BY MELANIE BUCK –
Since reopening the lodge on July 1, 2015, a mere seven months ago, Queen Wilhelmina State Park has garnered $1,267,594 in revenue and is only halfway through their fiscal year. The park’s assistant superintendent, Sarah Jones said that prior to the $9.6 million renovation of the lodge, on a good year they made $1.5 million, eluding to the Queen’s first year back as a record-breaker and their busy spring season is yet to come.
“The lodge itself made its first million in the first four months of reopening,” said Jones. Those numbers squash the Queen’s previous year, July 2014 – June 2015 during the renovation period, when the park took in only $68,267 in revenue. Although the revamping of the Queen took some time, visitors from far and wide have said that it was definitely worth the wait. In the first six months of reopening, 65 groups of 10 or more guests stayed at the lodge, in addition to single bookings. “It’s been amazing. We have had lots and lots of visitors and everyone has been happy to see us back open again. We’ve had great feedback on the lodge.” Having ADA compliant rooms, elevators, larger rooms, and modern features have added to the comfort of visitors at the lodge.
A lodge has topped the crown of Rich Mountain since the late 1800s and has been the site of many precious memories for both locals and tourists, and has kept the areas around it in the paths of travelers, bringing revenue to the height of the mountain and the valleys that lay below. Today’s lodge is the third hostelry to grace this same setting on the 2,681-foot Rich Mountain. The first inn, opened in 1898 by the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad (KCPG), was designed as a resort retreat for passengers on the line. This same railroad is largely responsible for creating the towns and communities that surround the mountain. Since the KCPG was largely financed by Dutch interests, the resort was named in honor of the Netherlands’ young Queen Wilhelmina. Known as the “Castle in the Sky,” the inn closed in only three years. The second Queen Wilhelmina inn was built by Arkansas State Parks and operated by the state of Arkansas from 1963 until a fire destroyed it in the fall of 1973. Today’s Queen Wilhelmina State Park Lodge opened in 1975 to carry forward this lodging tradition on Rich Mountain.
Jones explained that not only does the Queen bring travelers, the park also employees 64 local people, both full time and seasonal. “Other than 18 employees that were already here, everybody was hired new with the reopening of the lodge. To bring in a whole new staff and get them in and do the job they’ve done, it’s been amazing.”
In addition to the lodge, the 460-acre park includes a campground with 41 campsites and a bathhouse; picnic areas; trails; and a seasonal miniature train. The campground has been remodeled as well with new electrical wiring and upgraded campsites with 30 and 50 amp hook ups. “We also got a new overlook. It’s brick and concrete, and ADA accessible. We’ve even had weddings on it.” New benches and platforms are also being built around the park.
Being local staff, they also like to see fellow locals on top of the hill as much as the tourists. “This is the people’s park and we want the locals to enjoy it. Why are we here if we’re not benefitting the local population?” In fact, the local population has thrived off of the popularity of the Queen for many years. John Vacca sits as Chair of the Arkansas Regional Coalition (ARCO) and said the importance of the park has been felt, especially during the closure of the lodge, but citizens and business owners alike benefit from what the attraction brings. “With the lodge being closed, we were losing around $16 million in indirect revenue to just Mena. It’s a great thing to see people going back to the lodge and coming down to visit Mena. It’s a big boost for our town.”
Jones encourages everyone to enjoy one of the park’s interpretive programs that highlight Rich Mountain’s fauna and unique flora. Their programs range from crafts for kids, to hikes with Park Interpreter Melissa Vickers, and Wonder House tours, creating something for everyone and the staff has many more ideas they would like to try as well. “Things were shut down for three years and we are now getting back in the swing of things and will have a lot of new programs to offer. We want to bring music back to the mountain. In the historic days, there was a lot of music here. We’d also like to bring the arts back. Being able to showcase local artists will encourage people to travel down to the shops.” Jones also explained that if there is a program the community would like to see or would like to volunteer for, to contact them. “We can organize it, but we need help to make it happen.”
Christmas on the Mountain was a huge hit with visitors and Jones said they will continue that program and hope to bring something new to it each year. “There are families that have been coming here for thirty-something years for Christmas and they were so excited to come back,” smiled Jones.
Mena/Polk County Chamber of Commerce President Tammy Young said, “The Mena/Polk County Chamber of Commerce celebrates the reopening of the lodge at Queen Wilhelmina State Park and the positive impact it has on the revival of tourism to this county and region. The benefits of this resurgence have been, and continue to be, vital to our sustaining and growing the local and regional economy. We are privileged to have the “crown jewel’ of the Ouachitas in our own backyard.”
The beauty and importance of the Castle in the Sky has lasted more than a century and the great impact she has had on those that live in her shadow will not be soon forgotten. To see for yourself and for information on your next visit to the jewel atop the crown, call 479-394-2863 or visit http://www.queenwilhelmina.com.