For our vacation last winter, we had considered the usual choices. We could have stayed home, been snowed in, played lots of Clue, and ended up clobbering one another in the conservatory with the candlestick. Or we could have spent a fortune going to Tortola, if only we’d had a fortune to spend. But then we discovered a third option, and so we packed our bathing suits and goggles and, as 3 million other tourists do each year, headed straight to the Wisconsin Dells.
Imagine a vacation biosphere: a bubble impervious to outside weather conditions and enormous enough to contain five-story waterslides and surfboard-worthy surges. Now take this sunny bubble, set its thermostat to a steady 80 degrees, and tuck it among the snowdrifts and frozen lakes of the great white North. Or forget about swimming in winter. Imagine, instead, skiing in summer, inside an envelope that holds slopes and chairlifts and that rises, like a desert mirage, out of a relentlessly hot landscape. The indoor resort, one of the fastest-growing trends in the travel industry, basically comes in two varieties of water: frozen, for schussing, or liquid, for splashing. (Surely some developer somewhere is dreaming of a city of steam, for shvitzing.) The idea is that if it’s logistically or financially impossible to go to the mountains or beach, the mountains or beach will come to you.
Currently, there are about 50 "snowdomes" around the world, in cities such as Dubai, Shanghai, Madrid, Auckland, and Glasgow. (The first in the United States, scheduled to open next winter, will bring a touch of St. Moritz to the New Jersey Meadowlands.) As for indoor water parks, we could have got wet in Anchorage or the Amana Colonies, Battle Creek or Branson. Or we might have gone overseas to Bad Schallerbach, Austria; Uppsala, Sweden; Miyazaki, Japan; or, at 710,000 square feet, the world champ: the Tropical Islands resort in Bimini—no, wait, we mean Brand, Germany. (We always get those two confused.)
But it’s the Wisconsin Dells, with 18 of our nation’s 71 indoor water-park resorts, that’s the Waterpark Capital of the World, a title the local Visitor & Convention Bureau felt compelled to trademark. (So much for that fabled Midwestern aw-shucks modesty.) The area’s rivers and sedimentary bluffs ("Dells" is a corruption of the French dalles, meaning "flagstones") had been a summer destination for more than a century before the owner of a hotel decided to put a cover over his outdoor water attractions and turn up the heat. That was in 1989. Since then, the town’s tourist season has expanded from a flinty 3 months to 12, and its annual revenues from $275 million to nearly $1 billion, creating a new model for year-round resort communities and inspiring copycats across the country and in Canada at a rate of more than a dozen new indoor water-park complexes a year.
Not that we approached the Waterpark Capital of the World™ without some hesitation. Exactly how tropical could a resort just off I-90/94 (let alone the Autobahn) really be?But our sons, Gabriel, 15, and Charlie, 11, deep into the grind of slushy winter, had no qualms. They heard the words water-park vacation and didn’t really care where in the world the flume ride was.
We gave ourselves three days to sample three of the Dells’ biggest, and reportedly most impressive, indoor parks—all of them arrayed along a tacky strip of fast-food spots and shuttered go-kart tracks. Each of the three has its own hotel and condo quarters (the general rule is, you have to stay to play), as well as plenty of nonchlorinated temptations to keep the waterlogged from straying: arcades and "dry" playgrounds for the kids, restaurants and spas for the grown-ups. And all three draw from the same menu of liquid attractions: lazy rivers, body slides, and wave pools. But each has also tried to distinguish itself with signature rides, and so the Dells resorts, all locally owned, have been engaging in a kind of turf war. Make that surf war.
We kicked off our snowboots at the Wilderness, "America’s Largest Waterpark Resort," which would be our home base for the next two nights. The resort’s title rests on a technicality—the total amount of indoor water-park space is a record 215,000 square feet, but it’s spread over three parks: the rootin’-tootin’ Wild West and Klondike Kavern (separated from each other by an irritatingly long korridor), along with the recently opened and distinctly non-1890’s Wild WaterDome, which features private cabanas with cable TV and wireless Internet and is covered by a transparent FoilTec roof that lets in just enough ultraviolet rays for palm trees to flourish and careless tourists to burn.
Our first plunge: Sulfur Springs, a sprawling hot tub that’s partly indoors and partly out—just drift through the hanging plastic flaps and the air temperature drops 80 degrees. Back through the flaps, we got caught up at the Hurricane. This raft ride promises a swirling experience, not unlike that of a goldfish being flushed down the toilet—or at least that’s how it sounded to Meg, who voiced her concern loudly enough to be overheard by a bunch of teenagers who were there for the weekend with their families. "Oh, no, it’s totally great!" one 13-year-old gushed, with a Wisconsin version of a Valley Girl accent. (Delly girl?) All the teens in the vicinity encouraged us as we sat down on a raft big enough to hold the Swiss Family Robinson, and soon our screaming little family was hurtling 58 steep feet down a bumpy tunnel before being swept into an enormous funnel, which in turn rocked us side-to-side-to-side-to-side before depositing us in a pool at the bottom. And then we did it again.