In Ischia, Italy, an island off the coast of Naples, these one of these “drumsticks” is called a “bacio.” Woop! Woop! Bacio is the Italian word for kiss. Smooches to summer! Inside the chocolate shell and various toppings is hazelnut gelato.
I remember a rush of water slapping my face and preventing me from breathing as I stared down the huge backside of a hefty grown-up man. For a moment, my 10-year-old self believed she would die a horrifying death by drowning because of a rather plump father, who had gotten stuck inside a tube in a maze at a water park. In his defense, this poor dad was just trying to keep up with his toddler who had scampered down the chute. But now we were all facing the possibility of a cruel and unusual death. God only knew where the kid was, and dad was reduced to a pig trying to squeeze through a pinhole while water with firehose-like might pummeled our little faces and baby bodies.
My younger brother and sister and cousins stood motionless and continued to take a beating from the forceful water pumps. Then, my littlest cousin dropped his water shoe down the holes in the maze, and it floated at the bottom of the pool beneath us. He began to wail, and as he opened his mouth, water rushed in. I thought, “This will be our end. The headlines will read, ‘Death By Fat Ass.'” Alas, it was not. Led by an older relative, we actually used our hands and the full force of our weight to squeeze Big Poppa through the tube. We raced to the end of the maze, got out, and called a guard for help getting back the lost shoe. This was my lasting impression of Sesame Place in Langhorn, Pa. Ok, that’s not completely true. I also remember loving the lazy river, and my brother peeing in the cooler on the ride home when we got stuck in traffic and nature called. True story. To his credit, he filled the thing with urine. Of course, it was garbage after that.
What Is Sesame Place?
Still, I longed to return to the land of Big Bird with my own son. Recently, I finally had the chance. While the park remains a Disney wannabe that doesn’t quite measure up, it is a lovely way to spend the day with young children, and I recommend it to anyone who can make it there and afford it. For full disclosure, Sesame Place is owned by SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, which also owns the SeaWorld parks, Bush Gardens, and a couple of water parks. As some of you know, SeaWorld has faced protest and criticism for its original means for capturing and training killer whales (think Shamu), which was explained in the CNN documentary Blackfish. The company is still trying to restore itself to its former glory and win back the trust of the public. Sesame Place, of course, is not an aquarium or zoo and should be seen as a separate entity.
Dating back to 1980, Sesame Place has grown from three to 14 acres of fun. The theme park features water rides, dry rides, shows, a parade, and restaurants. Kids have the chance to interact with the characters from the beloved educational show Sesame Street. Everywhere you look you will see a reminder of the show, including topiaries shaped like Mr. Snuffleupagus or Grover, the names of the restaurants (Elmo’s Eatery, for example), or Big Bird’s welcoming beak at the entrance. The place sure has changed since I was a kid. There is way more to do, including a character meet and greet lunch and dinner, special events for Halloween and Christmas, and a hopping parade.
How Much Is This Going to Cost You?
Tickets cost $55 for a summer single-day pass if you buy them online. (You’ll pay $65 at the gate.) Like SeaWorld of yesteryear, you can get what was once known as a fun pass, which means with your purchase of a one-day ticket, you can get into the park for a second day anytime until the end of the year free. We opted for this and plan to find a day to go again. If you live close enough or don’t mind staying until closing time at 9 p.m. on most nights, then you can get $15 off both weekend and weekday tickets by entering after 3 p.m. My sister-in-law has done this and felt it worked out well. We left around 4 p.m., and I noticed way more people traffic after 3, so if you don’t like crowds, the discount might not be worth it.
You can also plan your dining online. The only character meal is at Dine with Elmo & Friends restaurant, and it requires reservations. The prices ($28 for kids 10+ and $9 for kids under 10) are higher for this buffet meal than at the quick-service restaurants and food trucks and stands around the park, but your kid will get to meet the gang from Sesame Street, including Big Red himself. We might have done this but there was a special event on the day we went, so there were no reservations available. I found that there were openings in the days right after, so it might not be too hard to get a reservation. (In other words, you don’t have to be on the phone a la Disney Dining at midnight six months before your trip to score a reservation. Phew!)
Much like Disney, there is a dining plan from which you can choose even if but for one day. In fact, my family and I opted into this. Again, you must purchase this online ahead of your trip. The deal was good. For $13 each, my husband and I were able to get one meal, one side, one beverage, and one snack at Elmo’s Eatery, Cookie’s Cafe, or Captain Ernie’s Bistro. For $10, my son was able to get one meal, one side, one beverage, and one snack, all served on a souvenir plate and cup at those same quick-service restaurants. There is a Premium Dining Pass if you’re planning on eating lunch and dinner at Sesame Place. We were happy to have bought into this because the food isn’t very good. As my husband said, “You don’t feel as bad paying little for garbage.”
At Cookie’s Cafe, we ate burgers, which were standard and fine, and my son had chicken fingers, which were oily and a bit soggy, but he ate them anyway. The French fries had no taste at all; it was like eating air. Still, I’d recommend Cookie’s Cafe or Elmo’s Eatery next door if you go with the quick service dining plans. Captain Ernie’s was cramped and didn’t have as many options. We did, however, get snacks from Ernie’s later in the day. Despite looking like nothing special, the cupcake and cookie were super delicious. My son chose a Go-Gurt, which he devoured with pleasure. Don’t even try to use your snack at one of the food trucks. It’s an exercise in futility. Still, the Starbucks stand offers up some great soft-serve ice cream and a wannabe Disney Dole Whip, which I didn’t try but seemed popular with the regulars. There are a slew of other options, which you can check out at the Website before your visit.
Of course, you don’t go to Sesame Place for the food (or at least I hope, for your sake, you don’t). The appeal is in the rides and entertainment. We didn’t get to do as much as I would have liked because the lines were long on a hot summer Saturday. But we did hang out in Ernie’s Waterworks pools (which are short on waves and long on wading, perfect little kiddies), the Count’s Splash Castle (basically a series of mazes and slides like the one I went through and got stuck in all those years ago), Sesame Streak (a water slide for one or two), Big Bird’s Rambling River (which was as relaxing as I remembered), and the Sunny Day Carousel (my son’s first pick because he wanted to ride a blue horse). We stuck with the water rides – aside from the carousel, which was our first ride – because it was hot, hot, hot out there. Despite applying and re-applying sunblock, I did get a bit burned on my shoulders and my son ended up quite tan. Be prepared. We also used bug spray because of fears of Zica (which are nowhere near Pennsylvania at this time, but still).
All the rides seemed to be family friendly and appropriate for little guys. There were signs with measuring poles for some rides that required children under a certain height wear life vests, which were available. We did bring my son’s own vest, but he was tall enough to forego it on every ride on which we went. I was extra glad he had it, however, especially when he went down the blue slide in the Count’s play area by himself. It was great because he was so proud to go down on his own, and I met him on the bottom. My husband came – with a much bigger splash – right behind him.
Buy everything online, so you get all the discounts and know going into this what your day will be like and what you’ll be eating (more or less).
Bring towels and sunblock and bug spray – plenty of it.
Carry a bottles of water in a cooler bag.
Get a locker for your valuables (namely your wallet). It is a bit costly but it’s better than worrying about this stuff while you’re on the rides.
Bring a plastic fanny pack or bag (that you can wear like a chain around your neck) to carry a few dollars and a phone at all times. Lots of people had these, and I was jealous. I wasn’t able to take nearly as many photos as I would have liked because my phone was locked up in the locker for fear of breaking or losing it.
Invest in water shoes. We were all wearing flip flops, so we would have to leave them by our stroller in the stroller parking area. The flip-flops fall off upon impact of landing from the slides. The pavement was scorching hot. We ended up carrying around my 40-lb., barefoot son. And my feet felt as though they were on fire the entire time. Not fun.
No matter how hard you try, you will pass souvenir stores, especially on your way in and out of the park. I didn’t want to argue with my son, who was already disappointed that we hadn’t actually met Elmo. So, we agreed to get him a small gift. I ended up paying $12 for a small car driven by Cookie Monster. He loves the thing, and even brought it to bed one night. But I wish I would have picked up a Sesame Street item at the dollar store and had it ready to whip out when he asked for something. Of course, you can also always make this a lesson and just say no. I’ve done that before on other trips, and despite the crying, I think he is slowly learning he can’t get everything he wants. At least, I hope he’s learning.
No matter how hard I try, I can’t shake Ischia, Italy, an island off the coast of Naples that is home to my ancestors and husband. While it’s no secret I much prefer the hustle and bustle of northern New Jersey in my United States of America, I always end up sucked into Ischia – at least for the summer. It’s become my second home for better or worse. A week since I bid farewell to the hidden jewel of an island, I am most nostalgic for the feel of the place.
As the boat approaches Porto d’Ischia, the sprinkle of water rising up from the waves, along with the sea breeze, touches my skin and moves me. In the wind, I feel the whispers of my grandparents, who are now my guardian angels and Ischitani natives. They call me to their home. They welcome me back.
What always united my family and most Ischitani I know is food. They grow it together in their gardens, cook it together in their kitchens, and eat it together in their dining rooms. And they share it with anyone who will join them. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of our life, and it’s what I miss most about my grandparents.
Breaking bread offers the chance to feel the crumbs – like sand – between your fingers. The slickness of octopus lightly coated in extra virgin olive oil and lemon glides from your hand to your mouth. The firm peach, with its velvet skin, is so juicy that it splashes on your face as you bite into it. That fior di latte gelato that just fell from your spoon to your T-shirt is making the fabric cling to your skin as though it is glue and you’re paper. Not the stain or the stickiness has you up in arms. Instead, it is the fact that you wasted a dollop of that divine dessert, whose love you only know for but a short time each year. Of course, you couldn’t visit Ischia without the feel of rabbit bone scraping against your teeth, so you suck up every bit of meat and flavor in the traditional dish.
A stroll on the beach is the perfect way to finish off one of those superb meals in Ischia. The gritty-yet-soft feel of sand under bare foot is summer in one sensation. Waves gently crashing on your ankles is a smile from Mother Nature as she otherwise pelts you with heat. Indeed, that stream of sweat is slowly falling from the top of your back down to your bottom, caressing and assaulting you at once.
In Buonopane, the Ischia town that my family called home before moving to the United States, I sit on the curb in the piazza as a feast goes on around me. My son, feeling satisfied with his stomping, is smashing peanut shells. I wonder what my grandparents would have thought of him, how they would react to his presence in their home. I’m moved. I swipe my hand across the pavement and think, “My baby is walking the same road home as his ancestors. My, my, how the journey has changed. My, my, how the journey has stayed the same.”
As much as I hate to admit it, I come from a gorgeous place. Sure, there are no opportunities for work, and some would argue that the tourism industry has destroyed the culture, not to mention the environment, in Ischia, a small island off the coast of Naples that is the home of my ancestors and husband. And I’d never want to live here. Never. But to vacation here is bliss.
One look at those views (the one above being of Castello Aragonese from Zi Nannina a Mare’s restaurant) and you’re breathless. You pretty much forget everything else, and calm washes over you. Then, you eat the food – rabbit, mussels, clams, the fruits and veggies fresh from the thermal earth, and all the spaghetti, pizza, and gelato you can fit into your belly – and you’re certain you’ve died and gone to Heaven. Amen.
If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been since I haven’t posted in such a long while, well, I’ve been here in paradise. In between working – writing for all my various editors in the States about things like applying to business school, moving, and getting married – I have been going to the beach and eating as much as I humanly can. (To be honest, sometimes more!) Anyway, I’m doing this all for you, dear reader. This way, I can report back. Expect more posts in the coming days replete with food porn pics and some scoop on Italian life and that dolce vita I keep promising you.
Get the truth about one of Italy’s most popular islands – and its people – by reading my new weekly blog installments (every Monday right here on this site)
Chapter Twenty-Two – Crazy in Amore?
Maybe dating a native Italian who still lived in Italy was a big mistake. But it was already too late. I was falling in love with Tony. I was certain of this in Florida, where Tony, a known commitmentphobe, brought up the idea of having me visit him in Italy sometime in the spring. I told him I would try, but it would all depend on how things went with the physical therapy for my knee. Although I was walking and getting around, I still had a pronounced limp and lacked thigh muscle. I was going to physical therapy three days per week. It was grueling. I was proud I had made it through the Disney parks so successfully, but a trip to Italy would be difficult. Besides the travel, there was still the chance I would need more surgery to replace the cartilage that I lost. There was fear my (ACL) ligament was also loose.
Still, Tony made me promise I’d visit because he saw a future for us and didn’t want me to think this was just “un’ avventura piccola solo per vacanza” (“a little adventure only for vacation.”) He could see us together for the long haul. Roberto started to see it, too. In between flirting with other women and hanging out with my brother, Roberto asked me what I thought about Tony and what was going on between us. I was honest and said that I was enjoying my time with him and that I had reservations about the distance between us but I was already falling in love. He admitted that he saw in the way Tony and I looked at each other that a love story was beginning to blossom.
Although my heart was happy to finally have found love, and I was having the time of my life with Tony, especially in Florida, where the sun was shining and Mickey Mouse was distracting us from concerns, such as how we’d manage such a long-distance relationship, a part of me felt impractical for allowing myself to feel this way about someone who lived in an entirely different continent. Italy was so beautiful, I thought. Maybe I wouldn’t mind spending so much time there. Wouldn’t love be enough to get us through any obstacle? Was there even reason to be practical about this matter of the heart?
Some names and identifying characteristics of the real people involved have been changed.
As we transition from summer to fall, the weather has gotten a bit chillier in Ischia. In fact, today, we are experiencing thunder storms again. But the colder temperatures do not prevent my husband from taking advantage of Ischia’s water features. While the beach with its breeze and colder ocean is not as pleasurable as it was a couple of weeks ago, the thermal pools with their naturally hot temperatures are still calling his name. Most of the thermal pool parks and spas on Ischia are open until late October — and fall is a lovely time to go to one because the August crowds have cleared out and even the Ischitani themselves are tending to their children who are back at school.
A little more than a week ago, Antonio took me to Castiglione. Of the three major thermal pool parks and spas (the other two being Negombo and Poseidon), Castiglione is the most family friendly and affordable. For less than 30 euro, you can do everything from swim laps in an Olympic-sized pool, take dips in the thermal pools, and sit in the sauna. A cafeteria-like restaurant that serves healthy options, including eggplant, swordfish, salmon, and tomato salad costs extra but remains affordable. We paid about 30 euro total for complete meals for the both of us.
Castiglione is as well known for this thermal pool park and spa as it is for the chestnut trees like the one in the photo above. I didn’t even know these green pom poms were chestnuts. Antonio told me that under that green porcupine lives a delicious chestnut. My father would have been delighted, and Antonio made me photograph the tree for him. (You can view more photos of our day at Castiglione at “Castiglione Thermal Pools” photo album.)