, the wave rejected me, tossing me about like a fragile seashell in a thrashing ocean.
The current was so aggressive that it separated me from the boogie board and sent me flying back up the skateboard-style ramp from which I had jumped and into a padded wall. I gritted my teeth and gave it a second go, but the results were the same.
My head felt rattled and my eyes were blurred with water. My contact lenses were near-casualties. Still, I tried again.
The third time was the charm but, then, ironically, I couldn't figure out how to get off. The current held me captive until I was finally able to lean my weight to the right and direct the boogie board toward the exit point.
The attraction draws crowds of onlookers. Unfortunately, I gave them quite a show. And by the end of the ordeal, my ego wasn't the only thing that was hurting. My neck and lower back were sore for about three days.
Less adventuresome guests can get their splash-time, too. Sandcastle Cove, a sandcastle-shaped structure for children, features two tyke-sized slides in nine inches of water. Bayside Pier, a ripple pool with a depth of 3 ½ inches, is also popular among more wary waders.
Although the new rides are the biggest draws, the Roller Soaker, installed in 2002, is still a park favorite. The roller coaster seats four riders back-to-back and, as they dangle from an overhead track high above the park, they're drenched by geysers of water that erupt from the ground below.
On my visit, the attraction malfunctioned mid-ride, leaving guests stranded in their seats for what seemed like 20 or 30 minutes before park attendants freed them and returned them to the ground. The ride was closed down to inspect the problem but, if given the chance, I would have definitely taken a turn.
Another oldie-but-goodie is Tidal Force, a 100-foot-tall splash-down ride that was installed in 1994. Sitting in the front seat of the wide, 20-passenger boat (there are five rows, each of which accomodates four guests), I looked out as the boat clicked up the conveyer belt and realized I could see the tops of nearby roller coasters.
It was hands up all the way down the steep slope. I was fully soaked by the time we reached the bottom. Opening my eyes at splash-down, I faced a wall of water. It made for a surge of excitement.
After disembarking, I received a second soaking. As I exited via a footbridge that crosses the flume, I paused to watch the next boat splash down and it sent an intimidating wave my way.
Swimsuits are required for most of the water rides, and even when not required, I strongly recommend wearing them rather than your street clothes. I was relieved to have dry clothes to change into and did not envy those who had to walk around the park all day sopping wet.
Storing a bag in a nearby locker is a good way to keep your clothes, cell phone and wallet dry and safe. Changing rooms are adjacent to the lockers. Lockers go fast, so snag one early or you'll end up spending more time as a locker lurker - primed to pounce on key-toters _ than enjoying the park.
If all the aqua-action leaves you hungry, refuel at Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs, a Coney Island classic that recently earned hot dog-eating champ Joey Chestnut's seal of approval. Pizza lovers can mangia at Famous Famiglia Pizza. Burgers and grilled chicken sandwiches are up for grabs at Decades. Just want to keep cool? Get in your licks with treats at the Turkey Hill Ice Cream Parlor.
And, don't forget your salt-water taffy on the way out.
THE BOARDWALK AT HERSHEYPARK
Where: 100 W. Hersheypark Drive, Hershey, Pa.
When: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. most Sundays through Fridays, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. most Saturdays. Call to double check operating schedule.
How much: Regular (ages 9-54) $45.95, Junior (ages 3-8) and Senior (ages 55-69) $26.95, Senior Plus (70+) $18.95, Children (ages 2 and under) free
Info: 800-HERSHEY or www.hersheypa.com