You hear your name whispered in your ear. You turn—but nobody’s there.
“The biggest scare that people get is hearing their own name said back to them, or a gentle touch on the cheek,” says Johlene “Spooky” Riley, owner of Gettysburg Ghost Tours. “Even a seasoned ghost hunter can be taken aback by something like that.”
In a year of real-life frights, central Pennsylvanians are ready to pile it on this fall with ghostly scares. Or they’re shedding their fears amid the serenity of cornstalks and vineyards on a brisk autumn day.
It’s time for one last, COVID-safe excursion before the cold weather chases us back indoors for the scariest encounter of all—possibly more months of quarantine.
The art of securing a destination involves much more than facemasks and social distancing. Places throughout the region have gone out of their way to remain safe and welcoming, according to Visit Hershey & Harrisburg President and CEO Mary Smith.
“They’ve adjusted floorplans,” she said. “They’ve changed their schedules. They’ve built new seating areas. They reimagined how they use the space that they have.”
Typical COVID-era travelers trust that their destination’s protocols are adequate, Smith added. It’s other visitors they worry about. So, if you’re not confident in your fellow patrons at crowded events, the VHH Adventure Trail presents hiking, biking, kayaking and family fun within a short drive of home.
A bit farther down the road, Riley’s Gettysburg Ghost Tours offers a range of experiences. There are family-friendly walks entirely outdoors and on easy terrain, “an inexpensive way to enjoy the outdoors with your family,” said Riley.
If you dare to venture indoors, the Museum of Haunted Objects in a historic Civil War-era building presents everything from creepy dolls to haunted mirrors. And there are indoor ghost hunts—family-friendly or more extreme—at Civil War landmarks.
People want to be scared until they actually get scared, said Riley. Still, no ghost hunt can equal the frights of pandemic 2020.
“I don’t think any entity on earth or beyond can compare with what’s been going on,” she said. “It’s been a big challenge, but just like everyone, we’re trying to make the best of it and trying to keep everybody safe. We appreciate people being patient with us while we try to navigate the unknown ourselves.”
Point the car toward Mountville, in Lancaster County, and Field of Screams presents gore galore. Owners reviewed guidelines and regulations “up and down and all over” before deciding that the venerable Halloween attraction could go on, said co-owner Jim Schopf. Fans “really are yearning for a fall experience and to have a somewhat normal time, just letting their guard down and having fun.”
Safety restrictions mean reduced capacity, and tickets must be purchased online and in advance. All Field of Screams actors are trained—at “Scare School”—in COVID protocols. Face coverings are worn underneath makeup, or they slipped easily into costume designs—surgical masks in “Frightmare Asylum,” gas masks in “Nocturnal Wasteland.”
“We got a little creative with the coverings,” Schopf said.
Veteran patrons would rather cancel Christmas and birthdays than Field of Screams, and people are ready to scream out the frustrations of a tense year, Schopf said. He used to describe the attraction as a safe scare, where no one gets hurt or injured. Now, safe means protected through protocols, distancing and sanitizing stations.
“It takes on a whole new meaning this year,” he said.
“It’s hard to think about fall and not think about beer trails or breweries,” said VHH’s Smith. “Fall and beer, for some reason, go hand in hand.”
Which makes the new VHH Beer Barons Brew Trail a natural fit. Using a mobile app, beer tourists can explore more than 20 local breweries that are open for business and offering events such as live music or special releases.
And because Gettysburg Ghost Tours is next door to the Tattered Flag Taproom, there just have to be Craft Beer and Spirit Tours, Friday and Saturday nights—and those “spirits” can be the ghostly kind or the mixed-drink kind.
Hop over to the Brewery at Hershey and Vineyard at Hershey, and daytrippers can get in the seasonal mood with the Oktoberfest Flash Gourd’n Pumpkin Ale, or the nice dry Firefly red wine. While wine and beer are still on the menu, the events that have drawn visitors for days that linger into nights have been scaled back but reimagined.
Under strict safety protocols, offerings include free music on weekends. Unleash your creative side with a craft class. At October’s end, dress up the schnauzer for the doggy Halloween party. Purchase food from a food truck parked on site, and under pandemic rules, you can buy alcohol.
“We work with a lot of local food truck owners, and they have been hit hard,” said the Vineyard at Hershey Director of Operations Lynn Day. “A lot of those big festivals that typically happen during the summer season didn’t happen. So, they’re desperate to get out, as well.”
The Vineyard at Hershey’s commitment to fellow businesses extends to Small Business Sunday on Oct. 11, when local vendors set up stands and visitors can shop in the great outdoors.
“We want to help support these small businesses that have just been decimated by this pandemic,” said Day.
In autumn, nature takes center stage. Pumpkins. Hay rides. Corn mazes. Ziplines.
“We have a 600-foot zipline,” said Debbie Smith, co-owner with her husband, Chris Smith, of Fields of Adventure, in Aspers, Adams County. “That’s fun for those who don’t want to do a whole zipline trail but just want to try it.”
The region’s agritourism takes a deep dive into fall fun. Most are less than an hour’s drive from Harrisburg, scattered around Perry, Lancaster and Cumberland counties.
The 40-acre Fields of Adventure attractions include a corn maze for daytime or flashlight exploring. When you’re hungry, try a Fields of Adventure farm-raised farmburger, pulled pork sandwich, chicken wrap, or popcorn (yes, it grows on cobs). Little ones can ride horse swings. Teens love the human foosball court. Hay rides go into the pick-your-own pumpkin patch.
Of course, you can buy a pumpkin at the Fields of Adventure farm stand, along with its pasture-raised meats and poultry, but “it’s fun for the family to go out and walk through the patch and pick their pumpkins.”
“We’re a family farm,” Smith said. “We just want to share our space and have folks come out, especially this year. People just want a place that’s outside, in fresh air, but mostly just to spend time together.”
A Few Tips
Daytrips are different in the pandemic age. Try these tips for a safe, obstacle-free experience:
- Before getting in the car, even for outdoor events, check websites for safety and sanitation protocols, revised hours, group sizes and any restrictions.
- Make reservations for ticketed events well in advance.
- Try non-peak nights. Field of Screams sells out on Saturdays, but it’s just as spine-tingling on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.
- Make a full day or weekend of the excursion by patronizing surrounding restaurants, hotels and B&Bs.
- If you’re not ready for travel, consider nearby autumn offerings from the Pride of the Susquehanna, 3rd in the Burg or Hersheypark.
- Support local destinations by buying gift cards. They fit nicely into holiday stockings.
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