Warning! This article is a vacation recap. It is purposely light on the financials. I’ve got a monthly review coming up and three or four more articles outlined. It’s also a very long article.
I hope everyone had a great summer. With Labor Day in the rearview mirror, it’s safe to say it’s over. We’re 2/3rd through the year. It’s time to sprint, sprint, sprint for the next three months until we get to the holiday season slowdown.
I’m going to cling to summer a little longer. The weather will be nice for a few more weeks. I also have my August recap coming up in a few days.
Right now, though, I want to take you on a “road trip”, our main vacation of the summer. We just got back Sunday, so we snuck it in late. It’s an excellent time to travel because many summer camps are over, and our kids don’t start school until after Labor Day. We may need to change things up in the future, though, because the school planned many events just before the Labor Day weekend. How rude!
Last year, we took a bucket list Disney Cruise which covered five countries over two weeks. This year, we went on a road trip from Rhode Island to Pennsylvania. That’s what inflation will do to you, right? I’m joking. We didn’t have much time to plan, so we did what was familiar.
Here’s what we did:
New York City (Sunday 8/27)
We got up early and hit the road to our first stop – New York City. An unexpected but pleasant surprise was that no one else was traveling on a Sunday morning. We had almost no traffic.
A couple of years ago, we stayed at the Marriott Marquis. My wife couldn’t get the same fantastic government rate, so we settled for a Marriott Courtyard near Broadway. It was okay because we weren’t planning to spend too much time in the room.
The Marriott Courtyard upgraded us (for free) to a room with a view of the Empire State Building.
As soon as we dropped our stuff off, we went to lunch. We were thinking of grabbing a slice of famously great NY pizza, but we had some extra time, so we decided to try a sit-down Mexican place, Rick Bayless’s Tortazo. I never heard of Rick Bayless, so I looked him up. He’s a celebrity chef who has won all kinds of awards. The food was great and cheap (by NYC standards)!
Next, we were off to the main event, Little Shop of Horrors. My wife loves Broadway shows. Even though this was technically off-Broadway, it starred Jeremy Jordan, who she also loves. The kids have started to like musicals since their summer theater camp is focused on making a musical. I hadn’t seen the movie in a long, long time – if I even saw the whole movie at all. The play was great and had a different and better ending, apparently unsuitable for Hollywood.
American Dream had Dream Riders that you could rent ($1 a minute). It’s a great way for kids to terrorize unsuspecting shoppers. My wife and I went for a spin on them too. They can go pretty fast, so it’s a lot of fun.
We weren’t allowed to take pictures of the performance, so I got one from before it started.
After the play, we went to the Nintendo Store. We hadn’t been in four years, and there were a lot of new Pokemon to collect. Also, the kids have branched out to Kirby and Mario. The kids bought half the store using many months of saved-up allowance. We also went to FAO Schwartz to play on the piano. We popped into Krispy Kreme as one of our kids had never their doughnuts.
We ate some dinner at a small place, Emily’s. It was acceptable, but the most noteworthy thing was that they had almost no staff, so everything took forever. I had tried to plan a better dinner, but a lot of places in NYC close early on Sunday evenings due to the blue laws.
American Dream (Monday 8/28)
We got up early and picked up some food from a food cart. The poor guy didn’t know what to do with our order of 37 items. I’m sure he’s used to everyone’s Monday morning ritual of a coffee and bagel on the way to work. He charged us exactly $25. He must have estimated the bill, right?
From there, we tried to check out of the Marriott Courtyard to go to our next destination. They had told us that we needed to call for our car an hour in advance because they couldn’t park it on site. After an hour and a half of waiting for our car, we complained. They had thought we had already had our car and left. They gave us free parking. We finally got our car after about two hours.
It was a good thing that our next stop, American Dream, wasn’t too far away. If you have yet to hear of it, it’s a new supermall, like Mall of America, but smaller. They have an indoor amusement park, ski slope, skating rink, water park – you get the picture.
Who said Toys-R-Us went out of business? It’s alive and well at American Dream.
We went straight to our hotel, a Hampton Inn. Our room wasn’t ready (it was only 11 AM), so we checked our bags and took their free shuttle to the mall. The kids and I were interested in the water park. It was Dreamworks-themed, and my kids have recently rediscovered the awesomeness of Shrek. My wife chose to skip it to go shopping instead.
The water park is largely a “whole day” event. I have never seen so many water slides in my life. There must have been more than a dozen. Some of them were crazy insane, and no one in our group was brave enough to try them. Unfortunately, the wave pool was broken. It was just a standard pool. They had mentioned it before buying access. It meant there was no indoor surfing, which would have been fun.
Bringing my phone in the water park was inconvenient, so we’ll have to settle for this picture of the entrance.
Another ride, the Dream Runner, broke while we were there. We waited in line for an hour while they figured out it wasn’t working well. Finally, they told us and shut the ride down. If it worked, it would have been a great ride. It is the “world’s longest hydromagnetic rocket coaster.” It went around the whole water park like a water monorail.
After the water park, we went to have dinner at Mr. Beast Burger. It was the main reason the kids wanted to go American Dream. You can get Mr. Beast Burger food from a virtual kitchen almost anywhere, but this is one of the only real restaurants. My 10-year-old said it was the best burger he’s ever had. My 9-year-old is a vegetarian and gave the grilled cheese a big thumbs up. Then they bought some “merch” to improve their “drip.” (This is how kids talk nowadays.)
After that, we did blacklight mini golf, where I avoided all of the fun gimmicks and got the best score of my life with consistent twos and threes. Just like with investing, boring wins. We also did a hall of mirrors, which was fun. The only disappointing thing is that it lasted only 10 minutes. I was trying to take pictures of the kids in it, and they had already solved it before I could catch up to them and get a picture. Next, we did the TILT Museum. It’s a selfie museum with optical illusions.
My youngest who is ordinary 6 inches shorter than my oldest is a giant in this picture.
The water park, hall of mirrors, mini golf, and museum were in a package that cost $115 per person. Since my wife wanted to check out the shopping more than the water park, she bought a different package that only included the other three. It’s not a frugal day, but we got a lot in. The water park was nearly empty since New Jersey was back in school that Monday – more ride time!
Finally, we finished the evening with dessert at the Oreo Cafe at the top of the IT’SUGAR candy store. My 9-year-old found some Sour Patch Kids flip-flops (one of his favorite candies) in the clearance section (50% off!). He needed new ones because a dog ate his last ones. The Oreo Cafe was good, but it was pretty expensive.
iFly/Hershey Lodge Water Park (Tuesday 8/29)
We started the next day with the Hampton Inn’s complimentary breakfast. I then went to the gym for a bit because I knew I wouldn’t be eating the healthiest food on the trip. After that, we killed a couple of hours by going back to American Dream. We mostly just walked around. If I had to do it again, I might have booked a different hotel that had a pool.
We had to kill the time because we had an early afternoon appointment at iFly – a wind tunnel. Years ago, my oldest mentioned that he wished he could fly, so I showed him the wind tunnel. I explained that this is the best I can do. It was time to make good on that promise. In hindsight, we could have gone hang gliding, but there’s a fear of heights attached with that.
My wife didn’t enjoy the wind tunnel, but the rest of us did. The iFly people pushed an upgrade for more flying time at a discounted rate. I splurged on the extra time for each kid. It was worth it as they could teach the kids more advanced techniques, like turning in the wind tunnel.
We would have bought many more flights if one was local to us in Rhode Island. A different company is supposed to open one about 45 minutes from us, but they’ve been “opening” since 2020, so I don’t know if it will happen. They are doing pre-sales now and seem active on social media, so I have my fingers crossed.
After our flights, we drove to Hershey, Pennsylvania. It’s a few hours away, so I rushed because I wanted to get some of the awesome Hershey Lodge Water Park time in before it closes at 9 PM. It’s a small water park that’s included in the hotel stay. It’s got a couple of 5-story water slides and some other stuff. It also has adult drinks and lifeguards – a big win for parents.
We went four years ago, and it was one of my favorite memories with my kids. For some reason, it didn’t have the same magic this time. I think it may be because we rushed to fit it in. It might have also been that the kids are older, and it’s quite tame compared to the full water park at American Dream.
Shopping and Hershey Chocolate World (Wednesday 8/30)
We started Wednesday with back-to-school shopping. The kids needed some new outfits and baseball gear for the upcoming season. We have limited shopping at home, and Tanger Outlets usually have everything we need. We had a lot of trouble finding the baseball gear, though. None of the athletic stores, such as Nike or Under Armour, carried gloves or cleats. We found a lot of the non-baseball stuff at J. Crew. I even got a pair of socks with cute dogs for under $3.
After that business was done, we were off to Chocolate World. Hershey has a restaurant called the Chocolatier, where most menu items are inspired by chocolate. It’s a great meal. We then went to Chocolate World, a free area outside the main park. At Chocolate World, you can buy all kinds of Hershey’s “merch,” including crazy candy flavors you don’t see every day. They also have a few attractions that you can buy tickets to. They were all sold out of time slots for the day, so we returned to the Hershey Lodge and the water park for the rest of the night.
If the Hershey Lodge is going to give us these pillows, we’re going to have a pillow fight.
Hershey Park (Thursday 8/31 & Friday 9/1)
We woke up Thursday and got the first shuttle to the park. We went straight to Chocolate World to buy tickets for the two things we wanted to do: “Make Your Own Candy Bar” and “Great Candy Expedition.” They are very expensive for what they are, but it’s a good experience. The kids talked about starting their own candy bar company for a couple of days.
Make Your Own Candy Bar is fun. I told the kids that they are going to need to raise capital to buy these machines if they want to do it for real – LOL.
After that, we went to the park and got in early because we stayed at a Hershey property. That extra hour before the general crowd can get in is valuable. It allows you to get to a couple of rides that usually have long waits.
We spent most of the next two days at the park going on everything that wasn’t too scary. Several years ago, the kids weren’t interested in roller coasters, so Hershey was a different experience of strollers and kiddie rides. A couple of years ago, they got more interested in trying them, mostly the small ones. This year, my youngest wanted to go on nearly every roller coaster – even crazy ones that did multiple loops and hung you upside-down forever at 130 mph. I exaggerate slightly. We’ve been to Hershey about four times, and I never noticed they had fifteen roller coasters.
I’ve never been a roller coaster person, but I’ve started to ramp it up since the kids were interested. I find that I can do nearly any coaster as long as I can’t see how crazy it is in advance. If I have to wait in line, I’ll think about the numerous ways that I will die on the coaster and get freaked out. It’s not fun for me. For this reason, the park itself was a mixed bag for me. My older son feels the same way, so we sometimes separated from my wife and youngest.
You can do about 80% of Hershey Park in one day. The second day is good for revisiting some rides, spending extra time at the water park inside Hershey, or going to their zoo. We left the park early on the second day and went to our next destination, the Cartoon Network Hotel in Lancaster, PA.
Cartoon Network Hotel (Friday Night 9/1 – Sunday Morning 9/3)
Two years ago, my kids loved Cartoon Network. Over the last year, they’ve spent a lot more of their time watching YouTube and Marvel movies and shows. The Cartoon Network channel has canceled most of its best shows and has yet to put money into developing new ones. It’s all part of HBO’s plan to make money, I guess.
Nonetheless, the Cartoon Network is still a fun place for a couple of days. We checked in Friday night after the short drive from Hershey. We grabbed some dinner at Arby’s, which may sound strange, but it’s a treat. Our home of Rhode Island is the one state where Arby’s doesn’t have a location. Whenever we’re on a trip, I like to stop by someplace new. The kids didn’t enjoy Arby’s as much as I did but admitted that their fries were excellent.
We were a little late for the nightly event. They set up an outdoor movie screen and show four episodes from different Cartoon Network shows. A couple of years ago, dozens of fireflies joined us. This year, we only saw a few.
On Saturday morning, we went to Waffle House using the same rationale as Arby’s. The kids liked it better than IHOP, but maybe that’s because it was new. On the short drive, we noticed Lancaster has much better shopping than the Tanger Outlets in Hershey. I searched Google Maps for a sporting goods store and found a Rawlings store 0.2 miles away. It was one-stop shopping for all the baseball gear we needed.
After shopping, we went back to the hotel to swim. (BTW, the Cartoon Network “Hotel” is a bit of a misnomer. It’s an old-fashioned motor lodge that’s been updated with a theme.) Unfortunately, they had trouble getting lifeguards and said they were opening the pool at 2 PM. This gave us time to explore Amish country, which my wife loves. She picked up some jars of food like apple butter at a local store. As you can tell, I wasn’t paying attention.
We got back at 1 PM. The pool was open, and everyone had taken all the good chairs. The kids got about 45 minutes of swimming in before they closed the pool. Maybe some kid got sick or something? We moved to the indoor pool and played an hour in there.
Next, we explored some of the fun areas of the hotel. They had a scavenger hunt where you’d spot Cartoon Network characters in the lobby, gift shop, and markets. It’s entertaining for about 45 minutes. We looked through the gift shop and found things were wildly priced. A pack of five pencils was $10 – crazy expensive! A two-foot stuffed Grizz from We Bare Bears was $35 – super cheap! We bought the bear, of course.
The Cartoon Network Hotel had a fun room with a few activities that can keep the kids busy for a couple of hours. Here they are stomping on the squares which review Cartoon Network characters under them.
It was still early, but we decided an early dinner would be fine since Waffle House was more of a brunch. We went to Milers, which offers a buffet in an Amish style. It’s a good fit for the kids because they can try many foods and always find enough things they like. We should have gotten a reservation because even at 5 PM, the wait was over an hour.
After dinner, we returned in time for the outdoor cartoon show and bedtime. The Cartoon Network beds for the kids are especially noteworthy. They are bunk beds, each with its own TV with different channels, allowing you to choose from many Cartoon Network shows. I went to sleep, but I bet the kids stayed up late watching The Amazing World of Gumball. They had seen all the episodes a few times, but they get more of the jokes as they get older.
Sunday morning, we went on a traditional Amish buggy ride. We got lucky because few are running on Sunday since it’s against the religion to work. The company found a guy who was raised Amish but isn’t too strict in following the church. The kids didn’t enjoy the buggy ride, but my wife and I liked learning about the culture.
After the buggy ride, we were off for our six-hour ride home. It would have been nice to have an extra day to stop again in NYC to break up the drive. However, with school in two days, we wanted to have Labor Day as a day to reset and catch up.
I realize that was a lot of detail. Part of the reason why I went into so much detail is to preserve it as a journal entry. However, another big reason is to help give you ideas of things to do on your travel. Many of you probably got a chuckle from going to Arby’s or Waffle House, but why not try new chains when you can?
I would have liked to do a more in-depth financial analysis, but my wife made most bookings using her military discount. We got a lot of mid-week, off-peak rates starting on Sunday. The Cartoon Network Hotel is generally cheap, so the weekend rates didn’t increase much. Since it was a road trip, we brought a lot of snacks and drinks with us, which saved us money.
We used a couple of tanks of gas at a total cost of around $100. That’s much better than flying four people, costing between $1600 to $3000. That savings spread over a week allows us to spend $200-$400 more daily. Some days, like at American Dream, we spent that. A lot of days, we didn’t. Looking back, a lot of the time, we took advantage of the hotel pool. Other times, we were doing back-to-school shopping, money we would have spent anyway.
All-in-all, it was a good mix of price and value. It’s great to reset and get back to the grind with the school season upon us.