BIG BIRD, BIG FUN, BIG MONEY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Over the course of the trip, I appreciated how the park workers would enforce the rules, ensuring that little kids like mine weren't trampled by 10-year-olds or worse, teenagers. That, along with the park's no smoking policy, was a real bonus.

Our experience at the theme park's indoor auditorium was the highlight of the trip.

Without waiting in line, we walked right in and got to watch a live version of "Elmo's World," with Mr. Noodle and the slight educational fodder on a screen above a small set.

I didn't know how Isabelle would take it. She's probably seen the show 100 times, always watching with rapt attention, but I worried that seeing it in person could spoil it somehow.

But as soon as the furry "monster" came out (who was adult-sized, rather than the child puppet), Isabelle gasped with excitement, and looked at me.

"It's real, Daddy!" she said.

Elmo didn't actually speak, but ambled about and moved his mouth to a voice-over. As we heard that squeaky laugh and saw children dance on cue after being plucked from the audience, I knew I wouldn't have to answer the dreaded question. She had made up her own mind, and that would be just fine.

Before we left for the hotel, Isabelle had her face painted as a fairy for $9, we got quick photo-ops with Elmo and Zowie, and we rode on one of those teacup-spinning rides that was about as scary as either of our girls would want.

Walking around all afternoon in the sun had taken its toll, so once we got to our hotel, we drove around in vain looking for a unique local restaurant that would also be family-friendly and couldn't find anything.

Instead, we ate at On the Border - gasp - a chain restaurant.

And, much as I'm ashamed to admit, it was the second time on the trip, the first being a 30-minute stop at a Macaroni Grill right before we got to the park.

We couldn't resist the convenience. In the first case, we needed to pack away some calories for energy before sweating them away all day in the park; and On the Border was right by the hotel.

Eventually, as we all became prepared to start biting off our own fingers, we caved and knocked out several batches of chips and salsa, burritos, quesadillas, enchiladas and - my favorite - empanadas. While these were nothing like the beef or chicken-stuffed delicacies I grew to relish while living in Argentina, they were, nonetheless, delectable.

We slept soundly at our one-room suite in the Hyatt Place in nearby Princeton, N.J., and ate a continental breakfast there. Sesame Place offers an exclusive breakfast with a Muppet each morning, but we opted against it because it cost about $15 a person.

Day 2, in the water

Saturday was considerably more busy than Friday afternoon, and our fears about the stroller logjams were borne out in spades. Our plan again worked wonderfully, as the girls spent hours in the various pools with Sesame-themed playhouses and water spurting from every which way. So in the morning, at least, there were virtually no lines.

After watching the Muppet parade at 2 p.m., which was fun because we saw all the characters at once, we enjoyed a ride on "Big Bird's Rambling River." Cora fell asleep on me as the current of a 1,000-foot waterway allowed us to amble around the park in an inner tube.

I did make one painful error, however. Thinking I would be in the water all day, I decided to brave the park without shoes. This was a dumb, dumb, dumb mistake, as I burned my feet on the hot pavement and scraped the already-sensitive burns on walkways that weren't smooth.

By the end of the day, my hopping about in ridiculous fashion to avoid placing my feet on the ground proved nearly as entertaining for my family as all the rides and Muppets. Unable to walk, I eventually changed clothes and tied my swimsuit around one foot and dragged around a towel under the other one to walk.

Tired, hair frayed into unwieldy curves and limbs akimbo, I was the very personification of how we felt after two days.

Final thoughts

We retreated into the quiet repose of old friends who live in Phoenixville, a small town northwest of Philadelphia, ordering another feast bought from a small deli, which are ubiquitous in and around the City of Brotherly Love.

I had a ketchup-filled cheese steak, which passed the test of authenticity once outlined by Will Smith, a proud Philly native: By the time we got home from picking up the food, the brown bag carrying the steaks was soaked in grease. My wife had a pizza steak, meaning the thinly sliced meat inside an Italian roll was coated in red sauce and mozzarella.

We headed home late enough that the girls fell asleep, leaving us to ponder why Sesame Place didn't quite measure up to our ideal of Sesame Street.

Somehow, the high price of food, treats, parking, renting strollers and lockers made it feel like the park designers were most creative when coming up with ways to charge you money. But that's true of any theme park.

And as taxing as it was for my wife and I, the girls loved it and have since asked to go back dozens of times, which is more than they've done for other amusement parks that were just as tough on Mom and Dad.

Maybe we were expecting too much from Anheuser-Busch. Maybe, as we thoughtfully deconstructed the phoniness of the place and whined to each other about our exhaustion, we belonged in the trash can with grouchy Oscar.

Meanwhile, right under our noses a few feet away, the girls were playing as blissfully as they ever have, finally getting to meet the furry Muppets they've come to know as well as any friend.

Perhaps, in the end, that's all that really matters.

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

HOW THE MONEY WAS SPENT

Accommodations/Sesame Place passes (bundled deal):

$302

Meals, snacks and giant lollipops:

$119.17

Gas:

$28.84

Parking:

$26

Tolls:

$12

Fairy face-paint:

$9

Total:

$497.01

All prices include gratuity.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Sesame Place is about 2 1/2 hours from Baltimore. Take Interstate 95 North into Pennsylvania. Merge onto U.S. 1 North at Morrisville Exit 46A. In less than a mile, exit toward Oxford Valley and turn right on Oxford Valley Road. Giant Muppets abound, pointing you in the right direction.

LODGING

Hyatt Place

-- 102 Carnegie Center, Princeton, N.J.; 609-987-1234; princeton.hyatt.com or sesameplace.com. Hotels right around the park are expensive and of average quality, but drive 15 minutes and you get a king-sized bed, 42-inch high-defintion TV and a partition with a sleeper sofa. The Sesame Place package, which we used, will get you one night and four two-day tickets to the park for $302, after tax. Without the deal, rooms are about $140 to $180.

DINING

On the Border

-- 3567 U.S. 1, Princeton, N.J.; 609-987-9222. Yes, this is a chain restaurant just a stone's throw from the hotel. Forgive us! We were tired and needed to eat immediately. Dinner for two: about $25.

Princetonian Diner

-- 3509 U.S. 1, Princeton, N.J.; 609-452-2271. We ate elsewhere for convenience, but try this one for adventure. Jersey diners are a veritable staple. Dinner for two: $20-25.

Bob's Haven Deli

-- 1442 Charlestown Road, Phoenixville, Pa.; 610-933-8788. One of many small delis that practically inundate the Philadelphia area, this place made delicious cheese steaks. Dinner for two adults and two small children: $22.

ACTIVITY

Sesame Place

-- 100 Sesame Road, Langhorne, Pa.; 215-752-7070; sesameplace.com. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends through October, although special events run through April. The price of a single-day and two-day admission is the same -- $44.50 plus tax for ages 2 and older -- but with the two-day ticket, you can use the second day at another time in the season. Also consider bundled deals with hotels.

[Bradley Olson]

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