There are some places that, by the time you finally “discover” them, you wonder why you’d never heard of them before. This was the case for us with Dutch Wonderland, a theme park not too far away from Virginia in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Several friends had recommended it to us and sang its praises. How come I’d never heard of this place before? I wondered. But here’s the thing: we were still new parents, with a very young child. Maybe there was no “need” to know about it before we had kids, but once we did, it was a must-see place.
As a park that caters to children, Dutch Wonderland may not be the place for thrill seekers looking for the latest, most exhilarating rides. Instead, it is a park designed for families with young children, a place where little ones rule and — as its trademarked slogan says — “a kingdom for kids.” That said, don’t think of this as a little park where you can pass a couple of hours: on the contrary, Dutch Wonderland sits on 43 acres, has more than 35 rides (most of which adults can ride on as well) plus a small water park, features live shows, and offers enough fun that you could be there all day and still not see it all. Since opening in 1963, Dutch Wonderland has consistently been recognized as a premier family theme park and has been named one of the Top 5 Best Kid’s Park in the World by Amusement Today magazine numerous times. Luckily for us, the park is an easy drive from Northern Virginia (a drive of less than three hours from most places in Fairfax County).
We have visited Dutch Wonderland several times, mostly when our son was a toddler, and always enjoyed our visits. Now that he is a “big boy” (age 8) we recently visited to see if our experience would be different. We base this review of the park on both the earlier visits and this most recent one (over Labor Day weekend 2015).
WHAT TO EXPECT
Theme: The name comes from its location (“Pennsylvania Dutch” country) and setting: the main entrance is like a castle (complete with a “moat” you cross over to go into the park), there are themed decorations throughout, and its characters are Princess Brooke, the Dutch Wonderland Knight, Merlin the Magician, and the big star, Duke the Dragon. You can see them at shows, strolling through the park, and at character breakfasts. If your kids love castes and royalty, they will enjoy this timeless theme here. The exterior of Dutch Wonderland, the castle itself, will get kids excited about the park before you’ve even parked your car.
Park layout: Most of Dutch Wonderland doesn’t have named areas, but as you can see on the park map, it is actually an easy place to navigate. Because all the rides are geared to children, all throughout the park you will find rides for even the smallest kids. The park is on flat terrain (no hills) and paths are wide so the only thing that will stop you is the occasional train going on the tracks, which is always fun to watch and which you can ride. One thing about the park that I absolutely love is that it has four ways to get a view of most or all of the property: a train, a monorail, boat tours, and the Sky Ride. If you like to get “the lay of the land” early on when visiting a park, as I do, it’s nice to have these choices. This is one of the things Dutch Wonderland does well: pack variety into a relatively small (compared to larger theme parks) space.
Convenience/cleanliness: As I mentioned, the park has easy walking paths. There are also several shaded areas throughout and there is a new Nursing Mothers Station. Food is available throughout the park and choices include larger restaurants (such as the cafeteria-style Mill Stream Eatery at the back of the park and the themed, table-service Merlin’s Restaurant by the front), snack shacks and ice cream shops, and a Nathan’s hot dog stand and a Subway. For a quick bite, we’ve headed to the Mill Stream Eatery a few times. For a sit-down meal in a nicer setting, we’ve gone to Merlin’s, where the prices are reasonable and the servings large. One thing our friends had always mentioned to us is that this is very clean park, and we have found that to be true.
Ride requirements: The park has five categories for ride height requirements. Keeping with the “royalty” theme, these categories are labeled as gems: aquamarine (36″ and below), emerald (36″ to 42″), amber (42″ to 48″), sapphire (48″ to 54″), and ruby (54″ and up). The park website neatly groups the kids-only rides and the family rides (where older kids and adults also can join in), which helps you plan your visit. One thing parents with very young children can appreciate is how many rides even the smallest or youngest kids can enjoy, a real plus for those with independent children who want to ride by themselves. Dutch Wonderland will always have a special place in our hearts as the park where our son, barely two years old, went on his first “real” theme park ride completely by himself: the Wonder Whip. He was so tiny that his little legs stuck out completely straight out of the seat (no bending at the knees). As he went gently around the sides of an oval track, only to then experience a quick jolt at each curve, he was delighted. He was proud of himself and wide-eyed. We were proud of him and teary-eyed.
Ride types: Other kid-only rides are airplanes and pandas that fly, Duke’s Dozers, kid-powered trains, and a few more. The bulk of the park’s rides are the “family rides” where kids and adults can ride together — 27 options in all. These include the train that takes you all around the park (no on-off option, just a circular route around the park), the monorail, the Sky Ride, a gondola cruise, a lagoon log boat ride, and classics such as flying swings, a merry-go-round, a multi-lane fun slide, and bumper cars, plus the Twister and Frog Hopper.
There are also two rollercoasters, one wooden and one steel. Kingdom Coaster (previously called Sky Princess) is wooden and the larger of the two, featuring a 55-foot lift hill, smaller hills, a short tunnel, and some banked turns. This may be the most thrilling of the park’s rides, and we really enjoyed it — it’s exciting enough for kids and adults without being scary. Nearby is the Joust Family Coaster, a steel rollercoaster. This one is much smaller (you can see the whole thing from the waiting area) and has a lower height requirement (36″ versus Kingdom’s 42″), giving younger kids a taste of the thrill (adults can ride this, too, but might be a bit more cramped).
If you haven’t been in the park in some time, there are some new features: in 2014, Dutch Wonderland added Exploration Island, perfect for your little dinosaur lovers. The “island” (you cross a bridge to get there) features 20 very lifelike animated dinosaurs in a lush landscape, and has educational notes on signs posted throughout. Nearby is a large fossil dig area, the Dino Dig. And in 2015, the park added the Bon Voyage Balloon Chase, a family ride with eight spinning gondolas shaped like hot air balloons that go up and down. Riders control the direction and speed of their spin.
Some of our favorite attractions, in addition to the rollercoasters, are:
- Diving shows: These high-diving acts (see details in the “live shows” section below) are very fun to watch.
- Sky Ride: A station-to-station aerial lift that gives you a view of the whole park — enjoyable both day and night, and if you time it right, you can see the open diving show at Aqua Stadium from up above!
- Double Splash Flume: Log flume rides are always fun and give you a tiny splash to cool you off on a hot day.
- Space Shuttle: A swinging ride (like the ones usually shaped like a ship) that’s more exciting than it appears from the ground. In keeping with the theme, the audio is of a space command center giving you alerts and instructions.
- Sunoco Turnpike: Now located at Exploration Island, on this ride you drive an antique car along a track. The ride goes on for a nice length and gives you some control in that you make it go with a gas pedal, and you can steer it a bit. When our son was younger he was excited that he could “drive” a car. He still likes it but not as much now that he knows the “trick” that the track ultimately controls where you go.
- Bumper cars: Always fun. And hey, why is bumper-to-bumper traffic so much fun at these places yet so dreadful on I-66 or the Capital Beltway? 😉
Water park: Not a full-fledged water park but more of a water play area, Duke’s Lagoon (open during the summer only) has a couple of large structures with the usual features kids like: kiddie slides, a variety of spray nozzles, jets, tipping cones, and a big tipping bucket. Our son still loves these water play areas and had a great time there. Duke’s Lagoon also has a snack shack and lounge area, plus cabanas for rent. Locker rentals are cheap (around $4 only) but bring cash, as you get the tokens from a machine and the nearby gift shop can’t sell them to you. Duke’s Lagoon also has the “Pipeline Plunge,” two larger water slide tubes.
Live shows: Dutch Wonderland has daily shows, some geared to very young children and others for a general audience. Some are storytimes and music and dance shows featuring Duke the Dragon and the royal characters, and one is a country music show with animated bears. Some shows are diving demonstrations in the Aqua Stadium. Of these, Adventures of the Frog Prince and A Dragon’s Tale blend a storyline with the dives and take place daily. During the summer, there also is an open dive show with fun acrobatics and lots of humor. It was great to see the high dives and all the splashing! The divers give you plenty of warning about how you may get wet if you’re seated in the first few rows. It was quite fun to see so many grown-ups move to the back after that announcement and, in the opposite direction, watch kids (my own included) make a beeline for the front so they could get splashed (and wet they did get!).
Schedule and prices: Dutch Wonderland is open for the regular season Memorial Day through Labor Day, plus brief holiday events (see below). One-day admission during the regular season is $39.99 for ages 3 and up; active and retired military get a $10 discount. Kids age 2 and under are always free, and the park offers season passes. Parking used to be free but a few years ago they started charging. Still, it’s a low rate at $5 for all vehicle types, $10 for preferred parking closer to the gate, and $5 for accessible parking.
Seasonal events: Every year Dutch Wonderland re-opens briefly for the Halloween and Christmas holiday seasons. Happy Hauntings is a fall/Halloween event in October with themed rides, special entertainment, seasonal treats, and an interactive trick-or-treating experience on Exploration Island. This is a safe, non-scary event, and friendly costumes are welcome. Dutch Winter Wonderland celebrated the holiday season with themed rides, special treats, music, decorations, and the Royal Light Show with hundreds of thousands of twinkling lights. Happy Hauntings takes place Saturdays and Sundays during the Halloween season and Dutch Winter Wonderland is on Saturdays and Sundays (and select weekdays) from around Thanksgiving to Christmas.
Read more about our experiences at Dutch Wonderland and other tips and recommendations below.
Overall: On all of our visits we have found that there is enough to do to keep you busy the whole day, staff has been helpful, and the park has been clean. We’ve never had to wait long for food and there’s no pressure to buy merchandise.
With a toddler: Our first couple of visits to the park focused largely on the rides he could go on by himself and the ones we could do together as a family. He was too small during his first to be able to go on the roller coasters and some of the other thrill rides. But at that age, he was enthused about riding a “real” train, plus the monorail, and (on subsequent visits) the Sky Ride. Surprisingly to us, from the start he’s always been able to go on the Turtle Whirl, one of those tilt-a-whirl rides that — while some people absolutely love for their spinning action — we found to be a bit “too much” for us. As a young toddler, he enjoyed the live shows and meeting the characters afterward. Even with some limitations — self-imposed, or due to height restrictions — we still found enough to do during our first couple of visits that we never even made it to the water play area! And Exploration Island was not part of the park during our first visit, but we suspect that during that age, he would have absolutely loved the life-like dinosaurs and the dino dig. We visited the park also during the Christmas season once and it was great to meet Santa and see all the holiday lights at night (on the ground and from above on the Sky Ride).
With a “big” kid: It had been a couple of years since visited the park, and on this recent visit, our son was now a “big boy” age eight. While I was certain that he would enjoy it, I was hoping he wouldn’t have very high expectations: since his last visit to Dutch Wonderland, he has been to much bigger theme parks, including Walt Disney World, Hersheypark, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, and Kings Dominion, where he has gone on some very large roller coasters and intense rides. Would he still enjoy Dutch Wonderland? I am happy to say that he did. While we skipped most of the kiddie rides — I did make him go on the Wonder Whip again, for before (when he was a baby) and after photos — and this time he had no interest in any of the live kiddie shows, he still had plenty of fun. He enjoyed the log flume, Sky Ride, car rides, bumper cars, Space Shuttle, and water play area. And even though he has been on far bigger roller coasters, he was having a great time on both the Kingdom Coaster and the smaller Joust Family Coaster, both of which he rode several times, sometimes alone and sometimes with us. He also loved the diving show, which was one of our favorite parts.
I asked our son up to what age he would like this park, and he says maybe 12, but realistically I think he’ll still get excited about it up to only age 9 or 10. Overall, because of the number of family rides suitable for all (or most) ages, Dutch Wonderland is a park that families with young children can enjoy for many years.
Plan your day: Even though Dutch Wonderland is easy to explore, planning can still be helpful. There are plenty of photo opps, eateries, and rides that even we haven’t experienced after multiple visits, so next time I need to come up with a “bucket list!”
Make it a weekend: Dutch Wonderland will take up the whole day, and while it’s close enough you can make your visit a day trip, the Lancaster area offers much to do — there are plenty of fun factory tours nearby, and the neighboring Strasburg area is a haven for train lovers — to turn your trip into a full weekend or more. FYI, Dutch Wonderland also owns the adjacent Old Steam Mill Campground that has RV and tent sites and family cabins.
Combine it with a trip to Hersheypark: Dutch Wonderland once was owned by Hershey Entertainment & Resorts, the same company that owns Hersheypark, which is just about 45 minutes away. Even though it’s under different ownership now (Palace Resorts bought Dutch Wonderland in 2010), both parks still offer combo passes so you can visit both parks on different days for a discounted price.
Don’t fear the rain: If the weather is “iffy,” don’t worry. Dutch Wonderland has a generous rain policy: If you are visiting during the regular summer season and it rains for more than one consecutive hour and you decide to leave, you can stop by Guest Services as you exit and show your ticket stub to get a single-day admission ticket valid for a return visit. You can use this at any time during the remainder of the summer season or for Happy Hauntings or Dutch Winter Wonderland.
Bring a picnic: You cannot bring outside food into Dutch Wonderland but there is a large picnic pavilion with tables (both covered and out in the open) between the parking lot and the entrance.
Get a free peek or an early start: Dutch Wonderland offers a free “sneak peek” — when you buy a ticket for a full day, you can enjoy a park during the last three hours of the previous day for free during the regular season! See details (and rules about this for seasonal events) in the Preview Plan paragraph on this Dutch Wonderland page. You also can take a look around if you just want to check out the attractions, shop in the store, or see if your kids would enjoy a visit: the park allows first-time visitors to get their tickets fully refunded if they won’t stay 45 minutes past the time they purchased their ticket that same day. The program is meant to help you decide if the theme park is right for your kids or to let you shop for food or other items inside the park. See the details about the 45-minute Shopper’s Pass.
All photos (c) P. Hall
Disclosure: My family was hosted by Dutch Wonderland with complimentary admission for our group on our most recent visit but we are prior customers. Opinions here, as always, are my own.