By which time, there was no place to stash our towels and paperbacks: If your family doesn’t nab a spot in the faux sun first thing in the morning, you may find yourself circling beach chairs like a car in a parking lot. So, in the spirit of the real-life Wild West pioneers, we and our gear homesteaded on exactly two of the water parks’ 215,000 square feet. Sunup to sundown, it’s every half-naked man, woman, and child for himself. When our sons seated themselves in a two-person raft and weren’t sure how to position their legs, Gabriel asked the guy operating the ride, "Excuse me, can you tell me if we’re sitting correc—" But whoosh, the guy just pushed their raft down the chute—no quickie preflight safety instructions—and sure enough, when the ride hit a deep drop, Charlie was lifted out of his seat and bumped his head, frightening his older brother and leaving himself with a whopping headache.
This was as good a moment as any to catch our breath. The Wilderness, fortunately, is more than just the sum of its parks. We could have gone ice-skating or cross-country skiing on the resort’s 300 acres, but we retreated instead to one of the resort’s cabins, a mile or so down a back road. Even if our lodgings hadn’t had a flat-screen TV, Jacuzzi, A-frame living room, and three bedrooms ("I get the upstairs!" Charlie cried, claiming the small and charming bedroom that occupied its own floor), the physical and psychological distance from the water-park madness was worth the premium rate. We ate microwave popcorn, dried our wet towels in the in-room washer-dryer, and watched a deer grazing on the golf course fairway outside our back door. Then, replenished, we went back for more.
"More" for Gabriel, Charlie, and their chauffeur-father meant a ride back to the main hotel for a visit to the Northern Lights Arcade, almost a biosphere in itself, where the boys won the 1,000-ticket jackpot at the Monopoly machine. But "more" for Meg and her chauffeur-chauffeur meant a free Town Car ride to the adjacent Sundara Spa—which proved to be one of the great indulgences of her life. After all, moms, which would you prefer: slippery floors, towels as thin as rice paper, and a full day spent plummeting through water with strangers shrieking in your ear, or…having a man named Michael run his powerful hands all over your body?During the complimentary "purification ritual," you can dip in and out of hot and cold pools and slather yourself with a cleansing scrub, then sit in a thick robe and contemplate the meaning of life, all before being led to a cozy room for the body or facial treatment of your choosing. Meg, for one, fell into a trance so deep, she started to hallucinate that she had actually accompanied her children and husband to a land of waterslides and jumbo fries.
It was time to conquer "America’s Largest Indoor Waterpark." The Kalahari encompasses 125,000 square feet under a single roof and is the only one of the resorts on our itinerary that sells day passes during peak season to people who aren’t staying on the premises. Still, a more apt designation might be "America’s Farthest Indoor Waterpark." To reach it, we first had to walk through a wallet-emptying lobby that offered, boardwalk-style, everything from fudge to face painting to $28 photos of your child posing with a real tiger cub. (Yes, we know, we’re suckers, but that cub looked just like Simba!) In the end, our perseverance was rewarded.
Maybe it was the one-park-under-one-roof approach, or maybe it was because the larger scale of the place can accommodate rides that are the same size as their outdoor water-park cousins (rather than the usual, slightly diminished indoor models), but for us the Kalahari offered the most concentrated and intense experience in the Dells. We found ourselves tunneling and funneling and chuting and fluming and even roller-coastering with abandon. That was even before we encountered the FlowRider! Experience—a 50,000- gallon-a-minute, 35-miles-per-hour rush of water, suitable for Boogie-Boarding or stand-up surfing. Admittedly, Charlie was the only one of us brave enough to try it. The wait was more than an hour, and then he wiped out in, like, a second—but, boy, was he happy.
The waters seemed calmer at the Great Wolf Lodge, Wisconsin’s Premier Indoor Waterpark Resort™. To some extent the Great Wolf can afford to sit back and watch all the whose-is-bigger bickering between the Wilderness and the Kalahari. At 78,000 square feet, its water park is relatively modest, if only by local standards. What’s not modest is Great Wolf’s ambition beyond the Dells. The company has already opened outposts in six other locations, including two in the past year (in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and the Poconos, in Pennsylvania), with another due by the end of 2006 (in ;Mason, Ohio), and at least two more on the way (in Texas and Washington State). All are virtually identical, adhering to the same log-cabin formula for the lobby and, to a lesser but still notable extent, in the guest rooms—call it McNorthwoods. And all feature the same centerpiece attraction: Fort Mackenzie, a 12-level tree house outfitted with suspension bridges and dozens of water games and topped with a bucket that every few minutes dumps 1,000 gallons of water onto the crowd below.
The Great Wolf doesn’t explicitly bill itself as the resort for the smaller set, but one look at the outsize cuckoo clock in the lobby, with its animatronic figures tottering out of their compartments, and we got the picture. It wasn’t that the Howlin’ Tornado’s six-story plunge down a chute and into a funnel was any less thrilling than the Hurricane’s at the Wilderness—though, meteorologically, shouldn’t it have been?—but the vibe throughout the Great Wolf was unmistakably younger.
We shook the water out of our ears and drove across the road to the Kahunaville restaurant at the Kalahari for one last vacation blowout. Like actors in an advertisement for wholesome family fun, the other kids in the restaurant were having a blast. They danced onstage, they sang along with Kenya the Bear, they shouted "Hey!" at the top of their lungs whenever the DJ prompted them. Not our kids. They tried having a conversation over the pounding music but quickly surrendered. Instead, they sat in silence and—gasp!—skipped the restaurant’s over-the-top desserts. Two nights here was plenty for them, and perhaps for any family.
In the end, we found the Dells to be less a tropical paradise than an amusement park with humidity. Wasn’t it Gertrude Stein who famously remarked after a trip to the Dells, "Ride is a ride is a ride is a ride"?Maybe not. But we say a nonstop chaotic, fast-paced, whirl-of-sensations trip can quickly turn exhausting in an artificially enclosed environment. You’d need a biosphere the size of the one in The Truman Show to absorb this much adrenaline.
Back in our room at the Great Wolf, we turned our fake fireplace to high and, with both reluctance and relief, repacked our bathing suits and goggles. The time had come to escape from the great indoors.
Meg Wolitzer’s novels include The Position and The Wife. Richard Panek’s most recent book is The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud, and the Search for Hidden Universes.