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June 13, 2007
HERSHEY, Pa. -- Chocolate magnate Milton S. Hershey wasn't all work and no play.
Hershey's vision for the company town he built also included a ''picnic and pleasure grounds'' for employees and their families to enjoy in their free time. In his master plan, he set aside 150 acres of wooded farmland for recreation across the tracks from the chocolate factory he started building in 1903.
On April 24,1907, he presided over the dedication of Hershey Park, an open park that featured picnic tables and benches, an athletic field, a winding creek that was dammed to create a small lake for boating or canoeing, and slides and swingsets for children.
In the 100 years since, the park now known as Hersheypark has evolved into a full-scale theme park with more than 60 rides and attractions, including 10 roller coasters and six water rides. But its mission of giving families a respite from their daily cares remains the same, said Frank J. O'Connell, the park's general manager.
''Our company is in the business of making memories that last a lifetime,'' O'Connell said. ``That is a lot about what this 100th anniversary celebration is -- the memories, how the park has grown over the years.''
The marquee event of this year's celebration was last month's opening of The Boardwalk at Hersheypark, a $21 million expansion that combines three existing water rides with five new water-themed attractions.
The Boardwalk's centerpiece is the East Coast Waterworks, a 70-foot tall steel waterplay structure billed as the world's largest. It uses more than 54,000 gallons of water and features seven slides, two crawl tunnels and two large tipping buckets at the top that send water cascading onto bathers below.
Other elements include a kiddie pool called Sandcastle Cove, a Coastline Plunge water slide complex, and Waverider, a ride that allows two people to surf on machine-made waves.
''It almost feels like a Coney Island out there,'' O'Connell said.
It's a far cry from the modest amusements that were available in the park's first year, although new amenities were added as Milton Hershey's personal wealth grew. Within the first five years of its existence, a bandstand, amphitheater, miniature railroad, zoo and outdoor pool were constructed.
When the town celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1923, the park had its first roller coaster, The Wild Cat. In 1946, it was replaced with another wooden coaster, The Comet, which still runs today.
The first Ferris wheel came along in 1939.
But by the late 1960s, increasing concerns about safety and vandalism led park officials to fence in the park and charge general admission. In 1971, the park was renamed Hersheypark, and its management company embarked on a five-year plan to make it a major theme park.
''That's when the focus was on shifting from being just this small regional park to wanting to be a major destination,'' O'Connell said.
Today, visitors are greeted by a life-size statue of Hershey in the middle of a fountain near the park's entrance. They can get a panoramic view of the park and the town from atop the Kissing Tower -- a rotating, elevating ride that rises 250 feet and is adorned with windows shaped like Hershey's Kisses -- while candy mascots stroll the grounds.
Throughout the park, tamer kiddie rides are clustered with more adrenaline-pumping fare and entertainment venues so that families don't have to split up to find something each member will enjoy, said Scott Silar, a ride operations supervisor.
''It's not like you have to send one half of the family to one side of the park and one half to the other side of the park,'' Silar said. ``They can work their way through it together.''
Besides the introduction of the Boardwalk, the centennial season features fireworks displays every Saturday night from Memorial Day through Labor Day. One of the park's restaurants, the Tudor Grill, offers chicken and waffles on its menu -- a Pennsylvania Dutch dish that was said to be a favorite of Hershey's whenever he visited the park's cafe.
The Hershey Co. still operates chocolate-manufacturing facilities in the town of Hershey. Hershey's Chocolate World, a visitor center near the amusement park, offers a free tour that explains how chocolate is made, from cacao bean to candy.
Fred Smith, 73, a season-pass holder from State College, was one of a few adults who took in the park amid several school groups on a recent Friday afternoon. Smith, who took some time to rest by the park's ''carrousel'' after riding some roller-coasters with his wife, said he has fond memories of visits he has made as a young boy, a father and a grandfather.
''It's about four times as big as it was,'' said Smith, who first visited when he was about 10 years old. ``It's the cleanest park I've ever seen.''
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