A great man once said, “Chocolate doesn’t ask silly questions; chocolate understands.” Or maybe it was a woman—it’s one of those quotes that nobody has ever claimed. Milton Hershey definitely understood this, however. He started churning out the chocolate gold at the end of the 19th century, after selling his caramel factory and creating a method to make chocolate more efficiently. “Caramel is a fad,” he said at the time. “Chocolate is a permanent thing.” He was right, it seems. His factory has been producing chocolate for over 100 years and shows no signs of slowing down.
The factory gave tours until 1973 when, overwhelmed by demand, the company opened Chocolate World, right off Hersheypark Dr. in Hershey, PA, less than a two-hour drive from Philly. Chocolate World sits adjacent to Hershey Park, an amusement park full of roller coasters and other rides Hershey founded in 1906. Taken together, they make up a magical place that I saw for myself on a recent visit, probably the closest thing to the mystical Fountain of Youth, Shangri La, or El Dorado for our modern-day times. I imagine it may have been the inspiration for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The self-proclaimed Sweetest Place on Earth, it handles millions of visitors a year.
I decided to visit Hershey and eat and drink as much chocolate as I could possibly stand. At Chocolate World, admission is free, so anyone can walk into the nucleus of everything chocolate and be awed by the endless shelves of sugar-coated delights. Of course, no one leaves without a lighter wallet. There’s shoes, shirts, mugs, dolls… This might be a store, but it is a store that makes you feel happy.
The chocolate tour is a Disney-esque automated ride that feels like a cross between “it’s a small world after all” and the Ford Motor Company assembly line. There’s videos mixed with singing cows, and the process of creating chocolate is semi-explained as your little car careens in and out of various audio-visual rooms. Yeah, you feel slightly brainwashed at the end, but it’s free and you might learn something.
For a small fee, you can sign up for a chocolate tasting. You’re given a small bag with a few samples and seated in a dark classroom with your tasting guide, who runs a few short films and shows you the proper way to enjoy chocolate. The best part is trying the raw chocolate nibs and the Hershey’s Bliss, a very smooth rich bar. After you sample the candy, you’re asked to identify the flavors and enter them into the tablet on your desk. Whether this is a tricky way of getting free marketing testers or Hershey wants to make you feel like you’re a chocolate sommelier, is the big question.
The coolest part of Chocolate World is the high-tech attraction that lets you design your own chocolate bar. For about $20, you are fitted with hair net and apron, then led to a computer that allows you to select up to three ingredients, choose between light and dark chocolate, and add optional multicolored sprinkles to create your own personal chocolate bar. It’s good fun watching your bar going through an automated assembly line like some kind of heavenly car wash with your name flashing on the screen. But wait! There’s more! The next room allows you to design your wrapper, no Photoshop experience required. You select from a template, add your name, resize the Hershey logos, change colors and print your wrapper. The factory worker at the end pieces it together and hands you your creation. How it looks and tastes is entirely your own fault.
After you’ve loaded up your basket with all the candy you can carry or afford, you might want to head over to The Hershey Hotel. It’s the best resort in town, and it’s lovely. You may not want to spend $400 a night to stay there, but you can always grab one of the four different flavors of chocolate martinis at the upscale bar. All made with… yes, you guessed it! Hershey’s chocolate!