Dutch Wonderland
August 4, 2018

copyright Jay Ducharme 2018

After a refreshing night in our hotel room, we packed up and headed west to Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster, PA. We hadn't been to this delightful children's park in about 20 years, and there had been many changes since then, including two changes of ownership. The park opened in 1963, owned by Earl Clark. He sold the park to Hershey in 2001, which initiated the first series of changes. Then Hershey sold it to Palace Entertainment in 2010. We weren't sure what to expect, but I was hoping the park still had the charm I remembered from our first visit. The hour-and-a-half drive from Allentown was pleasant, cruising through the picturesque Amish countryside. We were grateful that the previous day's clouds had lifted and the sky was generally blue with a few clouds passing by.

The first thing we noticed when we arrived was a parking area that had tripled in size. And it looked like they needed it -- we got there right at the park's opening time and the lots were rapidly filling up. We parked near the administration building and walked over to the castle entrance. They had two security guards checking people's bags there, and the line moved slowly. (Later in the day, they'd have just one guard and the line would stretch back to the parking lots.). Since we didn't have any bags, we walked over the drawbridge, through the park's large gift shop and out onto the main concourse. Karen had purchased our tickets online. We presented them at the gate and walked onto the narrow strip of midway in front of the Wonderland Special, the park's miniature railway. The park's Sky Ride was to our left, and Karen suggested taking a ride. So we queued up. The woman in the station was very friendly and chatted with us as we waited for a seat to arrive. In short order, we were gliding high above the midway. The Sky Ride threaded between the track of the park's newest ride, Merlin's Mayhem, a unique suspended roller coaster that even small children could ride. We also passed over a large corral filled with hay where kids could have a pony ride, a rarity at parks these days. It was the slowest Sky Ride I had ever been on. The short trip took about ten minutes. But I could understand why the ride moved so slowly. We saw a LOT of grandparents in the park with their grandkids. If the Sky Ride moved at a normal clip, the operators would probably have to keep stopping the ride to give the very old and very young enough time to get out of the way. By keeping the ride slow, it probably saved time in the end.

The Sky Ride dropped us off at the northeast end of the park, next to the entrance of the Kingdom Coaster, formerly Sky Princess, the first roller coaster designed by Mike Boodley and the at-the-time new company Custom Coasters. The park specifically wanted a coaster that young and old could ride together. The coaster was still the same except for the different name and color scheme (purple). Surprisingly, even though the park was fairly crowded there were few people in line for the coaster. Perhaps it was the hard-to-find entrance, tucked away in a corner. Or perhaps it was that coaster-inclined guests were queuing up for Merlin, which ran infrequently. Whatever it was, I didn't mind and queued up for the front seat. In a couple of minutes I was rolling toward the lift hill. We curved around the tight right-hand turn at the top and then glided down the first hill. The coaster's layout was unique and hinted at where Boodley would head with his work for Great Coasters International: lots of surprising turns mixed with bunny hops. The first drop led to a speed bump, similar to what Herb Schmeck used to design for the Philadelphia Toboggan Company. Then a left-curving airtime hill suddenly turned right and dropped down into a wide fan curve to the left. A long straight section of track went inside a curiously short tunnel, then jogged left to a bunny hop, right to another bunny hop and then circled left around the outside of the lift hill's turn. Another bunny hop led into the wide lightly-banked helix and into the brake run. This coaster is what made me aware of the park. I was pleasantly surprised the first time I rode it and it still brought a smile to my face.

We walked past the park's "kiddie" coaster, Joust (also painted purple), and headed toward the far north end. We passed the Dutch Wonderland pretzel photo op along the way. On our last trip, that area had an island bisected by Mill Stream. You could take a paddlewheel boat along the stream, encircling the island which was home to a sort of storybook forest area. Now the area had been completely redesigned and renamed Exploration Island, with a long blue steel bridge leading over the stream. To the right were the Gondola Boats, which sort of substituted for the paddlewheeler, taking people through a little creek surrounding the island. To the left was the Sunoco Turnpike, which also encircled the island but on solid ground. We bypassed that and instead walked onto the island proper. It was basically the Dinosaurs Alive exhibit at the Cedar Fair parks, except this one was free. It was a nicely landscaped shaded walkway. There were various interactive animatronic models that kids could manipulate. And of course at the end of the walk there was the ubiquitous Tyrannosaurus Rex.

From there we headed over to the Sunoco Turnpike. It was one of the prettiest antique car rides I've ever been on, following alongside the stream (which after all the rain was really high) and beside the forested island.

Then we headed back toward the south end of the park. We passed the Mill Stream Eatery, the largest indoor restaurant in the park. They served veggie burgers, so we knew where we were going for lunch. Near the center of the park they still had the quaint Amish display, a horse and buggy with an Amish couple sitting next to it. Opposite that was my favorite display in the park, a small group of animatronic Amish men swapping stories in the middle of their woodworking.

Diagonally opposite that was the station for the Monorail. On our last visit, the Monorail was a $5 upcharge. The station was in the parking lot; I didn't recall a station in the park itself. But now it was free, and this was the only way to board. So we climbed the stairs of the purple station abutting the brake run of Merlin's Mayhem. The Monorail had quite a lengthy track, running through most of the park's perimeter (nearly 50 acres) and then out into the parking lot and alongside Lincoln Highway. There was just a single short train to handle all the guests. We waited three cycles before boarding -- and it was totally worth waiting for. We ended up inside the operator's cabin. The deep red interior was a vivid contrast with the purple exterior. There appeared to be two operator seats but only the right one was being used. We could see lots of switches and rows of green and red LED lights. There was also a large video monitor on the left so that the operator could watch what was happening in each of the cabs. In a short time we were rolling out of the station and off on our relaxing tour of the park, complete with canned narration and music. Eight minutes later, we were back in the station. The station's exit was interesting because the Wonderland Special ran directly alongside it, so close you could touch it.

After that we walked back to the Mill Stream Cafe for lunch. The air was becoming oppressively hot and humid, so the air conditioning would help recharge us. It was going on 1:00 and the place was mobbed with people. We got in line and waited our turn. Above us was a cute kid's menu, with meals that kids could make into creatures (like Grilledzilla). We had a couple of families in front of us who were ordering pizzas and other items. The burgers were at the other end of the line, so we bypassed them. And I'm glad we did. Karen asked for two veggie burgers with fries, and we were told it would be a few minutes while they made them. She said that was no problem. And we waited. And waited. And waited. At one point they seemed to have our order finished, but then took it back. Meanwhile other guests were grabbing pre-made items and bypassing us. After about 15 minutes, they brought us our order. I got a Gatorade and Karen got her diet soda. The total came to a little less than what we paid for lunch at Dorney, but we had a lot more food here. Karen tracked down a free table. The burger looked great and tasted even better. It was way too much food to eat and we left quite full.

We then headed over to see the diving show at the Aqua Stadium. Unlike other similar shows we've seen that were little more than a collection of diving stunts and sight gags, this one had a story to it. The stadium was filling up and we picked a seat near the top. The stadium's design was a bit odd; the bleachers were covered by a roof, so in many sections of the upper seating you couldn't see what was happening on the upper levels of the set. The story (which was all prerecorded and lip-synced by the performers) concerned a bumbling court jester who saves his princess from an evil knight. The usual diving stunts were worked into the story, and naturally the front rows got heavily splashed. It was good family entertainment and everyone seemed to have a fun time.

Just as with Aqua Stadium, the park seemed to take pride in its theming, even if it was a little heavy on the purple. Every chance they seemed to reinforce the "Kid's Kingdom" motif. Even the copious signage had little castles on top. The park also had costumed characters wandering about, knights and princesses as you would expect, and also the park mascot Duke the Dragon. And there was also the obligatory brass band roaming about.

We wandered over to the west end of the park to check out Duke's Lagoon, the big waterpark which, as you might expect, was doing a booming business. Then we walked back toward the north end of the park to a path that ran alongside the stream. There wasn't anything particular there, but it was really picturesque. Off in the distance we could see an Amish man plowing his field. The path led back toward the Mill Stream Eatery. Along the way we passed the Dutch Wonder House, an illusion ride that took me back to my youth at Riverside Park in Agawam, MA. They had a similar ride, where you sat on a bench and the room rotated around you. In fact, Six Flags New England installed a hi-tech version of that ride, Houdini. But I always felt the smaller one had a lot more charm.

Karen wanted to see another show that was starting, and I wanted to film a walk-thru of the park. So she sat at the Celebration Theater to watch A Royal Fiasco while I headed toward the front of the park. I passed by the entrance to Merlin's Mayhem again. While I was curious to ride it, the long line and really slow cycle time (sometimes topping 10 minutes) meant it would take forever to board. It was a visually impressive ride, though, especially the big swooping turn over the pond near the front of the park.

When I finished filming, I met back up with Karen. It was then about 3:00, and we had a 3 1/2 hour drive to our next destination. So we reluctantly decided to head out. We both really liked the park and didn't want to leave. On the way back to the entrance we boarded the Wonderland Special for one last trip around the park. Before we left, Karen wanted to take a look at the old boat ride near the front of the park. She remembered it from our last visit. It was still there and apparently still really popular. One ride we liked that we didn't get to experience was the flume, that started running just as we left.

I had forgotten what a delight Dutch Wonderland was. Like some of our other favorite parks, it had managed that delicate balance of holding on to its uniqueness (like the Amish displays) while thoughtfully moving into the future. Merlin's Mayhem was sure to get lots of press and bring more guests to the park. But there were plenty of other enjoyable rides that the whole family could experience together. The food was really good too. I'm glad it's remained successful for 55 years, and I wish it many more decades bringing joy to the Lancaster area.

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