One was hot and cranky. The other was dirty and fast asleep. We hadn't even left the car yet and our trip to Sesame Place, a water park and amusement park for the sippy cup set, seemed destined for failure.

During our East Coast vacation with our 3-year-old, Charlotte, and her 18-month-old brother, Ted, a relative suggested we check out Sesame Place, 30 miles outside Philadelphia.

They probably didn't imagine that we'd go at the tail end of a car drive from Hershey, Pa., home of the kisses and the candy bars. Perhaps the sprint through the Hershey's Chocolate World visitor center three hours earlier was too much (there's an amusement park there, as well, but we opted for the free visitor center). Two major destinations in one day for two kids under 4? Were we nuts?

Before we had kids, our answer most definitely would have been yes. I once was solidly in the "anti-Disney" camp, or any pricey, plan-intensive theme park, for that matter. Who would voluntarily take on the crowds, the cost and the costumed characters of a place such as the Magic Kingdom?

But Sesame Place is different. As a member of Generation X, I grew up with the friendly puppets of Sesame Street. A small Ernie doll was my good luck charm for high school tennis matches.

I may have rolled my eyes when describing the Sesame Place plan with my friends, but who was I kidding? A trip there was a trip down memory lane, not a parental sacrifice. At least for me. My husband, Matt, gamely agreed to come, but I could tell he wished we'd spent extra days at the beach.

The park opened in 1980, about 10 years after the award-winning educational TV show started its popular run. It's been adding attractions over the years and now boasts pools, water slides and "thrill" rides designed for ages 10 and under. The park also puts on a few live shows such as "Elmo's World," where the popular red monster learns about a topic with the help of his friend Mr. Noodle and audience members.

After slathering our brood with sunscreen, persuading them to don hats and loading the diaper bag, we strolled to the entrance, greeted by a soundtrack of "Sunny Days" and Muppet prints embedded in the sidewalk in the spirit of Hollywood stars.

"Elmo has four fingers," said my 3-year-old, insisting on fitting her small hands into the imprint of each character's again and again.

Eager to enter the park, we coaxed her through the gates with promises of hugging the Sesame Street characters. There is no shortgage of photo opportunities with the furry cast.

Oscar greeted us at the gate, only to have both of my normally precocious kids cowering behind my legs. "He was sitting in his trash can and I was scared of that," Charlotte explained, as I watched others climb close to Oscar and smile widely for keepsake pictures. I wearily questioned the wisdom of bringing two terrified youngsters to a pricey character breakfast the next morning, one especially designed for taking souvenir pics. But it was too late to cancel.

Each parent has experienced the moment when you realize that the decisions you've made with your children at heart may not have been wise. Could it be that the world of Sesame Street is best experienced from the couch at home?

Elmo on parade

Our first stop was a replica of Sesame Street used mainly for photo taking with Ernie, Bert and the other residents. Choosing not to push the pictures, we let our kids run straight for the fire trucks and construction equipment to climb. Persuading toddlers to limit the amount of time to drive the neighborhood's vehicles was about as difficult as persuading preschoolers to wait in line for their turn to give Elmo high-fives. "You have to admit this kind of sucks," grumbled my husband as our children scuffled over the fire truck's driver's seat and the young one eventually crumpled to the ground, crying angry tears. But so goes life with small kids, whether in the back yard, at the library or visiting an amusement park.

While paying careful attention to Ted as he attempted to walk up the slide on a jam-packed playground, I caught another mother's eye. "All the things in this park and they like the one they can go on every single day," she said. Then again, the most mundane playground can be paradise for a toddler, and if we let ourselves stop thinking about how kids aren't noticing what we think they should, everyone enjoys the moment more.

Meanwhile, my daughter climbed through a giant maze of suspended rope tunnels and clambered up Cookie Mountain. And when Ted tired of the playground equipment, he kept busy climbing stairs, chasing balloon vendors and announcing the arrival of Elmo. A spin with the four of us on Big Bird's Balloon Race, which has riders flying above the park in tamely spinning hot air balloons, had us all smiling as Charlotte giggled and Ted repeatedly yelled "hooray."

One sticky Bomb Pop later and the pair were covered in a mix of sweat and melted iced confection. We were about to leave when we noticed other park patrons lining up for the nightly parade and decided to risk meltdown on the parade route instead. Charlotte passed the time dreaming about which stuffed toy she'd bring home if given a choice (she wasn't) and Ted tried to scale new heights on our stroller's awning.

Dancing in the street

Soon dancing replaced the kids' jittery impatience as the beloved Sesame Street characters, and some lesser-knowns, skipped into the street, grabbed partners and performed the swing. Our kids were enthralled with the size of the parade floats and sheer amount of whirling activity in front of them. It was all we could do to keep them from joining the parade at the rear.

Nearing 8 p.m., we headed to the car, with Charlotte insisting on placing her hands yet again in every character's Hollywood prints.

We pulled onto the highway, two tuckered-out kids slumped in the back seat, and reviewed the next day's game plan: Leave early in case of rush-hour traffic so we could arrive at the park for "Breakfast With Cookie Monster" at 9 a.m. Is that what you call a vacation?

Breakfast with the gang

The rain dripped through the picnic pavilion's roof into lukewarm coffee and soggy French toast sticks. (Breakfast With Cookie Monster costs $16.95 for adults and $14.95 for ages 2 and older. Reservations needed.)

But Charlotte couldn't have been happier. Her fear of the awkward mute muppets disappeared overnight and now fellow breakfast attendants were having difficulty photographing their children with Count, Big Bird and the rest of the gang without her rosy mug in the mix.

"Ernie, why are you sneaking behind Burt?" she screamed. "Count. Hey, Count. Where's your cape?"

Ted, perfecting the words "Ernie" and "monster" the prior day, spent his time calling for the amiable characters, only to shriek "no" as they lumbered toward him for hugs.

My husband and I wearily peered into the storm, dreading a chilly day splashing about in a wading pool. "Guess we'll run around in our swimsuits until we freeze," he said, trying to maneuver the stroller out of the downpour.

The breakfast wound to a close and Big Bird was guided out of the pavilion by a handler stretching to hold an umbrella over the giant bird's neck. The kids splashed in puddles and ran in circles, clearly excited by this out-of-the-ordinary experience. We figured there were worse places to be than a water park in the rain and headed to a swimming pool. Fortunately, the rain stopped by lunch.

Floating inside inner tubes on a lazy river with our kids lying like baby otters on our bellies, Matt and I decided that our decision to bring toddlers to a theme park wasn't so crazy after all. Nothing about parenthood ever goes exactly as planned. In the midst of pouting and tears, anything out of the ordinary can be labeled a mistake. Share a laugh or an ice cream cone and there's no place you'd rather be.

Ernest regrets

Despite the near-potty-disasters, food tantrums, waiting-in-line whining and a run-in with a sand-throwing big boy and his mom, our family agreed we'd gladly visit Sesame Place again if we were in the area during the summer. Even Matt. The park's season is May through October, although we wondered if visiting the park once it's too cold to get wet would be worthwhile.

The water attractions were our favorites and we had much fun on the second day pretending to be sea turtles in the Teeny Tiny Tidal Wave pool, playing under the spray at Ernie's Waterworks and rolling calmly down Big Bird's Rambling River in inner tubes. Unlike Disney, which has plenty to do for the bulk of a week, two days was enough at Sesame Place for both parents and kids.

My only regret about the trip is that I didn't get my photo taken with my old friend Ernie.

Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293