Vipassana meditation teaches that grief and nuisance are inevitable in this life, but if you can plant yourself in stillness long enough, you will, in time, experience the truth that everything (both uncomfortable and lovely) does eventually pass.
~Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love
Today, I am on a journey.
Today, I am journeying through all the grief and nuisance in this life to become a more still-minded and enlightened human being.
Today, I am standing on the edge of an enormous, shallow, bowl-shaped swimming pool filled with what looks to be a huge serving of watered-down cream of mushroom soup.
And about a hundred toddlers.
It’s hot. Both the water and the weather. The sun is blistering the top of my head, and the humidity is doing a number on my lungs, making each breath feel as strained as sucking mushroom soup through a very thin straw. I wonder, in passing, whether all that raw meat and raw cake batter I ate as a child have tangentially inoculated me against whatever new microbial life forms are now evolving in the cloudy pool. I’m watching my own toddler take a few tentative steps into the brew of splashing children and sagging diapers, and I’m saying a quiet but fervent prayer that his immune system has huge, huge, huge, brass cajones.
“Find a happy place, find a happy place…”
To be fair, I’ve broken my own Golden Rule on visiting amusement parks.
My Golden Rule goes something like this:
Never on a weekend.
And yet here I am, two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon at Sesame Place theme and water park in Langhorne, Pennsylvania.
I also need to be upfront about a few other things.
First of all, I love amusement parks. When Parent Bloggers Network gave me the go ahead to attend Media Day at Sesame Place and write a review, I jumped at the chance. (Literally, I jumped.) I’m not a theme park hater, nor am I one of those folks who’d much rather never go near a carousel queue, but who will do so once in a while for the sake of my kids’ Happy Childhood™. No indeed, I do enjoy long promenades among thrill rides, and I approach any visit to a large amusement park with a sense of adventure at the challenge of getting the best experience possible despite the odds thrown down by long lines, the overpriced refreshments, and the even more overpriced souvenirs.
Second, I would never normally visit any theme park or amusement park or water park or county fair or, truly, even most playgrounds on any day when there was also an additional special event or above-and-beyond promotion, and today there were both. This particular Sunday, Sesame Place was hosting Media Day and “Bring a Friend” Day. And there were, evidently, a lot of friends brought.
Third and finally, an introduction to our group:
We consisted of two adults and three children, ages 9 years old, almost 7 years old, and 22 months. The nine year old is a strong swimmer, but still needs the occasional word of adult discretion and guidance whispered into her ear, especially in crowds, and especially on water park rides, and especially on crowded water park rides. The seven year old is the most cautious and rule-abiding of all of us, but not yet a strong enough swimmer to be left on her own on many of the water slides. The toddler routinely runs headlong into lakes and snake pits. Which is all to say that this was way more park experience than any two mortal adults could bargain for. We needed at least one other adult with us, and possibly could have done better with a fourth adult and a private lifeguard.
So, with those caveats and disclaimers in place, let’s take a step back from the sea of knee-high humanity frolicking and flailing through the somewhat less-than-crystalline waters of Little Bird’s Birdbath, and start again at the beginning of the day. Come and play, and let’s hear what was A-OK! And what called for a modicum of philosophical meditation.
A-OK! The Basics
Sesame Place is located about 30 minutes north of Philadelphia, PA, and park hours seem to generally run from 10:00 AM until 8:00 PM, give or take on the closing hours according to time of year.
We stayed overnight at a cheapie hotel near Valley Forge, PA and arrived at Sesame Place fresh and well-rested after a shortish car ride.
We arrived just as the park opened, and the lines into the parking lot and into the park itself were already formidable. However, because the kids were overly enthusiastic to do anything that didn’t involve wandering around Revolutionary War encampments, the simple thrill of watching for Sesame Place highway signs and then pointing out Cookie Monster and Elmo placards on the light poles outside the park kept the happy juice flowing even during the initial waiting around.
Om….Says Oscar The Grouch
Parking is $13.00
Preferred parking is $16.00
Lockers rentals are $10.00 for a small locker and $12.00 for large.
Single-day Admission is $47.50 (plus tax) for anyone 24 months and older.
Various levels of Sesame Place Passport are advertised heavily throughout the park, and if I lived closer, I might go for it. I do have it on good authority from my cousin and other friends who have been to Sesame Place several times that weekdays are substantially less crowded. I’m also betting that the fewer park attendees are directly and literally reflected in pool water clarity.
Also, do your online research and check local hotels and restaurants and grocery stores for discount coupons. I hear that they are difficult to come by, but not impossible.
If it were me running Sesame Place - a park geared toward kids ages 2-7 in theme (From Sesame Place FAQs) if not in actual practice (See: Attractions) - I’d open the gates at 7:00 AM. At least. Most little kids that I know wake early and are pooped-out by lunch time. An earlier opening time might require heating some of the pools during cooler morning hours, but for $47.50 a pop are you telling me you can’t add a few hot coals to the H2O?
Instead, at around two o’clock in the afternoon, there were kids crashing and melting down from the heat, the over-stimulation, and the well-intentioned over-indulgence of parents who were going to squeeze as much bang as possible from their $47.50 per person. And I couldn’t blame them. I was one of them. By 3:00 PM, just about everyone looked a little wild-eyed and raw, and by 4:00 PM, the park was rife with sunny day anarchy. Everyone had just given up pretending to be PBS supporter types, and kids were being fueled by cotton candy, and diapers were hanging low and full. There was a lingering scent of sugar and poo in the air.
A-OK! The Attractions
Sesame Place is an amusement park with “dry” rides and attractions, but the water attractions seem to be the big draw and are more prominently featured. In other words, if your kids are anything like mine, i.e. otters cleverly disguised as children, be prepared to get wet.
Bathing suits are required on all water rides, and I recommend just wearing the suits into the park. Changing rooms were hard to come by. Also, bring water shoes. There are cubbies at each ride to store street shoes, but really, why? I mean, why bother? Just wear water shoes and be done with it.
Big winners with my kids were Slippey Slopes and Sesame Streak, both water slides. We got on these “big kid” rides early in the day when the park seemed to be filled with more preschoolers, and the girls had several turns without much of a wait, if any at all.
Later in the afternoon, the girls rode Big Bird’s Rambling River on their own. The Rambling River is a man made “river” that kids and adults float along on inner tubes. Now, normally, either my husband or I would have accompanied my daughters to make sure that they stayed together along the river and to be on hand just in case someone flipped off her inner tube. However, this last ride took place during the anarchy part of the day; my husband and I had become separated, I was woozy from the heat, and I agreed to let the girls go on the ride together…unattended.
Which turned out to be part of the thrill.
The water was just over the seven year old’s head, and - of course - after not being able to reach into the bin for a life jacket, after getting separated from her sister, and after trying to propel herself off the sidewall to get to her sister, she flipped off the inner tube.
The teenage lifeguard wasn’t immediately aware of what had happened, and although I was ready to spring to action and dive into the Rambling River to retrieve my doggy-paddling kid, she was doing okay hanging onto the inner tube with one arm and made it to the wall. Lesson learned, and I don’t fault Sesame Place in the least. (Well, okay, the life vest bin could have been more easily accessible, but bygones. I’ll take the blame on this one.)
Anyway, my daughters declared the Rambling River to be “awesome” and it stands as their E-ticket (er-hem) ride of the day, capsize and all.
My toddler was, in a word, overwhelmed. This was his first amusement park outing, and it was a bit too “too” for his small understanding the world: too hot, too noisy, requiring too much patience - not a strong suit in most almost-two year olds. His favorite attractions were a low sliding board - not unlike the one in our backyard - that was located in Elmo’s World, and the Count’s Fount, a larger and decidedly more adequately chlorinated pool and “spray ground”.
There are loads of dry rides for 4-7 year olds. My middle child - the almost-seven year old - seemed to be able to go on the most rides by herself without being blocked-out by age limits, and didn’t seem to think that the rides she was big/old enough to go on were “too babyish” or “for little kids“.
For example, my older daughter would have loved to go on Cookie Mountain - a huge climbing apparatus - but she was age-restricted. On the other hand, rides like Flyin’ Fish and Grover’s World Turn didn’t offer enough adrenaline rush for my thrill-seeker. She still went on the “big kiddie rides" and didn’t mope - she was prepped that this was a park for “little kids” and was versed in all the reasons that it’s wonderful for her baby brother and younger sister to have a place to play where they could ride all the rides and not get clobbered by taller, faster, stronger kids, but still…it was an exercise in patience for her that day. I give her an A+.
Even though we followed Rule Number Two of Amusement Park Going - “Get thee there before the gates open” - we broke Rule Number Three: “Go to the farthest point in the park and work your way back.” Instead, my two older children were lured by the immediate siren song of Vapor Trail, the only roller coaster in the park, and while we waited in that line, the entire rest of the world entered the park.
Other reasons to breathe deeply:
Rubber Duckie Pond - a small pool for children 5 years of age and younger. There was a 15-minute wait to get into the pool, the water was freezing, and the time limit inside the pool was about ten minutes. This unceremonious ushering out of the water just when most kids were getting over their initial hesitation did not go over well. Not with the kids. Not with the parents.
I think we already covered Little Bird’s Bath, yes?
Sunny Day Carousel - Loooooong wait to get on this ride. And, unfortunately, after our long wait, the carousel broke down. Stuff happens. I get it. But I could put up with stuff happening with more grace and sweatlessness if I were waiting for it to happen in the shade. This entire park could use with a good dose of old growth forest or at least some sun shades over the lines. The lines were truly brutal and the baking asphalt was…baking.
Line jumpers and lines in general - Sesame Place has a stated policy against line jumping or holding a place in line for other guests. I have mixed feelings on this. On one hand, the lines sucked. Especially the long lines for rides that were geared toward very young children. Yeah, I get it that little kids are supposed to be taught patience, and I get that it’s the parents’ responsibility to instill this virtue of civilized society.
No one is spending $47.50 a head for a day-long teachable moment. In a park geared toward very young children, and ostensibly, with some objective toward their actually having fun and not just toward grabbing their parents' money at every turn (although, yes, again I get that this is a money-making venture and not a charity for Kids Who Probably Have A Pretty Happy Childhood Anyway), it seems that there could have been some alternative shuffling of
1. Preschooler ergonomics
2. Fundamental understandings of early childhood development
3. Consideration of normal parental anxieties, and
4. Profit margin
and this alternative shuffling would arrive at a happier place. No, not Disney. But still happier than not.
Anyway, as far as line jumpers go, I understand the temptation and the need to have one parent hold a place in line while the kidlets stayed shaded or even rode another ride. And, yes, thanks to my Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother, I am an insufferable rule follower and need to lighten up at times. However, however. After waiting in line for 15+ minutes in the sun and heat and thinking that for sure, for sure, this next time up we’ll get on the stinking ride and get out of the stinking heat…well…it just puts even my non-Germanic good will to the test to suddenly have mom, brother, brother, sister, cousin, and cousin suddenly sidle up to dad at the front of the line and simultaneously crush my dreams of sweet relief and my promises of “we‘re next“ to my kids.
There are nursing stations throughout the park. CORRECTION: Upon looking at the park map again, I can only find one listed nursing station. I must have passed it a few times. However, I openly breastfed my non-infant in the open, and no one blinked an eye. Of course, I was looking dangerous at that point, so your mileage may vary depending on how well you have honed your own "stink eye".
Restrooms are just about everywhere. I can’t tell you how important this is. Even if my kids aren’t drinking water, just being near water makes their bladders work overtime. Many restrooms = a good thing.
“Lost Parents” Announcements and reminders were made at frequent intervals. I did see a frightened toddler get separated from her parents, and a security guard swooped in, evidently said all the right words to the little girl to stop her crying, and dad was located within minutes. I was impressed, calmed, comforted and whoever that security guard is, he needs to get a gold star. A big one.
Coolers - Sesame Place allows a small soft-side cooler for snacks and drinks to be brought into the park. That’s it. Don’t try to bring in anything else, unless you are one of those non-Germanic deviants. If that’s the case, then I have it on good authority that hiding sandwiches inside diapers is a sure-fire way to smuggle foody contraband. No one checks inside diapers. Even clean ones.
Character meals We attended a Character Lunch, and Bert, Ernie, Zoey, and Elmo all visited with us at our table. This is much preferable to standing in another long line (again) and paying through the nose (again) to meet teenagers dressed in faux fur costumes. You can reserve Character meals online and although it’s still pricey, at least you get food, too.
Sesame Street Neighborhood I felt a bit hokey, but I did get a little nostalgic rush walking through the replica Sesame Street stage set. The market store, Bert and Ernie’s brownstone, Oscar’s garbage can, the iconic street sign…
I know it wasn’t the real set. You know it wasn’t the real set. My kids even knew it wasn’t the real set.
Still…no one was too disaffected or too old or too self-conscious or too cool to sit on That Stoop and have their picture taken. No one.
Middle-schoolers, teens, even grown-ups…all walked up the stairs of that brownstone, turned around, and in an instant, you could see that person’s four-year-old self.
It’s the closest I’ve ever been to a time machine.
It was wonderful.
I know that Sesame Place first opened in 1980 - a decade long ago and far away from the powerful and self-promoting stroller and soccer lobby blocs of the current day - but seriously, could someone not retrofit the restrooms to a) house more changing tables, b) not require maneuvering doors to get kids and selves in and out of the restroom building, and c) widen the entrances to fit a stroller? Okay, maybe trying to get all those strollers in there is a bad idea. Strike that. But I’ve seen lovely and practical restrooms that have done away with the doors into and out of, and which still maintain privacy from Peeping Toms. Or Grovers. ETA: Upon second thought, I suppose that the doors are necessary to keep the air conditioning in the restroom buildings. I still reserve the right to complain about the un-maneuverable doors. C'mon...we put a man on the moon, right?
And in a park with more people in diapers than not, a few more changing stations and even some sort of large, space age Diaper Genie would do everyone a service. Did I mention that by end of day, the entire park smelled of poo? Yes? Well, it did.
Food prices were astronomical. Really, really high, even for a country currently diverting some huge portion of its agricultural resources to producing automobile fuel. Even for an amusement park, it seemed to me.
In one of the pools for infants and toddlers, a bunch of grown-ups (i.e. people who should know better) set up their beach chairs and their carcasses in the lowest water, brought out their tanning mirrors, and essentially blocked this entire area for the youngest and quickest-to-drown patrons. So not nice. C’mon people…it’s Sesame Street! Be nice! Or Big Bird is going to go all Alfred Hitchcock on your scalp.
I think that’s it.
My husband made the somewhat astute and cynical observation that a water park marketed toward a subset of society that is comprised largely of non-swimmers is…optimistic. Ambitious. Possibly evident of some deep-seated misopedia, but probably not. It depends how hot you are and how long you’ve been in the park. I suggested that he meditate harder.
Although, after many long hours in close quarters with combusting children, I made the equally bad-tempered and ornery remark that if Trojan condoms set up shop just outside the gates, they’d make a killing. (I also reckoned that by park closing, there would be an equally long line for Do-It-Yourself vasectomy kits, but I’ll leave out that cranky, sarcastic bon mot. Poor taste and all.)
A marriage counseling booth might also see some business on a crowded weekend.
As would a bar.
But those statements represent the absolute low point of the day.
And again, on a weekday? Thin crowds could make for much love.
A few days after our visit to Sesame Place, I asked my daughters what they thought about the whole adventure. Where would they rank Sesame Place on the Kid-O-Riffic Scale?
Both gave a thumb’s up. Way up.
“Well, maybe not as good as Disney” said eldest daughter. Well, of course.
“I had fun! But I still like Knoebels , too” said middle daughter.
(Dang. Now I have to link to Knoebels. It was supposed to be a secret.)
"But would you go there again? Like, tomorrow?" I probed.
"Sure!" they both agreed.
Well, I'll be. I honestly didn't expect that ringing endorsement. Maybe I need to be more open minded on my mind-opening journeys.
Toddler boy, would, I guess, say that even though meeting Elmo was wonderful in a sort of equally freaky and fantastic way that will give him, simultaneously, nightmares and spontaneous random feelings of well-being for the next three years, he would have been just as happy with a sprinkler in our back yard and Mommy dancing around wearing a fuzzy red wig. I think he was just way too young to really understand how much he was supposed to enjoy Sesame Place.
But what do I know?
After this extremely long review, can you even believe that I forgot to mention the most exciting part of the day? For me, I mean?
In one of the many waiting around moments - waiting in line, waiting while someone was in the bathroom, waiting for someone to get off a ride - I spied the Rock Around The Block Parade meandering through the replica Sesame Street neighborhood. There was a crowd between me and the parade, but above the heads of the parade watchers, I could see the Sesame Street characters riding on the floats.
Big Bird and Snuffy.
Oscar and Grover.
Ernie and Bert and Cookie Monster.
Of course, Elmo. Elmo was a superstar among superstars.
And then, on one of the last floats of the parade, there he was.
There was my own preschool superstar. My preschool guru.
There was Bob.
Right there, in real life…the real live Bob.
He was older - much older - than the Bob in my mind’s eye.
But there he was.
And suddenly, snapped through another wrinkle in time, I was four years old.
Suddenly, I was sitting on the orange-flowered carpet in my parents’ house, a plate of fish sticks and applesauce in front of me on a sectioned plastic dish, my baby sister and mom on the sofa, my dad on his way home from work, and everything right and safe in a known world no bigger than my house in Frackville and Sesame Street in my house.
And then the float passed by, and he was gone.
I was Mommy again, and it was hot, and my children were cranky, and it was time to navigate our way out of the park.
I don’t know. Maybe there were more of these Wonderful moments throughout the day that I just wasn’t open to. I don’t want to think too long and hard about it. I’m not trying to justify the exorbitant cost to get to and get into an amusement park, as if memories can only be made or summoned at great expense and with photographic documentation of The Good Time You Had and only with bright, shiny marketing, blah, blah, blah, consumerism, blah, blah, blah, pre-packaged Happy Childhood, yadda, yadda, yadda…
I've just written a generally cantankerous and critical review of a day filled with moments that mostly tested my patience and generally left me with a sour taste in my mouth. And I didn’t even drink the pool water.
But, true to all journeys of discovery that are fraught with tests and trials and large furry monsters...
True to the opening quote...
The uncomfortable does pass, and the loveliness is revealed.
And then the lovely passes too.
That is the most important thing I was reminded of after this journey:
The lovely passes too.