Big Bird, Big Fun, Big Money

Sesame Place is pure bliss for kids but might leave Mom and Dad feeling a bit ragged

$500 Getaway

Visit Pennsylvania

September 16, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,Sun Reporter

LANGHORNE, Pa. // Perhaps in time, anthropologists will look back on amusement parks and see them as hallowed sites that allowed us to pay homage to strange, fuzzy creatures called Muppets, an oversized, walking yellow bird or a mouse named Mickey that looks like no rodent that ever scurried the Earth.

Yet for many parents, the summer is spent driving or flying with children in tow across great distances, sometimes hundreds of miles in the case of Walt Disney World, to wait in line for hours at the feet of giant likenesses of childhood characters.

Call it a pilgrimage of fun for kids, with a cast of characters they know know and love, as well as rides and places to explore what they won't see anywhere else. But for Mom and Dad, it can be a pilgrimage of pain, in both a figurative and literal sense.

My wife, two young daughters and I drove about 2 1/2 hours north to Sesame Place in July, where we visited with the cast of characters we've come to know from watching Sesame Street on a daily basis. We had $500 to spend on our trip to Langhorne, about 30 minutes northeast of Philadelphia and near the New Jersey state line.

In some ways, it was the best cash we've spent in a while, because Isabelle, 4, and Cora, 2, had a blast. But, in others, it felt like money flew out of our pockets during two of the most stressful days I've had in a while, chasing them around and trying to teach them, over and over, what it means to have to wait behind someone else.

On the drive over, I ruminated about how Sesame Street, one of the most wonderful and long-lasting shows on television - meaningful to me as a boy as well as to my girls - would be turned into a profit-making enterprise.

Of course, spinning off such a popular show into a theme park was a novel idea, since Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster and Elmo now hold sway over the American consciousness at least as much as Goofy or Mickey Mouse.

But could Anheuser-Busch, one of the largest beer-brewing companies in the world that also happens to own about a dozen amusement parks, bring the ethos of nonprofit Sesame Workshop to a theme park?

I was skeptical, mindful of my former college roommate who after graduation worked at the studios where the PBS show is filmed in New York, without pay for a time, because he so believed in the way the program connects with children.

I was also uncertain how to answer the questions that Isabelle would ask after she gave Elmo a hug. I knew she would wonder if he and the others were real.

The game plan

Now, to make it through an amusement park without having a nervous breakdown, you need a plan. Believe me, whole books are dedicated to this subject.

Planning enables you to get the most out of your time and money. You can find out what rides are the least busy and at what times, how to avoid at least some lines, where to take a break and even how to find the extremely rare hidden treasures, like rides that don't require long waits or even food that isn't outlandishly expensive.

The main element of our plan was to arrive at Sesame Place on a Friday afternoon, after the crowd had presumably thinned out. We'd seek out the more popular events on that day, then spend time in no-line water playgrounds or other areas for smaller children Saturday.

We bought tickets online and also brought some food and water, which the park claims not to allow, although the guards who check your bag upon entering will let you in with a modest amount of snacks. We carried our stuff to avoid the $8-a-day lockers.

And because we read that stroller traffic jams are a major annoyance at Sesame Place, we opted to brave the park on foot, carrying our toddlers on shoulders or in our arms. We didn't want to pay the hard-to-swallow price of $15 a day to rent a stroller.

Day 1, with Elmo

Lucky for us, both girls slept almost the entire drive up, so we avoided the proverbial "Are we there yet?" inquisition after about only 30 minutes of singing "99 Bottles of Juice on the Wall."

When we arrived at Sesame Place, our initial plan seemed to work very well. We skipped some long lines of people waiting to buy tickets, only to stop in our tracks at the next line just a hundred yards away, which allowed us admission to the park.

Once we got in, we waited in line some more. And some more. And some more.

Still, it easily could have been worse. We first visited a life-size replica of Sesame Street, complete with the fire engine, fruit stand and other shops with striped awnings that resembled the set.

While we waited a few minutes for a photo-op with Cookie Monster, Isabelle and Cora played on the fire engine for about 20 seconds apiece before surrendering to other eager little ones.

We then meandered to what was probably the coolest area of the park for the girls' age group. There was a giant trampoline called Ernie's Bed Bounce, a small maze on sand, a 30-foot-tall blue pyramid made for climbing and sliding and, above those, a huge enclosure with ropes for hallways.

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