The Baltimore Banner wants to help its readers discover the joys that lie beyond the region. Our “Discover” travel series will shine a light on some of the hidden gems in and outside Maryland that residents can explore in a day or a weekend. We’ll tell you where to stay, what to do and the best places to eat. Whether you’re a single person who wants to get out of Charm City for the weekend, a couple looking for an entertaining day trip or a family willing to cross state lines to maintain your sanity, we’ll have something for you.

My childhood memories of Dutch Wonderland are fuzzy: I know there was a giant ball pit involved, and that’s about it. But the 60-year-old theme park resurfaced when I was looking for a low-key family trip over spring break.

Unlike other theme parks in the region, Dutch Wonderland is designed almost exclusively for the under-10 crowd — perfect for my thrill-seeking 3-year-old who doesn’t understand why she can’t ride the biggest, scariest roller coasters. It’s also quite affordable at about $40 a ticket, and surrounded by little-kid-friendly attractions. And the best part: It’s a 90-minute drive from Baltimore.

Dutch Wonderland was the main attraction on our weekend trip to Pennsylvania Dutch Country, an underrated gem for young families. Save your money for Disney when the kids are older; get the theme park experience, plus some regional culture, close to home for a fraction of the cost and hassle.

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Where we stayed

The Country Inn & Suites by Radisson is the highest-rated hotel within a mile of Dutch Wonderland. It’s a solid mid-range option — clean, with friendly staff and decent complimentary breakfast. The area is not exactly scenic: The theme park’s neighbors are mainly outlet malls, chain restaurants and hotels. We chose the hotel almost entirely because it’s across the street from the park — and because of the indoor pool, which was among my daughter’s favorite parts of the trip. It’s an excellent activity for that awkward couple of hours between dinner and bedtime. I particularly appreciated the hot tub within eyesight of the main pool.

The lobby of the Country Inn & Suites welcomes guests with a cozy fireplace and seating area. (Rachel Cieri Mull)

We did notice some highway noise in our hotel room, so I suggest bringing earplugs or a sound machine if you’re a light sleeper. Tiffany, from the front desk, recommends booking a queen suite (two queen beds and a living room with a pull-out sofa), as those rooms are in the back of the building, facing away from the main road.

Day 1: A train and a tavern

What we did

Our ride on the Strasburg Rail Road was helmed by locomotive No. 89, which was built in 1910 and once ran on the Canadian National Railway.
Our ride on the Strasburg Rail Road was helmed by locomotive No. 89, which was built in 1910 and once ran on the Canadian National Railway. (Rachel Cieri Mull)

The old-fashioned Strasburg Rail Road station, about 15 minutes from Dutch Wonderland, looks straight out of a storybook. The attraction does its best to romanticize early 20th century train travel, with costumed ticket-takers and hokey musical performances from living history characters, like the can-can girl Fifi Leroux.

The locomotive looked every bit like “The Polar Express,” minus the snow. Even though we bought coach tickets ($28 per adult, $20 per child), the passenger cars still felt luxurious, with green velvet seats, wood floors and trim, and stained-glass windows — vestiges of a time when people got dressed up to travel. It’s a far cry from Amtrak.

The Strasburg Rail Road train cars feel like a vestige of a time when people got dressed up to travel, with velvet seats, stained-glass windows and wood trim. (Rachel Cieri Mull)

A recorded narration plays on the 45-minute ride, which takes passengers through 4.5 miles of farmland to the town of Paradise and back again. We opted for the seasonal Easter Bunny train ride and got a visit from Peter Cottontail on the first half of the trip. Our preschooler was exhausted by the second half and fell asleep in my lap. Mom and Dad enjoyed the break.

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Where we ate

We roused the kiddo for dinner at the Fireside Tavern, a traditional American restaurant in a historic building just around the corner from the railroad. It’s the kind of old-fashioned place that brings out rolls with butter before the meal and hands out breath mints afterward. Plus, there’s a kids’ menu (my personal barometer for whether my child will be welcome) with all the usual staples, like my daughter’s favorite, grilled cheese with apple sauce.

The Fireside Tavern in Strasburg, Pennsylvania, looks fancy from the outside but is cozy and casual enough to be family-friendly. (Rachel Cieri Mull)

My husband’s half portion of Irish shepherd’s pie was more than enough food for one person. My baked salmon came dressed in a tasty raspberry and black peppercorn sauce with sides of roasted Brussels sprouts and a bland rice pilaf. It was an enjoyable meal at a reasonable price (our bill was around $75). Our only complaint was that my husband’s “limoncello mule” cocktail was, well, liquor-forward. He still drank it.

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Day 2: All things Pennsylvania Dutch

What we did

For an amusement park that caters to little kids, Dutch Wonderland opens oddly late: 11 a.m. My child is up by 7 every morning, raring to go.

The Amish Village, about five minutes away, was a perfect way to fill that time, and it gave us some welcome historical context on the region’s most distinctive residents. Admission includes a 30-minute guided tour of what was once a working farmhouse for an Amish family ($13 for adults, $7 for ages 5-12, free for kids 4 and under). I learned that there are thought to be about 40,000 Amish people in Lancaster County, but the population is hard to estimate because the Amish don’t participate in the U.S. Census.

The Amish Village gives visitors a primer on the lifestyle and traditions of Lancaster County’s most distinctive residents — without bothering actual Amish people. (Rachel Cieri Mull)

There are no Amish people at the Village, or at least there weren’t during our visit. They don’t like to be photographed because of their religious beliefs, and frankly, I wouldn’t want tourists gawking at me, either. You’ll see plenty of Amish people simply by driving through the Lancaster countryside.

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After the tour, we got to wander around the grounds, which feature miniature recreations of a traditional Amish village. My daughter loved meeting the pigs, goats and miniature horses in the petting farm and made it her personal mission to test out all the buggies, the gray, horse-drawn vehicles ubiquitous around town. We bought some locally made treats at the village’s miniature market, including a delectable chocolate peanut butter fudge from the PA Fudge Company.

Expect to share the roads in Lancaster County with horse-drawn buggies, the main form of transportation for the estimated 40,000 Amish residents.
Expect to share the roads in Lancaster County with horse-drawn buggies, the main form of transportation for the estimated 40,000 Amish residents. (Rachel Cieri Mull)

Then it was time to head to the theme park. Think of all the stuff you hate about theme parks: They’re typically expensive, with huge crowds, long lines, excessive walking and bad food. Dutch Wonderland is none of those things.

When we went in April, tickets were $39.99 per person, roughly half the cost of a regular-price ticket to nearby Hershey Park. And because we stayed in a hotel across the street, we didn’t have to pay for parking ($20) or wait in the line of cars entering the parking lot. That took about 15 minutes, according to my sister-in-law, whose family joined us for the day and paid the extra $5 for preferred parking.

The park is compact — it only takes about 10 minutes to walk from front to back — so we managed just fine without a stroller. Our daughter and her 3-year-old cousin scampered from ride to ride with very little whining. Even better: Most lines were less than five minutes long.

Our preschooler had a blast on Dutch Wonderland’s spinning teacup ride. (Rachel Cieri Mull)

Kids taller than 36 inches can go on the vast majority of the rides. Dutch Wonderland uses a color-coded height chart, which made it easy to tell the 3-year-olds they had to stick to the green attractions. One note of caution: Our preschoolers were allowed on the Sky Ride (a sort of glorified ski lift) with an adult, but we felt like they’d fall right out of the seat if we didn’t hold onto them.

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The park was decorated for Easter during our visit, but its theme changes seasonally. Its water park, called Duke’s Lagoon, opens Memorial Day weekend and is splash-pad style — meaning parents can let kids run free without worrying about the drowning risks of a pool.

Where we ate

Pro tip for parents: Make your way to the back of the park to Penley’s Pub for the impressive selection of beer, cider and seltzer ($9-$11), including local pours from Lancaster Brewing and others. There’s a four-drink limit — more than enough if you’re supervising kids — but you can carry your open container throughout the park. The pub also serves excellent giant pretzels and pretzel-themed snacks, which are regional specialties.

The beer garden next to Penley’s Pub in Dutch Wonderland is a lovely spot for lunch. (Rachel Cieri Mull)

If you’d prefer to dine outside the park, hidden in the sea of chain restaurants surrounding Dutch Wonderland is Lancaster Brewing’s “Tap Room” location, which offered a variety of its own beers and solid selection of pub food, including pierogis (Polish potato dumplings, $11.50) and Korean-style wings (ours were spicy, $14). It has a kids’ menu, too.

Day 3: More trains and way too much ice cream

What we did

Our 3-year-old loved pushing the buttons to activate parts of the displays at the National Toy Train Museum in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. (Rachel Cieri Mull)

We made a last-minute decision to hit up the National Toy Train Museum, about 10 minutes away, to kill some time on the final day of our trip.

This is a low-commitment attraction: There’s no need for advance tickets, and it’s free for kids under 4. (Adult admission is $8.50.) The museum reminded me of a holiday train garden on steroids, without the holiday part. My daughter loved pushing buttons that activated different features of the displays, like a hot air balloon that rises and lowers. When she was done with the exhibits, she joined several other preschoolers playing with a wooden toy train set in the lobby.

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Where we ate

The Turkey Hill Experience — a museum of sorts run by the Pennsylvania-based ice cream company — is on the way back to Maryland, about 20 minutes west of Dutch Wonderland.

You get unlimited ice cream and iced tea samples with admission ($13.50), but we opted for a timed “Taste Lab” ticket where you mix your own ice cream flavor ($22.45).

In the lab, each person is served a large cup of vanilla or chocolate ice cream base, which my child started eating immediately. Then we were guided through adding flavorings, syrups and mix-ins, like sprinkles. We were warned that adding too much or too many can ruin your ice cream, but we went overboard anyway. We had fun, even if our ice cream was borderline inedible by the end.

Our daughter was fascinated with the Turkey Hill Experience's simulated cow milking stations. The udders squirt water into a bucket.
Our daughter was fascinated with the Turkey Hill Experience’s simulated cow-milking stations. The udders squirt water into a bucket. (Rachel Cieri Mull)

After the sugar infusion, we walked through portions of the exhibit that we missed on the way in, like virtual ice cream mixing stations, a slide and playhouse, and simulated cow milking. Our preschooler, predictably, passed out on the ride home.

Rachel Cieri Mull is a local news editor for The Baltimore Banner who works with reporters covering education and health care. She returned to Baltimore after three years as a senior editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education in Washington, D.C. Previously, she was the senior features editor at The Baltimore Sun.

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