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The home of Kisses

Hershey's Chocolate World rules at 'The Sweetest Place on Earth'

By Jay Jones,Special to Tribune Newspapers

1:00 AM EST, January 24, 2014

HERSHEY, Pa.

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No, the streets of Hershey aren't paved with chocolate. But that doesn't mean the town isn't deserving of its official nickname.

It's called "The Sweetest Place on Earth."

That label seems especially fitting in February. During the week before Valentine's Day, Nielsen research shows, Americans spend $345 million on chocolate, or 58 million pounds of the stuff.

Milton Hershey began making milk chocolate in 1905 in a south-central Pennsylvania factory ringed by dairy farms. Two years later, he introduced the candy that's become synonymous with the holiday for lovers: Kisses.

It's no longer possible to tour the sweet-smelling factory where Kisses and other candies are made. About 40 years ago, the demand outgrew what the plant could handle, and Hershey's Chocolate World was born. Visitors to the various attractions, open year-round and all under one roof, can design candy bars using a variety of tempting ingredients and even get a "degree" from Hershey University. That's what employees call the Chocolate Tasting Adventure ($9.95 adults, $6.95 children).

In small groups, guests gather in a classroom to sample five Hershey products. Visitors "slow down and enjoy chocolate in an entirely different way," said Michele Mabus, an employee with the enviable job title of chocolate-tasting expert.

The chocolates are savored using an internationally recognized four-step procedure.

"Look, listen, smell and taste," she advised. Admittedly, the second step raises more than a few eyebrows.

"Listening to your chocolate is really just breaking it by your ear. You can get a frame of reference for how much cacao (it contains)," Mabus explained. "The louder the sound, the higher the level of cacao."

The process of transforming cacao into yummy bars stamped "Hershey's" is explained during the Great American Chocolate Tour.

During a Disney-like ride, visitors travel from a tropical rain forest, the source of cocoa beans, through the Pennsylvania hills and their dairy cows and on to the factory. This free attraction is one place to start a visit.

Much of the fun happens during the Create Your Own Candy Bar experience ($14.95 per person). Guests don aprons and hairnets before selecting ingredients they want incorporated into customized 5-ounce bars. They then follow their creations along an actual production line.

"The real factory runs 1,000 bars per minute. Our line runs four bars per minute, so it's an extremely slowed-down version to help consumers have the experience of watching the bars being made," said Melissa Graff, who oversees the attraction.

The choice of ingredients varies from day to day but can include almonds, butter toffee crunch, graham cracker crumbs, pretzel pieces and raspberry fruit gels. The chosen items drop from chutes called feeders before plopping into molds containing chocolate shells.

Once filled, the ingredients are covered in milk chocolate by a machine called an enrober.

While the finished product spends 10 minutes hardening in a cooling tunnel, visitors use touch screens to design personalized wrappers for their concoctions.

"They always leave with a big smile on their face," Graff said. "To be able to create your bar and see it made right in front of you, you can't do that anywhere else."

Kids in particular will enjoy Chocolate World's newest attraction, the Great Chocolate Factory Mystery in 4D ($7.95 adults, $6.95 children). Visitors interact with candy-themed characters, created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, as they help solve a mystery.

Visitors also can take hourlong trolley tours ($12.95 adults, $7.95 children) that depart from just outside the front door. Singing conductors share the history of all things Hershey: the man, the company and the town.

To sweeten the ride, they pass around tubs full of candy, including the palate-pleasing Kisses that helped shape an empire.

If you go

Hershey's Chocolate World (251 Park Blvd., Hershey; 717-534-4900; hersheys.com/chocolateworld) is a few hours northwest of Philadelphia.

Admission can be purchased separately for each attraction or in money-saving packages.

A month of special events awaits during Chocolate-Covered February (chocolatecoveredfebruary.com) in Hershey. The activities include a Truffles for Couples evening at The Hershey Story museum (63 W. Chocolate Ave., Hershey; 717-534-3439; hersheystory.org).

Couples will create their own candies while learning of the courtship of Milton and Catherine Hershey.

Sensory overload is assured at The Spa at the Hotel Hershey (100 Hotel Road, Hershey; 877-772-9988; chocolatespa.com).

Included among its unique offerings are a chocolate fondue wrap and a whipped-cocoa bath.