Founded in 1963 by the Clark family of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Dutch Wonderland still retains a certain family feel that’s different from any other theme park. It’s a great first introduction to amusement parks, with its cheery medieval castle theme and assortment of gentle rides geared to younger kids.
First Impression of the Park
As soon as we spied the white turrets of the castle entrance, my then four-year-old started vibrating with excitement. Her parents were just glad parking didn’t involve shuttles or walking great distances to reach the entrance. At 48 acres and some 35 rides, Dutch Wonderland makes for a very manageable day out.
Pick up a map either before arriving at the park (map is available online) or as soon as you get past the entry gate. A miniature train, which does a loop through the park, is a good way to orient yourself; you can board at the station almost directly across from the entrance. A monorail also circles the park and provides a treetop overview of a kingdom of bumper cars, carousels, and Italian ice stands.
Attractions at the Amusement Park
But if you want to get right into the action, the water play area, called Duke’s Lagoon, can be found to the left of the entrance gate. The Lagoon, presided over by a friendly-looking dragon called Duke, has the usual water play features: buckets that dump water, slides, spray fountains. Bathrooms have kid-size toilets.
You might consider splurging on a cabana at the Lagoon. These roofed huts in a gated area come with a table, chairs, a refrigerator stocked with cold drinks, and the use of a locker. They provide a shaded place to retreat to throughout the day whenever you need a breather from the crowds and heat. I was there with a 10-month-old so our cabana was a discreet place for me to breastfeed him. The cabanas also offer table service; we ordered a pizza and ate it without the hassle of standing in line or hunting for an empty table at one of the other park eateries. A cabana may be worth the extra money to keep your sanity.
Live shows at the park include a high-dive performance at the Aqua Stadium. My four-year-old daughter and I happened to be on the Sky Ride, an aerial gondola that traverses the park, as it passed the stadium during the finale of a performance. We had a prime bird’s-eye view as the performers made their climactic synchronized high dives from a castle tower into a pool.
The Waterplay Platform
My girl also particularly liked a water ride called the Dragon’s Lair, which had her “driving” a boat around a pond, into a tunnel, and past a waterfall. This ride had the longest wait we experienced that day, but the wait was speedy compared to most rides at, say, Disney World. My daughter also rode her first roller coaster here, the Joust Family Coaster, which had mild hills and turnsâ€”enough to give her a thrill but still enjoy it. Across from it, the “big-kid” Kingdom Coaster may be the park’s scariest ride but its thrills seem pleasantly vintage in relation to other amusement parks’ newest high-speed, high-flying coasters.
In fact, I found Dutch Wonderland’s main attraction to be in its old-fashioned attractions: a red brick schoolhouse where little ones can pull on a rope to ring the rooftop bell, story time led by a non-Disneyfied princess, a lazy-river boat ride that passes a field occupied by a herd of real cows. Unlike at most could-be-anywhere theme parks, you definitely get a sense that you are in Pennsylvania Dutch country.
Where to Eat
Merlin’s Restaurant, a full-service, sit-down restaurant inside the castle, was new in 2012. It serves sandwiches, burgers, and salads. A Lancaster favorite is the traditional chicken pot pie. Other quick-service options around the park include Nathan’s Famous hotdogs and Noble Roman’s pizza, as well as Three Amigos Mexican grill and a kosher mart. There are kiosks selling funnel cakes, soft serve ice cream cones, and fresh fruit with chocolate sauce to dip it in. (You can’t bring your own food or drink into the park.)
Hours of Operation & Admission
From October to December, Dutch Wonderland is open on select weekends and weekdays only. In October the park has a Halloween theme with costume contests, themed rides, and trick-or-treating. In November and December the park becomes Dutch Winter Wonderland.
Dutch Wonderland is about a two-hour drive from the DC area.