Editor’s note: Valley Living is launching a new feature, Weekend Road Trips, by frequent writer Jesse Neve, featuring short, family-oriented weekend getaways all within two to four hours of the Shenandoah Valley. Look for new getaways each issue with the above symbol.
by JESSE NEVE
The first time I went to Gettysburg, I was fourteen years old. I went with my dad and my aunt, who were both intensely interested in the Civil War. My two cousins and I were driven from monument to monument and from battlefield to battlefield at Gettysburg. Every picture you see of us, we look like we had been dragged behind the car from place to place. That is because there are over 1,300 monuments at Gettysburg National Military Park and from my teenage memory, I am convinced we stopped and read every single one. I’m sure if you asked my cousins today, they would remember it as the longest day of our childhood.
So, fast forward thirty years. I wanted my children to learn about history from Gettysburg, but I did NOT want them to come away with only bored, eye-rolling memories.
Before going, we booked a tour online and reserved spots in the top of an open air bus tour, through Gettysburg Battlefield Tours. They gave us ear buds so we could all hear our fantastic, sports announcer turned licensed tour guide (who sported a handlebar mustache reminiscent of the times).
“Look left! Now look right!” He talked continuously for the entire two hours as we rode around in the warm sun and pleasant breeze. He led us through all three days of the battle, making the stories come alive while describing things in a way that kept kids interested, such as showing us the cannon ball holes that are still visible in buildings around the town of Gettysburg. It demonstrated how close to home the whole battle was.
The tour guide was serious at times (since the Civil War was of course a tragic time), but he also threw in humor. When we stopped to get out of the bus at an overlook, he told us, “if you aren’t back on the bus in fifteen minutes, you should just start walking toward that water tower over there—it’s only three and a half miles to your car!” He did a wonderful job of keeping everyone entertained and interested in the history.
In addition to the bus tour, there are a number of other interesting and historic things to see in Gettysburg. Here are a few of them:
- Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor’s Center has interactive exhibits and memorabilia that illustrate and explain the war. There is also a film narrated by Morgan Freeman and the recently renovated Gettysburg Cyclorama, one of the largest paintings in the country. It depicts the famous battle of Pickett’s Charge.
- The Lincoln Train Museum displays America’s journey through the ages with exhibits and a neat interactive model train. The museum is nearby the actual site of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address at the close of the war.
- Gettysburg Heritage Center has displays, videos and artifacts from the point of view of the Gettysburg civilians at the time of the war.
We stayed at the Sleep Inn in Mountville, which is a little more than an hour northeast of Gettysburg. It’s a bit off the direct route between Gettysburg and Hershey, but in doing my research beforehand, I had discovered the hotels in the Mountville area were, on average, cheaper than their counterparts in either Gettysburg or Hershey. There was an indoor pool the kids made good use of and a fitness center my husband enjoyed. They have multiple hot breakfast items in the morning, included in the price of the room, which is always tops on my list—one less thing to think about.
Gettysburg Battlefield Tours. 778 Baltimore Street. 717-334-6296. www.gettysburgbattlefieldtours.com. They offer a variety of tour options from National Park Service licensed guides including double decker buses, air conditioned coaches and evening ghost tours. Tour times vary throughout the year. Advance tickets available online (reserve your choice of the top or the bottom of the bus).
Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center. 1195 Baltimore Street. 717-334-1124. www.nps.gov/gett. Entry to the park and visitor center is free. Fee for film, Cyclorama and museum exhibits.
Lincoln Train Museum. 425 Steinwehr Ave. 717-334-5678. www.lincolntrain.com. Fee for museum entry.
Gettysburg Heritage Center. 297 Steinwehr Ave. 717-334-6245. www.gettysburgmuseum.com. Tickets Available online.
There are a number of online deals when you buy tickets for multiple attractions at once. A good place to start is the Gettysburg Battlefield Tours website. They offer Value Plans for three additional attractions purchased with a bus tour.
Sure, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell had some cool inventions. But, according to my daughter, Sarah, Milton Hershey is the most brilliant inventor of all time. When we arrived at Hershey’s Chocolate World, Sarah leaped out of the van and cheered, “Yes! These are my people!”
The sweet smell of chocolate greeted us at the door as we started our chocolate adventure with the free 30-minute Chocolate Factory Tour. We were all eyes (and ears and noses) as we walked through, witnessing the conversion from cocoa beans to chocolate. And of course, the tour has a happy ending with free samples. There is no lack of chocolate at this place.
We had purchased tickets ahead of time for the other attractions. Our next stop was the Chocolate Tasting Experience. Sarah could hardly stand the short wait until our experience began. Everyone sat in a big room with place mats that explained the different chocolates we would be sampling. We were taught the difference between milk and dark and really dark chocolate. And there were a couple flavors that could honestly be classified as “just strange.”
The average person would be all “chocolated-out” after that adventure, but Sarah was ready for more. We headed over to the Trolley Works for our Chocolate & History Trolley tour. This trolley ride was FAR more than just a ride through the town of Hershey. We had costumed tour guides who sang and told the story of Milton Hershey and all he has done for the town. They told stories and performed a mystery play all during our 75-minute tour in an air-conditioned trolley. And to make Sarah’s day even brighter, there were more free samples during and after the tour.
There are also other chocolate attractions available at Hershey’s Chocolate World including the Create Your Own Candy Bar Adventure and the 4D Chocolate Interactive Mystery Show. And don’t even get me started on Hersheypark, the enormous 110-acre theme park across the street that was started by Milton Hershey back in 1906 so the Hershey employees would have a fun, leisurely place to hang out. It now includes family rides, water rides, kiddie rides, coasters for every level of courage, food and days-worth of fun for everyone.
Hershey’s Chocolate World. 101 Chocolate World Way. 717-534-4900. www.hersheyschocolateworld.com. Chocolate factory tour is free. The other attractions have fees. When you buy advanced tickets online, there are a number of options for bundling different experiences together for a reduced price.
Hersheypark. 100 Hersheypark Dr. 717-534-3900. www.hersheypark.com
Advance tickets or multiple-day tickets can be purchased online.
There is easily enough entertainment in the area for a family to spend a week, but by just picking a few of the adventures that would interest your family the most, Gettysburg and Hershey becomes a perfect weekend or long-weekend getaway.
Family friendly places to Stay:
Sleep Inn and Suites of Lancaster County. 310 Primrose Ln. 717-285-0444. www.choicehotels.com. Free Morning Medley breakfast buffet, free Wi-Fi, indoor heated pool and hot tub, exercise room.
MainStay Suites of Lancaster County. 314 Primrose Ln. 717-285-2500. www.choicehotels.com. Free breakfast, free Wi-Fi, fully-equipped kitchens.
1863 Inn of Gettysburg. 516 Baltimore St. 717-334-6211. www.1863innofgettsyburg.com. Complimentary breakfast, seasonal outdoor pool, exercise room, free Wi-Fi.
Quality Inn and Suites. 871 York Rd. 717-337-2400. www.choicehotels.com. Free continental breakfast, indoor heated pool, whirlpool, fitness center, free Wi-Fi.
Days Inn Hershey. 350 West Chocolate Ave. 717-534-2162. www.daysinn.com Complementary hot breakfast, free shuttle to Hersheypark, indoor heated pool and hot tub, fitness center, free Wi-Fi. Closest hotel to Hersheypark.
Howard Johnson Inn Hershey. 845 East Chocolate Ave. 717-533-9157. www.howardjohnson.com. Free Rise & Dine continental breakfast, seasonal heated outdoor pool, fitness center, free Wi-Fi.