Grab your bathing suit—we're about to splash-land in the Wisconsin Dells, water-park capital of the world
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.
Related: World's Craziest Waterslides
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.
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.
Who knows what fungus lurks in the feet of man?Armed with Water-safe Rapid Bacteria Tests (poolcenter.com, $4), we aimed to find out. At each park, we conducted our own experiment with a water sample: squeeze a dropper, fill a vial, dip a strip, and wait. The 10-minute vigil took us back to our trying-to-get-pregnant days: which chemically-induced combination of lines would magically appear?In this case, congratulations to the parks are in order: the water at all three tested negative for the presence of E.coli, Aeromonas, Shigella, and Klebsiella. Glad we’re clear on that.
The nearest airport is Madison, Wisconsin’s Dane County Regional, an hour from the water-park action. For the local low-down, see wisdells.com.
THREE WATER-PARK RESORTS, PLUS A SPA
The rate for each of the following hotels includes admission to its water park.
Great Wolf Lodge A tad mellower than the other two, and well suited to families with young children. 1400 Great Wolf Dr.; 800/559-9653; greatwolflodge.com; doubles from $150.
Kalahari Waterpark Resort Thanks to the open-door day-pass policy—and the surf simulator—this one has a frenzied-teen sensibility. 1305 Kalahari Dr.; 877/525-2427; kalahariresorts.com; doubles from $129; park day-pass $28.
Wilderness Hotel & Golf Resort Stay in a cabin here and go cross-country skiing. The park itself is sprawling and chaotic—heaven for most kids. 511 E. Adams St.; 800/867-9453; wildernessresort.com; doubles from $89, cabins from $275.
Sundara Spa Mom and Dad’s little helper! Free car service provided from all of the water parks. 920 Canyon Rd.; 888/735-8181; sundaraspa.com; treatments from $125.
For a break from water world, consider the Dells’ other dead-of-winter attractions:
Tommy Bartlett Exploratory
This is an indoor, year-round offshoot of the Tommy Bartlett water-ski show that has been a staple of summers here since just about the alast Ice Age, when the flood from a melting glacier carved the area’s gorges and bluffs. You’ve seen many of the same science exhibits at every children’s museum. What you haven’t seen is the Mir space module that Bartlett himself bought from a Russian museum in 1997, a year before he died a wealthy, if eccentric, man. 560 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy.; 608/254-2525; tommybartlett.com.
It’s an upside-down White House. Really. And not only is that what it is, that’s all it is. You could go on the tour and gawk at the chairs and desks on the ceiling and hear how some sort of catastrophe or revolution turned the seat of the executive branch literally upside down. (Gabriel, afterward: "I felt sorry for the guide.") But the view of an upside-down White House from the parking lot (below) is plenty—and it’s free. 527 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy.; 608/254-6700; dells.com.
Ghost Out-Post Haunted House
We skipped the Museum of Historic Torture Devices because, well, who needs it?But the first two exhibits here were of a hanging and an electrocution. We quickly backtracked to the entrance with a fresh understanding of the NO REFUNDS sign at the box office. 633 Wisconsin Dells Pkwy.; 608/254-2127; dells.com.
Circus World Museum
The onetime site of the Ringling Bros. winter headquarters is located in Baraboo, 12 minutes south of the Dells. (We detoured here on our way back to the airport in Madison.) During the summer there are circus acts, but year-round you can see century-old circus wagons, calliopes, and costumes in a series of cavernous storage barns, a ghostly setting that all four of us found chillingly beautiful. 550 Water St., Baraboo; 866/ 693-1500; circusworldmuseum.com.
By Charlie Panek, age 11
As we ended our afternoon visit at the Kalahari water park, one last idea popped into my head. Surfing! Nearing the indoor wave pool, I glanced at the vast line, which consisted of about 75 people, but decided to wait in line. When only about 10 people were ahead of me, I got nervous. A lot of people were wiping out. But not everyone-the pros were able to get on their knees or, occasionally, on their feet before being knocked down by the current. Soon enough it was my turn. Even though I was scared, I closed my eyes and jumped in. I landed and headed toward the bottom of the wave. I was not one of the lucky ones who managed to stay on for even a minute. Instead, I slid right to the bottom. The man who ran the wave pool quickly got me going again. (Everybody gets at least two tries.) This time I was determined to do well. Somehow I moved from side to side on my board, but the thrill didn't last long-because, before I knew it, I crashed again and it was some other kid's turn to try the waves.
The Wonder Spot
By Gabriel Panek, age 15
There it was on page 16 in our local guide: "Wonder Spot," a weird corner of nature that somehow distorts gravity and creates optical illusions; and, like the water parks themselves, it's supposed to be open 365 days a year-rain or shine. And there it was in real life, across an empty parking lot off a side road in the woods: a shack with black garbage bags in the windows. After looking around for about five minutes, we sighed, conceded defeat, and went back to the hotel. We returned the next day. Still, no luck. Same thing the next day, and the one after that. Sitting in the diner down the road on our final morning in the Dells, we asked the waitress where the Wonder Spot had gone. Turns out it had closed about a year before. How wondrous.