I'll begin with a quote from my 11 year old niece, from 11:30 last night as we were driving back home:
"They say it is the sweetest place on Earth, Aunt Tammy, not the happiest. That's Disney World. We should just go there from now on."
We were supposed to be in Hershey from Monday until today. The first day was fine, really. We arrived early, check-in at The Hershey Lodge was a breeze. Our room smelled a bit stale and lemony, but it was clean. My major pet peeve was with Hershey Park itself. Now, maybe it is because I am from New York and expect people to do their job in a timely and efficient manner, even when I am on vacation, or I may just have a very low tolerance for bullshit in general, but Disney this was not. We were only at the second ride for the kids to go on (My nephew is Hershey Bar height for the rides), and I was already getting irked. The kids, and all of the other little ones waiting for the ride, sat there waiting in their cars for the ride to start for several minutes while 4 park employees -- presumably at least one of which should have been manning the ride -- stood around chatting before anyone even started to check to make sure the kids were buckled in safely. The ride was full. They weren't waiting to fill up seats. On a few rides the kids were left to unlock themselves and get out. WTF. Not cool, Hershey. A six year old should not have to figure out how to undo the ride mechanism to get out.
Hershey's Chocolate World, on the other hand, was incredibly busy but much more well organized. They had someone there to meet you coming through the door. He gave us a map, told us where the free ride was, explained all the things you could do there.
Day two things started going much better. The gentleman doing the valet parking in front of Hershey Lodge told us, for the first time anywhere, that we could get a free bottle of water from him to take to Hershey Park with us, and he told us that the permanent concession stands in Hershey Park itself
would had to give you free glasses of ice water if you asked. No one had mentioned that the day before, either at the lodge or in the park.
We went to Hershey Gardens, and checked out the Children's Garden, the Butterfly House, and walked the other gardens for the morning. The staff could not have been nicer, including the tram diver. We got more information from her and the valet gentleman that morning than from anyone else during the trip! The kids had a great time, did a scavenger hunt in the Children's Garden, and as a prize for finishing they each got to choose a full-size garden tool to bring home! My nephew chose a red shovel "so he can dig up worms to go fishing", and my niece chose a purple hoe -- I think mostly because it was purple.
We had planned to go to the water park for the afternoon, but changed plans when we started seeing severe thunderstorm warnings. My nephew does not like thunderstorms on a good day, so taking him to the far end of the park was not a good plan. Instead we went back to the park and went on more rides. My nephew cajoled my mother into going on the Coal Cracker log flume ride. She didn't like it and said it was, "a roller coaster with water," and my nephew thought it was hysterical that he had gotten Grandma to go on the ride.
It had been a long, hot day of walking so we headed back to the lodge to eat dinner. We were almost done with dinner at The Bear's Den when the trouble started. Thank goodness we were eating there, or we would have had no clue what was going down! It's set up like a sports bar, so they had the main television showing the recap of Germany crushing Brazil in the World Cup. All of a sudden it gets the alert on the big screen that there is a tornado warning for the area. I know my mother and my niece saw it, but we told my nephew it was just a warning about a thunderstorm.
Shortly before 8pm, as we were trying to pay the bill for dinner, the power went out. We got that sorted and headed back to the main lobby of the lodge. Power seemed to be out to all parts of the lodge, and it was absolutely pouring outside. Our phones were dead and charging in the room, so we couldn't check those. Since our room had an entrance from outside we decided to wait in the lobby until it stopped raining quite so hard. My nephew was getting nervous, but he was sitting down and being so good, and his sister was right there with him to take care of him.
Did I mention there was some kind of giant dance competition taking place in the convention center of the lodge? Oh yeah. My niece said it looked like the tv show Dance Moms come to life. We were sitting patiently, watching the lodge staff bugging out, running all over trying to deal with the power outage and guest questions, when a freaked out dance girl came running up to the group of people sitting next to us to ask very loudly, "Oh my God, is it a tornado? My phone says we are in a tornado!" and started crying. Fucking perfect. My poor little nephew didn't say anything, just got really tense and kept sitting on the floor.
A few minutes later a hotel staff member yells to everyone that there is a tornado, and we need to evacuate to the ballrooms on the convention side of the building. My mother grabbed my nephew's hand, I took my niece. That was pretty much the last direction anyone actually gave in what would quickly become a giant clusterfuck.
We head over the the convention area -- aka Dance Competition Central -- as we had no other alternative. We followed the crowd through a room and down some stairs. There is no hotel staff to be seen anywhere, telling anyone what to do. We still weren't below ground anywhere, and there were windows all along one side of the building. What the hell kind of evacuation plan was this shit? A woman near us, also not with the dance competition, was commenting on what a bad idea it was. Eventually we made it into one of the ballrooms labeled as a dressing room for some of the dance groups. Another family of people from Massachusetts was right behind us, also trying to figure out what we were supposed to be doing. We entered a room with different groups of freaked out, crying girls in dance outfits with a few adults trying to keep them calm. We moved the kids away from the doors, toward the other wall, and out from beneath any chandeliers. One staff member in a brown shirt, I don't know if he was convention staff or maintenance as I had never seen a staff member in this color shirt anywhere before, had a radio and told everyone to get into the ballroom. My mother and the woman from Massachusetts closed all of the doors in case the windows in the hallway broke.
That would be when my little nephew lost it and started crying. All of the kids were freaked out and crying. I was trying to keep my niece -- who was being so brave and strong, and did not cry once -- from getting freaked out. I didn't find out until later that my nephew had asked my mother if we were all going to die.
After spending several minutes in this chaos, with no sign of a hotel employee of any kind, my mother opened a door on the other side of the ballroom to try to find out what the hell was going on. She found a man in a bright green t-shirt, I think it said he was from Alley Cats dance studio, who said they were just told to move further into the lodge to a more interior ballroom. I grabbed the kids and we followed them. We got to an interior, windowless ballroom. There was a waiter there from one of the restaurants. He had no information about what was going on, or how long we were supposed to be there-- he had been told to report to that area.
A short while later another lodge employee, in a brown shirt once again, came in and told us we could back to the lodge. My mother asked what that meant -- was it safe, was the storm over, etc. He said we had been at "F5" level, but it had gone down to "F4" now and it was okay to go back to the lobby. My mother asked if that meant there had been a tornado. The employee said yes, a tornado had been spotted and touched down, that was why they had evacuated. The lady from Massachusetts, whose family had joined us in the evacuation fun time, asked if maybe they should wait until it was down to a safer level before telling everyone it was okay. The guy in the brown shirt explained, "I don't know ma'am. I'm just telling you what I am hearing over my radio. They are saying it is okay for people to return to the lobby."
Gentlemen in brown shirts -- I don't know what part of the staff you make up at Hershey Lodge, but you are rock stars! You were the only ones around for most of the chaos trying to help people, and you were the only ones with any kind of information. Job well done! You were professional and calm in the face of a lot of freaked out people and kids. Kudos to you!
It was only when we had walked halfway back up and over to the lobby, in a stream of hundreds of other people, that my nephew asked to stop and fix his shoes. He had taken them off when we were sitting in the lobby before being told to evacuate, and he had been hurrying so much and so scared he had put his Crocs on the wrong feet. He had kept them on that way the entire time, never saying a word about it because he had been so freaked out.
We went back to the lobby to wait, since the power was still out. A teenage guy from Montauk came over and sat with us for a bit. He asked if we knew what was going on, had there been a tornado, etc. We told him what we knew. His friend's sister was in the dance competitions, so he had come with his friend to go to the park for the weekend and they didn't know what was going on.
Lodge staff was running around like crazy. Guests finally took it upon themselves to open the doors to the patio area since it was getting really hot in the lobby and the air conditioning obviously wasn't working without power.
My niece told me that they have better tornado drills in school in Texas, and that people didn't seem to know what they were doing.
Once we saw that it had stopped raining, we headed back to our hotel room. We didn't know if we would be able to get in, since the power was still out, but it would be cooler just to sit outside if we couldn't open the door. The door opened! I was able to get my phone, and we tried to figure out what to do.
My nephew was feeling much calmer, hugging his friends (stuffed animals) an sitting in the hotel room. He told us, "Miss Carmen (his day care provider back in Corpus Christi) does tornado drills and fire drills. We practice what to do. Miss Carmen says that you should get in the bath tub if there is a tornado. " Excellent job, Miss Carmen! I think he would have been even more upset if he didn't have those practice skills to think about!
We checked out the lobby again, and determined that power was apparently going to be out for quite a while. The hotel staff was starting to hand out flashlights to guests -- apparently this was their back-up plan. We decided to check out and head back home to New York. I don't think my nephew would have slept at all if we had decided to stay.
A lot of other people decided to leave as well. Judging from the license plates leaving and at the check-out parking area, a large number of people from New York and New Jersey all decided they had had enough and were leaving. We packed up, and I kept the kids occupied while my mother wrangled with the front desk staff. She said they were very nice. They did not charge her for last night, since we were leaving, and they refunded the zoo tickets we were supposed to have used today.
Half the street lights were out when we left the lodge property, and half of the businesses as well. We found a gas station that was opened, fueled up and hit the road. My nephew fell asleep almost immediately, as soon as we told him we were out of Hershey and headed home to New York. My niece stayed up for a couple of hours before drifting off for a bit.
The drive wasn't too bad. Not nearly as much construction work as on the way down, and we didn't hit any of the rain or storms that were all over the North East last night. My nephew sort of half-woke up around 1am and wanted to know if we were still going to see the zoo before he fell asleep again. We got home around 1:30 this morning. The Mid-Hudson Bridge has never been a more welcome sight!
I don't know what our plans are for today. I do know that I had promised the kids we would get big fancy ice creams after we went swimming last night, so they are most definitely getting them at some point today! They were so brave and so good during all of the chaos! They handled it better than a lot of the grown-ups who were yelling and freaking out, and the teenagers who were screaming and crying.
**EDIT: Found this on the internet this morning:
Chocolate Avenue in Hershey, from WGLA gallery linked above