Lancaster, Pennsylvania is known for its Amish community having arrived in America in the 1720s. It is one of the largest and oldest Amish communities in the country. Its sprawling farmlands and scenic beauty lends itself to an untarnished view of nature.
But there’s another side to Lancaster, and here you will find a virtual children’s playground as Lancaster also houses Dutch Wonderland, a theme park which prides itself in its trademarked “Kingdom for Kids” theme. And this year, they are celebrating 60 glorious years as the premier family fun entertainment in the area.
Looking back, Dutch Wonderland came from very unlikely circumstances. The founder, Earl Clark, worked as a potato broker. He would travel up and down the eastern corridor from Maine to Florida to sell his potatoes, and he sold to nearby potato chip factories in the southern Pennsylvania area as well. He finally decided that it was time to hang up his traveling boots and settle down in Strasburg, Pennsylvania.
With the local tourism industry centered around the Amish community, the 28-year-old Earl Clark decided to build Congress Inn motel in 1958. At 52 rooms, people thought he was crazy for getting into such an endeavor. Having no background and experience in the hotel industry, Clark recalled in 1982, “People called me crazy because (the Congress Inn) was the biggest one around back then.”
It was a huge success and in the following year, he added at least 20 more rooms. The success didn’t go unnoticed and a New York buyer sought to purchase the place from him many times before he finally relented on the third try. One thing Earl took away from his motel guests was the lament “that there wasn’t enough to do with children in the area,” recalls his son, Murl, who also worked at the motel with his father till he was 10 years old. “That planted the seed for Dutch Wonderland.”
Named after Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutsch), which was a Germanic language spoken by the Amish in the area, Earl himself designed the castle’s front entrance, and Murl saw his father drawing the initial layout for the park that will initially sit on a 14-acre parcel of land west of the Congress Inn.
“He said he had a dream that night and wanted to get it on paper while it was fresh in his mind,” Murl recounts the tale. “I considered my father both an entrepreneur as well as a visionary. People said he was crazy this time as well … But he proved them wrong.”
Whether it’s pure luck (as he had found a four-leaf clover on the tract of land he purchased) or divine intervention, Earl Clark proved everyone wrong. He opened Dutch Wonderland in 1963 with just four rides and lots of exhibits showcasing Amish life. By 1965, he had acquired another 56 acres of land and added more rides to his growing empire. With the support of his family, they grew Dutch Wonderland into a place where families can enjoy wholesome fun and entertainment.
Mary “Molly” Clark, his wife, helped manage the gift shop inventory until his younger son, Brad, relieved her of her duties, while Murl worked alongside his father in making decisions on what new rides to add as well as marketing the park.
“My dad’s biggest philosophy was to give the customer or guest what they want or need,” Murl states. “He also had a great attention to detail which he taught me at an early age.”
Earl passed away at the age of 63 in 1993, leaving his mark on the local tourism industry which also includes camping grounds, a wax museum, a movie theater, a one-room schoolhouse (where animatronics display what school would have looked like back in the day), and the Amish Farm and House (where visitors can get a guided farmhouse tour). He also served as vice-president of the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau, and was named “man of the year” by the Travel Pennsylvania Association in 1978.
In 2001, the Clark sons decided to sell to nearby Hershey Entertainment and Resorts Company that led to the addition of book-reading advocate, Princess Brooke, and Sir Brandon as part of the kingdom’s cast of characters, joining Duke the Dragon, who had made his appearance in 1997. They also included high dive acts which has become one of the more popular shows at the park.
In 2010, Palace Entertainment purchased Dutch Wonderland from Hershey. Palace Entertainment, which is based in Pittsburgh; helped the theme park celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2013; and is now gearing up to celebrate its 60 years of existence.
This year, Dutch Wonderland marked its earliest season ever by opening the castle gates the weekend of April 1. Along with its opening, it is showcasing new rides and events to mark its landmark anniversary.
This year, they added the “Egg-cellent Easter Celebration,” which goes with their other popular seasonal offerings of “Happy Hauntings” in the fall and “Dutch Winter Wonderland” for the winter months.
Guests will go through a completely renovated castle interior and gift shop with plenty of themed souvenir items up for sale. Another new addition to the ride offerings they already have is the “Topsy-Turvy Tea Party”—a classic teacup ride that is sure to fit in with all the other family fun rides already in place.
New food options are available, including the often-requested funnel cake and more exciting events to come as the year progresses.
In keeping with Earl Clark’s vision for a place for children to have fun, it is no wonder that Dutch Wonderland has consistently won Amusement Today’s “Best Family Park” three years in a row from 2019 to 2022 (no awards in 2020). This award is the highest given out in the amusement park industry. As they continue to listen to what their guests want, Dutch Wonderland will continue to expand in that direction.
Lancaster, Pennsylvania has seen 9 million visitors in the past year and they do not expect this number to go down any time soon. It is a destination for those who seek to get away from the hubbub of modern-day living. In this age of progressive values and liberal ideas, Lancaster is a reminder that traditional values exist, and at Dutch Wonderland, kids can just be kids.
Earl Clark would be happy to know that his legacy in Lancaster will be one that will last many more years to come.
“Earl Clark was a leader in taking Lancaster County tourism to its next level in the early 1960s. His vision and energy were evident in all the hospitality properties he developed here. Our continued success today as an important local industry owes a debt of gratitude to the first-class visitor experiences Mr. Clark created,” said Edward Harris, president and CEO of “Discover Lancaster.”