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MartyDigs: Jack’s Excellent Adventure

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This past weekend my son Jack was treated to a weekend that he will hopefully remember forever. My parents took us all out to Pennsylvania Dutch country where we spent the day at the amusement park Dutch Wonderland on Saturday, then on Sunday went to “A Day Out With Thomas”. To relate this is my own terms, it was like my cousin’s wedding weekend in Milwaukee where I toured Lakefront Brewery, saw My Morning Jacket at the Riverside Theater, then saw the 2008 Phillies clinch their playoff series against the Brewers. To be honest, it was like a wild bachelor party weekend, but for a three year old. All taking place in beautiful, slow paced, rural Lancaster County – home to the Amish, smorgasbords, and discount shopping outlets.

As kids, my parents would take us out to Lancaster for long weekends – it was our big vacation every few years. While friends and classmates of ours were hamming it up in the Magic Kingdom with Mickey Mouse down in Disneyland, we would stay at a place called the Willow Valley resort. For the most part, my brother and sisters and I dreaded it – outside of getting Amish soft pretzels, getting to swim in the resort pool, and screaming mild obscenities out the window at the Amish, there weren’t too many fun things to do. But now, my parent’s sense of budgeting and frugality is eternally forgiven after they purchased a summer vacation home at the Jersey Shore. I gladly give up only seeing that giant rat down in steamy, stuffy Florida once in exchange for a lifetime of being able to go down the shore whenever I want!

I hadn’t been to Lancaster in a few years, but as we rolled into town on Saturday, it dawned on me that the Amish are really being exploited out there. Clearly the Amish are the big draw to visiting Pennsylvania Dutch Country, and believe me – it gets very busy out there in the summer. It amazes me – these are a people who live simply, and still think it’s the Stone Ages – and yet our society, a bunch of text messaging, twittering, Olive Garden chomping, SUV driving drones are obsessed with them. We all think the Amish are nuts- why wouldn’t they want all the modern amenities that we are spoiled with – like cheese out of an aerosal spray can, George Foreman Quesadilla Makers, and mobile phone apps that make fart sounds. Although, I could live in a mud hut as long as I had my iPod, and if you have seen my house, it’s not far from that.

The Amish do some things right – by driving around via horse and buggy they are definitely saving on gas money. And they call their buffets “smorgasbords” out there – which is a word way more appealing than buffet. And any establishment that offers all you can eat fried chicken is OK with me. The town names out there still make me giggle – there is Intercourse, Blue Ball, and my favorite, Bird-In-Hand. I saw a flyer for the Intercourse Pretzel Factory – and if they serve beer there, that sounds like the greatest place in the universe.

Speaking of which, some of the brochures they had in the hotel lobby crack me up. I love how they try to make the different attractions and shops appealing. One advertising for the The Amish Experience stated “this truly is a tour to satisfy your curiosity about living without electricity, traveling by horse and buggy, plain clothing, and the many other riddles of Amish life”. That sounds completely awful, I am completely content with my dinged up Nissan, Flip Video camera, and of course, my spray can cheese. I found a 20% off coupon for your next buggy ride at the Plain and Fancy Farm and a brochure for a quilt museum. For the more daring and thrill seeking visitors to Pennsylvania Dutch country, you can visit a cheese factory that offers you the opportunity to “cheese shop on our farm, view cheese making, sample cheese, and shop for cheese and accompaniments.”

Once we pulled into town, and past all the cartoonish images of Amish folks, billboards for Buggy Rides and Smorgasboards, we got to our first destination – Dutch Wonderland. For some reason, I can remember this cheesy commercial from the 80’s, and it always put a bad taste in my mouth for Dutch Wonderland. On top of that, my friend Burks used to work with a woman who crowed on and on about the place. As Burks knew then, and I as am learning now as I tell my childless friends about the trip – the last thing a single dude in his 20s and 30s wants to hear about is an amusement park for small children. So for some reason, I had this resistance to the place – boy was I in the wrong. Dutch Wonderland is awesome!

My sister and niece met my parents, Cailin, Jack and I at the front gates of the park. Plus, my friends Jeff and Jen were there with their son Jacob. We started the day with a train ride around the park – so my lil’ engineer Jack loved the place immediately. As we chugged around the park, every worker and employee waved as we went by. It was incredibly heartwarming, as I am used to driving around my town and getting middle fingers, squinty staredowns, and menacing glances. The place is clean, wholesome, friendly, and perfect for children age three to maybe 10. Jack could go on practically every ride, and even though it was a Saturday, we barely waited in any lines.

The day was perfect. My family all rode the bumper cars together, and then the log flume. (Which I also went on with my friend Jeff later, and we prayed the park wasn’t on alert from the two 35 year old creeps on the log flume alone). My sister and I reminisced about our rides on the log flume at our local park – Clementon Park, a very seedy, trashy, glorified carnival in our area. Waiting in line and watching the riders get off, it was always a badge of honor to be soaking wet. We would cheat, and splash the filthy and most likely toxic lake water on each other so we looked like we got drenched.

I felt like a kid the entire day, laughing and holding onto Jack so tight as we spun around on the “Turtle Whirl”, zooming down the giant Fun Slide on a potato sack with Jack on my lap, and riding the roller coaster laughing my ass off and momentarily forgetting bills, mortgages, problems, and adulthood. We danced to tunes played by park’s roving brass band of clean-cut teenage dudes playing Reel Big Fish, Jackson 5, and Taio Cruz songs. Just like back in my childhood, my mom packed a great lunch – but forgot some of the staple treats she used to bring in the 80’s like Tastycakes, licorice, and Smarties. We all left the park happy, content, and exhausted – Jack was asleep before we even got out of the parking lot.

We stayed the night at the Willow Valley Inn, where we used to stay back in our old family vacation days. Where my parents pointed out all the spots in the resort where each of the O’Connor children had a meltdown, hissy fit, or fight. The next morning, Jack got me up nice and early and we took a walk around the park. I was getting him excited for the adventure we were about to embark on – A Day Out With Thomas at Strasburg Railroad.

For those of you who do not know who Thomas the Train Engine is, I will give you a quick lesson. Thomas is a train, and works with a bunch of other trains on the fictional island of Sodor. The trains are all total dicks to each other, some are proud, some arrogant, and some speak in a snooty British accent. Their boss is a very distinguished fellow named Sir Topham Hatt a knighted, clearly respected, and as insinuated by the wearing of a top hat, a wealthy and dignified man. Every episode features a problem where one train is pissed at another, or doesn’t listen to Sir Topham Hatt’s orders, or derails because of foolishness. And the problems either never really get resolved, get wrapped up quickly, or the episode ends rather abruptly. Regardless, kids love this show, the toys, and the entire world of Thomas and Friends. Jack is hooked, and we don’t help the cause by buying him train after train.     

Every year, different locations around the US and England host a Day Out With Thomas where you can ride on a train pulled by an actual Thomas the Train. My parents – ever the wonderful and spoiling grandparents – wanted to take us and Jack out to see it. The day began as we pulled into a field of cars, my dad commented it looked like Woodstock. You had to take a bus shuttle to get to the actual train yard, it was that crowded. But considering that a major portion of guests were under the age of six, it was a wonderfully orchestrated and organized event. I dreaded the thought of it being a zoo – kids running around, long lines, frustration. I was wrong. Everything went very smoothly. Except for when we went to see Sir Topham Hatt the first time- he was “out to lunch”. I muttered to my dad, “he’s probably eating caviar off the chest of a Victoria Secret model”.

When we came into the parking lot, we saw a puff of smoke in the distance and I realized either Phish was playing live in Strasburg, PA or that was Thomas out on the tracks. Sure enough, Thomas came puffing along and Jack’s reaction was unforgettable. I caught the tail end of it here. If I could bottle up how I felt when I saw Jack that happy, I would sip from it every time I get sad. Hands down one of the greatest moments of being his dad, it was funny, cute, and touching. I realized he has the same passion and enthusiasm for things that I do – and its always over the top! He had this glazed over look of happiness and excitement, much like me at a good rock show.

The whole day was great – we rode trains, saw Thomas merchandise, Thomas movies, and thousands of other kids like Jack obsessed with this toy engine. What a boon to the economy out in the Lancaster area. We saw kids at Dutch Wonderland in Thomas gear, there were people in our hotel going to the event, and just thinking about all the people at restaurants, shopping, and spending money because of their trip to see Thomas. It must pump over a million dollars into the Lancaster economy. Which got me thinking of creating some sort of half-assed Thomas train and displaying it on the train tracks near my house to raise some cash.    

 I have to thank my parents for making this all possible. Jack and I are so lucky to have them, and they helped give Jack the most amazing weekend a three year old boy could ever dream of! He hasn’t stopped buzzing about it, and constantly asks when we are going to Dutch Wonderland next, and when can he ride Thomas again. With the miles of smiles we got this weekend, I keep telling him “every year buddy”.


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One Response to “MartyDigs: Jack’s Excellent Adventure”

  1. So you chose “exploited” hahahaha!!!!

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