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Make a Splash at Wisconsin Dells

Escape the heat of summer by hitting one of the Midwest's best-kept secrets.

photographs courtesy of Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau

This famous vacation destination manages to draw about 3 million people each year from around the world, but I haven’t met many Memphians who are familiar with it. Wisconsin Dells, located in the south-central part of the state, promises fun of all kinds for your motley crew. If your family can't agree on what kind of getaway you want — high-energy entertainment or relaxing natural beauty — you'll find something for everyone here. Just make sure you pack your swimsuits because you'll be heading to the bona fide “Water Park Capital of the World.” Although this small town has an official population of less than 2,500, it’s known to have the largest concentration of water park resorts in the world.

 

Make a Splash

Growing up in Wisconsin, I only remember going on two overnight family vacations, and both of them were to Wisconsin Dells. I’ve returned many times and a lot has changed since the days when the Dells boat rides and the Tommy Bartlett Waterski Show (celebrating its 60th anniversary this year) were the main attractions. Since Noah’s Ark — America’s largest outdoor water park — made its first splash in the 1980s, tourists have come in waves to get their thrills on water rides of all kinds.  

According to the wisdells.com, there are more than 20 indoor water park/playground properties at Wisconsin Dells, including those at smaller hotel/motels. All told, the Dells boasts more than 200 waterslides. The daredevils of your crew will get a rush from extreme plunges, racing speed slides, and water roller coasters. Younger children, nervous Nellies and even grandma can play in gentler water rides, “spray-grounds,” and lazy rivers.

“It’s equal opportunity for lots of generations,” says Carla Minsky of the Wisconsin Dells Tourism Bureau. Because of its family-friendly activities and accessibility, the Dells has become a favorite spot for family reunions.  

Once strictly a seasonal destination, many Dells businesses have “weatherproofed themselves,” Minsky says, by enclosing many of the venues to draw vacationers year-round. Even in the spring and summer, the indoor/outdoor water parks will save the day if you encounter a rainy spell or cooler weather. The Polynesian was the first of its kind in the country, and is now geared for families with kids 10 and under. The nation’s largest, Wilderness Hotel and Golf Resort, is a world in itself with eight different water parks, golf and spa services and more. You could easily vacation on the 600-acre property the whole time you’re in the Dells, but its sprawl may be too vast for some people’s liking.

The Wild and the Weird

As a tourist town, what would Wisconsin Dells be without gimmicks and spectacles?  There's the upside down White House (Top Secret), the giant Trojan horse at Mt. Olympus theme park, and black light 3-D mini-golf at the Wilderness Resort. 

I’m afraid of heights, so getting an aerial view of Chimney Rock Park by zip-lining off a 500-foot bluff is not my idea of fun, but if it’s yours, the opportunity is waiting for you at Bigfoot Zipline Tours. Along the downtown strip is Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, the 4-D Special FX Theater, and endless souvenir shops. I never walk Main Street without stopping at the candy store windows to watch fudge-makers smooth and scrape the sugary indulgence into perfection. This year, Swiss Made Fudge and Wisconsin Dairyland Fudge are both celebrating their 50th anniversary with limited-time specialties. 

Literally Gorgeous

If you visit Wisconsin Dells, make sure you don’t let the roaring waterworks drown out the quiet call of nature. Located about 100 miles north of the Illinois border, this geographical region was left untouched by glaciers. Geologists believe powerful floods helped carve out its beautiful sandstone bluffs and gorges along the Wisconsin River, while Native American legend tells the story of a giant serpent that sculpted the riverbed as it slithered down from the north. 

Scenic boat tours have been cruising the river since the 1930s, sharing the area’s rich history and Native American influence. Some tours include a hike through the canyons along the river. You can also enjoy the pristine view from a canoe, kayak, or even a jet boat. 

One of my favorite memories from the Dells is the evening boat ride that took us to the reknowned Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial. Although that event is no longer offered, visitors can occasionally catch traditional Native American dance performances downtown, and visit HH Bennett Studio on Main Street. Acclaimed photographer and inventor of stop-action photography, Bennett’s exhibit includes photos of the area’s Native Americans during the 1800s, as well as his son’s famed jump between two cliffs along the riverbank. 

Today, the Ho Chunk Nation (the Winnebago) is the predominant tribe in the region. Although Native American souvenirs are sold all around town, you’ll find a vast array of authentic artifacts and gifts at Parson’s Indian Trading Post, a historic landmark dating back to 1918. “It’s the oldest business in the Dells,” says owner Candy Lukasavage, the third generation of her family to run the store. People are drawn here by their love for Native American arts and crafts, she says, explaining that their inventory represents many different tribes. Although tourists ask her all the time about festivals and powwows, none are currently advertised in the Dells area.

Dining

You’re in logging country, so if you wake up to a cool Wisconsin morning, go have a hot breakfast at the famous Paul Bunyan's Northwoods Cook Shanty. Instead of ordering from a menu, you’ll pay a cover charge and be served a family-style meal in one of their rustic dining halls. They serve lunch and dinner as well, and while a bit pricey it’s oh, so Wisconsiny. Mr. Pancake, a third-generation family-run restaurant featuring grandma’s original recipes, is another popular spot. Monk’s Bar and Grill is hailed for its burgers and white cheddar cheese curds. If you have a chance to break away from the kiddos for awhile, traditional Wisconsin supper clubs like The Del Bar and Ishnala offer fine dining.

 

Lodging

Lodging is available at all price points. The grand resorts provide the ultimate all-in-one experience, but if they’re too overwhelming or out of your budget, consider simpler accommodations. Minsky recommends the smaller resorts, cottages, and cabins around Lake Delton for more of a nostalgic feel. The Wisconsin Dells official website provides photos of all the waterpark hotels, organized by size, to help you make a good selection. Be sure to check other sites like Trip Advisor for reviews before booking. The area also offers 19 campgrounds where you can pitch a tent or park an RV for a down-to-earth experience.

If you make plans to go to the Dells before Memorial Day, check the attractions you’re interested in to make sure they’re open, since some businesses are still seasonal.

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