‘B’ is for Birthday: Sesame Place celebrates its 35th birthday

Jack Firneno, the Wire

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One lesson plenty of kids learned watching Sesame Street characters on TV is how to share. Lara Erb learned that lesson meeting them in person.

A Levittown native, Erb remembers going to the Sesame Place theme park in Langhorne before she was in preschool. The youngest of six girls, her grandparents would buy her and her sisters season passes for Christmas every year. Her mom would often take her and a friend during the weekdays while the older kids were in school.

“Cookie Mountain was my favorite,” she recalled, referring to the large vinyl pyramid designed for kids to climb on their own. “I loved the freedom of doing whatever I wanted.”

But what she didn’t always like was when the park would suddenly get crowded.

“I would get upset when school let out,” she said. “I’d ask my mom, ‘Why are all these kids in my playground?’ ”

Today, Erb is about two years younger than the park itself, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this season. And, she’s learned to “share” her playground.

Plenty has changed at Sesame Place since it opened 1980 — the park has more than doubled in size, and added a water park, mechanical rides and parades, for instance — but the driving force behind it has remained the same.

“We like to be a park of firsts: the first roller coaster, first water slide, the first time you meet a character,” said Jeff Davis, vice president of operations for Sesame Place. “All these experiences you can have as a family, and enjoy them together.”

Sesame Place started out as an extension of the long-running show. At the time, Children’s Television Workshop, the group behind Sesame Street, was looking to create a “3D version of the show.”

They chose Langhorne as their site because of its proximity to New York, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. and featured “kid-powered” activities like presentations about healthy eating and a computer gallery, according to Davis.

“When it started, the park was really an extension of the show,” he said. “Then theme parks started exploding, but there weren’t a lot for the young age group.”

One of the first changes they made was to add characters to the park in 1982 — “Kids were coming and expecting to meet Bert and Ernie,” noted Davis — and then more physical attractions like Cookie Mountain, a vinyl pyramid children could climb, and the giant net climb.

Today, it’s a hybrid part with three live shows, a parade, nine water attractions and 14 mechanical rides. It’s still the only one in the country that’s based on Sesame Street, but while the park’s focus is less on education and more on family fun today, Davis said they always make sure to combine the two.

“There’s usually a teaching element in all our shows, and the parades still get approved by the CTW,” said Davis. In fact, the writers who work on the Sesame Street TV show also contribute to the parades and character events in the park.

“They know the characters best: how they would speak, what they would say,” noted Davis.

Even this year’s anniversary celebration has an educational slant: “We have numbers all over the park, and 35 candles on the cake. It’s still entertaining but with an educational twist.”

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But, there’s still plenty of fun: The park will be decorated with bright balloons and garland, a giant, inflatable birthday cake and jumbo candles lining the way to the Sesame Neighborhood.

There’s also the new Neighborhood Birthday Party Parade featuring a birthday float, colorful birthday décor, sparkly cupcakes and music.

And, just in time for the anniversary, the park is debuting new attractions this year. Sesame Place has three new mechanical rides this year, The Count’s Fly By, the Castle Swing and The Count Around.

“We’re always looking for attractions everyone can do,” said Davis.

That includes the Vapor Trail roller coaster. It was the first mechanical ride at the park, installed in 1998, and also the personal favorite of Erb’s son, Hank.

“He didn’t like greeting the characters much, but he loved the roller coaster,” she said.

Hank’s now 10 years old, and like his mom, stopped going to Sesame Place regularly when he was around 7. But before that, Erb made sure they had season passes every year.

“It was important to share something from my childhood,” she said.

Sesame Place opening day is May 2. For more information, visit www.sesameplace.com.