Earlier this month, my mom, brother and I went to Helene’s Hilltop Orchard in Merrill, Wisconsin. Once we arrived, I realized I had been there once before with my caregiver, Adam. However, it wasn’t nearly as crazy then as it was on the day we went this year.
When we first arrived at Helene’s Hilltop Orchard, there was one lane into the entrance and one lane for the exit. There was a major traffic jam due to a huge tour bus blocking the entrance. Cars were going into the exit, blocking both lanes. There were no employees in the parking lot to direct traffic or assist. After waiting about 15 minutes, a lady did approach our van and told us to back up so the bus could back out! This would not have been an issue if there weren’t about 8 cars behind us. The bus finally was able to back up enough to turn and use the designated exit. I think much of this could have been avoided if there were employees directing traffic.
Our parking lot adventure at Helene’s Hilltop Orchard did not end there. As we voyaged through the parking lot, we saw no signs for handicapped parking or any designated spots. This was pretty stressful as the parking lot was a designated field, not a paved lot. This always poses its own challenges and the longer I am in the parking lot, the greater the risk. Luckily, someone pulled out fairly close to the entrance and my mom was able to position the van to accommodate my lift. We placed our trusty orange cones to make sure no one parked too close to us.
As we walked into Helene’s Hilltop Orchard, we noticed a store on our right and a bluegrass band on a stage to our left. There was a long line at a booth, so we checked it out. The line was for wristbands for several activities at Helene’s Hilltop Orchard. Most of the activities were for little kids, so we passed. It was so crowded, we decided not to participate in the apple picking or corn maze. Those kinds of activities are not my thing anyway. I have issues with back and knee pain, the uneven terrain really makes these issues harder for me. We decided to just check out the store and take in the excitement of the band and food.
The store at Helene’s Hilltop Orchard was packed to the rim with enough people to sell out a stadium. Ok, that may have been an exaggeration! The store had a line snaking through it and was somewhat disorganized; it would have been nice if there was someone keeping the line in order so we could have seen what the store had to offer. The line literally blocked most of the store! I was unable to fit in some places where the line was, so luckily my brother was able to move along with the line and keep our spot. Eventually, I had to wait outside. I should also mention the doorway into the store was plenty wide, but there was a lip. My chair was unable to go over it unassisted and my mom had to push from behind.
However, it was well worth it. I got some fresh squeezed apple cider, some gluten free double chocolate chip cookies and a bag of apples. The gluten free cookies baked at Helene’s Hilltop Orchard had the perfect richness, moistness, and sweetness, a heavenly umami! Best of all, they didn’t have the typical gluten free issue of dryness. My guess is they added some type of fat, such as milk to moisten it. But whatever they did, they were delicious! Kudos to Helene’s Hilltop Orchard for the best gluten free cookies I have ever tasted!!
We decided to sit and relax and listen to the band playing on stage across from the store. The bluegrass music was great and really fit into the surroundings! I am a die-hard head-banging rock fan, but I really happened to enjoy listening to the twang of this bluegrass trio. My mom and brother got in line to grab some food as we intended to eat lunch there. They came back empty handed as they ran out of hot dogs and chicken sandwiches. We had a nice warm cup of apple cider instead. The picnic tables they had did allow for my chair to slide underneath, so if we did have food I would have been able to eat at the tables at Helene’s Hilltop Orchard.
We ran into a group of my cousins, who I have not seen in a while. It was great to see my cousin, Emily on my Dad’s side of the family. I want to clarify that because I have a cousin named Emily on Mom’s side as well! It was insane to see how much she has grown. It makes me think about what it would be like to have a family of my own. Crazy to think about! Not to divulge too much into my personal life, but you never know it might happen someday! Just a personal thought. It’s amazing how fast time flies. The funny thing is, inside I still feel like a kid at heart. My mom shakes her head when I say this and tells me I am still a kid. Before I get off on a tangent, let’s talk about the bathrooms at Helene’s Hilltop Orchard.
The bathrooms were port-a-potties, which personally, I’ve never been very fond of. If I had to say a plus about them, it would be that there not gender specific. However, port-a-potties have a long history of not being handicapped accessible due to their small size, even the handicapped accessible ones tend to be too small for my chair and caregiver. We did not see any wheelchair accessible port-a-potties there, only single stall. There might have been one somewhere, but not in the main area. I understand if it’s a financial burden to build a handicapped accessible bathroom, but it might be something to consider.
When my mom was in the store she asked an employee if they had handicapped parking available. She told her it was on the “side of the barn”. I should note my mom said that as crazy as it was, none of the employees seemed to be stressed and they were all very friendly and polite. As we left we looked around the big white barn and we finally saw the handicapped spots. The spots were great and close to the entrance. They were marked with a homemade sign that we walked right passed without noticing as we came in. The problem is, you do not see the handicapped spots until you are already walking into Helene’s Hilltop Orchard.
I am going to rate Helene’s Hilltop Orchard based on my visit this year, as an adult disabled wheelchair user. I am giving them 2.5 wheelchair stars for accessibility. However, in terms of overall experience, they get 3.5 stars.
With slight changes and improvements, this can certainly be a fully accessible business. Parking attendants for busy days would be very beneficial. When we were in that bit of a traffic jam, we saw several cars turn around and leave. I think this can be avoided with a bit of organization. Additionally, parking attendants along with clear signs will resolve the handicapped parking situation we had.
The store line could be resolved with a few posts and ropes to direct the line in such a manner that it would not snake throughout the store. The lip at the entrance can be easily resolved with a small ramp.
Additionally, several handicapped port-a-potties are needed. I would suggest one in each area where the current port-a-potties are located.
We talked with Adam about our experience. He has taken a group he works with to Helene’s Hilltop Orchard several times throughout the years. He suggested going during the week for apple picking and making purchases from the store. I think we will do this in the future, but also return during the weekend for the entertainment and time with family and friends.
Additionally, in regards to younger disabled children I think the accessibility issues would not affect the experience as much as it did for me. My mom and I talked about how it was easier to go to places like this when I was younger and much smaller. The activities at Helene’s Hilltop Orchard are geared toward younger children and I did not observe barriers that would prevent disabled children from participating if they are able to be lifted and carried for part of the way. I would say for families with younger disabled children, Helene’s Hilltop Orchard would have a rating of 3.5 stars for accessibility and 4 stars for the experience. I certainly would recommend making this a yearly tradition, but to be aware of the challenges.
When I checked out their website, I discovered that Dave, the patriarch of Helene’s Hilltop Orchard had a battle with cancer and subsequently had to hand over the reins last year to other members of his family. My understanding is that he is in remission. I hope the best for this family and their very popular business.
Until next time, keep Rollin’ and keep Smilin’.