4 Fun Facts (and 1 warning) about Iron Pigs Baseball and Coca-Cola Park

August 7, 2019

I took my kids to see the AAA-affiliated Iron Pigs play at Coca-Cola Park for the first time this summer. We all had a blast, thanks to the festive easiness of the whole experience. Here are some subjective highlights to keep in mind before you go:


There is no bad seat. We debated over seats like some MLB coaches mull over first-round draft picks. It was unnecessary. Ticket prices range from $8 for lawn seating to $11 for just about every other seat. We ended up in the second row next to the dugout of the opposing team. My son, who brought his glove, didn’t get a coveted foul ball, but right fielder Austin Listi tossed him one between innings, which thrilled him. Next time, we might try the Bacon Strip, two levels of seats along the right field wall, modeled after the famous “Green Monster” seats of Fenway Park.

Try the food at least once. Not surprisingly, the food kiosks take full advantage of the team’s pork-themed name. Menu highlights include deep-fried bacon skewers, pork-roll burgers, BBQ pulled pork with mac ‘n’ cheese and mashed potatoes, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, and maple bacon funnel cake. It’s all as pricey as you might expect, but it was a fun experience. Next time, though, we might eat at Friendly’s (2.2 miles away) before going to the game, and we’ll definitely skip the refrigerated chocolate-covered bacon.

The name Iron Pigs is a nod to the steel industry that once dominated the Lehigh Valley. When the team first arrived in Allentown from Canada in 2008, the local newspaper sponsored a contest to give them a new name (the Ottawa Lynx just didn’t seem right). It received 3,500 suggestions and narrowed it down to eight; IronPigs won handily in the final round of voting. It’s a deliberate twist on pig iron, the raw iron that gets melted down to make steel. (The pig reference comes from a long-ago observation that the rows of conveyor-belt ingots resemble a litter of piglets.)


Don’t bring water. That’s the warning. Security will make you leave it at the door. They’re pretty strict about it, though they might let you get away with a Dasani bottle, the brand they sell inside. So hydrate before the game, or resign yourself to shelling out a few bucks or searching out the water fountains.

It’s pretty much impossible not to have fun. From the Oink On! screen shots and T-shirt cannonballs between innings, to the overall buoyancy of the crowd, it’s hard not to get swept up in it all. Just about every home game has a theme or giveaway, like Bring your Dog and Christmas in July. This summer, “Jurassic Pork” night featured fireworks and a cap giveaway, while “The Office” night attendees got Stanley Hudson IronPigs bobbleheads (along with an appearance by the actor who plays him).

Can’t wait to see what next season brings.


Theatrical magic in Lancaster

June 3, 2019


You don’t have to be a reader of the Bible to appreciate the epic Christian musicals staged each year by Sight & Sound Theaters. Technology nerds and theater lovers alike are amazed by the extravagant shows, which use actors, live animals, music and spectacular special effects to bring Bible stories to life.

Just 8 miles southeast of Lancaster in the small farming village of Ronks, Sight & Sound draws nearly 1 million visitors to Lancaster County each year (there’s a second nearly identical property, in Branson, Mo., but this is the original). Tickets range from $59 to $79 for adults and $26 to $36 for children ages 3 to 12. The average Sight & Sound show runs two to three times a day, Tuesday through Saturday, for 12 months, to mostly sold-out audiences.


Visitors take their seats in a cavernous auditorium, with more than 1,200 seats on the floor and about 800 in the balcony. The show takes place before them—this is the theater lovers’ part—on a 300-foot stage that wraps around the left and right sides of the auditorium. The enormous cast (each role has three players) is elaborately costumed and includes not only adults and children, but also a full complement of animals that are cared for on site. The action often spills into the aisles and cascades down from the ceiling.

The intricate sets tower some 40 feet above the stage and—here’s the techy part—are backed by a 110-foot-wide, 30-foot-tall LED screen that seamlessly continues the landscape beyond the physical set. The screen is the largest of its kind in the world and comprises 1,200 smaller screens with 22 million pixels in each individual screen. While the movement of some set pieces is executed by hand, others, like boats that move across the stage, are coordinated by GPS.

Hershey Inn and Farm is the closest hotel to the theater and is popular with traveling groups in town for the show. For a post-theater sweet treat, try the Strasburg Country Store and Creamery or the Speckled Hen Café.

[Text and photos by Ayleen Gontz]

Andrew Wyeth’s Private World

May 31, 2019


“I am working so please do not disturb. I do not sign autographs.”

This sign greets visitors to Andrew Wyeth’s former home and studio just up the road from the Brandywine Valley Museum. It’s the first indication that much remains just as the artist left it after he died in 2009 at the age of 91: family photographs, his boyhood collection of toy soldiers, and old 16-millimeter prints of favorite movies such as “The Big Parade” and “Captain Blood.”


In his modest studio, naturally lit by a huge north-facing window, brushes and easels are arranged as if Wyeth had just set them down, and sketches of animals and his signature stark landscapes hang or lie on the floor in various states of completion.

The museum offers hour-long tours, April through November, of Andrews’s home/studio (separate from the admission fee) from April–November (there are also separate tours of N.C. Wyeth’s home and studio and nearby Kuerner Farm, inspiration for many of Andrew’s paintings). Take one or all of the tours, then check out the Wyeth paintings on display at the museum armed with new insights on the creative process of these great American artists. Follow this up with a bowl of local mushroom bisque in the museum’s window-walled cafe overlooking Brandywine Creek. It’s arguably the most welcoming spot in the world to settle in with a book and lose yourself in Wyeth’s somber, pastoral world.

Philly’s most underrated tourist attraction is open for the season

March 26, 2019


The road to Fort Mifflin leads past industrial fuel facilities, long-term airport parking lots and unidentified buildings surrounded by barbed-wire fencing. You’ll edge so close to the runways of Philadelphia International Airport that you might wonder if you took a wrong turn somewhere along the way.

But keep going: the roar of airplanes means you’re almost there. Soon you’ll pull into a small parking lot and walk across pristine grounds to a fortress with a thousand stories to tell.

One of the greatest bombardments of the Revolutionary War took place here in 1777. About 400 American troops garrisoned at Fort Mifflin frustrated British naval attempts to re-supply their occupying forces in Philadelphia. Hundreds of men died and the fort was decimated, but the standoff allowed Gen. George Washington and his troops time to arrive safely at Valley Forge and settle in for the winter. Also known as Mud Island, this multipurpose fort served as a federal prison during the Civil War and an ammunition depot during World War I and II.

Owned by the city of Philadelphia, Fort Mifflin tends to get squeezed out by more well-known historical landmarks like Valley Forge and Washington Crossing. But it’s an important stop on any Pennsylvania history tour, and in recent years, it has hosted renaissance faires, 5K runs and after-hours galas, and played up its reputation as a haunted destination with candlelight ghost tours and paranormal workshops.

Most days, costumed guides and interpretive signs are available to help navigate the grounds, and there are often cannon and musket firing demonstrations on weekends and holidays.

Splash! Navigating the indoor water parks of the Poconos in winter

March 11, 2019


Indoor water parks have taken on a whole new dimension in the last decade, and the Pocono Mountains are home to some of the country’s largest and best outfits. Big chains like Great Wolf Lodge and Kalahari operate resorts here, along with local stalwarts Camelback and Split Rock Resorts, which have transformed themselves from quaint lodges to year-round family entertainment centers. Here’s a guide to navigating them while the weather’s too cold and inhospitable for outdoor water play. Each one has its own personality.

Camelback Waterpark and Resort

The resort: Upscale, with a family-friendly feel. Scavenger hunts are held in the lobby and there are myriad dining options, from pizza to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The water park: 125,000 square feet, 13 water slides, 7 pools including a lazy river, and a swim-up bar for grown-ups.

Notable: It’s the only ski resort in the Poconos with a water park, so it’s possible to hit the slopes and slides in a single day. It has the only combination water slide of its kind and one of the longest indoor water coaster slides in the world. The indoor/outdoor hot tub is a big attraction to the young and old.


Great Wolf Lodge

The resort: Its wild animal theme and whimsical suites with bunk beds tend to draw families with young children.


The water park: 79,000 square feet, with tandem tube slides, a wave pool and a four-story treehouse fort.

Notable: The water park is for resort guests only. Don’t expect to see many adults without kids here. Even the spa is geared toward tots with an ice cream theme.

Kalahari Resort

The resort: This African-themed resort caters to both families and couples, offering standard rooms, suites with bunk beds, and honeymoon suites with heart-shaped tubs.


Water park: At 220,000-square foot, it’s the largest in the Poconos (and maybe America), with a huge water coaster and two lazy rivers, one of which is designed especially for the under-48-inches set. The rides have adventurous names like Cheetah Race, Barreling Baboon, and Wild Wildebeest, but are generally kid-friendly.

Notable: The variety of rides and levels appeal to guests all ages, but especially those with young children. Its two indoor/outdoor whirlpools, and Tiko’s Watering Hole, its large toddler area, both garner raves from families.

Split Rock Resorts

The resort: There are two parts to this long-running inn — the original lodge, which sits by Lake Harmony, and the newer resort, which is about a mile away and home to  the water park, a cinema and bowling alley. It’s more convenient to stay in the resort rather than the lodge if you plan to visit the water park.

Water park: This is the smallest water park of the bunch at 53,000 square feet. It has three slides, a wave pool, and a play structure and only operates full-time in the summer.


Noteable: The water park is always open to the public and not included in the resort rate. It gets consistent praise for its easy-to-navigate setting and lack of overcrowding.


March 5, 2019


In honor of these fried-dough and sugar treats, here is a photo from the Pennsylvania Bakery in Camp Hill. Haegele’s Bakery in Philadelphia has special “fastnacht” hours Monday and Tuesday. It’s the only time of the year you can get them here. Laudermilch Meats in Annville opens at 7 AM Tuesday and offers fresh fastnachts “while supplies last.”

Fastnacht is German for “eve of the fast” and stems from the Christian tradition of making “fat cakes” before abstaining from sugar and fat during Lent. German immigrants, many of whom settled in Pennsylvania Dutch country, first brought the tradition to the United States.

Traditional fastnachts use flour made from potatoes and are deep-fried in lard (though many cooks now substitute vegetable or canola oil), then dipped in molasses and dusted with sugar. The tradition is not unlike Pancake Day, Fat Tuesday, or Pascki Day in Polish communities, but I like the local PA folklore that surround the fastnacht, like the notion that the oil they are fried in has magical powers or that the person who eats the last one will end up an old maid or bachelor.

Bakeries all over southeastern Pennsylvania will open their doors earlier than usual on Tuesday, with the expectation of selling thousands of fastnachts by mid-day. Churches, fire houses, and schools also sell their own variations. Even though the ingredients are always they same, everyone has fixed ideas about what makes a perfect specimen. Here is a story that offers a little more history on the fastnacht.

It’s a blissful day for doughnut-lovers

Best bakeshop in the middle of nowhere

February 12, 2019

It’s a long and winding drive to get to Butterscotch Pastry Shop, no matter where your departure point is. You will pass roads and towns you’ve never heard of, even if you’re a local who grew up a few miles away. You may miss the turn if you’re coming from the east because from Flowing Springs Road, the building looks like just another charming late 19th-century home that can be found at just about every crossroads in rural Pennsylvania.

Not long ago, this was an antiques shop owned by the beloved Antiques Roadshow host Richard Wright, who grew up in the area and died in 2009. In 2017, the owners of the acclaimed Birchrunville Store Café across the street turned it into a daytime showcase for exquisite desserts and sandwiches.

Once you get there, you will never want to leave. The place retains the warmth and charm of Wright’s emporium, with a fireplace, custom wood tables, and decor that includes repurposed rolling pins, copper pipes and tractor seats. Then there’s the food: flaky croissants, light-as-air souffles and the signature butterscotch muffins served with warm butterscotch sauce. A changing roster of open-faced sandwiches and salads rounds out the lunch menu.

I can’t think of a better place to spend a cold Sunday morning, but things get even more inviting in springtime or early fall, when you can enjoy your coffee and treats outside on a table next to Birch Run creek.

Info: Butterscotch Pastry Shop, 406 Hollow Rd., Birchrunville; phone: (610) 827-0900. Open Thursday through Sunday.



Alexander Hamilton’s Philadelphia

January 17, 2019

Can’t make it to Puerto Rico for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s reprisal of Hamilton?
Check out the next best thing: a 5,000-square-foot exhibit on the Founding Father’s time in Philadelphia. It covers his first duel, work as the nation’s first banker, notorious affair with Maria Reynolds, and other key elements of the award-winning Broadway musical. Kids will love the step-by-step demos of artillery firings (volunteers welcome) and the hands-on “Balance of Power” exhibit, which invites them to weigh in on the power shifts between the federal and state governments based on which blocks of powers they put on a scale.

“Hamilton Was Here: Rising up in Revolutionary Philadelphia” runs through March 19 at the Museum of the American Revolution in Old City.

Still can’t get enough of the self-taught orphan from the Caribbean? A few blocks away, the National Constitution Center has extended the run of “Hamilton: The Constitutional Clashes That Shaped a Nation” exhibit through 2019. which explores his prolific writings and impact on the Constitution.

Follow Exploring Pennsylvania on Twitter @Lark215 and Facebook @ExploringEasternPA for regular updates on the Keystone State. The 3rd edition of Explorer’s Guide: Eastern Pennsylvania is coming soon!

Ben Franklin Museum Gets a Makeover

September 12, 2013


The Ben Franklin Museum has a new look. Gone are the dusty marionettes, the Bicentennial-era mirrored hallway, and the old phones that let you “call” historic figures like George Washington and hear them praise Ben. In their place, the National Park Service has created an interactive, tech-savvy place that tries to capture the multifaceted spirit of the influential Philadelphian in a way that appeals to both kids and adults. (For example, you can play a computerized interactive armonica, then see the real one that Franklin invented in the 18th century on display nearby.)


The renovation took two years and cost $23 million. Thankfully, the Ghost House that outlines the spot where Franklin built his Philadelphia house is still there, just outside the museum’s entrance. Also, don’t miss Franklin’s Printing Office and Bindery, and the B. Free Franklin Post Office, a Colonial-themed operating post office which stamps your postcards with the same imprint used in 1775 by Franklin, the nation’s first Postmaster General.

The Finest (and Shadiest) Mini Golf Course in PA

July 21, 2013


Miniature golf in 90-degree heat doesn’t sound very appealing. But it’s a whole different story when the course is in the middle of a mature forest, thoughtfully designed around mountain streams, waterfalls, caves, and floral landscaping that rivals Longwood Gardens. I missed Village Greens Miniature Golf in my PA book travels, but I’m endorsing it wholeheartedly now after my parents and niece visited this past week and attested to both its shady coolness (the seniors) and its overall coolness (the 9-year-old). It’s in Strasburg, near all the train attractions, and about a 20-minute drive from downtown Lancaster. One course (Orange) has 18 holes and the other (Gold) 23 holes — either way, you’ll pay less than $8 a person and get a challenging and unique experience out of it. Cap your game with a stop at the air-conditioned Snack Shoppe for soft pretzels and thick milkshakes.