By Alistair Wearmouth
My creeping cynicism about what lay in store for us in Wisconsin Dells was quickly dispelled by my son’s voice chirping to his younger sister from the backseat: “Oh man, this is going to be so exciting!” His excitement arose from the fact that we were driving into a kid’s fantasyland of swooping roller coasters, colorful waterslides, and surreal re-creations of places like the Colosseum in Rome and the White House… upside down, after some sort of apocalyptic event. Classic Old World architecture and culture it’s not, but this popular summer resort very quickly lives up to its fun-filled promise. Here are a few of our Wisconsin Dells family vacation favorites.
Best Water Parks
With more than 20 indoor and outdoor water parks, Wisconsin Dells bills itself “The Water Park Capital of the World.” And while our weekend trip was too short to dive in to all the offerings, we did get the chance to check out a couple of the best water-soaked playgrounds. Chula Vista Resort in the upper portion of the Dells stands apart from some of the tackier strip-mall development clustered off I-90 and the Wisconsin Dells Parkway. The 620-room property boasts 200,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor water parks that include 27 looping water slides, a lazy river, and a wave pool.
The indoor slides and play areas are better suited to younger kids like mine, while the outdoor area boasts more extreme rides that tweens and teenagers will love. Rooms here are well-appointed and spacious. Get a west-facing suite for sunsets and partial views of the scenic Wisconsin River below your balcony. The food in the Market Fresh Buffet is good if a little expensive, so bring along snacks, picnic foods, and breakfast items to cut down on costs.
In the lower portion of the Dells right off I-90, the Kalahari Resort is emblazoned with an African safari motif, though the action is pretty much all-American: read sprawling indoor and outdoor water parks; a new 100,000-foot indoor theme park that includes go-karts and rope courses; 15-screen movie theater; and live entertainment. Unlike at Chula Vista, some of the bigger water slides in Kalahari’s indoor water park are doable with younger kids because they use rafts and tubes that non-swimmers can ride with parents. Needless to say, my son didn’t want to leave — in his words, ever.
There are dozens of things to see and do on a family vacation in the Wisconsin Dells, running the gamut from adrenaline-fueled jet-boat rides to more quirky things like putt-putt golf and haunted houses. The Wisconsin Ducks are probably the Dells’ most ubiquitous attraction (seven-ton WWII-era amphibious landing craft being hard things to miss). We joined an hour-long tour with the Original Wisconsin Ducks, and our kids were definitely captivated for most of the eight-mile route as we rode the company’s rolling “Duck Trails” and splashed in and out of the Wisconsin River and recently replenished Lake Delton. But at $23 per adult, plus kids’ fares, it makes for an expensive day. To that point, some of the hard sells at the end of the tour (for example, brochures with information about the area’s geology and history that I had been expecting to learn on the actual tour) were a little tiresome.
Our family’s vote for best Wisconsin Dells attraction goes to a place that’s actually located a few miles out of town in nearby Baraboo. Here you’ll find the headquarters of the International Crane Foundation, the only place in the world where you can see all 15 species of crane, including the endangered whooping crane and red-crowned crane. The facility also just unveiled a new 15-acre Spirit of Africa exhibit where you can see and learn more about the four species of crane from sub-Saharan Africa, which are the grey-crowned, black-crowned, wattled, and blue crane. The grounds are a great place to stroll and picnic with kids, while friendly volunteers and free daily guided tours contextualize the lives as well as fragile future of these graceful birds. Visiting with kids was a sobering reminder that some of these species might not even be around when my children become adults.
In general, we found the food at the resorts where we stayed was a little overpriced and underwhelming, so it was a great treat to discover the Cheese Factory, a vegetarian restaurant and soda fountain that recalls Wisconsin Dells’ 1950s heyday. The food here is authentic, creative, well-presented, and remarkably well-priced for its quality. The kids’ menu offers dishes that are simple yet nourishing (PB&J, quesadillas, pasta with red sauce), while “grown-up” offerings run the gamut from mouthwatering omelets to a fantastic East-meets-West chick-pea stew. In short, the Cheese Factory is a breath of fresh air for parents who are sick of all that road-trip junk food.
Talking of fast food, though, the Rail Dog in Wisconsin Dells’ downtown River District is the place for real hot dogs. Served out of a bright-orange 1950s rail caboose, take your pick from Vienna beef sausages, Polish sausages, or its signature Polish taco. The owner, a Polish Chicago transplant called Antoni Wolan, bought and renovated the old Milwaukee Road car in 2002 as an addition to his adjacent guesthouse. When I asked him if he was a train lover, he gruffly replied, “No, but I love hot dogs.” A dog and fries will cost you about $5. Picnic tables outside make for an easy and refreshing lunch stop.
Alistair Wearmouth is an editor at Away.com. With two young children now in tow, his travel perspective has shifted seismically from digging out the best backpacker hostel in Kathmandu to coping strategies for toddlers on a trans-Atlantic flight. His world travels have taken him through Europe, India, Nepal, Japan, Southeast Asia, the Canadian Rockies and beyond.